Charles I: A Royal Prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle

How the king’s attempts to escape from his Parliamentarian gaol on the Isle of Wight in 1648 descended into farce – while his political manoeuvrings sealed his fate.

Charles I imprisoned at Carisbrooke, from a contemporary print

Charles I imprisoned at Carisbrooke, from a contemporary print
© Image Asset Management Ltd/Alamy

ISLAND REFUGE

Charles I arrived at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight in November 1647, after escaping from Hampton Court Palace in Surrey.

He had been held under house arrest for 18 months, most recently at the palace, having surrendered to the Scots in May 1646 after defeat in the Civil War. The Scots had handed him over to Parliament, and while they and the army debated what to do with him, he had decided the wisest course was to slip away.

Arriving first at Titchfield Abbey in Hampshire, he opened negotiations with Colonel Robert Hammond, the Parliamentarian governor of the Isle of Wight but also the brother of his chaplain, and thought to be a crypto-Royalist.

Presumably Charles believed that being on the Isle of Wight would afford him more freedom to keep in touch with his supporters.

Charles I at his trial in 1649

Charles I at his trial in 1649

BAD MOVE

But Charles had misjudged Hammond. Arriving at Carisbrooke Castle on 22 November, he placed himself under the governor’s protection; but rather than helping him to escape, Hammond became his gaoler.

Initially, though, Charles was allowed considerable freedom, driving about the island in his coach. Many of his household came to join him. A few weeks after his arrival he was even able to sign a military agreement with the Scots known as the Engagement.

But after a sympathetic local officer tried to raise the people of the island to help release the king, and with negotiations with Parliament over his future appearing to have stalled, Charles’s imprisonment became stricter. He was confined to the castle, and escape seemed like a good option again.

BAR SNAGS

On the night of 20 March 1648, everything was seemingly in place for him to make his escape. Despite the stricter conditions, he was still able to contact supporters outside the castle, smuggling out secret messages via his chambermaid, Mary – and horses and a boat were made ready for the getaway.

All Charles had to do was climb out of his bedchamber window overlooking the courtyard, lower himself on a cord, and make his way to the curtain wall. There his page, Henry Firebrace, would lower him to the ground.

There was a fatal flaw in his plan, however.

Charles had, he told Firebrace, checked that his head would fit between the window bars, ‘and he was sure, where that would pass, the body would follow’. But when he attempted to clamber out, with Firebrace waiting below,

His Majesty … too late, found himself mistaken, he sticking fast between his breast and shoulders, and not able to get forwards or backwards … Whilst he stuck, I heard him groane, but could not come to help him.

The window of Charles I’s second escape attempt (centre)

The window of Charles I’s second escape attempt (centre)

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED

Undeterred by this embarrassing failure, Charles attempted another escape two months later. He had been moved to another, more secure bedchamber, and a similar plan was hatched for 28 May. This time the bars of his window were loosened in advance with nitric acid, and his guards had been bribed.

But there were too many people in on the secret, and two of the guards betrayed it. Charles saw that extra sentries had been posted below his window, and decided to stay put.

In the end it was Charles’s political manoeuvrings while at Carisbrooke, rather than his escape attempts, that sealed his fate. Under the terms of his agreement with the Scots, Charles promised that if a Scottish army would help him regain the throne, he would establish Presbyterianism in England.

The resulting Scottish invasion, along with simultaneous Royalist uprisings in England and Wales, led to the brief Second Civil War. When the Scots were defeated by Oliver Cromwell in August 1648, the outlook for Charles was bleak.

ENDGAME

When the king finally left Carisbrooke, on 6 September 1648, it was with the approval of Parliament to join negotiations on the island in Newport. After their failure he was moved, first to Hurst Castle on the mainland, and then stage by stage to London.

By then, impatient with Charles’s intrigues, and recognising that there would be no peace with him alive, a number of radical MPs and army officers had decided that he should be charged with high treason. He was tried, found guilty, and executed in Whitehall at the Banqueting House on 30 January 1649.

                
Drawn from the English Heritage Red Guide to Carisbrooke Castle, by Christopher Young

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