Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Owning the King's Story: The Escape from Worcester

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Owning the King's Story: The Escape from Worcester

Article excerpt

In September of 1651 Charles II of Britain led a troop of 6,000 Scottish soldiers into England. After some initial success, the king's army met Oliver Cromwell's forces at the town of Worcester. Despite the monarch's personal courage, the New Model Army routed the Scots, forcing Charles to flee for his life. The young king quickly disguised himself as a common servant and spent the next six weeks hiding in priest's holes, sleeping in oak trees, and living out the legend of the incognito king. After a series of adventures in which Charles narrowly eluded discovery, the king managed to escape to Europe, where he remained until his Restoration.1

The story of Charles II's flight from Worcester inspired imagery of clemency and inclusion. Such imagery supported the agenda of Catholics and broad church Protestants and, immediately after the Restoration, representatives from both groups printed relations of the king's escape which appropriated the tale for their respective interests.2 In 1663 Abraham Jennings, a staunch Anglican, published a version of the story which ignored the motifs of clemency and inclusion and used the story to promote high church goals.3 Charles did not leave the interpretation of his escape solely to others. Uncomfortable with the written word,4 the king narrated his tale countless times. Only at the height of the exclusion crisis did Charles take steps to have his version of the escape printed, to make his version the authorised one.5

Historians have created powerful models to explain how a representation of a monarch, as in the story of Charles's escape, affects royal charisma.6 These studies have, on the whole, considered royal symbolism to be generated solely by the king or his proxies; scholars, therefore, view the authority striven for by such imagery as strictly congruent with the king's agenda.7 Such an approach may succeed for England's Charles I, but its limitations become evident when examining the representations surrounding Charles II. Unlike his father, who exerted a tyrannical control over his portrayal, Charles II's hands-off style of governing, along with the circumstances of his accession, created a space wherein the image of the king became an object of contention. Various factions strove to control Charles II's image in order to direct his charismatic power towards a particular political-religious goal.

The only scholarly investigation of the escape stories, Harold Weber's Paper Bullets, does not recognise how the different accounts battle to control Charles's image.8 Weber succeeds in relating the authors' portrayal of Charles as heroic in his suffering, but fails to examine the political effects of the imagery he detects, and makes some dubious assertions concerning providentialism. 9 The main fault in the work, however, is methodological.

In his discussion of the escape narratives, Weber ignores the concepts of occasion, author and illocution. Texts printed in 1660 receive virtually the same analysis as one hand-written in 1680. This is especially surprising for a book which promises to examine 'the relationship of print culture and the kingship of Charles II'.10 Weber's disregard for context not only leads to an inability to wring the most from his sources, but it also suggests that Charles directly controlled the propaganda surrounding him. 'Like no monarch before him,' Weber claims, 'Charles was forced from the very beginning of his reign to generate his royal identity through the commercial press'.11 This contradicts everything we know about this laissez faire monarch. In the first year of his restoration, when the authors of the escape stories tried to project an image of this virtually unknown king, they certainly meant to glorify their sovereign, but in a manner which enhanced their goals, not necessarily his agenda.12

II

When Charles II returned to England, crowds lined the streets from Dover to London to welcome home their exiled monarch. Few of the cheering celebrants knew much about the man who had donned the royal mantle. …

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