Sunday, 5 October 2014

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I Hardcover – 11 Sep 2014 352 pages Bloomsbury Publishing - ISBN-13: 978-1408851708

It is widely accepted amongst historians and for that matter the wider reading public that the subject of the execution of Charles I is a fascinating one. It is also correctly portrayed by both conservative and left wing historians as a watershed moment in British and world history. 

As Blair Worden said “The beheading of Charles I on January 30th, 1649, left an indelible mark on the history of England and on the way that the English think about themselves. It was the climactic moment of the Puritan Revolution and it also changed the whole character of the conflict. Most of the people who had taken up arms against Charles I seven years earlier were opposed to his killing, if not outraged by it. They knew that it would destroy their cause, though they could not have foreseen how lasting the condemnation of the regicide would be”.[1] The only thing I would change is to substitute English for the word Puritan.

Charles Spencer’s book has been labelled as a work of popular history which it is and there is nothing wrong with that but the title does it a little injustice because the book goes beyond popular history and is much more academically written.

recently   there has been a spate of books on the subject of the king killers.All describing the events well and are researched to a high degree but none of them examine the class forces that were involved in both the regicide and the trial of the king killers.  I must say this also a major weakness of Spencer’s book. But you pay your money and you take your choice.

One of the few historians and a revisionist one at that comes close to a political and military understanding of why the king was killed is Blair Worden.  Whether Cromwell or his parliament intended to kill the king early on in the conflict is open to debate but once they became clear that he became an obstacle to the revolution they moved quickly and without mercy. There are limited parallels with the way the Bolsheviks during the October revolution despatched the Russian Czar and his family.

As Worden States “Yet wars, once embarked upon, have to be won. The fighting and winning of them can radically extend their aims. The New Model Army, raised in 1645 to end the carnage, acquired revolutionary goals in both politics and religion. Only slowly did its generals come to contemplate trying the king. The decisive event was the Second Civil War, fought in 1648. It centred on an invasion by a Scottish army, with whose leaders Charles had been conspiring even as he negotiated, ostensibly in good faith, for his restoration by the English parliament. In 1647 Oliver Cromwell and his ally and son-in-law Henry Ireton had conducted their own negotiations with him. Now they concluded that Charles’s innate duplicity would wreck any settlement. There could be no lasting peace, they decided, while he remained alive”.

killers of the King is Spencer’s third book covering the English Civil war.[2] The author was recently asked why this subject “The three main history books that I have written have concentrated on the period 1642-1704 – quite a short period of time, in fact. I am not the first to be intrigued by the English Civil War – but my particular interest is in the characters involved: there seem to have been so many huge personalities active during that time of massive, national, upheaval. For me, History has always been more about people watching than dry statistics and dates. The mid- to late seventeenth century provides very rich pickings indeed.[3]

The book and the author have received a substantial amount of interest from the media. Partly because the subject matter lends itself to great interest due to its dramatic content. It is also a period that the modern day powers that be would really like to scratch out of historical memory.

The book is very well written and very well researched and is beautifully illustrated.   It is not for the fainthearted as Spencer at times goes into graphic detail of the punishment handed out to the king killers. Many after all were hung drawn and quartered and their genitals cut off and innards burned before their eyes while still alive.

Spencer’s book at times reads like a novel. He shows that leading figures of the revolution turned on their former colleagues and hunted them down.  One was Sir George Downing of Downing Street fame, and described by Samuel Pepys as “that perfidious rogue”, plotted and planned to go himself to the Continent, kidnap and if necessary murder then and there his former friends or bundle them back to England to stand trial and certain execution.

It would appear from the book that the reign of Charles was dominated by this manhunt. While sanctioning what amounted to judicial murder the regime was hardly a picture of stability. The longer the show trial went on the more nervous Charles and his ministers became and recognised the growing danger of a rebellion. Charles II made one mistake in giving a public funeral to one of the regicides over twenty thousand people attended testifying the still considerable support held for republican ideas.

The Execution of Charles I

As I said above Spencer’s understanding of why Charles II would undertake a risky thing to try his father’s killers is very limited, and tends to put the trial down to simple revenge as Spencer states “Charles II naturally loathed those who had seen to his father's beheading. He was unable to exact vengeance on all those who had fought for Parliament, of course – approximately half the nation; but he was allowed to bring down retribution on the regicides. Originally he was only looking to make seven of them suffer, but many – especially in the House of Lords – wanted all those intimately involved in Charles I's death to die. They had their own reasons for vengeance. For a lot of Parliamentarians, choosing the king's killers as scapegoats took the attention away from their own years of rebellion against the Crown”.

Historiography

The book does not really fall into any recognised historiography. Given the recent trend for history from below or people’s history it would easy but wrong to say this book is a history from above genre. Despite dealing with a royal subject matter Spencer’s book is much more than that.

Spencer defends his book by saying “Killers of the King starts with the fall of Charles I, and then his trial and execution. But the driving narrative is what happened to the many diverse men who came together to end his life. On the whole, these were not people with a grand background – they included a butcher's son, a jeweller, a brewer, and a tanner of hides – men who had risen through merit to regimental command in Parliament's New Model Army. British history tends inevitably to be seen through a royal prism, because – apart from the 11 years between Charles I's death and Charles II's restoration, of course – we have always had a monarchy”.

When I started reading this book I had expected that Earl Spencer would side with one of his own in the matter of the regicide of the king but the opposite would appear to be the case, As Spencer says “I started the book with a view that I would end up being hugely sympathetic to Charles I as a victim of a kangaroo court, but, as I researched the extraordinary drama of the civil war it had thrown up, these intriguing, individuals whose stories were so fascinating and diverse. Getting to know some of the key regicides in greater depth meant I sympathised with them much more,” says Spencer, who despite being an Earl, would have sided with Parliament had he been alive at the time.

His book is not a radical history of the English revolution. The author if anything is sympathetic to the Whig interpretation of history. Spencer believes that the civil war was a progressive development  and supports Geoffrey Robertson’s contention that  “ The proceeding against Charles I in 1649 secured the constitutional gains of the Civil War – the supremacy of Parliament, the independence of judges, individual freedom guaranteed by Magna Carta and the common law”.  “I do believe the king had to die for England to have a hope of peace. He was impossible to trust and the one thing you had to be as a ruler was decisive otherwise you were too weak to survive. The whole of society was changing in a fundamental way and something drastic has to happen. Sadly for Charles it was being decapitated. But despite my feelings against him as a king, I have huge personal regard for him as a man, he was a gentle, church loving, chess playing figure. I feel very sorry for him, but I also think those who put him to death were very brave men.”

Another striking aspect of the book and Spencer gives ample room space to is the manner in which people who were once leading members in the Cromwellian era shifted their allegiances like some people change a shirt.

Charles Monck, who has always struck me as a person of extreme opportunism was as one writer said “a turncoat of heroic proportions”. He had been commander in chief of the English army in Scotland and an ardent follower of Cromwell. But after being promised the unheard of sum of £100,000 a year for the rest of his life changed sides and decided to do the kings dirty work. It would have added to Spencer’s book if he had investigated this phenomena further. Another perceived weakness of the book is that fact that he never really addresses what happened to the revolution. Why was it so easy for a regime change so shortly after Cromwell’s death?

One severe weakness of the book is that it fails to convey how the regicides lost power and a monarchy established albeit with the help of substantial sections of the bourgeoisie. There is an absence from the book as to the political and economic makeup of the Charles ll regime. The trial far from just being about revenge was a counter revolution by sections of the bourgeoisie who were still closely connected to the Monarchy.

As James Holstun’s has written “What turned the tide was the failure of bourgeois republican revolutionaries to unify themselves militarily, and create an interest and stake in the republic among the copyholders, soldiers, sailors and apprentices; and the superior power of General Monck and the forces of Restoration in shaping and controlling the army”.

With some reservations I would recommend a wide readership for the book. It is a cracking read and deserves wide readership and would grace anybody’s bookshelf

Further reading

1.       The Spectator The King's Revenge Don Jordan & Michael Walsh

2.       Geoffrey Robertson, QC is author of The Tyrannicide Brief: The Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold (Vintage, 2005)

3.       Brian Manning and the dialectics of revolt James Holstun Issue 103 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2004

4.       Remembering the Regicides - 350 Years On By Geoffrey Robertson | Posted 11th October 2010,History Today

5.       What the Regicides Did For Us By Geoffrey Robertson | Published in History Today Volume: 55 Issue: 10

6.       Trial of the Regicides http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikntqv410Ms




[1]  http://www.historytoday.com/blair-worden/execution-charles-i-king-dead-long-live-crown
[2] Spencer’s first was  Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier Hardcover – 14 Jun 2007

[3] http://londoncalling.com/features/charles-spencer-on-britains-only-regicides#wwjoROKmtGZ0wHkO.99