The time Charles I spent in Downham Market - while on the run

The Swan Hotel in Downham Market. Picture: Matthew Usher.

The Swan Hotel in Downham Market. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Our region is no stranger to royal visits. But there are none quite like the one which brought a fugitive Charles I to Downham Market.

Portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck. Attribution: After Anthony van Dyck [Public domain],

Portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck. Attribution: After Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons - Credit: Archant

When Charles I arrived in Downham Market at the end of April 1646, his prospects were bleak and his options running out.

Sadly for him, his stay in the town did not bring about a change in fortunes – only a transformation in his appearance. While there, he is said to have had his hair cut and to have bought a new hat.

His Parliamentarian foes were in the ascendency following their victory at Naseby a year earlier.

After that defeat, Charles had evaded capture and spent the winter in Oxford, which remained loyal to him.


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As the enemy again closed in, in April 1646, he left the city. Shortly afterwards, he arrived in Downham, to consider his next move.

Kathleen Wiseman, trustee of the Downham Market Heritage Society, said: 'The king escaped from Oxford disguised as a servant in charge of the group's luggage. His iconic long curly hairstyle had been cut as part of the disguise and needed tidying.

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'Apparently the barber in Downham Market commented that his hair had been cut with a knife and that the last barber had done such a bad job. So it is thought that maybe the king's hair was actually cut with a sword before they left.'

She added: 'Their stay in Downham Market is featured during the trial (which later led to his execution), so we know it happened.'

The royal party is said to have stayed in accommodation that occupied the High Street site where The Swan Hotel now stands.

He is also said to have visited fellow royalist Sir Ralph Skipworth at Snore Hall, in Hilgay, who was later put in the Tower of London.

It is thought they may have chosen Downham Market as the king was considering an escape from his pursuers through the nearby port of King's Lynn.

One of his aides, Dr Michael Hudson, was negotiating with the Scots about the possibility of

Charles being handed over to them, for protection from the Parliamentarians.

He could have reached Scotland by boat from Lynn. But it is thought this option was discounted, as his enemies were already on the lookout for him at the port.

Mrs Wiseman added: 'Our dear town may have been in the background, but it has been touched by so many events in history.'

Have you come across an interesting local history story? Email louise.hepburn@archant.co.uk

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