I just finished reading Killers of the King: the Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, by Charles Spencer. (2015) I really enjoyed reading this book, although it was not an easy read, and I sometimes got a bit weary of it. I’ve never known very much about the English Civil War period, which began in 1642 and was effectively over by 1646. Charles 1 was a weak and irresponsible king, and he shut down parliament because he was tired of hearing them complain about his constant spending on unnecessary luxuries. He was also very high Anglican, nearly Catholic, and the Puritans and Presbyterians were angered when he tried to enforce his high church views on them, especially when he insisted in a strict order of bishopric control. Because of the curtailment of both civic and religious freedoms, many people were deeply disturbed by his rule and worried about his lavish expenditures from the national treasury. Rebels rose up, created their own parliament, formed their own armies, and the King had to respond. His armies were finally beaten and he was captured, but he refused to admit defeat or recognize the validity of the new government. Since he still had supporters, both foreign and domestic, who were willing to fight for him, the rebels convened a meeting in which they tried to decide what to do with the King. Eventually, they came to believe that the only way to completely stop him was to kill him. He was executed in 1649.
They tried to establish a republic, and probably would have done so successfully if it weren’t for their leader, Oliver Cromwell. He was brutish, power-mad, and dangerous in the extreme. The well-meaning republicans saw their ideals begin to crumble, and when Cromwell sickened and died, leaving his ineffectual son in charge, the son of the executed king, Charles II, saw his chance to re-claim the throne. The book explains all of this fairly clearly in the early chapters, but the main focus of the narrative is what happened next.
After Charles II successfully returned to power, he began to systematically wipe out the men who had attended the convention and signed the king’s death warrant. At first, he determined that he would only execute a few of the men as a warning to others, but eventually he became obsessed with finding and killing them all. This book tells the story of the ones who surrendered, the ones who were captured, and the few who escaped.
Spencer balances the large cast of characters deftly, but still it was sometimes difficult to keep track of the large group of fifty-nine individuals who were the signers of the death warrant. One technique he uses is to group them into clusters, based on either their past roles in the rebellion, or personal characteristics that they had in common. He highlights some of the men with carefully constructed character studies. One thing that I admired about this book was Spencer’s faithful adherence to the rules of good historical writing: never put words into people’s mouths or thoughts into their heads, and always make sure that your conclusions are supported with primary sources and other indisputable evidence. Much of Spencer’s understanding of the events that took place during this period is drawn from correspondence not only between the men involved, but also from their wives. I especially appreciated reading segments from some of the letters exchanged between some of the regicides and their spouses, as well as diary or journal entries from the wives, which sometimes included their own unique insights about their husbands’ friends and co-conspirators.
One thing that I took away from this book is how very fortunate the American colonists were to have George Washington as their leader and eventual first president. When I consider what happened because of Cromwell, as well as the example of Napoleon, who two centuries later exhibited many of the same flaws of character and judgment, I find myself rejoicing over the character and personality of Washington. There were many who wanted to name him as king or emperor of the new country, but he refused. He was insistent also on the concept of term limits and regularly-scheduled elections. These are blessings that we tend to take for granted. Had he been as power-hungry as those other revolutionary heroes, we might have ended up back under England’s control, and perhaps a part of the British empire even up to the present day. Well, probably not, but there could have been serious and regrettable consequences had he not been so reasonable and civic-minded.
The other thing that I will remember from this book is the deep and sincere faith of many of the regicides. They believed they were making the only sensible decision in killing the first Charles, and many of them signed the warrant with regrets that there seemed to be no other way to guarantee the success of their mission to free Britain from the tyranny of the crown. Many of them faced their torturous executions with incredible grace and strength. And they weren’t afforded the kindness of beheading, as they gave to Charles. Instead his successor, Charles II, insisted that they be hanged until almost dead but not quite, so that they could then be taken down, cut open while still alive, castrated and disemboweled, then drawn and quartered, while their heads were placed on pikes for others to dishonor and revile. Their lands and homes and fortunes were confiscated, so that they went to their deaths knowing that their families would remain impoverished and ruined. Yet facing all that, many of them went to their deaths quoting scripture and praying, some even expressing eagerness to pass through to heaven on the other side. Most of them were confident that they had done the right and the only honorable thing to do in sending Charles I to his death. I will remain impressed by their courage and moved by their fates.