On the afternoon of January 27, 1649, Charles I, King of England, was told by a court of his subjects that, for committing high treason, he would “be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.”
The court, writes Charles Spencer in Killers of the King, was comprised of 59 commissioners, appointed by the Rump Parliament under the control of the nation’s army which, itself, was under the control of Oliver Cromwell.
The death warrant was read to the King. Then, in seven columns on the page, each of the commissioners added his signature, pressing his seal into hot wax next to his name. It was a solemn moment, yet not completely:
During the signings, Cromwell and Henry Marten were in such high spirits that they flicked ink at one another from their pens, like naughty schoolboys.
Three days later, the sentence was carried out, and, Spencer writes, the 59 commissioners were now regicides — “a term that would be extended by the Royalists to include the officers of the court during Charles’s trial, and those involved in the act of execution. In all, there would be around eighty men who were considered directly responsible for killing the King.”
“A rich harvest”
In Killers of the King, Charles Spencer, a former reporter for NBC’s Today show and the author of three earlier well-received books of history, has taken on a daunting task.
The mid-17th-century was a seminal age in British history — the English Civil Wars (the Roundheads vs. the Cavaliers, Parliament vs. the Royalists, the Puritans vs. the Church of England), the execution of a reigning monarch, the rise of Cromwell to the king-like post of Protector, the restoration of Charles II, the flight of the Catholic James II and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Yet, for Killers of the King, all of this, so compelling and colorful, is on the page only as background. Spencer’s focus is on those 80 or so regicides and on what happened when the tables turned and the Royalists were back in power.
What happened was that they were targeted for vengeance and became “scapegoats for half the kingdom” — the half that had opposed Charles and the Cavaliers. Some surrendered and were thrown into prison. Some were hunted down and assassinated or imprisoned. Many were executed — hanged, drawn and quartered. Some spent the rest of their lives in hiding.
It was, for Royalists, “a rich harvest of revenge.”
Spencer isn’t telling one story. He’s telling 80 stories, weaving them through the jarring and unsettling events of the era, and that could have made for one really turgid and confusing tome. Instead, Killers of the King moves along briskly, covering its ground in just over 300 pages, buoyed by vigorous writing and an eye for telling detail. Think of Cromwell and Marten flicking their ink.
Cavaliers and Roundheads
Speaking of Cromwell: It’s clear early on that Spencer is no fan of the man who is perhaps the most controversial figure of British history. Theodore Roosevelt admired the Protector for his military brilliance. Leon Trotsky saw him as a revolutionary. Winston Churchill called him a dictator.
Class may have had something to do with all of those characterizations, and that may have come into play as well for Spencer, who isn’t only a writer but also the 9th Earl Spencer. Members of his aristocratic family, including his older sister Princess Diana, have played a role in British history for more than half a millennium.
His ancestor, Henry, the 1st Earl of Sunderland, fought for the Cavaliers and died in battle at the age of 22. Henry’s son Robert, born in 1641, was an advisor to Charles II, James II and William III.
I have to say, though, that Spencer doesn’t exhibit any aristocratic bias toward the rest of the regicides. He tells their stories with compassion and understanding.
I also have to say that, in reading Killers of the King, I came across someone who may have been one of my own distant ancestors, Major Germaine Riordane. Riordan is the usual spelling of my family’s name in Ireland where Riordane came from.
He was a Royalist military man who, on behalf of Charles II, worked to track down and trap regicides living in Europe. He and his agents were rather inept at the task which is just fine with me since I’ve always thought of myself as a Roundhead.
“My little brats”
Except for Cromwell, Spencer is even-handed in his treatment of the many men and women who populate his book, from Charles II whom he judges to have been not the best of kings but still undeserving of execution to that ink-flicker Colonel Henry Marten.
While awaiting his fate in the Tower of London, Marten exchanged poignant, homey letters with his common-law wife Mary, writing that the two of them are “snug like a snail within our own selves, that is, our minds, which nobody but we can touch.” He asks often about his daughters — his “pesky rogues,” his “three biddies.”
He is proud they share his features: “Look upon my little brats, and see if thy dear be not among them; has not one of them his face, another his brains, another his mirth?”
Marten avoided the axe, but spent the rest of his life in captivity. Other regicides were not so lucky.
With his last strength
The first to be brought to the executioner was Major General Thomas Harrison who, Spencer writes, “showed an astonishing bravery nurtured by his [Puritan] religious intensity.” When he was taken from court after being sentenced and was surrounded by a gloating crowd, he shouted, “Good is the Lord for all this! I have no cause to be ashamed of the cause that I have been engaged in.”
Later, on the scaffold, he was jeered when, during his final speech, the bitter crowd saw that his legs were shaking.
This provoked coarse heckling from those convinced he was quaking with fear. But the major general would have none of it, shouting out that his many wounds in battle had left him with a legacy of quivery limbs….
“By God I have leapt over a wall, by God I have run through a troop, and by God I will go through this death and He will make it easy for me. Now into thy hands, O Lord Jesus, I commit my spirit.”
In a pattern that would become cruelly routine for the regicides, Harrison was hanged until the thrashing of his legs stopped and he was cut down, still alive.
The executioner used his knife to cut off Harrison’s genitals, which were presented to him before being tossed into a bucket. He was held down while red-hot metal bored into his belly.
It was gruesome and horrific, but Harrison, that old soldier, hadn’t lost his fighting spirit.
With his last ounce of strength, he “swung a punch that caught the executioner off-guard.” Embarrassed, the executioner swiftly acted: “Harrison’s head was severed, his heart cut out, and then his body was cut up into four.”
Most other regicides followed Harrison’s example in facing their brutal deaths with courage and spiritual fervor. Despite the initial excitement of the Royalist crowds, the steady stream of victim-martyrs became a dismal recurring morality play. Indeed, the residents of Charing Cross, the original site of the executions, “complained about the foul stench of burning bowels.”
Eventually, the killings began to boomerang on Charles II’s government. Later, after three regicides were slain, Spencer writes:
There were none of the triumphant cries that had accompanied earlier executions…Chroniclers commented rather that the overriding emotion of the death of these three captures fugitives was one of great sadness.
Ultimately, that “great sadness” is what the reader of Killers of the King is likely to come away with — that and a great respect for those who were executed or assassinated, and those who were held in prison, and those who were on the run for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t to say they were right to kill the King. That’s not a question that Spencer was aiming to answer.
Rather, the men of whom he writes did what they did, and then, idealists, most of them, understood the price that, later, they were required to pay. They faced it with honor and faith.
There is much that is admirable in that.
Patrick T. Reardon