The Republicans who killed the King of England

The Republicans who killed the King of England King Charles I
Killers of the King: the men who dared to execute Charles I

by Charles Spencer (Bloomsbury, £8.99pb)

J. Anthony Gaughan 

A book by Princess Diana’s brother would be certain to be of wide interest. But in this account of the vengeance that pursued the men who ordered the death of Charles I he has found a fascinating subject.

The seven-year English civil war ended in January 1649 with victory for the Parliamentarians over the Royalists. Already Charles I had been detained on the Isle of Wight, from where he was delivered under guard to Windsor Castle on December 23, 1648.

The Parliamentary army and their hand-picked members of the House of Commons, known as the ‘Rump’ – the republicans of their day – decided to put the king on trial for treason.  When the king was brought before the court he refused to recognise it.  Nonetheless the court found him guilty and sentenced him to death. He was executed in public on a scaffold in Whitehall.

To the court’s sentence of death, 59 signatures were appended, including those of Oliver Cromwell and other leading Parliamentarians. These were now fully signed up regicides, a term which would be extended by the Royalists to include the officers of the court during Charles I’s trial and those involved in the act of execution. In all, there were about 80 who were considered to be directly responsible for killing the king.

On May 14, 1660 with the return of Charles II imminent, the House of Commons resolved: “That all those persons who sat in judgment upon the late king’s majesty, when the sentence was pronounced for his condemnation, be forthwith secured.”

Already well-known Parliamentarians were distinguishing themselves from those who had been directly involved in Charles I’s execution, as it became clear that there would be no mercy in the new order for regicides.

Some 20 of them had already died; their properties were confiscated. The bodies of Cromwell, Henry Ireton his son-in-law, and John Bradshaw, lord president of the court which had the king executed, were ghoulishly given the execution they would have received had they been alive! Those who had not fled from England were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London and had their properties confiscated.

Those who fled abroad scattered to various places: the Netherlands, Protestant regions of Switzerland and the English settlements in the east coast of America. Their reception varied from place to place and from time to time.

Three prominent Parliamentarians were returned to England by the authorities in the Netherlands and in that country with a price on their heads the others were in permanent dread of discovery or assassination. Those who fled to New England managed to evade capture too.

Edmund Ludlow, one of the last survivors of the regicides in Switzerland, returned to England on the accession of William of Orange and Mary in 1689, hoping to be pardoned. However, the king announced that Ludlow must be held to account and offered a reward of £200 for his arrest. But a disappointed Ludlow succeeded in returning to Switzerland.

Ancillary topics

The author of this fascinating account of the regicides discusses a number of interesting ancillary topics. He provides a brief history of the Tower of London and the rationale for executing malefactors by the horrendous method of hanging, drawing and quartering.

The Levellers were a composite of the New Model Army of the Parliamentarians, and he discusses the democratic imperatives featured in their religious beliefs. In asides one is given an insight into the savagery of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland.

The author also describes the culture and environment in which the theory of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ was for most people almost de fide and explained the single-minded pursuit of the regicides. John Milton notoriously had applauded the regicides as heroes. He escaped with his life, but was incarcerated for a period in the Tower of London, had his books burned outside the Old Bailey by the common hangman (in lieu of burning him), and his savings confiscated.

Charles Spencer’s monograph is a word to the wise. In the case of Cromwell and his Parliamentarian associates it illustrates the truth of Lord Acton’s aphorism: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and in the case of the regicides that eventually justice catches up with the perpetrators of injustice whoever they are.