Killers of the king: the men who dared to execute Charles I

"It would have been better to have let the king try to run and shot him in the back" – Charles Spencer talks to Matt Elton about his book on the men who tried and executed Charles I, and the vengeance wrought by the king's son Charles II on his return to England after the Civil War

A painting depicting Oliver Cromwell gazing at the body of Charles I

What were the circumstances that led to Charles II  returning from Europe?

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The lack of a strong leader following the death of Oliver Cromwell led the British almost to revert to default, thinking: ‘Well, we’ll have the monarchy back.’ So almost out of nowhere Charles II came back to England from Europe in 1660. He had given up hope, and nobody was paying him any attention apart from a few diehard royalists. But he was told that he would be allowed to return, so long as he conceded on various points – including not seeking vengeance against those who had fought on parliament’s side in the Civil War.

He agreed, and returned to a tumultuous welcome. This was a problem for 50 per cent of the country, who had to pretend that they had never really meant to be parliamentarian. As a result, scapegoats had to be found: the regicides – the men involved in the trial and execution of Charles II’s father, Charles I.

A portrait of Charles I.

What impression did you get of Charles I and Charles II?

My natural leanings would have put me on the parliamentarian side, so I considered the kings with critical eyes. I found Charles I to have been a very decent human being – intelligent, devout, but so weak. He always took the last word of advice, which is not good in a crisis such as a civil war. But, as is well known, he died bravely. So you have to admire him at the end, however much of a mess he made of the last 10 years of his rule.

I’d always assumed that Charles II, meanwhile, was just a pleasure-loving man, albeit a fairly intelligent one. But he showed quite a focus when it came to revenge: he was still calling for the deaths of those responsible for his father’s demise right to the end of his life.

I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to do justice to Charles II in the book’s illustrations, but we found a great portrait of him sitting in splendour on his throne, looking out at you with a rare steeliness. You think: ‘Yes, that’s the man.’ He had power he never thought he’d have, and he was going to use it. People who had upset him were going to suffer.

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A painting of Charles I on horseback.

Was there a genuine popular desire to see vengeance enacted?

Some people were obvious targets. Thomas Harrison, for instance, had been a prominent figure under Oliver Cromwell and was known to have been unpleasant to Charles I in the final months of the king’s life. Many people saw him as a religious fanatic.

He was a hated man who wouldn’t apologise for anything, and there was real excitement when he was taken to his execution.

So at the start there was a thirst for revenge. But it quickly dissipated as people got to know Charles II better. When he sold Dunkirk to the French, he was seen to have betrayed public interest to fund his own extravagance. And as his stock fell, the thirst for the most vicious revenge fell away.

Of the figures involved in Charles I’s trial, who particularly stands out?

Henry Marten was a very interesting character. He was a scandalous womaniser and a genuine republican. Some people thought that they had to do something drastic to end a civil war that had cost some 200,000 lives, but others – including Marten – were philosophically determined to kill the king.

He was a very intelligent lawyer, and put together the various constructs of the trial. For instance, he thought of the name of the body that would face the king: ‘the Good People of England’. That’s a very clever construct, because to take a king to trial you had to set up something fairly worthy.

Obviously, Oliver Cromwell’s hand was everywhere in the run-up to Charles I’s trial. You can understand why people saw him as the mastermind: he was very keen to have the key people in place. But there was also Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, who I think of as a Peter Mandelson figure: he had a lot of influence but didn’t want it to be shown.

The Charles II Royal Oak

What really intrigues me about this period, and this story in particular, is that there are so many gigantic figures. I don’t know of other parts of English history in which there was such a confluence of interesting people – and they tended to be on parliament’s side. They all came together in this unbelievably bold move to put a king on trial for his life.

Their religious conviction was what made it okay for them to do this. You could contemplate killing a king if you believed that God expected you to. The regicides kept referring to a chapter in the Book of Numbers that essentially said that if you want to purify a country that’s had terrible bloodshed, you have to spill the blood of he who caused it. You can probably find a Bible verse to suit any occasion, but this is a very handy one if you’re thinking of killing a king.

How did the men react when they realised they were being hunted?

Some were disbelieving. Others thought that no more than a handful of people would be held to account. You have to remember that the Restoration happened so quickly that things unravelled for the regicides very fast.

John Hutchinson, for instance, was a Nottinghamshire landowner who was very involved in the trial but pretended at the time of the Restoration that he wasn’t. He grabbed his chance and went to the House of Commons, and said that he had nothing to do with it. But he was undone by the fact that the parliamentarians had kept records of everything – down to who had been in charge of the committee choosing the cushions at Charles I’s trial – and he would go on to die in prison.

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About 28 others stood trial soon after Charles II’s coronation, thinking that they would be forgiven because they’d handed themselves in on time. Others knew that things were going to be very unpleasant. They were kept in incredibly poor conditions, manacled the whole time, and not allowed legal advice or even pens and paper. Others ran for it, to Europe and America, which turned out to be the right thing to do.

The accounts of the trials and executions are extraordinary…

Yes – it was clear what result was expected. The men arrived in a state of shock, because they didn’t know that the charge was going to be high treason. Because they’d had no legal advice, they quite logically said that they had carried out their actions on the authority of the highest power in the land at the time: parliament. Well, to hide behind that wasn’t considered a defence, and in fact was seen as aggravating the offence.

So it was quick. You had to plead guilty or not guilty, and weren’t allowed to offer any justification. If you said guilty, that was the end of it; there was a chance that parliament might reprieve you, but it was unlikely.

If you said not guilty – well, then you had to prove it later on. That was very hard, because the documents were there, with signatures on. You were guilty of high treason if you just thought about the king’s demise, so the fact that you’d actually signed his death warrant took it several stages beyond that.

Charles II

The accused were also undone by the well-meaning wife of one of the regicides, who had kept the execution warrant as proof that her husband was only obeying orders. Well, that has never worked as a defence through the centuries, and it handed the royalists this unbelievable document with the men’s signatures and seals all over it.

The executions were terrible, too. A lot of these people were very serious fighting men, as hard as nails. Harrison, for instance, showed tremendous courage. After he had been hanged, resuscitated and castrated, and while he was being gutted, he managed to swing a punch at his executioner. The crowd thought that was magnificent, which it was. It was incredibly brave – and also very clever: it led to a quick death afterwards because the executioner was so humiliated.

Did the accused stand a chance of avoiding death?

They stood a chance of not being killed, yes, and of not having their property confiscated. That was one of the surprises in my research: how incredibly important the property side was. Now of course, I get it – no one wants their property confiscated  – but this was an entire family’s wealth. Because men owned the wealth of a family, if a man had his property confiscated there was nothing left.

By showing genuine sorrow and seeking a pardon you might spare your life, and you might just spare your property, but you were still going to prison for life. It was such a heinous crime; there was no way around that.

Charles II entering London in May 1660 following the restoration of the monarchy. (Photo by Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

Were there any accounts that made a particular impression?

Two of the men who should never have been executed were the colonels who were on the scaffold when Charles was killed. There’s a very touching scene in which the two of them are on a wagon, and hug each other just before they’re killed. You can imagine being up there with your friend, thinking: this is really unfair. I kept coming across such stories that made me so upset. Some of these men were beheaded after they had surrendered on the guarantee of their life, and that’s just not okay.

If you could travel back to this period, what question would you ask?

It wouldn’t be very popular, because they were so religiously convinced, but I’d say to the regicides: you justified all of this with one verse in the Bible. Couldn’t you find another verse that says it’s really not okay to do this?

If I were them – if I believed the king had to die – I personally think that they should have murdered him. They would have been better off letting him try to escape and shooting him in the back, as some parliamentarians planned. It wouldn’t have been noble, and I’m not saying murder is ever a great thing, but there was no chance of putting a king on trial successfully in that era – especially a king to whom you have sworn allegiance as an army officer or MP. They chose the one method that didn’t work: it was completely wrong for the job.

Killers of the King: The Men who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer (Bloomsbury, 352 pages, £20)

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This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine