Highways and Byways of the 17th Century: the ‘Royal Escape’

There was quite a big response to last week’s post on King Charles I’s possible illegitimate daughter, Joanna Bridges, so I thought I’d follow it up by instituting a new occasional series, ‘Highways and Byways of the 17th Century’, covering some of the odd or lesser known stories that I’ve come across during over thirty years’ research into, and teaching of, this endlessly fascinating period. This will complement my other occasional series, ‘Dead Admirals Society’, which provides pictures and descriptions of various interesting naval graves and memorials; I’ll try to add a new post in that series within the next week or two.

For this week’s post, I’ve chosen a footnote in one of the best known of all the stories in 17th century British history – the escape of King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. By far the best known element of this is the legend of the ‘Royal Oak’ at Boscobel House, where the King hid while Parliamentarian patrols passed below. Other aspects of the story are almost equally well known, such as the very tall and swarthy Charles disguising himself as a woman at one point. But equally important to the King’s safe departure into exile was the ship that eventually carried him across the Channel. On 15 October, after taking a tortuous and often fraught route across southern England, Charles reached the coast at Brighton. The ship chosen to receive him was the collier Surprise, about 34 tons, 42 feet long and 30 feet broad. Her captain and owner, Nicholas Tattersell or Tattersall, had already agreed to take an unnamed passenger and his attendants across to France, but when he met the party and recognised the King, he was furious at being exposed to such danger. Delicate negotiation followed, but Tattersell eventually agreed to make the voyage in return for a further £200. The Surprise duly crossed the Channel, and on 16 October, Charles landed at Fecamp.

The Royal Escape, by Van de Velde the Younger

The Royal Escape, by Van de Velde the Younger

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles promptly bought the vessel from Tattersell and renamed her the Royal Escape. The King had her moored in the Thames off Whitehall Palace, and showed her off to important visitors. Perhaps she was also a reminder of the potential insecurity of his position, or of God’s providence in preserving his life (or both).  The Royal Escape was put into commission between July 1672 and October 1674 under Captain Augustus Birtch, before returning to her moorings in the Thames, eventually ending up in Deptford Dockyard. She long survived the King who owed so much to her, and was nominally rebuilt at Deptford in 1714. This Royal Escape continued to serve as a stores vessel at Deptford Dockyard until broken up in 1750, by which time a lighter in the same yard had taken the name. This, in turn, was replaced by a new vessel built in 1792 to exactly the same dimensions, which survived until 1877 – so in one very tenuous sense, the Royal Escape continued to be a part of the Royal Navy until Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose death takes place this week, was three years old!

As for Nicholas Tattersell, Charles II treated him with considerable generosity. He commissioned him captain of the frigate Sorlings on 25 July 1660 and of the powerful Third Rate man-of-war Monck on 20 April 1661, in which capacity he served until 12 February 1663. But he then returned to his old life, albeit cushioned by the security of a £100 annuity for life, and by 1669 was skipper of the ketch Happy Entrance, trading between Sussex and London. He served as High Constable of Brighton in the following year, becoming a particularly vicious persecutor of dissenters in that role. He later bought the Old Ship Inn in the town, and died on 26 July 1674, probably aged 59. His tombstone in St Nicholas Church, Brighton, states that ‘he preserved the Church, the Crown, and the Nation’. His son continued to receive the pension from the crown until after the Glorious Revolution.

8 Comments

  1. Grant says:

    What is it with the Stuarts and their cross-dressing maritime escapes? I do wonder if Charles knew the story of his distant cousin (and Grandad’s rival) trying something remarkably similar. https://eagleclawedwolfe.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/arbella-stuart-cross-dressing-armed-pursuits-and-a-pitiful-demise/

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    • Hmm, there might be a book in that – The Cross-Dressing Dynasty, maybe, or Stuarts in Skirts… Didn’t James, Duke of York, escape from Hampton Court disguised as a girl in c.1647, too?

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  2. Sarah Johnson says:

    Love all the details about Brighton … I didn’t realize it was so old

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  3. Frank Fox says:

    Fascinating post; keep ’em coming!

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