‘Extraordinary Incidents’ and ‘Guileless Stratagems’

‘The King’s escape is designed. The manner thus; by one Napier and a servant of David Murray, whom we take to be the King’s tailor. The King is to be drawn up out of his bed chamber into the room over it, the ceiling whereof is to be broke for that purpose; and then conveyed from one room to another, till he be past all the rooms, where any guards are at any doors or windows.’

The Derby House Committee to

Colonel Robert Hammond, 7 February 1648

It was no small irony that, as security tightened around the king, so Governor Hammond’s anxieties increased accordingly. Indeed, even his family, which had been, like many, so sorely divided by the war, was newly intent, it seems, upon adding to his troubles. His grandfather had been doctor to James I, and for the last two years his uncle Henry had remained Charles’ favourite chaplain, notwithstanding the fact that he had been mainly barred from the royal household. But another uncle, Thomas, would be among those who sat in judgement upon Charles in 1649, and now his cousin, William Temple, made his own personal gesture of opposition to the Governor’s current role as overseer of the king’s imprisonment. For after visiting the Isle of Wight in early 1648 and obtaining a personal audience with the royal prisoner, Temple saw fit to use his diamond ring to etch a Biblical curse, obviously directed at Hammond, upon the window of a local inn. ‘Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai’, ran the allusion to Esther, 7:10, which had been used by Royalist pamphleteers over the preceding months to bait the Governor. Plainly infuriating Hammond by his action, Temple was duly brought before his cousin and only released when his travelling companion, Dorothy Osborne, finally opted to take the blame upon herself.

Whether the vigour of Hammond’s response reflected the more general pressure weighing down upon him is unknown, but there is little doubt that the respected field officer who had become Governor of Exeter in 1646 at the age of only 25 was now feeling the full burden of the pass to which his meteoric rise had brought him. Under growing pressure from Parliament’s executive committee at Derby House, Hammond also found himself subject to a steady trickle of harassment from both Cromwell and, more especially still, Ireton. On 3 January, the former had asked his cousin through marriage to John Hampden’s daughter to ‘search out and let us know of any juggling [by the king]’, while Ireton, Hammond’s old field commander and now cousin-in-law, rebuked him for seeking ‘ease and quiet’ on the island, regardless of his proven battlefield valour and the growing possibility of a foreign attack on Carisbrooke. In some respects, Hammond’s naive frankness may well have prompted the taunts, for he had already indicated that the king’s removal from the island was ‘the thing most desirable for me’. But while Cromwell was tactful, if terse, Ireton was prepared to enlist divine retribution in nailing Hammond to his task. ‘Some of us think the king well with you,’ the former had affirmed. For Ireton, however, Hammond’s duties at Carisbrooke were nothing less than ‘God’s charge’.

The need for further troops and guns to make the castle safe now became paramount, therefore, as the prisoner’s yearning to escape grew more and more acute with every passing day. In the meantime, the number of people willing to help the king indicated both the extent of royalism on the Isle of Wight and the prisoner’s continued ability not only to inspire loyalty from those devoted to his cause, but to gain the sympathy of those entrusted with his confinement. Into the first category fell soldiers like Colonel William Hopkins and his son, George, who lived at Newport, as well as the nameless local sailor who would risk all, albeit vainly, to smuggle letters from the king to his wife and children. Sir John Bowring, too, who had become a clerk to the Privy Council at Oxford, had useful connections on the island, and had for some time been acting as a confidant and go-between.

But there were others like Captain Edward Cooke, one of the king’s guards, who were won over by his dignity and stoicism in the face of growing adversity. Silius Titus, the royal equerry, had of course already been wooed and won at Holdenby, notwithstanding Parliament’s trust in him, and there were also the other members of the king’s household who represented, in effect, a Trojan horse, demanding constant vigilance on Hammond’s behalf. On 11 January, they were listed in the endorsement of a petition submitted to Westminster for the payment of their salaries for the past year, and still numbered thirty-five. Titus, moreover, was still in place, along with Thomas Herbert, Patrick Maule, Francis Cresset, Abraham Dowcett and Henry Firebrace, as well as David Murray, tailor, and Uriah Babbington, the royal barber. Of those who had attended him at Newcastle, indeed, only Dr Wilson was now absent, while Mrs Wheeler, laundress, Mr Thornhill, Groom of the Great Chamber, Henry Murray, Groom of the Bedchamber, and five others had actually been added to the king’s service. More curiously still perhaps, a Gentleman Usher named Richard Osborne, described by Clarendon as ‘by extraction a gentleman’, would soon arrive as an enemy spy, only to defect. Appointed to wait at the royal table and take care of the king’s gloves during meals, Osborne would soon be conveying messages in the fingers of those self-same gloves.

Already, as early as 23 January, Hammond was informing the Derby House Committee that the agents of Ashburnham and Berkeley were at work, and his letter crossed with one, written by the committee three days earlier, to the effect ‘that the King hath constant intelligence given him of all things, which he receives by the hands of a Woman that bringeth it to him, when she bringeth his cleane Linnen’. Stout-hearted Mrs Wheeler had plainly lost no time in showing her true colours, then, and she and her assistant, Mary, along with the old man who brought up the coals for their fires, were only three among many who were to persevere in the task of maintaining the king’s lifeline to the outside world. On 7 February, moreover, Hammond was sent warning of an escape plan involving David Murray and one of the king’s barbers, also named Murray. There were even hints from Cromwell himself in an undated letter to the Governor about the method of transport to be employed:

This intelligence was delivered this day viz. that Sir George Cartwright hath sent 3 boates from Jersey, and a Barque from Sharbrowe [Cherbourg] under the name of Frenchmen, but are absolutely sent to bring the Kinge (if their plott can take effect from the Isle of Wight to Jersey, one of which boates is returned back to Jersey with newes, but it is kept very private).

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Hammond should have found himself under increasing pressure from London to make good the manifest deficiencies in security. By 2 February, the gaps had grown sufficiently for the Commons to order the preparation of new instructions ‘for preventing the Admitting of any Letters or Papers to be brought to the king’. By 18 February, Hammond had been granted what amounted to a free hand to purge the royal household, though not, it seems, without compensation, since a Committee of Revenue had been called upon ‘to consider of and appoint a satisfaction to those servants … that are now to be discharged’. He was to choose ‘such persons as shall attend the king not exceeding the number of thirty’ and ‘from time to time to place and displace such of them as he shall think fit’, thereby preventing, presumably, the kind of enduring links that Charles might be able to turn to his advantage.

But while Maule, Murray and others found themselves excluded and the royal household shrank to sixteen at the Governor’s behest, Herbert and, above all, Titus retained their roles. Indeed, in a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons, dated 2 February, Hammond had already confirmed his decision that ‘four gentleman of approved integrity’ – Herbert, Titus, Mildmay and Captain Preston – were ‘constantly to attend the person of the King in their courses by two at a time who are to be always in his presence, except when he retires into his Bed Chamber’, after which they were ‘to repair the one to one door, and there to the other, and there to continue until the king comes forth again’. Their salaries, according to a Committee of Revenue report of 21 March, were to be fixed at £200 per annum, and their appointment sealed, it seems, with the full approval of Fairfax, who, like Hammond, was prepared to place implicit faith in the reliability of each and every one. They had been described by a correspondent to the Earl of Lanark, after all, as ‘four of the severest’, and both Preston and Mildmay, at least, were soon making clear to Sir John Oglander that ‘they would inform both Parliament and Army agaynst me’, should he now try to see the king.

In the event, the rumoured escape attempt, which sparked the purge initially, had never materialised. No doubt rejected as impracticable, it had probably centred on the room above the royal bedchamber on the mezzanine storey, which communicated with all the others on that floor. But the subsequent loss of David Murray, the king’s tailor, would prove a particularly heavy loss to bear, since the king’s appearance was, of course, a crucial element in the maintenance not only of his regal status but his own self-assurance, and the Derby House Committee’s accounts clearly imply that Murray had actually come to Carisbrooke for the express purpose of revamping the royal wardrobe. For, in an entry in the Exchequer Rolls, we find that on 16 December, the tailor had ordered a black velvet suit, cloak and cassock, along with a black satin suit and cloak lined with plush with gold and silver buttons. While a total of £1,635 9s 6d would in fact be supplied by Parliament for the king’s garments throughout 1648, we hear nevertheless how Charles was ‘most affected in sorrowful expressions’ by Murray’s departure – and by his barber Napier’s too in all likelihood, since the same report from the Moderate Intelligencer on 3 March relates how he had by then become ‘much overgrown with hair’.

Governor Hammond’s first concern, meanwhile, was neither coif nor couture. On 12 January, his application to Parliament for the strengthening of Carisbrooke’s defences was duly referred to the Committee for the Army, and on 25 January the same committee was authorised to spend up to £1,000 ‘for repairing some Places in Carisbrooke Castle, where his Majesty is, and some other places that are ruined and decayed’. Even this, however, seems to have been deemed inadequate by the Governor, for on 14 February, the Derby House Committee finally agreed to grant him a further £500 for fortification work, though not before he had also ensured an upgrading of the castle’s artillery. Additional cannon had in fact already arrived by the end of January, but Hammond learnt of a number of brass guns left by Waller’s artillery train at Poole in Dorset, and finding that twelve of these – two six-pounders, two sakers and eight three-pounders – were serviceable and not in use, the necessary steps were taken to acquire them, with the result that on 7 February, the Mayor and Governor of Poole were ordered by the Ordnance Committee to arrange for their transfer to the Isle of Wight.

There were steps, too, to increase the number of troops on the island. Early in January, for example, Hammond had called a council of war ‘about settling and securing the island’, and reinforcements had of course arrived in the wake of the Burley episode. But the Governor still found himself uncomfortably reliant on local levies of unproven experience or loyalty, and on 15 February, Parliament saw fit to approve their replacement by ‘200 of the most trustworthy soldiers, selected by Gen. Fairfax’. Henceforward, strict control of anyone entering the island could be maintained, while the prospect of any successful armed assault virtually vanished. Indeed, with force no longer even a remotely viable option, the king’s only remaining weapons were guile, ingenuity and stealth. If ships and soldiers could not bring about his release, then friends, sympathisers and his own boldness were all he had left, and to this extent, as his captor well knew, the members of the king’s household would prove crucial.

Nor, indeed, was confirmation of the warnings reaching Hammond about the royal laundry long in coming, for Mrs Wheeler’s assistant Mary, who seems to have been related to her, was continuing to hide letters under the carpet of the king’s bedchamber at those times that it was empty and unguarded. In response, Charles passed notes of his own like the one below, dated 31 January, containing messages and requesting favours:

Mary/send this inclosed, to him, from whom you received that, wch I found yesterday under the Carpet: but there is a seruice of more importance, wch, I hope, you may doe me, that now, it being late, I cannot particularly tell you of: I could best doe it by word of mouth, but for too much notice; wch I leaue to your judgement, wherefore I fynde you not in my Bedchamber the morrow after dinner, I will wryte it to you as well as I can: CR.

After receiving the initial warning from Derby House on 20 January, along with a further one five days later, Hammond had nevertheless seen fit to let such correspondence continue, preferring for the time being merely to place a watch upon the two women. Yet nothing of significance transpired until the appearance off the island in mid-February of none other than Major Humphrey Bosvile, who had escaped from prison after his arrest at Holdenby, to resume his old trade. Travelling under the pseudonym of John Fox, Bosvile would come to achieve such a notoriety that by the following November, all army pickets had been issued a description of him, which spoke of a man ‘of a midle stature’ with ‘not much haire on his face, the haire of his head a black browne long and falling flat downe, his cloathes sad coloured wth great gold buttons over them, a Freeze coat like a Countrey man upon that a Scarlate cloake’. But even by the time of his re-emergence at this juncture, he was already a marked man and dependent, therefore, upon a sailor from his ship to deliver a series of letters ‘to a Gentlewoman in the Castle’ – presumably Mrs Wheeler – ‘or in her absence to Mistris Mary’.

The ploy had not, however, taken into account the anonymous sailor’s apparent liking for alcohol. For, having over-indulged along the way, and only remembering the name of Mary, he made directly for the king’s apartments instead of going to the servants’ quarters, and in doing so found himself apprehended by guards. The messages, when opened, proved to be from none other than the king’s wife and his children Elizabeth and James, who were still prisoners in England. Summaries of Henrietta Maria’s, in particular, were soon circulating freely in contemporary news-sheets. According to one, she had told her husband that ‘during the sad condition’ in which he now found himself, ‘nothing can bring more comfort to her, then to hear from him’, but since she had heard nothing from him ‘on the last returne of the dispatch, she feares that the Letters were intercepted’. ‘After this,’ the report concluded, ‘she proceeds in her caballry and mystical lock of numbers, and I cannot heare of any Key that for the present hath Wards enough to unlock it.’

What this final encoded section of the queen’s message communicated remains a mystery, but the packet of letters, of which it formed part, was nevertheless enough to ensure that any doubt concerning the activities of the king’s laundrywomen had been banished once and for all. Even now, however, there appears to have been no immediate or wholesale clampdown, for while the Moderate Intelligencer reported on 25 February that Mary was ‘yet in restraint’, Charles’ letters to her continued for at least a fortnight after her link to Major Bosvile was first exposed. On 13 February, for instance, he referred to her impending dismissal, and actually requested that she deliver another letter, probably to Jane Whorwood. ‘I herewith send you the letter, wch I desired you (at your last being with me) to inclose within yours,’ Charles wrote. At the same time, Charles even felt sufficiently at ease to suggest that she visit him before her final departure. ‘Forgett not, when euer you are discharged,’ he wrote, ‘to see me, as you did last, before you go; & in the meane tyme, when you haue any thing to say to me, you shall be welcome.’

The king’s last known message to Mary was penned on 26 February, and once more reflects the apparent indulgence with which her misdemeanours had been treated by the authorities. ‘Since I see,’ Charles began, ‘that what I wrote last time came safe to your hands, by the satisfactory Answer which I haue receaued from you; I cannot but wryte yet more freely to you.’ There followed instructions that Mary should proceed to London, though she was not to go ‘before I might speak with you’. Beforehand, too, she was to arrange a meeting with one of the Governor’s maids –‘she that you think to haue most credit with him’ – and ‘seeme to her as if you were sory for what you had done’. Thereafter, ‘in recompence’, Mary was to offer herself, in effect, as a double agent to the Governor, promising faithfully ‘nether to giue any letters to me, nor receaue any from me (wch you shall punctually performe) but that you will giue him a true account how you fynde me inclyned: & that you dout not, but to doe him good seruice heerein, so that I may know nothing, but that you come by stelth to receaue my Comands for London’.

Even as Hammond was procuring money, men and guns for Carisbrooke’s defence, therefore, he was still apparently treading carefully with regard to the royal household. Indeed, whether from an ongoing residue of sympathy for the king’s predicament or unease at the political alternatives posed by his superiors, he was continuing to confine himself to an awkward amalgam of partially effective and token measures. For Bosvile had not been the only individual still involved in smuggling letters to the king, as a letter from a correspondent to the Earl of Lanark – probably none other than Francis Cresset, another of the king’s servants – makes clear:

C___ to the Earl of Lanark, Feb. 23, 1648.

If Oudart and Bosvile were not escaped beyond seas, the one into Holland, the other France, they would hardly have escaped hanging here, Oudart having delivered letters to the Duke of York, persuading him to attempt an escape, and Bosvile having received his answer, which was intercepted at Kairesbrook Castle, with severall other letters from the Queen and others.

Born in Brabant in the Low Countries, Nicholas Oudart was, in fact, a lifelong servant of the crown, who had fled to France after the capture of Oxford, and continued to send him reports written with invisible lemon-juice ink. Now, however, he too was obviously broadening his activities, notwithstanding the fact that he was later damned by Sir Edward Nicholas, his employer, as one who ‘gettes his desires’ through ‘obsequious eye service’ rather than ‘sufficiency or integrity’.

As the self-assurance of men like Oudart and Bosvile grew, more-over, their efforts even developed an element of mockery towards the king’s captors, none of which was better demonstrated than by a batch of letters discovered in February. For the packet itself was laughingly addressed to Captain Anthony Mildmay, one of Hammond’s quartet of trusted ‘conservators’ guarding the king, and almost certainly the most loyal Parliamentarian of all: the brother, indeed, of Sir Henry Mildmay, who had taken a leading role in the trial and sentence of Captain Burley at Winchester. Placed under direct suspicion in spite of his complete innocence, he wrote to Sir Henry on 29 February, acknowledging the mischief done against him, and accepting that this was unlikely to be the last assault of its kind. ‘You may very well conceive,’ he reflected, ‘that the malignant party will stil be practising against me, to make me suspected by the Parliament and their Army, hoping to remove me by that means: all other ways they practised.’

Under such circumstances, as Charles balked at his close confinement and Hammond bristled at the king’s ongoing attempts to undermine his best efforts, it was hardly surprising that tensions should have surfaced between the two men. In mid-January, Charles had formally complained to the Governor about his treatment, questioning whether he was now in fact a prisoner and, if so, by whose command. But in the aftermath of the purge of the royal household, an exchange was recorded by Clarendon, which clearly betrayed a new level of antagonism. For as Charles succumbed to the kind of outburst that typically overcame him when he found himself impotent against overwhelming odds, Hammond plainly had difficulty in restraining his own temper. In the king’s case, after all, words were by now his only weapons, while for Hammond, who was clearly a man of hard facts and cast-iron realities, the verbal onslaught to which he was petulantly subjected seemed to evoke the muffled irritation of a parent faced with a recalcitrant child.

‘Why do you use me thus?’ asked the king, in obvious quest of an opportunity to deliver a regal dressing-down after the dismissal of his servants. ‘Did you not engage your honour you would take no advantage from thence against me?’

‘I said nothing,’ replied Hammond, apparently forgetting the vague promise he had given earlier regarding Ashburnham and Berkeley.

‘You are an equivocating gentleman’, came the smarting response, made all the more significant by virtue of the fact that it was probably the closest that Charles had ever come to directly calling any adversary a liar. ‘You pretend for [religious] liberty’, he continued, but had nevertheless expelled the royal chaplains. When Hammond refused to elaborate upon his decision, the king complained further that he was being treated ‘neither like a gentleman nor a Christian’.

Moreover, even the Governor’s attempt to break off the discussion before any further deterioration occurred proved unsuccessful. ‘I’ll speak to you when you are in better terms,’ came his reply, only to find Charles unwilling to be parried. ‘I have slept well,’ he retorted in an effort to imply that he was not the one in the bad mood. When Hammond affirmed that he the king had been treated ‘very civilly’, Charles’ position remained unyielding. ‘Why do you not do so now then?’ he countered.

Nor, it seems, was this the final attempt by the king to have the last word, though when Hammond, verging on fury himself, accused him of being ‘too high’, Charles descended into a lame play upon the Governor’s words that betrayed his own unease at pressing matters further. If he really was ‘too high’, as Hammond suggested, then this, replied Charles, was merely ‘my shoe-maker’s fault’ by making the soles of his shoes too thick.

Met with silence, and duly chastened, all that followed was a final pallid plea. ‘Shall I have liberty to go about to take the air?’

‘No,’ replied Hammond, ‘I cannot grant it.’

Henceforth, the king would be perceived by his captor more and more as a vexation than a trust: a petty irritant, refusing to accept realities and continuing to demand the kind of respect that he was incapable of earning by personal example. While Hammond would remain respectful and on occasion continue his attempts to save Charles from himself, any hint of divided loyalties that might have been apparent earlier disappeared steadily. The ongoing game of cat and mouse, combined with the king’s unending requests for better everyday treatment, made such a reaction all the more inevitable, of course, as even the royal laundry now became an ongoing bone of contention. For although a replacement was found for Mrs Wheeler, Charles remained dissatisfied. ‘Whilst I have been here among them, I have wanted linen,’ he complained to Sir Philip Warwick in March, though according to the Royalist Mercurius Elencticus, the Governor’s response was, if anything, decreasingly sympathetic, as he pointed out that the king ‘could prevent his fowling so much linen by debarring His walking’ and even added tartly how he himself ‘wore but two shirts a week’, which he considered ‘enough for any honest man’.

In fairness to Hammond, of course, many a jailer might well have proved altogether less accommodating – especially so in light of the ongoing subterfuge surrounding his prisoner. For if the royal household had been reduced in size, it was ever more plainly rife with those intent upon deceit. Mary’s main assistant in the transit of letters to and from the king had, for example, been Abraham Dowcett, and Dowcett’s ongoing involvement in aiding the flow of royal correspondence is confirmed by surviving copies of nine letters – which were made by his friend James Jennings, carpenter to Charles II, and later by Philip Harcourt – along with another twenty that seem to have been burnt by him when he was made a prisoner in May 1648. Anxious by temperament and far from well-suited to cloak-and-dagger dealings of the kind now required of him, Dowcett would seek constant reassurance from the king himself, though his continual misgivings never ultimately overcame him. ‘Be confident tht I will be as carefull as you cane be,’ Charles reassured him on 13 January, ‘for yr discovery will prejudice me as much as You, nor will I needlessly employ you in this Kynde.’ Six days later, the message was the same. ‘Let not Cautiousness beget feare,’ Dowcett was urged, ‘& be confident of me.’

Nor was it surprising that Charles should have taken such trouble to guarantee his servant’s continued assistance, for amongst his other duties, it was the task of the Page of the Bedchamber to supervise the king’s meals and be present when they were served, allowing for the creation of a system of coded communication, one example of which Charles himself described in Letter VII when Mary was still active at Carisbrooke:

Nor do I urge an Answer to this, but by Sygne: that is to say, your right hand bare, for the recipt of this; then if the last Packett you had from me: which was indeed of importance and haste: went away upon Monday: let fall your handkerchief: if since (for I am confident it is gone) let fall one of your gloves: besydes, when you have given this Packett to B. [Mary], tell me newes of fresh Sparagos from London: and if she tells you that she will be able to observe my directions; then tell me news of Artichokes.

Even after Mary’s removal, moreover, Charles still found himself in a position to leave messages for Dowcett in the royal bedchamber. ‘I shall not blame you,’ he wrote in one of his later letters, ‘though you hazard not to fetch this, untill I be gone to Bowles: which is at that hower every day as I conceive you may come heither without much danger.’

Letters for the queen, meanwhile, were to be forwarded by Dowcett’s wife, who lived at Windsor. ‘Deliver the bigger of these two unto your wife,’ Charles instructed in Letter V, ‘it is for France, I neede say no more, you know to whom.’ On another occasion, Dowcett’s wife herself wrote to the king without signing her name, implying, albeit erroneously, that her husband was about to be discharged. For although he had fallen under increasing suspicion, he would in fact continue in place for some months – no doubt fearing all the time his imminent discovery and bearing the brunt, it seems, of the king’s determination to give no hint of proximity to his reluctant messenger, since Charles had decided, as an added precaution, to behave especially icily towards him, warning how ‘you must not take it ill that I look sowerly upon you in publick’.

Yet Dowcett remained only one of numerous helpers to the king, both within and without the castle. Captain Silius Titus, for example, who had joined the king at Newcastle as his equerry and now acted as one of the four conservators supervising him, had come over to his side entirely and enjoyed his complete confidence. Born about 1623 in Bushey, Hertfordshire, Titus was educated at Christchurch, Oxford, before becoming a student in the Inner Temple and joining the Parliamentary army at the outbreak of war. But he, like others before and after, found their viewpoints altered upon personal acquaintance with the king and experiencing the political upheaval to which he alone appeared the antidote. Indeed, Titus’ conversion to the Royalist cause would not only place him at the centre of the king’s forthcoming escape attempts, but see him ultimately at Charles II’s side at the Battle of Worcester, and make him the author in 1657 of the celebrated pamphlet, ‘Killing no Murder’, which not only advocated Oliver Cromwell’s assassination but allegedly left the Lord Protector so gloomy and suspicious thereafter that he rarely slept two nights in the same bed. Such was Titus’ eventual reputation, in fact, that upon his appointment as one of the grooms of the bedchamber after the Restoration, the new king publicly recorded:

[T]hat in the years 1646, 1647, and 1648, he was by our royal father intrusted in his affairs of the greatest importance, both in relation to his restitution and in order to escape out of the captivity in which he was held by the rebels, for which he was charged by them with high treason, and forced to fly beyond the seas.

Other, more minor, figures like John Burroughs, Gentleman Harbinger and Clerk of the Spicery, were likewise mentioned by Charles in the fifteen surviving messages that he sent to Titus, and Richard Osborne was another, as we have seen, who played his part on the king’s behalf. Educated by Lord Wharton and recommended by him to Hammond, Osborne enjoyed, in fact, the Governor’s wholehearted trust, but could not, it seems, resist the king’s dignity and kindness, and played an important role in maintaining communication with Royalist sympathisers in London, among whom were: Dr Frazer, former physician to the Prince of Wales; a certain London merchant named Low; and Dr John Barwick, who is said to have shared a weekly letter with the king through Francis Cresset. All had useful connections, and all, it seems, were trusted implicitly. However, another of the king’s messengers, the Postmaster Thomas Witherings, ‘proved faulty’, keeping Hammond informed of conspiratorial activity, while Low was certainly not without his limitations, as Clarendon makes clear, describing him as a ‘a man intelligent enough of the spirit’ and ‘very conversant with the nobility and gentry about the town’, but nevertheless ‘of so voluble a tongue, and so everlasting a talker, and so undertaking and vain, that no sober man could be imposed upon by him’.

More worrying still was the faith placed by the king in Lady Lucy Carlisle, second daughter of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and widow of James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle. A woman of great beauty and wit, but an arch-intriguer nevertheless, and as heartless as she was cunning, she attached herself to all parties in turn and remained loyal to none. She was an intimate friend of the queen, but betrayed her secrets freely, and after the death of her admirer, Strafford, felt no compunction in attaching herself to John Pym and other opponents of the king. Thereafter, she gnawed deep into the councils of the little party of aristocratic Presbyterians who had taken up arms against the king, only to become anxious later to preserve the monarchy and agree terms with him. Seen by Charles as a useful channel to these self-same enemies, the good lady did not hesitate, nonetheless, to pass his ciphered letters on to the Derby House Committee. ‘She has been,’ wrote Sir Edward Nicholas, ‘through the whole story of his Majesty’s misfortunes a very pernicious instrument, and she will assuredly discover all things to her gang of Presbyterians who have ever betrayed all to the ruling rebels.’

Altogether more reliable, by contrast, was Catherine Howard, Lady d’Aubigny, though she too was said by Clarendon to be not only a ‘woman of very great wit’, but ‘most trusted and conversant in those intrigues which at that time could be best managed and carried on by ladies, who with less jealousy could be seen in all companies’. She was the daughter of the Earl of Suffolk and widow of George, Lord d’Aubigny, third son of the Duke of Lennox, who was killed at Edgehill. She had already suffered in the king’s cause, coming to Oxford in 1643 with a pass and the consent of Parliament to transact the affairs of her own fortune in person. At the same time, however, she had been asked to convey a small, mysterious packet with great secrecy to London and deliver it to the person who should call for it. Though she did not know it, the lady was actually carrying – concealed in her hair, it seems – the Commission of Array containing the king’s authority to arm the citizens of London against the rebels, and when Parliament discovered her mission, she was duly imprisoned before escaping and once again taking up service to the king.

Armed with supporters like these, and notwithstanding the treachery of Lady Carlisle and a handful of others, the king was able to maintain a steady, if restricted, flow of contact with the outside world. But it was one servant in particular, ‘honest Harry Firebrace’, who now came to assume ever-increasing prominence in Charles’ secret activities. The 28-year-old Page of the Bedchamber, who had joined the king’s household at Newcastle, was another convert to the Royalist cause who remained totally unsuspected by Parliament, bringing with him from Hampton Court such oddly assorted documents as an official pass from the Speaker of the House of Commons and letters from various sympathetic contacts. But, as security at Carisbrooke tightened, Firebrace, like the assistant laundress Mary, began delivering letters to the king’s bedchamber – in ‘a very convenient and private place’ – while it was empty during the day. Later, while assisting Charles in his preparations for sleep, Firebrace was able to relate where the secret messages were hidden, before collecting answers next day when the king was at prayer.

Nor, as the following section of his Narrative relates, were such activities curtailed by the appointment of the four conservators in January:

At length I found favour in the eyes of those appointed by Colonel Hammond to be Conservators, whose office it was by turns to wait at the King’s two dores of his Bedchamber by Day, when his Majestie was there and to lodge their by night, their Beds being layd close to the Dores; so that they could not open until the Beds were removed.

The King constantly went into his Bedchamber so soon as he had supped, shutting the Dores to him. I offered my services to one of the Conservators to wait at the Dore opening into the Backstayre whilst he went to supper, I pretending not to sup; which he accepted of, by which meanes I had freedom of speaking with his Majestie, none being on that side but myself, with which his Majestie was very well pleased, directing me to get that liberty so often as I could, which I procured very frequently.

Then, lest we might be surprised by anyone, too soddenly rushing into the Bedchamber, and so discover the Bedchamber door open (for so it was that we might hear each other the better) I made a slit or chink through the wall, behind the Hanging; which served as well as the opening of the door and was more safe; for upon the least noyse, by letting fall the Hanging all was well.

By such simple means, Firebrace was able to pass on all news entering the castle, and more importantly still communicate plans for an escape attempt, which he himself now hatched.

Once again, the scheme for liberating the king had all the merits of simplicity and was based on the fact that Hammond had placed no sentries in the base court of the castle. If, therefore, the king could extricate himself through his bedchamber window, there would be limited difficulty on a suitably dark night in reaching the great wall on the south side. A reference to a plan made in 1741 shows, indeed, that the ground later occupied by a garden enclosed by a wall was then not only a largely deserted space but served by a ramp affording comparatively easy access to the wall at any point. As such, the only major obstacle, aside from the narrowness of the king’s bedchamber window, was the drop of some 12–15ft from the castle parapet to the ground outside, which while falling steeply into the surrounding ditch, nevertheless sloped more gently on its opposite bank. Beyond this lay only the last remnant of the Elizabethan fortifications beyond the curtain wall: a sunken ‘covered way’, involving a descent of 9ft that could be conveniently negotiated with the assistance of no more than two waiting sympathisers.

In the time-honoured manner, Firebrace was to stand beneath the king’s window on the designated night – Monday, 20 March – and provide a signal by tossing something against it, at which point the king would squeeze through and lower himself by a cord given him for that purpose, in order to pass with Firebrace across the court to the great wall. There the page intended to lower him by another cord – this time with a stick fastened to the end for the king to sit upon – after which, matters were to rest with Richard Osborne and his accomplice, the 27-year-old Edward Worsley, who would journey from his home in Gatcombe, 1½ miles away, to wait in silence under cover of darkness. They were to furnish the king with a good horse, riding boots and a pistol, and conduct him to ‘a convenient place’ on the sea, some 10 miles away, where the ever-willing John Newland would be ready with ‘a lusty boat’ to carry the royal passenger to Edward Alford’s house at Arundel, after which he would make his way to Queenborough in Kent and a waiting ship.

‘Every one,’ Firebrace recorded, ‘was well instructed in his part.’ In preparation for his own role in the coming adventure, the king, who had lately been keeping to his room, was once again seen walking around the castle – sometimes two or three times a day – especially around the battlements, where he was shown the point on the curtain wall at which he was to be lowered, and also the location at which he was to surmount the outer wall. Ambling at leisure, apparently aimlessly, Charles was revelling no doubt in the ignorance of his captors, and grew in confidence as the feasibility of the plan became more and more evident: so much so, apparently, that he could not contain either his optimism or, for that matter, the secret itself. For on 7 March, an unknown correspondent, possibly Dr Frazer, was able to pen the following message to an unnamed recipient who, if not the treacherous Lady Carlisle herself, was likely to have been the Earl of Lanark:

Before this comes to your hands the King will have attempted his escape (not that hazardous way you may probably have heard of, because it was knowne to some of your correspondents here) but by the assistance of some nowe about him (and as he writs) with great probability of success; but till ye here the successe you may please keep it private.

Concealing his identity under the signature ‘349’ and producing the italicised words in cipher, the author had nevertheless not only breached security himself but proven conclusively that one of those directly involved in the escape attempt had been guilty of a grievous indiscretion.

Furthermore, another letter of the same date, this time by a correspondent signing himself ‘409’, made its way to the Earl of Lanark, providing additional confirmation that the secrecy so crucial to any escape of this kind had been dangerously compromised. ‘I doubt not if designe faile not,’ the message ran, ‘he will make his escape and be with you before you can hope it. Soe well have I order’d the business that nothing but himselfe can lett it.’ It was not without significance, of course, that the message cited the king as the only potential weak link in the scheme, but it was more significant still that the same correspondent was almost certainly another outsider who had been let in on the secret. For although this letter has usually been attributed to Firebrace, its author had sent another message to the king from London on 1 February, when Firebrace was almost certainly well away from the capital. Even more conclusively, the letter of 1 February contains at least one sentence of personal detail that would suggest it was written by another party, almost certainly of significantly higher rank. ‘I had another [letter],’ it relates, ‘which I delivered to your wife concerning my Father.’

In all probability, then, it was the king who had let slip the vital information, for the Derby House Committee was soon aware of developments – most likely from Scottish sources – and writing the following message to Hammond on 13 March:

We have received information, that there are some designs in agitation concerning the King’s escape, who is to be carried into France; and that there are two of those, that now attend the King, upon whom they rely for effecting the escape. Who they are we cannot discover, nor yet what grounds they have to expect their service in it; yet we thought it to give you this advertisement, that you might the more carefully watch against it.

Ironically, however, it was neither Charles’ indiscretion nor Hammond’s pre-knowledge that eventually foiled the king’s first escape attempt from Carisbrooke. Instead, it was nothing more complicated than the narrowness of the bedchamber window that the escapee would have to exit at the very outset of his venture. From the remains of the original mullions, it can be seen that the casements were of the same width as the existing ones – about 15in. But a central bar, of which we can still see the evidence by a hole in the sill that has since been filled with cement, reduced the available space to no more than 7in. Only the king’s own insistence, in fact, had convinced Firebrace to accept his assurance that he had already tested the aperture by passing his head through, as well as the further claim that where the head could pass, so too could the body.

With characteristic common sense, the page had continued to doubt at first, and proposed a way to make the opening ‘a little wider by cutting the plate the casement shut to at the bottome, which then might have been easily put by’. Precisely what Firebrace meant by this is unclear, though it would appear that he intended that the side of the frame in which the casement fitted should be cut, slightly increasing the width between the bar and the mullion. Since the frame itself was iron, this would have necessitated the use of a file, which Firebrace considered feasible, but the king did not, since the whole process would increase his chances of discovery unnecessarily. Not only could he pass through, Charles insisted, he would pass through in entirely the way he predicted, and the mastermind of the escape attempt was, in consequence, not only overruled but ‘commanded’ to prepare ‘all things else’ according to the blueprint already laid down. He would have to bow to royal edict, suppress his misgivings and make his way, as arranged, on the fateful, pitch black night of Monday, 20 March, to the designated spot beneath the king’s window.

So dark was it, in fact, that Firebrace could see nothing of what was passing above him, but, as his Narrative makes clear, it was soon apparent from the king’s stifled groans that the very first obstacle to his escape was also to be the last:

In the middle of these hopes, I gave the Signe, at the appointed tyme. His Majesty put himself forward; but then too late found himself mistaken; he sticking fast between his breast and shoulders, and not able to get forwards or backwards; but at that instant, before he endeavoured to come out, he mistrusted, and tyed a piece of his cord to the bar of the window within. By means whereof he forced himself back. Whilst he struck I heard him groane, but could not come to help him: which (you may imagine) was no small affliction to me.

Ultimately, Charles would inform Firebrace that his ‘designe was broken’ by setting a candle in his window, though there remained no hint in the page’s account of the intense frustration he must undoubtedly have experienced at his master’s ineptitude. ‘If this unfortunate impediment had not happened,’ he reflected, ‘his Majestie had then most certainly made a good escape.’ Yet all that remained for him was to make his way to the appointed place on the castle wall where Osborne and Worsley were keeping their bleak and hazardous vigil, to inform them of what had transpired.

‘Now,’ Firebrace’s account continues, ‘I was in paine, how to give notice to those without, which I could find no better way to do, than by flinging stones from the High Wall, where I should have let down the King, to the place where they stayed.’ Plainly, to have hailed the two men at 40 yards’ distance from the curtain wall was not an option, but though Firebrace could not see his assistants, the expedient seems nevertheless to have ‘proved effectual’. For the eerie jingle of harness, receding into the darkness, made clear that they were moving off, leaving his plans in ruin, and he himself, potentially at least, sorely compromised by the evening’s activities. He would certainly have to cover his trail carefully upon his return to the castle, and, more importantly still, hope against hope that Hammond, on heightened alert as he was, would discover no trace of evidence that could confirm what had passed.

To Firebrace’s infinite relief, however, there was actually ‘never any discovery’ of the abortive escape of 20 March. Indeed, Osborne was able to return unsuspected to his duties as Gentleman Usher and messages were sent to Legge and Ashburnham, as well as Newland. But within the week, rumours of an escape attempt were circulating in newsletters, and it was even reported that Colonel Hammond had uncovered two of the participants who were now in custody. ‘Mention should be made here,’ ran one report on 25 March, ‘of an attempt to get the King’s Majesty from Carisbrooke, which its said was in design, but taken before the form of it could be drawn forth.’ Another report quoted a letter sent from Carisbrooke the following day, suggesting that one of those involved ‘hath confessed that there was a design to carry away the King, which Collonell Hammond hath examined, and found out two of the actors in the businesse, which are now in custody’. This latter revelation, moreover, was borne out by a letter to the Earl of Lanark, dated 28 March, from an unknown correspondent signing himself ‘624:123:’, which noted that Francis Cresset had in fact been ‘discovered by indiscretion and removed, and the business more than suspected’. It was finally confirmed by a letter written by the Governor himself to the Speaker on 22 April, which made direct reference to the departure of ‘Mr Cresset, the late Treasurer … which is now more than five weeks’.

Nor was there any doubt that the authorities were equally keenly aware of the ongoing subterfuge within the king’s household. Firebrace, for instance, mentions how ‘a letter came from Derby House to Hammond to direct him to have a careful eye on those about the king, for that they discovered there were some who gave him intelligence’. A further letter from Oliver Cromwell to Hammond, dated 6 April, mentions ‘a very considerable person of Parliament’ who ‘saith that Captain Titus and some others are not to be trusted’. Firebrace, too, is directly mentioned as ‘the gentleman that came out of the window’ on the night of the escape attempt – the precise date of which was also cited – and there is a further reference to Cresset and John Burroughs. All had been frustrated in their efforts on this occasion, but they were undaunted. For, as Cromwell’s letter also makes clear, ‘the same design is to be put into execution on the next dark nights’.

Judging by a letter from Charles to Firebrace on 8 April, in which he asks ‘what is to become of T? (i.e. Burroughs)’, some action beyond the expulsion of Cresset had in fact already been taken. Firebrace himself was certainly subject to intensive questioning, as his Narrative makes clear:

This was a general suspition, but they could point at nobody. Hammond got his engines to worke and did pumpe me, so as I heard he did others, but at last he tooke me into examination, and when he could make no discoverie he told me the reason.

I acquainted the King with all passages, at which he was much troubled, and told me that, if they had a suspition of me they would not leave till they had ruined me; and would have me gone with all his letters to the Prince (his Son our Sovereigne Lord and Master). But I told his Majestie I was confident they could prove nothing against me; and therefore begged I might stay to see the issue, and that if the worst happened, they could but put me away: and then, I did not doubt but I should be able, some way or other to serve his Majestie.

Yet both he and Titus were allowed to remain in place until 28 and 25 April respectively, and more extraordinarily still, the chink in the wall by which Firebrace maintained contact with Charles remained in use. Henceforth, indeed, letters for the king’s friends within the castle and dispatches to be sent to London were also placed inside it, as the creases from the tight folding of the surviving messages confirm. Incoming correspondence, too, was delivered in the same way, and if Titus’ and Firebrace’s days at Carisbrooke were numbered, Abraham Dowcett remained to continue in the underhand activities that came so uneasily to him. ‘Tell F. [Dowcett] when he sees me pull downe the skirts of my Doublet,’ runs one subsequent message from the king, ‘then he is to look for something in the pocket.’

So for all the leaks and partial success in piercing the king’s communication network, there was still an impunity of sorts surrounding his activities. Hammond and the Derby House Committee remained tantalisingly close to their goal, it was true, but the game of cat and mouse was still in play, thanks in no small part to the privileges still afforded the king by virtue of his regal status, and thanks, too, to the ongoing dedication and boldness of his inner circle, which even the king’s own naivety and error-prone judgement could not, it seems, diminish. Far from taking his master’s advice, Harry Firebrace and his colleagues remained in place, determined to ‘see the issue’ through while risking all in the process, and Firebrace in particular was already poised for further adventure. For even before the removal of Cresset around 24 March, he was planning the acquisition of ‘some instrument’ to remove the offending bar from the king’s window that had frustrated his escape only four days earlier.

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