Flight to Captivity

‘From Newcastle by Letters that came this day we are informed that the King is brought thither, neither Drum, nor Trumpet, nor guns, nor Bels, nor shoots of people once heard, but brought in far more like a prisoner.’

Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer, No. 149, May 1647

In the wake of his defeat at Stow-on-the-Wold, Sir Jacob Astley had accepted the inevitable philosophically. ‘Being somewhat wearied from the fight’, we are told, he was given a drum to sit upon by his captors, before sharing a wistful observation with them. ‘You have done your work, boys, and may go play,’ he reflected, ‘unless … you should fall out among yourselves.’ Though uttered in full knowledge of the final collapse of the cause for which he had fought so tenaciously, the weary old general’s proviso was nevertheless both telling and deeply prophetic. For Parliament and its army, not to mention their uneasy Scottish allies, would soon be painfully at odds, as would Presbyterians and so-called ‘Independents’ within the opposition ranks. It was this, above all else, upon which King Charles himself was counting as he headed into the night from Oxford in the company of Dr Michael Hudson and Jack Ashburnham in April 1646. Soldiers and civilians, religious independents and sectaries too, mostly of the poorer sections of society who had not received the benefits from the war that they had anticipated, were already becoming daily more restive. Successive years of conflict had increased taxation and disrupted trade, and many who had turned away from the king’s Anglicanism were now finding in Parliament’s Presbyterianism an equally rigid and intolerant form of ecclesiastical authority. Troops were unpaid, the press muzzled more tightly than ever and, for those who dared demur, there was summary justice – not from the Star Chamber or the High Commission, but from the very parliamentary committees that had replaced them.

Well before the king’s flight, in fact, opposition to Parliament had been hardening and increasing numbers of men and women were responding to the calls for liberty from men like John Lilburne. On 7 January 1645, Lilburne had addressed a letter to William Prynne attacking the intolerance of the Presbyterians and claiming freedom of conscience and freedom of speech for the Independents, who balked at any form of state religious control. In October, moreover, Lilburne published from a secret press England’s Birthright Justified, in which he continued not only to defend religious liberty but the more general ‘freeborn rights’ of every human being. True to these same principles, Lilburne had already refused in April to swear to the Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that those who were forced to do so, and in particular those dissenting members of the Parliamentary army, were being deprived of their freedom of conscience. It was not long either before ‘Freeborn John’ and some of the leading Independent leaders were indicating that, in return for religious toleration, they might be prepared, with the support of the army, to yield a greater control of government to the king than any terms yet proposed by his other opponents.

But on the eve of his escape from Oxford, Charles was still as yet unprepared to sup with this particular devil, and had already chosen on 5 December to request safe conducts from Parliament for the Duke of Richmond, the Earl of Southampton, Jack Ashburnham and Jeffrey Palmer, so that peace talks might be initiated at Westminster. Even so, by mid-January, MPs had rejected not only this but four other similar communiqués, and convinced Charles in the process that ‘nothing will satisfy them but the ruin, not only of us, our Posterity, and friends, but even the monarchy itself’. In the words of one contemporary, he had offered terms ‘as low as he can go with preserving of his conscience and honour’, and in an attempt to sway public opinion, he had also published A Collection of His Majesties Most Generous Messages for Peace. Yet well-grounded fears that he was playing his favoured game of divide and rule left his enemies wholly unconvinced of his intentions. ‘Cajole the Independents and Scots,’ he secretly advised the Duke of Richmond, and had expressed similar feelings to his wife. ‘Knowing assuredly the great animosity which is between the Independents and Presbyterians,’ he informed Henrietta Maria on 18 January 1646, ‘I have great reason to hope that one of the factions would so address themselves to me that I might without great difficulty obtain my just ends.’ As a result, his last-ditch attempts to stir up fears that Presbyterian MPs would stamp out all radical sects as readily as they would Anglicans continued to fall on deaf ears, as did his other overtures to the enemy army. For they too remained reluctant at present to accept that the man whose intransigence had spawned four long years of gruelling bloodshed could be trusted to offer any better alternative to their faltering parliamentary paymasters.

Nor was the Irish option by now of serious interest to the king. The publication after Naseby of his letters to Dublin offering peace to the rebels ‘whatever it cost’ had provoked widespread outrage and unsettled even his own supporters like George Digby, who admitted that the treaty engineered by the Earl of Glamorgan had alienated all good Protestants, since it lent credence to claims ‘that all along the king had instigated the Irish rebellions, had the blood of thousands of innocent settlers on his hands, and was himself a secret papist’. That Charles had signed other letters to the Pope on the same issue as ‘your very humble and obedient servant’ had hardly helped his case. But it was rather the anger of a spurned suitor than guilt at what most perceived as outright treachery that seems ultimately to have terminated the king’s courtship of his would-be Irish rescuers. The tempting prospect of vigorous Irish support had been consumed by endless delay and inaction, and the king would no longer countenance such shabby treatment. ‘I am as little obliged to the Irish,’ he confided to his wife, ‘as I can be to any nation, for all this last year they have only fed me with vain hopes, looking upon my daily ruin.’

Much to the queen’s satisfaction, then, her husband was left with little option other than to lie down with the Scots. Appropriately enough, the French ambassador, Jean de Montreuil, had arrived in Oxford in the New Year of 1646 to oil the necessary wheels. Henrietta Maria’s entreaties, as well as the possibility that a Parliamentary victory might free the New Model Army to intervene on the Continent, had prompted France’s intercession. But Montreuil’s hopes that the king’s predicament would result in the swift conclusion of all business foundered at their very first meeting on 2 January, when Charles declared that while he would tolerate Presbyterianism, he could never accept it as a satisfactory model for the established church. For, as the ambassador informed Cardinal Mazarin in Paris, the king would ‘rather lose his crown than his soul’. When Montreuil had pressed forward with ‘many arguments’ that without a Presbyterian settlement ‘nothing could be done in order to an agreement with the Scots’, Charles remained bound to ‘his conscience’.

Not even the queen’s desperate letters, it seemed, could move him. Imagine if their positions were reversed, he pleaded, ‘wouldst thou give ear to him who should persuade thee, for worldly respects, to leave the communion of the Roman church for any other? Indeed, sweetheart, this is my case.’ ‘For God’s sake,’ he went on ‘ … consider, that if I should quit my conscience, how unworthy I make myself of thy love.’ And such was his perplexity that he was even prepared on this occasion to lecture his wife – with an awkward lack of forethought and finesse that demonstrated his apparent turmoil. Calvinism, he told her, was no better than papism, and designed ‘to steal or force the crown from the king’s head’ – a tactless conflation of Rome with Geneva, which naturally provoked a quarrel in its own right, and the following anguished response from Charles. ‘I am blamed for granting too much and not yielding enough,’ he remonstrated, ‘but I plead not guilty to both.’

Yet even the hard rock of a king’s conscience might ultimately prove susceptible, as events would now demonstrate, to the delicate manipulation of a diplomat’s exquisite touch. For by means of the slightest hint of concession on Charles’ part, qualified by a glaring loophole and condition, Montreuil was nevertheless able to push forward. Faced by the utter obduracy of Parliament and what he perceived as a growing wish on behalf of some MPs to eradicate both him and his family, Charles was therefore finally persuaded to write to the Scottish commissioners in London requesting assurances that, in the event of his seeking the protection of their army, ‘we shall be secure both in conscience and honour’. In return for what he fondly believed would be a safe haven, he duly promised ‘as soon as I come into the Scots army’ to be ‘very willing to be instructed in the presbyterial government’. However, in this, of course, resided both the short-term breakthrough and long-term sticking point, since ‘instruction’ and conversion were plainly different things, as the king made clear when he concluded predictably that he would strive to content his hosts ‘in anything that shall not be against my conscience’.

Superficially, at least, it was a potential masterstroke on Montreuil’s behalf in reconciling square pegs with round holes and conjuring the semblance of progress from utter deadlock. It was on 1 April, appropriately enough, that the Scots proffered an equally vague response via the ambassador that they would receive Charles ‘as their natural sovereign’ and assist ‘in recovery of his Majesty’s just rights’ and ‘in the procuring of a happy and well grounded peace’. But while Royalists, as Clarendon observed, were heartened at the ‘excellent news’, their optimism was entirely premature, since the issue of religion remained as intractable as ever. ‘As for the church business,’ Charles informed the Marquis of Ormonde, ‘I hope to manage it so as not to give them distaste, and yet do nothing against my conscience.’ At the same time, he would attempt to render the Scots and Parliament ‘irreconcilable enemies’ and thereby forge an equally unlikely alliance of Covenanters, Ulstermen and Highlanders to pluck ‘an honourable and speedy peace’ from a position of utter military defeat. The thorny issues of ‘the militia, Ireland and my friends’, meanwhile, were to be conveniently shelved until some later unspecified date.

It was duplicity and self-deception on a grand scale, and presaged precisely the kind of wholesale disillusionment that swiftly followed. Though he acknowledged that there was still no formal peace treaty with the Scots, he had nevertheless ‘resolved by the grace of God to begin my journey thither upon Monday or Tuesday next’, he informed his wife on Thursday, 2 April. Yet eleven days later he was still in Oxford, ‘ready to go at an hour’s warning’, and growing increasingly frustrated. He had ‘not heard one word from Montreuil since he went’, Charles complained to Henrietta Maria, and thereafter – ‘closed upon all sides’ by Parliamentarian armies making escape more difficult than ever – he became ‘much troubled’ not to be ‘parted hence’. One week later, moreover, his perplexity had become overwhelming. Acknowledging by this stage that he was ‘in very great straits’, he duly admitted to Montreuil on 19 April that, with the barest encouragement from the Scots, ‘I have resolved to run any risk to go to them’.

Nonetheless, there would be seven further days before Charles at last received the Scots’ reply, and its content proved even more galling than the tardiness of its arrival. ‘The Scots,’ Charles declared to his wife on reading their response, ‘are abominable relapsed rogues, for Montreuil himself is ashamed of them, they having retracted almost everything which they made him promise me.’ Their army, on the one hand, now refused to recognise the agreement made with their commissioners in London, and any intent to fight on the king’s behalf appeared to have evaporated without trace. Furthermore, Charles would only be permitted to join the Scottish army at all if he pretended to arrive without prior arrangement, for fear of offending the English Parliament. Most reprehensibly of all, he must establish Presbyterianism in England ‘as promptly as possible’.

Such, then, was the offer of the ‘perfidious covenanters’, which left Charles, as he openly confessed to Henrietta Maria, ‘much worse than ever’ and hopelessly perplexed at ‘the difficulty of resolving what to do’. Like a man on the brink, he sent Sir Thomas Fairfax a vague offer the very next day suggesting that he would accept whatever conditions Parliament might offer, in return for his life and continued acceptance as king. But its prompt rejection was a foregone conclusion and the ultimate proof that his only recourse was escape from Oxford, perhaps to King’s Lynn on the Norfolk coast, where he might take ship and thereby somehow muster sufficient forces ‘to procure honourable and safe conditions from the rebels’. In Scotland, meanwhile, the Earl of Montrose was attempting to raise a new army for him, and if Montrose was not ready, Charles was also prepared as a final resort to seek shelter abroad, though he considered it unbecoming ‘to quit his party that way’ and was ‘not yet resolved’ in any case whether Ireland, France or Denmark was his best option.

The dithering, it seems, continued uninterrupted as the king laid smokescreens, telling his Council of War that he was making for London, and sent Lords Lindsey and Southampton to Colonel Rainsborough to discuss surrender terms. Certainly, as midnight approached on Sunday, 26 April, and Charles went secretly to the apartments of John Ashburnham to make good his departure, his direction of flight appears to have remained a matter of conjecture. Ironically, the camp of the Scottish Covenanters at Newark was still in his view no more than an abject last resort, and in the warmth and comfort of Ashburnham’s chamber, he had not yet entirely discounted a bold descent upon London, where he might negotiate with Parliament in person. Though shorn of his flowing locks and disguised as Ashburnham’s Roundhead serving man beneath a woollen soldier’s cap with flaps around the ears and a hat on top, he remained, after all, King of England and under God’s protection and guidance. In Ashburnham, moreover, he had beside him, in Montreuil’s words, ‘the person in whom the King of Great Britain has now the greatest confidence’, and in Dr Michael Hudson the services of a man who ‘told him his mind when others would not’.

So as Sir Thomas Glemham bade ‘Farewell Harry’ to his sovereign master at the city’s East Gate in the small hours of 27 April, and ordered that no further persons be allowed to ‘pass in or out of Oxford for five days’, the king’s direction was initially south-east – under the guidance, appropriately enough, of Hudson, who had served until 1644 as scout-master to the army under the Marquis of Newcastle, in charge of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. Well known as ‘a very skilful guide’, he is said to have ‘understood the by-ways as well as the common’, which made him indispensable for the secret journey to come. But it was not only Hudson’s knowledge of the land or even his ‘plain dealing’ and well-known want of reserve that on this occasion made his presence so important. For the journey ahead was as hazardous as it was arduous, and the chaplain’s loyalty and courage were impeccable. A former tutor to the king, he had joined the Royalist cause at once upon the outbreak of war, and renewed his acquaintance with his erstwhile pupil at Oxford in the wake of the Battle of Edgehill. By the time that Charles had arranged a Doctorate in Divinity for him at some point during the winter of 1642/43, moreover, he had already lost the entirety of his estates, leaving his widow – whom he had married as Miss Pollard of Newnham Courtney, Oxfordshire, around 1630 – to eke out a meagre existence for herself and her family upon charity.

Henceforth, in fact, Hudson’s life would become an almost uninterrupted exercise in self-sacrifice on his master’s behalf, as arrests, interrogations, escape attempts, madcap projects to rescue the Royalist cause and feats of heroism followed one upon another. In June 1646, imprisonment at London House awaited him after his arrest at Sandwich en route to France, and later that month he would be examined by a parliamentary committee about his wanderings with the king, only to escape on 18 November and thereafter convey letters from Charles to Major-General Laugharne in Wales. By that time notorious in parliamentary circles, he would be captured again in the following January – on this occasion at Hull – and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he employed himself chiefly in writing and in devising an unsuccessful scheme to deliver the Tower into Royalist hands.

Ultimately, however, it would be the ending of his life that eventually established Hudson’s true credentials as a largely unsung hero of the Civil War. Escaping once more in early 1648 – this time in disguise with a basket of apples on his head – and returning to Lincolnshire, he would proceed to raise a party of Royalist horse, in order to rouse the gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk on the king’s behalf. With the main body of those who had taken arms under his command, Hudson then retired to Woodcroft House, Northamptonshire, a strong building surrounded by a moat, where he and his followers were attacked on 6 June 1648 by a contingent of enemy soldiers. By then bearing a commission as a colonel, he is said to have defended the house with exceptional courage until the doors were finally forced, and to have staged a fighting retreat to the battlements – yielding only on a promise of quarter, which was subsequently rescinded. Finally flung over the battlements in retribution, Hudson nevertheless managed to support himself upon a spout or projecting stone until his hands were cut off and he fell into the moat beneath. Whereupon, in reply to his request that he be allowed to die like a man on land, a Roundhead trooper named Egborough killed him with a musket blow to the head before another cut out his tongue and carried it about as a trophy, leaving the body to be buried at Denton, Northamptonshire.

This, then, was no ordinary chaplain, and his uncommon valour could not have equipped him more admirably for the journey into the unknown from Oxford that he now made at his sovereign’s side. For, as events soon demonstrated, the king was fleeing from his problems rather than following any coherent plan for their solution, and swiftly descended into passivity and indecision once the journey was underway. It was Hudson, therefore, who first determined upon a curious route in the direction of London – passing through Marsh Baldon, Dorchester, Benson, Henley and Nettlebed – with a view to confusing prospective pursuers. Though the secrecy of the king’s departure was such that no pursuit eventually took place, his passage through enemy territory was soon resulting in various close encounters with the enemy. If challenged, it had been agreed that the party was to employ a pass bearing Fairfax’s signature, which had been obtained from a Parliamentarian soldier on leave for the capital. By 10 a.m. that day, when all three finally reached Hillingdon, the considerable risk involved in the entire enterprise was already apparent. In one village there had been a guard of Parliamentarian dragoons, which, Hudson recorded, the group was lucky enough to avoid ‘without any difficulty or examination’. A few miles further on, however, they were met by Roundhead cavalrymen who, upon noticing that Hudson and Ashburnham wore pistols in their belts, ‘asked us to whom we belonged’, to which the king himself ‘answered “to the House of Commons” and so passed’. This was still merely the beginning, for at Henley-on-Thames they were stopped once more before managing to proceed ‘without any question’ after ‘showing the pass to the corporal and giving 12d. to the guards’.

Stopping finally at Hillingdon, some 20 miles from London, in order, as Hudson put it, ‘to refresh ourselves’, the fugitives then found themselves in a crisis of another kind, generated not only by fatigue but by the onset of a further wave of indecision on the king’s behalf. They had not slept all night, and for three hours or so made no move while Charles, ‘much perplexed’, appears to have agonised once more over ‘what course to resolve upon – London or northward?’ There were those of the opinion, after all, that Parliament would show ‘much more moderation’ if he was directly present rather than at a distance, since MPs themselves continued to fear that his arrival in the capital might well ‘arouse the respect and affection of the people’. In light of this, might the king not be able to slip into London incognito and emerge from hiding, at an appropriate time, to lead the growing number of citizens who resented Parliament’s exactions and feared the army’s rising power? Had not the Lord Mayor himself, for that matter, escorted him into the city in person in November 1642, and might not history yet repeat itself in such distracted times? For a man like Charles – desolate, desperate and deluded – any crumb of hope was apt, it seems, to be snatched and savoured at this critical juncture.

But time was pressing, the net closing, his companions increasingly restless and his contacts within the capital plainly unresponsive, so that by afternoon Charles was on his way again, turning northwards in a wide arc through Harrow and St Albans to Wheathampstead, where he spent the night. His thoughts as he turned back to look upon London from Harrow’s high hill can only be imagined. During the previous decade, it had been the scene of so much personal happiness, only to descend by turns into a seemingly bottomless cockpit of dissent, treachery and rebellion. It was the prize, too, that he had never been able to regain over four long years of bloody slaughter, and, above all, the financial stronghold that had resisted and then broken his faltering cause. Not altogether surprisingly, Charles would stubbornly refuse to discuss his thoughts at this time when later offered the opportunity by his confidants. In all likelihood, the memory of the fear and uncertainty, not to mention the crushed hopes and strains of flight, were simply too painful to revisit. But for the present – and whatever the risks – he was making for King’s Lynn, a town he had never visited and ‘where he was least known’. There he could wait upon events – in the reassuring knowledge that a boat for the Continent could safely be had – while Hudson sallied forth intrepidly to parley with the Scots in Nottinghamshire.

In the meantime, however, the danger for the king and his associates remained ever-present, for only a mile beyond St Albans, an old man armed with a halberd demanded to know the travellers’ identity. Though the response ‘From Parliament’, coupled to a sixpenny tip, seemed to placate the interrogator, it was not long, Hudson tells us, before two horsemen came ‘galloping after us very fast’. Once more, as it transpired, the threat was groundless, since the riders were none other than a gentleman – ‘very drunk’ and thirsting now for merry conversation – and his servant. Yet there were still more than 90 miles between the king and his hoped-for destination, and by the time that he was slipping past Cambridge by night, through ill-kept Fenland back roads, news of his escape was out. By the time that Charles arrived at Downham Market – where Hudson had family connections – on 30 April, therefore, the pressure was mounting incrementally, though there remained no other choice than to wait for all of four days at the Swan Inn while Hudson sought news from the Scots. In doing so, the king caused further suspicion, first by asking for a fire in his room – despite the comparatively warm springtime weather – with the intention of burning his papers, and subsequently by requesting that the town barber mend as best he could the damage done to his hair by Ashburnham’s unskilled hands back at Oxford.

Hudson’s eventual return could not, therefore, have been more timely, though the news he bore was once more altogether less heartening than Charles had been depending upon. For while the Scots offered vaguely ‘to secure the king in his person and in his honour’ and press him ‘to do nothing contrary to his conscience’, their commitment was palpably less than wholehearted. In the first place, they would put nothing in writing and their ‘offer’ had in any case not been delivered to Hudson face-to-face, but by Montreuil acting as intermediary. As such, the ambassador’s further assurance that the Scots would apparently ‘declare for the King’, if Parliament refused to restore him, ‘and take all the King’s friends into their protection’ remained uncomfortably frail. All hinged, after all, on what amounted to a string of Chinese whispers derived solely from a paper drawn up by the French ambassador and the ambassador’s reading of Scottish intentions. There were no firm grounds either for explaining why the Scots should be any less concerned about offending Parliament now than they had been earlier. Indeed, if Hudson himself had not been won over so wholly by Montreuil at their meeting, there is every reason to believe that Charles might well have been persuaded by Ashburnham’s alternative suggestion that he set out by sea in search of some much-needed temporary respite.

But with Downham Market’s citizens already murmuring in corners and the king ‘destitute of any other refuge’ after Hudson had made unsuccessful enquiries ‘for a ship to the north’, there remained no option. As early as 11 May, Miles Corbet, MP for Great Yarmouth, and Colonel Valentine Walton of Great Staughton in Huntingtonshire – both of whom would later sign the king’s death warrant – were in a position to report the fugitives’ movements to the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall. ‘Wherever they came, they were very private, and always writing’, it was noted, and there was further mention not only of Hudson’s vain quest for a ship, but that the king had acquired a new hat into the bargain from one of Hudson’s friends. Under such circumstances, even Charles had been unable to hesitate further. Against his better judgement, he would deliver himself after all to those who ‘first began my troubles’ and join the Scottish Covenanters. In the meantime, he would smother his suspicions, as always, with that familiar coating of naive optimism that served so often as a substitute for hard policy when alternatives vanished. Perhaps despite all, he reflected, ‘my rendering my person to them may engage their affections to me, who have oft professed “They fought not against me, but for me”’.

For the moment, however, Charles could at least distract himself further by making his journey north as pleasant as possible. Next morning, now disguised as a clergyman in ‘a black coat and long cassock’, and assuming the identity of ‘the Doctor’, he moved from Downham Market to an obscure village alehouse before heading secretly and by night for Little Gidding, a place of special charm for him, still untouched by war and housing the humble Anglican religious community established by Nicholas Ferrar in 1626. Such were its attractions, indeed, that Charles had visited the village, some 30 miles east of Cambridge, on two previous occasions, and en route he now took the opportunity to ride past Hinchingbrooke House at Huntington, scene of many a glorious hunt in former days. Throughout, he continued to traverse the most secret and circuitous routes, looping down through Huntington and the marshes round Ely, crossing the Nen and the Welland to Melton Mowbray, doubling back to Stamford and then heading north-north-west, skirting Grantham, over the Trent to Southwell and on to the house of the French ambassador, where he arrived at 7 a.m. on 5 May. His journey had taken all of ten exhausting days, ‘having passed through fourteen guards and garrisons of the enemies’ and being obliged at one point to spend the night at Coppingford on an ale house floor in the company of its keeper and his family. But now at last the Scottish camp besieging Newark was in touching distance, less than 8 miles away.

And though his liberty was soon to be surrendered forever, his enemies at least remained implacably divided. For this was truly, as Oliver Cromwell observed, ‘a quarrelsome age’, and the monarchy still, to all intents and purposes, the only rock upon which stability could ever be re-established. Since the start of the year, further rifts had arisen in London between Independents and Presbyterians over disbandment of the army and the terms for ridding England of the Scots. Only the day before Charles’ arrival at Southwell, moreover, William Sancroft, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, had been hoping against hope for the king’s appearance in London to cow the ‘faction that hath the vogue at Westminster’. Writing to his father in Suffolk in one of his regular newsletters, Sancroft was convinced that the king’s presence ‘will attract hearts and animate many of the members to appear for him with open face who now mask under a visor, and sigh to see a party they like not carry all before them’. There were certainly high hopes among the London citizenry that the king’s restoration might herald a long overdue return to normalcy – a feeling echoed also amongst many Presbyterian MPs, in expectation that the king might yet be persuaded on the need for religious change.

The Scots, meanwhile, were increasingly alienated from Westminster’s leadership, though even they were in the throes of internal division as a moderate Royalist party led by the Duke of Hamilton emerged to fill the vacuum left by the defeat of Montrose’s ultra-Royalist Highlanders at Philiphaugh the previous September, and subsequently challenge the dominance of the Earl of Argyle and the Kirk and their supporters among the Lowland towns and gentry. As Charles faced his imminent encounter with the leaders of the Scottish army, he knew that they too, therefore, were wholly aware of the potential benefits accruing from his reinstatement. For his deliberate decision to stay and negotiate, rather than flee into exile, had actually made it more difficult to get rid of him, and though there was some desultory talk of deposition, his added precaution of sending Prince Charles overseas rendered such a course largely impractical. No less important in the longer run was the king’s sheer obstinacy in attempting to win the peace after losing the war. ‘You cannot do without me,’ he would maintain doggedly, ‘you will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you.’

At the same time, the king’s refusal to concede was backed, it seems, by two further considerations: his readiness on the one hand to suffer martyrdom for his principles, and an equal preparedness on the other to behave as disingenuously as circumstance might demand in defence of those self-same principles. ‘I have already cast up what I am like to suffer which I shall meet (by the grace of God) with that constancy that befits me,’ he would tell Ashburnham and others in July 1646, and throughout the ensuing negotiations with the Scots, he rarely missed an opportunity to remind his protagonists of this fact. As the chess player that he was, Charles therefore convinced himself that he could yet achieve mate from a position of apparently complete inferiority, or at the very least a last-gasp stalemate as his enemies were thwarted by the prospect of an ultimate step they could never countenance. While they dangled hopelessly, or so he believed, on a hook of their own making, he could resort to any immoral means – be it innuendo, subterfuge, provocation or outright falsehood – to achieve his ends, since in dealing with ‘damnable’ enemies any damnable expedient was ultimately permissible. This, after all, was the ruler who had promised to ‘never abandon Ireland’, only to persuade himself that because the Irish had forsaken him he could break his word with impunity. A guarantee made to a treacherous enemy, he would tell the Marquis of Ormonde, ‘is as a reed, and the more you rely on it, will run into your hand the deeper’.

In the meantime, the king’s arrival at Newark would both please and astound the Scots. Soon after his appearance at Southwell, numerous Scottish lords were making their way to the French ambassador’s lodging, though they hurried forth laden with disavowals rather than welcome tidings of support. While professing their gladness at his arrival, they not only affirmed that they had no prior knowledge of his coming, but claimed to have heard nothing of any terms agreed with their commissioners in London. As such, they could not honour them. Worse still, before Charles had ‘either drunk, refreshed or reposed himself’, his Scottish visitors were issuing new demands of their own. Firstly, he must order the surrender of Newark to the English Parliamentary army that was also besieging the town. Secondly, he must command the Earl of Montrose to lay down his arms once and for all. Finally, and most gallingly, he must abandon the most fundamental of his sacred principles by signing the Covenant and imposing Presbyterian practice throughout England and Ireland.

The impact upon Charles of this greeting may well be imagined, and to add to his dismay he found himself lodged that night under strict guard in the Scottish military headquarters. Having forced the question of religion ‘so ungraciously’, as Montreuil put it in a letter to Cardinal Mazarin, there was now no trace of ‘affection or dependence’ in the Scots’ behaviour. On the one hand, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven and commander of the Scottish forces, asked no orders from the king and chose instead to forbid any army officers to see or speak to him. Nor did he make any attempt to discourage the flow of visitors determined to browbeat the king and press him to ‘things … most averse to his conscience and honour’. Such, indeed, was the general level of disrespect that Charles even briefly considered escape to the Parliamentary army on the other side of Newark. But he had no messenger to send, and any remaining doubts that he was indeed a prisoner quickly evaporated when he initially resisted the surrender of the town and was removed at once to Kelham House and summarily forced to comply – ‘on very hard terms for those within’.

The document confirming Newark’s surrender was signed, in fact, at Colonel Rossiter’s headquarters in Balderton at midnight on 6 May, only a little more than twenty-four hours after the king’s arrival at Southwell, and though the personal safety of all inhabitants was guaranteed, the town’s Royalist governor, Lord Belasyse, wept at its acceptance. Since the siege began on 26 November 1645, Newark had lost one-sixth of its buildings forever and been reduced in the process to ‘a miserable stinking place that could spread infection in the adjacent villages and towns’. So severe indeed was the scale of infection, that plague deaths reached a peak during June and July in the wake of the surrender and continued ultimately until the end of the year. Yet both Belasyse and the town’s mayor had wished to continue the fight, fully aware that Newark remained a last defiant bastion, and knowing too that their stronghold was still comparatively well provisioned, with a good store of corn, butter and cheese, ‘some plenty’ of salt meat and many barrels of beer and wine. When, moreover, the Royalist garrison finally vacated the town, they would also leave behind them some 4,000 muskets, carbines and pistols, sixty barrels of gunpowder, a great store of match, ball and ammunition, and no less than twelve cannon, including the infamous ‘Sweet Lips’, named after a notorious Hull prostitute.

Yet further resistance on the king’s part was never an option when the Scots themselves were increasingly fearful of attack from their Parliamentary ‘allies’ and seeking satisfaction at once. For as soon as the initial panic of the king’s flight had abated and his new where-abouts was known, Parliament had lost no time in ordering the Scots to send him to Warwick Castle, and the threat of an outright fracture was already real and present. Under such circumstances, breathing space was essential for Charles’ Scottish captors, allowing all options to be pondered at a safe distance from any prospective attacker. Apart from selling him to Parliament for a handsome dividend, there was also the more adventurous possibility that he might be employed at the head of an Anglo-Scottish force to attack or weaken the New Model Army, which had recently dealt the Royalists such heavy defeats and whose successes now made the Scots increasingly uneasy when looking south. In any event, Newcastle was the obvious safe vantage point from which to ruminate upon their options, and the Scots would make their way there within the week, along with a king who in spite of all remained compliant – seeking solace as always in his enemies’ divisions and enticed all the while by the promise that a new group of Scottish commissioners would be waiting for him who might honour the conditions arranged by Montreuil.

Any hopes of relief that Charles may have been harbouring were soon quelled, however, upon his arrival in Newcastle at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 May. Since 1644, when the Covenanters had first joined the war against the king, the town had been under Scottish occupation, while the nearby villages starved under the burden of hungry cavalry regiments treating them, in effect, as so much booty. On Newcastle’s high stone walls, therefore, Scottish sentries in baggy blue bonnets and red wool coats now kept grim watch, cursing their current circumstances and wishing, no doubt, for home. For after three years’ service in a cause that had long since ceased to compel, they were in ‘ragged and naked condition’, though, if their clothes betrayed their predicament, their heavy muskets nevertheless stood ready for use. From the leather bandoliers slung over their shoulders dangled powder horns and pouches of shot, while at their sides were swords and dirks, and beneath the crenellated towers from which they peered stood other Scottish troops, Lowlanders to a man, who guarded the gates that were firmly locked each night, since neither man, woman, nor child could enter without an official pass. This was not all, for on the high ground round about stood cannon ready to repel any enemy force – which by this stage could only be Parliamentarian.

When Charles and his associates finally approached their destination, therefore, the whole place was still ‘in a condition to resist any army however powerful’. Nor could the solemn procession of which the king formed part have reflected his straitened circumstances more aptly. From Gateshead onwards, in fact, the road was lined – by order of the town’s governor, Sir John Lumsden – with musketeers and pikemen, and neither civic dignitaries nor the numerous Scottish lords who had arrived in advance were on hand. Indeed, Charles entered, as one eyewitness described it, ‘in a very silent way, without bells ringing, or bagpipes playing or mayor and aldermen’. As the king crossed the Tyne, no cannon fire – ‘neither by land, nor by water’ – greeted him ‘by way of triumph’, and the numerous news-sheets of the day, both Scottish and English, were agreed that the general populace was eerily absent. ‘There was not any extraordinary concourse of people,’ reported The Weekly Account, ‘neither was there any noise, or sounding of Trumpet.’ Instead, as Montreuil reported to Cardinal Mazarin in Paris, ‘the Scots not only failed in paying the honours required of them, but they prevented other subjects from rendering those they owed to him’.

All the while, Charles rode in the midst of 300 cavalrymen, with ‘his lock cut off and his head rounded’, wearing ‘a sad-coloured plain suit’, as those directly around him, including the Earl of Leven and various other Scottish officers, all ‘rid bare’. ‘Nor did they,’ recorded one observer, ‘in any solemne manner take notice of his Majesty.’ When a solitary shout pierced the silence after the king had passed under a stone gateway and along an avenue of trees towards the house where he was to reside, the response could not have confirmed the king’s predicament more decisively. For the lone cry of encouragement was enough to provoke a proclamation stipulating that none of his adherents were henceforth to have access to him, ensuring in effect that the so-called Anderson House – ‘one of the bravest houses in the town’ – in which the king now found himself was about to provide him with his first undiluted taste of captivity.

Ironically enough, it was at the gates of this grand Elizabethan manor house, just outside the town walls, that Charles had reviewed his troops in 1639 on their confident northward march to Berwick. But now, though technically entrusted to the mayor’s custody, he found himself hemmed in by a guard of musketeers, while ‘inhabitants of trust’ from the local citizenry were appointed to act as further sentries round about. Outside the mullioned windows, likewise, Leven lost no time in ordering ‘that some of the ancient men of the inhabitants of the town should constantly sit at every passage’ within the Anderson House ‘to examine and take notice what persons came in or out’. Any prior indications that the Scots might proffer support against the king’s opponents in London were further quashed when Leven duly issued a proclamation ‘by beat of Drum and sound of Trumpet’, that ‘although His Majesty was come thither, all persons should yield obedience to the ordinances of Parliament’. For only one day after Charles’ initial arrival at Newark, the Scots had written to Westminster expressing the hope that ‘none will so far misconstrue us’ as to believe that it was their wish to exploit the ‘seeming advantage’ that had fallen their way so fortuitously. Though, as all realised, the Scots’ assurance was hollow, it was equally plain from what transpired that it was Parliament rather than the king that commanded their greatest respect.

Even so, it was clear that Charles would have to be offered some modicum of comfort commensurate with his status in order to make his stay at Anderson House more or less tolerable. Though Parliament had requested the apprehension of those who had assisted the king’s escape from Oxford, the Scots also remained keen to assert some independence, and both Ashburnham and Hudson were actually allowed to make good their escape with minimal difficulty – the former after a visit to Montreuil’s house on 16 May, and the chaplain a day later after cursory interrogation by the Deputy Mayor. In their stead, moreover, the king was allowed access to certain ‘noble and faithful gentlemen’, who though carefully vetted, proved not unworthy of their duties. Lord Lanark, for example, was appointed to act as his secretary, while William Murray and James Harrington, a friend of his sister, attended him as grooms of the bedchamber throughout the greater part of his stay. He was allowed, too, a groom of the privy chamber, named Tobias Peaker, and a page of the back stairs by the name of Levitt, along with a night-time companion in the Earl of Dunfermline, who slept constantly in his bedchamber.

The king’s diet, meanwhile, was described as ‘princely’ and consisted of ‘15 dishes of English diet every meale’. Nor, it seems, was the prisoner entirely deprived of funds, for a certain Francis Crosse, in his examination of 8 June 1646, estimated the king’s expenditure at the amount of £100 per month. At the same time, there was also no shortage of coal for Charles’ needs, provided by the town corporation, and he was not only allowed to play golf and chess, but even afforded opportunity for an occasional visit to Tynemouth Castle, though a trip by barge on 21 May in the company of Lords Lothian, Dunfermline and Balmerino would hardly have lifted his spirits, since he was treated once more with barest ceremony – ‘the most solemnity of his entertainment’ being, we are told, ‘three pieces of Ordnance fired at the Castle, and some fired by the Collier ships that rode in the Harbour both as his Majesty went and returned’.

Day trips and wholesome fare could not, in any case, make good the increasing disdain and indignity to which the king was subjected. Far from honouring the arrangement brokered by Montreuil, the Scots merely intensified their pressure, demanding Charles’ ‘full concession’ to the peace terms that Parliament had offered him in their ‘nineteen propositions’ of 1642, which demanded, among other things, parliamentary control over both church and the militia. In pressing their case, the Scots were wholly prepared to subject the prisoner to what he himself termed ‘barbarous usage’, even hotly pursuing him on one occasion with demands that he accept the Covenant after he had retired weeping to his bedchamber on or about 15 June. Each day, he told his wife, was ‘never wanting new vexations’. ‘I have need of some comfort,’ he informed her, ‘for I never knew what it was to be barbarously baited before … there was never man so alone as I … no living soul to help me … all the comfort I have is in thy love and a clear conscience.’ ‘I hope God hath sent me hither,’ he continued, ‘for the last punishment that he will inflict upon me, for assuredly no honest man can prosper in these people’s company.’ And though in Montreuil’s opinion he accepted all ‘with an equanimity that I cannot enough admire, having a kindly demeanour towards those who show him no respect, and who treat him with very little civility’, the personal impact of his treatment was particularly visible to one eyewitness who described him as ‘melancholy’ and ‘very gray with cares’.

But it was not only ill-mannered Scottish lords and generals, and rough-bred common soldiers, who stood ‘continually smoking’ and bare-headed in his presence, that jarred the king’s sensibilities. For only four days after his arrival in Newcastle, Charles was subjected in his own dining quarters to a long-winded and patronising sermon delivered by Robert Douglas, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Kirk, instructing him in the ‘wholesome doctrine’ of Presbyterianism. Thereafter, whether at Anderson House itself or in those town churches that he was occasionally allowed to attend, the same theme was unrelenting. Advised comparatively respectfully by Douglas ‘to dispose his spirit to peace and unity’, there was also altogether blunter, harsher advice for Charles to endure at the hands of the rougher brand of Presbyterian pulpiteer that the Scottish Kirk seemed to produce so readily. ‘Thou piece of clay,’ intoned Andrew Cant before his king on Sunday, 5 July, ‘where thou sittest, think of thy death, resurrection, judgement, eternity’, and place all hope in ‘mercy upon repentance’. The preacher’s text, Psalm 9:7, made free reference also to the previous verse – ‘O thou enemy, destructions are come to a perpetual end: and thou hast destroyed cities; their memorial is perished with them’ – amid allusions to the many deaths that Scotland had suffered as a result of the war.

Yet while Charles’ countenance was observed to change ‘more than once’ during Cant’s vigorous onslaught, he had nevertheless been sufficiently composed thereafter to invite the preacher and other ministers in attendance to discuss ‘a case of conscience that he would put to them’. He had shown even greater resilience in late May and early June when locking horns in public debate with Alexander Henderson, Rector of Edinburgh University and a leading Presbyterian theologian, who had been largely responsible for the final wording of the Solemn League and Covenant. Predictably enough, the king’s opening gambit was a profession of faith in the Anglican Church and the need for bishops – two beliefs, he asserted, that had been taught him by his father. Though Henderson’s retort was equally astute, it was unavailing. Henry VIII himself, the Scotsman argued, had altered his religious views, and Charles’ father would now surely approve of a Presbyterian settlement that at last perfected the Henrician Reformation by purging the Church once and for all of any papist remnants. At which point, the king responded by reminding his protagonist in no uncertain terms that he knew better than any the likely response of James I to the Covenant. ‘I had the happiness,’ he declared crushingly, ‘to know him much better than you.’

And so the exchanges continued – over a total of eight papers in which neither side showed the slightest inclination to concede. On their knees, in fact, the Covenanters implored Charles to convert, but he remained obdurate until, on 3 August, Henderson became too ill to continue his efforts. One week later, indeed, the collapse of Henderson’s health had become so complete that he was forced to return to Scotland by sea: a mortally sick man who would be dead only nine days later. He had found the king, in his own words, a ‘most intelligent man’, while Charles for his part showed no trace of triumphalism at Henderson’s indisposition. He had, of course, been treated to what he himself perceived as the ultimate indignity – an attempt not only to undermine his sacred coronation oath to uphold the Church of England, but to compromise in the process the very prospect of his eternal salvation. Even so, he visited the Scot in person at his sickbed before his departure, and appears to have behaved with equanimity when the dying man ‘wept to his Majesty and desired him to hearken to counsel’.

To Charles’ credit, it was a generous act carried out at a time of unremitting anguish and anxiety, as he toyed aimlessly with the notion of escape, bemoaned his decision to submit himself to ‘the false juggling of the Scots’ and found himself increasingly an object of contempt, even for some local townsfolk, who appear to have found him ‘not only weak but very wilful and obstinate’. ‘Nothing can we see in him,’ declared the same commentator, ‘tending to a true Christian or the power of godliness.’ Outwardly at least, he retained his composure. ‘Never man saw him passionately angry or extraordinarly moved,’ observed a Presbyterian theologian who had often engaged him in debate. But to Henrietta Maria he gave free vent to his frustration at the ‘fools and knaves’, who were now the only people he ever saw, and ‘the base usage that I have had since I came to this army’. ‘I care not much for others’, he told her, before adding that ‘all the comfort I have is in thy love’. ‘Thy love preserves my life,’ he confided in the special cipher he kept hidden under his pillow.

Above all, perhaps, Charles feared not only for his own safety but that of his children. Following the surrender of Montrose’s Scottish forces and the loss of Oxford on Charles’ order, James, Duke of York had been taken under restraint to London, where he joined his siblings Elizabeth and Henry in parliamentary custody at St James’s Palace. Thereafter only Prince Charles retained his freedom, though after commanding the last of his father’s forces in the south-west of England, he had been forced to set sail, first for the Scilly Isles and then for the Channel Islands. Until the heir to the throne was safely ensconced with his mother in France, however, there could be no guarantee of his liberty, and throughout the early days of the king’s stay at Newcastle he was racked with concern – not least because the liberty or capture of the prince represented ‘either my greatest security, or my certain ruin’. ‘Your going beyond sea is absolutely necessary for me’, Charles informed his son, and would ‘make the rebels hearken, and yield to reason’, so long as the young man avoided all temptation to compromise his religion, ‘neither hearkening to Roman superstitions nor the seditious and schismatical doctrines of the Presbyterians and Independents’. ‘For all other things,’ wrote the king, ‘I command you to be totally directed by your mother.’

By June, however, Prince Charles was indeed in Paris, though as one cloud lifted, the gloom continued to descend on all other fronts. Within a fortnight of reaching Newcastle, the king had begun to expect the worse. The queen must not be deceived by false hopes, he told her, for the new peace proposals expected from Westminster were bound to be ‘such as I can never yield to’. In consequence, his one desire was ‘to go from hence to any other part of the world’. ‘And, indeed, to deal freely with thee,’ he added ominously, ‘my condition is such that I expect never to see thee, except … I find means to quit this wretched country … If I stay any time, I am lost.’ Yet while Charles had apprehended both his predicament and its solution plainly enough, he was still stricken by inertia and refused, in particular, to make good any escape attempt without the queen’s approval, begging her to think ‘seriously and speedily’ about his proposal, ‘for upon my word it will not admit of long delay’. Once again, he was right, for his failure to come to terms with the Scottish Covenanters had drained their patience and emptied their options, leaving him increasingly at Parliament’s direct disposal. With no prospect of an accommodation and ongoing unease about their own security, the Scots were indeed already contemplating their ultimate course of action – the sale of the king for a healthy down payment of £100,000 – while both Henrietta Maria and her protector, Harry Jermyn, were urging him to stay put, emphasising ‘the danger of the attempt, and the provocation given to the Parliament if successful’.

Nor, of course, was the arrival of a parliamentary commission in Newcastle long in coming. For on 13 July, Charles was duly presented with a series of propositions for a ‘safe and well-grounded peace’, which demanded not only that he become a Presbyterian, but forsake control of the militia for twenty years and, almost as intolerably, abandon a number of named Royalists, including Prince Rupert and Jack Ashburnham, from pardon. Papists and Independents alike were to be persecuted according to the dictate of Parliament, all parliamentary ordinances enacted during the war were to hold good and, as a final indignity, there was even a clause in the propositions recommending once again that the king sign and swear to the Solemn League and Covenant, ‘according to the laudable example of his Royal father of happy memory’. There was to be no scope for meaningful discussion, and in the meantime Charles’ Scottish captors, more desperate than ever to settle matters before heading north once more, would continue to apply the same unremitting pressure. ‘It is almost incredible,’ Charles informed Henrietta Maria, ‘with what impudence I have been assaulted to yield.’

Even as the commissioners were approaching Newcastle, however, the king had determined that he would not yield ‘one jot’. Indeed, when the commissioners first presented Parliament’s propositions on 30 July after a typically exhausting journey up the Great North Road, he lost no time in deriding the very nature of their mission. Since they were not empowered to negotiate but had arrived only for the purpose of submitting Parliament’s demands, their journey had, as Charles made all too clear, been largely redundant. ‘An honest trumpeter,’ he declared, ‘might have done as much.’ And such was his resolve that he was even now, or so he claimed, preparing for the ultimate sacrifice in defence of his just rights and those of his heir. ‘No threatenings, no apprehensions of danger to my person’ or ‘misplaced pity’, he had informed Jack Ashburnham and Lords Jermyn and Culpepper on 22 July, should make them waver even slightly ‘from any foundation in relation to that authority which the Prince of Wales is born to’. ‘I have already cast up what I am like to suffer,’ the letter continues, ‘which I shall meet (by the grace of God) with that constancy that befits me.’ His followers, therefore, were to continue in ‘unspotted faithfulness’ and display that same constancy ‘which you command in me’, since the royal cause was ‘so just’ that ‘I shall never feint in it’. As for the Church, Charles concluded, there was to be no surrender to Parliament over the Covenant, ‘since people are governed more by the pulpit than the sword in times of peace’. Indeed, he would ‘less yield to this’ than over the question of the militia, ‘my conscience being irreconcilably engaged against it’.

Yet it was plain, too, that the king’s intransigence would need to be tempered for the time being by a prudent recognition of his current weakness. The Covenanter leader, the Earl of Loudoun, was only one among many who had taken umbrage at Charles’ opening riposte to the negotiators, warning him in no uncertain terms that if no change in attitude was forthcoming, ‘all England will join against you as one man … and depose you and set up another government’. Under the circumstances, therefore, there was but one option for the king: to play for time as best he might. ‘All my endeavours,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘must be the delaying my answer.’ And accordingly, on 1 August, he informed the Speaker of the House of Commons that Parliament’s propositions ‘do import so great alterations in government in the Church and kingdom, as it is very difficult to return a particular and positive answer, before a full debate, wherein these propositions, and the necessary explanations, true sense and reasons thereof, be rightly weighed and understood’. Parliament, after all, had ‘taken twice so many months for deliberation, as they have assigned days for His Majesty’s answer’. It was only after due and painstaking consideration, therefore, that ‘all issues of blood may be stopped, and these unhappy distractions be settled’.

But if the king’s case was superficially credible, the manoeuvre which underpinned it was nonetheless manifestly transparent, and neither his initial request nor a second evasive reply made in December met with any response. In the interim, Charles was left to fill the stony silence with idle threats and empty accusations against his enemies, and equally unwelcome declarations of resolve to those dear to him. Take it from me ‘as an infallible maxim’, he told the Prince of Wales on 26 August, ‘that as the Church can never flourish without the protection of the Crown, so the dependency of the Church upon the Crown is the chiefest support of regal authority’. At all costs, therefore, the prince was to ‘hinder the growth of Presbyterian doctrine, which cannot but bring anarchy into any country, whenever it shall come for any time’. By early September, moreover, another familiar note was being struck as Charles berated the Scots for failing to set an example by refusing to make the slightest concessions at a time when further talks were sure to be most fruitful. Two weeks later, by contrast, he returned to threats by warning that Scottish recalcitrance might lead him to deal with the Independents, which he did indeed begin to do at the end of the month when sixty leading Independent divines met him for discussion.

As the Scots well knew, however, the king’s bold rhetoric was at that moment little more than empty bluster. He was tied and trussed, and dangling at his enemies’ whim, sustained only, ironically enough, by his very impotence, which had until now inclined the opposition to a modicum of toleration. ‘I am daily more threatened from London’, he complained to his wife in August, and one week later, Jermyn, Culpepper and Ashburnham wrote from France begging that he make concessions. His ‘piety, courage and constancy’ in standing by the episcopacy were to be praised, they acknowledged, but he had now reached the point where he could only save the bishops by saving himself. ‘Presbytery or something worse will be forced upon you whether you will or no,’ they argued, and he was not obliged ‘to perish in company with bishops merely out of pity’. Instead, he should remember that ‘a disease is to be preferred before dissolution’, since ‘the one may in time admit of remedy, the other is passed cure’. ‘How can you think it possible for me to find joy in anything after this?’ came the reply, though the queen was equally adamant and pressed him to accept that it was control of the militia rather than defence of the Church that would allow him ultimately to defeat the ‘anti-monarchical party’. ‘Keep the militia, and never give up, and by that everything will return,’ she urged.

And in the meantime, as Charles continued to pin his faltering hopes upon the arrival of ‘a strong visible force’ from abroad to make the Scots ‘hear reason’, the queen herself knew beyond all doubt that such a force was nothing more than wishful thinking: a weary phantasm of a sorely deluded man once again too weak to adapt to grim realities. Had not her own father shrewdly abandoned his Protestant faith and converted to Rome in order to obtain the throne of France? And had not Paris indeed proved ‘worth a Mass’, as he declared at that time? To Henrietta Maria, her husband’s claims that ‘religion is the only firm foundation of power’ and ‘that cast loose, or depraved, no government can be stable’ were incomprehensible. What she now recommended, after all, seemed so much less than this: nothing more than the exchange – and a temporary one at that – of one form of heresy for another. Her husband’s professions of ‘inexpressible grief and astonishment’ at such manifestly sound advice seems merely to have compounded her frustration. ‘The queen will break my heart if she anymore undertake to obtain my consent for Presbyterian government,’ he had continued to tell her.

But there was sometimes sharpness as well as dolour in the king’s responses, which added salt to the wound. Though she had told her husband that she was willing ‘to endure all, if you think it for your service’, she also made clear that only her ‘passion’ for him might prevent her retirement to a nunnery, were he to reach an ‘accommodation’ with Parliament. She could never, she told him, trust herself ‘to those persons who would be your directors, nor to you, since you would have broken your promise to me’. This, it seems, was enough to provoke the king at last to snapping point. ‘For God’s sake leave off threatening me with thy desire to meddle,’ he rejoined, ‘as thou lovest me give me so much comfort (and God knows I have but little, and that little must come from thee).’ Nor was this the last of Charles’ outbursts. For when the poet Sir William D’Avenant was dispatched by the queen to Newcastle in early November, her beleaguered husband gave vent to his hurt and anger much more forthrightly still. Told by D’Avenant that all his friends had now accepted the need to abandon the episcopacy, Charles at once asked for specific names, and Culpepper and Jermyn were subsequently cited. The result was a counterblast that amply embodied the king’s despair. Jermyn, he declared, knew nothing about religion, Culpepper had none and D’Avenant must never again enter his presence.

When, moreover, the poet related the incident to the queen a few weeks later in Paris, her response was telling. ‘There is nothing in this world I love equal to thee’, Charles had declared to his wife in begging her not to enter a nunnery, assuring her in the process that ‘both I and all my children are ruined, if thou shouldst retire from my business’. Yet still he was immovable on this self-same ‘matter of conscience’ that threatened to consume both him and his entire family. Plagued by his abandonment of the Earl of Strafford almost a decade earlier, he would not, he declared, repeat ‘that base sinful concession’ and compromise his principles again, ‘thereby to salve state sores’, since he had already been ‘most justly punished’ for his infidelity on that occasion, and ‘a new relapse’ was now sure, he insisted, to ‘procure God’s wrath upon me’. Rather than submit, he would, it seems, pay any price: though whether he knew at the time that this might include the loyalty of his wife seems unlikely. For the queen’s frayed patience was also at breaking point. ‘I do not cease to labour for your affairs,’ she had once told him while struggling to raise funds in Holland, ‘provided you do not spoil what I do.’ By now her barbed proviso was assuming new weight, for when D’Avenant concluded his account of his fractious meeting with the king, she is said to have expressed ‘more fear than hope’.

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