I’ve always known that Georgette Heyer wrote historical novels as opposed to her historical & Regency romances. She wrote several novels about real historical figures – William the Conqueror, John, Duke of Bedford – and this one, Royal Escape, about Charles II & his flight into exile after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. I also knew that Heyer’s research for her novels was prodigious & extensive. I was still surprised when I read the relevant chapter in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles, after reading the novel, just how accurate she was. Names, places, incidents, all taken direct from the historical record & recreated as very exciting fiction. I listened to Royal Escape on audio, read by Cornelius Garrett who did an excellent job. Garrett is one of my favourite narrators. I remember his reading of Anne Perry’s WWI series some years ago. I loved it so much that I would wait for the library to get the audio book rather than read the stories myself.
Royal Escape begins in the aftermath of the Battle of Worcester. The Civil War is all but over. Charles I has been executed two years earlier & his son, now King Charles II, has made an attempt, with the help of the Scots, to regain his throne from the Parliament forces. Unfortunately Charles’s experiences among the Presbyterian Scots did not endear him to them & his potential English supporters disapproved of a Scots army invading England. At Worcester, the Scots failed to rally & the Royalists were defeated. Charles is now a marked man & must try to get to France where there are many Royalist exiles & he will find support at the court of Louis XIV.
Charles decides to travel with just one companion, his great friend, Lord Wilmot. Harry is an older man (& father to the Restoration poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester which I didn’t realise until after I’d finished the book), absolutely devoted to Charles but almost comically unfit for the disguises & stratagems of a fugitive. The only concession he will make to a disguise is to ride with a hawk on his wrist as though he were just out for a day’s hunting & he insists on his manservant accompanying him. Charles, on the other hand, a young man of only 20, is far more easygoing & is prepared to wear rough clothing, cut his hair, have walnut juice rubbed on his face, be lead about the countryside by the poorest of his subjects & obey their directions meekly & with a good grace.
The tale of Charles’s flight is such a good story, with so many near misses, comical incidents & instances of great bravery & loyalty that it seems like a fairytale. It was one of Charles’s favourite stories when he came to the throne & he apparently bored his courtiers by telling it so often. Charles certainly never forgot the many people who helped him & it’s remarkable that he was never betrayed when it’s estimated that more than 60 people knew of his whereabouts during the six weeks he was on the run. By good luck, he found himself among the Catholic families of the West Country & was impressed by their loyalty & faith, especially after the rude, harsh religion of the Scots Covenanters. It’s been speculated that his later inclination towards Catholicism may have had more to do with this experience than with his French mother’s teaching.
He famously spent a day hiding in an oak tree, hid in priest’s holes in country houses & impersonated a servant (quite badly) when traveling with Jane Lane & her sister. He rode through troops of Parliamentary soldiers & ate in servant halls, often drinking a toast to his own health without his companions knowing who he was. Charles was touched by the loyalty shown him & repaid it with good humour & an awareness of the risks taken by the Penderels, Lanes, Giffards, Wyndhams & Gunters in aiding him. Eventually the King boarded a ship at Shoreham & made his escape to France.
Royal Escape is a story of great charm. Charles himself is a very sympathetic character, although his wicked sense of humour almost betrays him several times. Harry Wilmot provides the comic relief but his obvious love for Charles redeems him from being just a figure of fun. Cromwell & his New Model Army may have won the war but they had a long way to go in winning the hearts & minds of the English people. Charles, with his easy charm & sincere gratitude for the help he received, did more for the Royalist cause on his flight than he could have known.The legends that grew up about his escape kept the memory of the Stuarts alive over the long nine years before the Restoration.