With To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, out on the 5th October 2017, Charles Spencer has done it again. As the author of some fantastic books about seventeenth-century Britain, such as my personal favourite, Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier, Blenheim: The Battle for Europe, and his most recent work, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared Execute Charles I, Spencer knows how to bring history alive with his thrilling and strong narratives. This time, he has chosen Charles II’s amazing, hair-raising escape from certain death following the Battle of Worcester of 1651- the disastrous result of his attempt to regain his family’s throne following his father’s execution in 1649.
Now, this certainly isn’t the first book on this subject by any means – it’s been written about a few times both in historical fiction and nonfiction genres. One of the most well-respected books about this subject is The Escape of Charles II by Richard Ollard, from 1966. Indeed, Spencer does list both Ollard’s aforementioned book and his The War Without An Enemy, from 1976. Comparisons to Ollard’s book are perhaps inevitable, given the popularity of that book with researchers of Charles II, but I do think Spencer brings a fresh angle to the story.
[A note on the physical qualities of the book. The hardback book itself is lovely and is 314 pages long, including a full bibliography and a standard Notes section. The images which have been selected for inclusion in the book are beautiful – several of which I had not seen before. It also contains a very useful map of the king’s escape route].
To Catch a King is divided up into four sections: Part One: King of Scotland (Spencer gives readers a brief (and necessary) background to the main subject of the book and focuses his attention on the civil wars from Prince Charles’s perspective). The young king’s escape begins on page 92, leading into Part Two: The Roman Catholic Underground, which takes him through Catholic recusant family households with secret priest holes, heavily forested areas, ruined monasteries, and more. In Part Three: A League of Gentlemen, we meet the famous Jane Lane, and Part Four: Reaction, Rewards, and Redemption gives readers a poignant look at a pleasure-loving languid monarch in his last years and on his (very unpleasant) deathbed – rather a different animal from the young man he was during his great escape.
Although this book is certainly informative and enjoyable on its own, I strongly advise potential readers who are unfamiliar with the English Civil Wars to read Spencer’s Killers of the King first before reading this book because things will make much more sense within that context. I would also suggest Blair Worden’s The English Civil Wars 1640–1660 (2010) as well.
This work is a thrilling adventure full of suspense and danger; the ending I found bittersweet. In my opinion, one of Spencer’s greatest talents lies in his ability to bring historical records together and weave them into a very human narrative that can’t help but touch one’s soul.
TSCL rating: 5 stars
Thanks to Charles Spencer, from whom I received this book in exchange for an honest review.