Mark Stoyle on the grim fates that befell many of those who dared to judge their king
On 30 January 1649 King Charles I of England, Ireland and Scotland was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. He had been condemned for “traitorously and maliciously” levying war against his own people by an extraordinary High Court of Justice, which had been set up as a result of the political manoeuvrings of Oliver Cromwell and a group of hard-line parliamentarian army officers and MPs.
Countless books have been written about the fate of the ‘martyr king’, but what Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have set out to do in this fast-paced, lively work is to trace the fates of those who were most prominent in bringing about the king’s death. They tell the story of the luckless individuals who, following the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles’s son, Charles II, in 1660, would be hunted down as ‘regicides’.
No one could mistake The King’s Revenge for a loyal literary garland intended to celebrate the occasion of the present queen’s diamond jubilee. Sporting a grim cover depicting a crown superimposed on a headsman’s axe and a blood-spattered union flag, this is a book that wears its heart upon its sleeve, and from first to last it is made abundantly clear that the authors’ sympathies lie with “the men who dared to sit in judgement upon King Charles I” rather than with their royalist and neo-royalist opponents. Thus Charles is described at one point as a ruler “more likely to know the names of 15th-century Venetian painters than those of his own subjects,” while his son is portrayed as a vindictive and unscrupulous young man who was determined to wreak revenge upon his father’s executioners by whatever means he could.
The authors begin by retelling the story of Charles I’s trial – here characterised, with a nod to Geoffrey Robertson, QC, author of The Tyrannicide Brief, as “the first war crimes trial in history [which] was to provide the basis of the rights and freedoms we take for granted today”.
Next, they describe the initial attempts of royalist assassins to hit back at the men who had sat in judgement on the king during the late 1640s and early 1650s.
Finally, they move on to explore the complex sequence of events which unfolded between 1660 and 1662, as many of the prominent former parliamentarians who had played a part in bringing about the king’s execution managed to wriggle off the hook, while others – more humble, more unfortunate or simply more principled – were exempted from pardon, tried and eventually executed.
Jordan and Walsh provide vivid accounts of the bravery and fortitude with which the condemned men met their deaths and there are many poignant vignettes, including that of Charles I’s former prosecutor, the lawyer John Cook, attempting to cheer his fellow captive, the Puritan preacher Hugh Peter, on the day fixed for their execution with the words: “Come, brother Peter, let us knock at heaven-gates this morning. God will open the doors of eternity to us before twelve of the clock!”
While the authors’ language is anachronistic at times, and their bibliography is sketchy (it seems remarkable that Ronald Hutton’s penetrating study of Charles II is not cited here), few could deny that they have provided a stirring hymn of praise to their republican heroes.
Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton