Following the execution of his father by Parliament in 1649, Charles Stuart (later Charles II) was a king without a throne. He scanned the dance floor for likely partners to help him reclaim his crown, but France, Spain and the Netherlands were taking turns examining the potted plants. There were no takers until Scotland stepped forward and motioned to the orchestra.
It was a slow and hesitating waltz, broken by alternate periods of negotiation and stubbornness on both sides. Scotland was looking for a Covenanted king, one who would uphold Presbyterianism across the three kingdoms (Scotland, England and Ireland). Reluctantly Charles agreed, and around Midsummer’s in 1650, he landed in Scotland to take up one crown and fight for another.
This partnership did not start off with the surest foot. Almost immediately, the Scottish government treated Charles with all the courtesy of a royal hostage. The decision to invite him to Scotland had not been without controversy. Many of the more hardline Covenanters objected, mistrusting his commitment to the Covenant. To them, Scotland was the New Jerusalem, and they looked upon Charles with his Anglican father and Catholic mother with stern disapproval. They were relentless in their determination to make a good Presbyterian out of him.
Over the next three months, the Scottish Parliament debated which of his companions and servants were to be purged from the royal household and/or banned from the country. Some, like the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Wilmot, were given clearance to stay, but on September 27th, the Commission of the Kirk and the Committee of Estates in Perth ruled in favour of an expulsion from the country of twenty-three of the King’s companions and two others to be removed from court.
Sir James Balfour, Lord Lyon King of Arms, brought the list to Charles who requested that Balfour not act against nine individuals until he had time to petition Lord Chancellor Loudoun on their behalf.
The Chancellor refused Charles’s petition and the day fixed for the removal of the courtiers was October 3, 1650.
This was when Charles decided to escape from his gilded cage and head north to the Highlands where loyalties were more firmly for King than Kirk.
Charles gathered a few companions to accompany him. The Duke of Buckingham was against the plan and tried to dissuade him, but when Charles remained resolute, he readily agreed to keep his whereabouts secret.
This plot to escape is known as the Start.
On October 3rd, the same day as the expulsion of his loyal companions, Charles and his companions rode out of Perth under the pretext of a hawking trip. They travelled northeast and rested at Dundee, then with their host, Viscount Dudhope, they continued north to Auchterhouse. There they stopped and repeated the process, only this time welcoming the Earl of Buchan into their company.
Dudhope and Buchan urged Charles to continue north to the mountains where they were confident that they would find an army of 7,000 pro-Royalist Highlanders. They continued to Cortachy (still no Highlander army) until they could go no further. With dark beating them down, they took their rest in a hamlet in Clova.
Meanwhile, back in Perth, the Duke of Buckingham was concerned. It may have been that he feared for Charles, wandering the countryside with little to no protection. More likely, he was concerned about his own precarious position in Scotland should Charles’s expedition fail. Regardless, after having promised his discretion, Buckingham spilled the details of the Start to Balfour: the King was not hawking–he was on his way to the Highlands.
Balfour went into immediate damage control. He sent out an urgent message to Colonel Robert Montgomery, a trustworthy (and moderate) soldier with a regiment of 700 horse at his disposal, to fetch the King back. Not wanting to give away to the Committee that he had lost the King, Balfour arranged to send along one of Charles’s hawks, “that the game might be played out with spirit.”*
Montgomery wasted no time and sent riders ahead. Just before daybreak, two of Montgomery’s men found Charles “laying in a nasty room, on an old bolster above a mat of sedge and rushes.”** By seven that morning, Montgomery arrived in Clova in time to escort Charles back to Perth, with the King’s hawk in hand.
When Charles returned to Perth, he was sent to his bedchamber and forced to hear sermons. But the Start was not a complete waste. Instead of increasing Charles’s restrictions, the Committee of Estates was shocked into granting him concessions. They realized that they could not afford to lose him to the Highlanders and lose their advantage. The result was that Charles was invited to attend the Committee of Estates sessions.
And what of Buckingham and his loose tongue? Charles forgave Buckinghman for betraying his plans to Balfour, but did he forget?
Nearly a year after the Start, when Cromwell defeated the Royalist army at Worcester, Charles barely escaped the field and headed north with a company of his lords, including Buckingham. By the time they reached Staffordshire, it became apparent to Charles that if he were to escape, he would have to part from his lords and travel incognito. Buckingham was not invited to accompany him, nor was he told where Charles was headed.
To be fair, Charles only took Lord Wilmot in his confidence, but I suspect that Buckingham’s earlier betrayal still rankled. When Charles finally reached France, after six weeks of dodging Cromwell’s men, his initial account soon took on the flavour of tall tales that Mark Twain would have cherished. If you’ve ever been asked the same question over and over again, you can appreciate why Charles threw in a bit of spice.
The Ambassador of Venice for Paris wrote this to the Doge in Venice about Charles’s adventures, dated November 19, 1651:
“I went yesterday evening to welcome the Grand Duke and the Princes back from the country. In the course of conversation the Grand Duke told me of the clever means adopted by the king of England to escape from Cromwell. In the army, when it was seen that all was lost, he took counsel with the duke of Buckingham, who was in the same plight as himself. The duke decided to disguise himself as a falconer, with the goshawks on his arm.” ***
The Start may have ended in disappointment for Charles, but it did shift the focus to him as a sitting monarch and not a royal hostage. As well, it served as a practice run before his next, and more desperate, escape when capture would have cost him his life.
For a full recount of his famous escape after the Battle of Worcester, join me in the Finding the Fugitive King series.
*The Historical Works of Sir James Balfour
**Cromwell’s Scotch Campaigns: 1650-51, by William Scott Douglas
***British History Online: ‘Venice: November 1651’, in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 28, 1647-1652, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1927), pp. 202-206 http://www.british-history
“Arolsen Klebeband 09 445 2” by Jean Le Pautre – http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/fwhb/klebeband9. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons-https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arolsen_Klebeband_09_445_2.jpg#/media/File:Arolsen_Klebeband_09_445_2.jpg
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