Thursday, 23 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 would be a brave soul to contest the widely held view amongst historians and the wider reading public that the execution of Charles I is a fascinating one. After all Charles I was and is the only monarch in English history to be killed by his own people.

It is also perhaps a truism accepted by most historians that his trial and subsequent execution was 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”.   I would only substitute English for the word Puritan.

Charles Spencer’s new book is a product of this interest. It is a splendid, narrative driven book.  And given the number of narrative driven books recently published it would appear that this particular historical genre is on the up . As Tom Holland flamboyantly points out “Imagine the Odessa File re-written by Christopher Hill, and you will have some idea of the pleasure to be had in reading Killers of the King. The virtues of a thriller and of scholarship are potently combined”.

I must admit not all historians are fans of this type of historical writing. When C V Wedgwood produced her splendid book A King Condemned-The Trial and Execution of Charles I it was criticised in some academic quarters. In his foreword to the 2011 edition by Tauras Parke Paperbacks Clive Holmes said “Wedgwood’s relationship with academic historians was not an easy one, and the immediate reception of this work by the professionals in their flagship journals was cool, and even condescending”

As far as I can tell there has been no academic reviews of Spencer’s book. Narrative type of books have been criticised in the past for being “theoretically light”. This is to a certain extent a genuine criticism of Spencer. He is not in the same class of writer as Wedgwood and his book could have been improved if he had used previous academic research on the subject. His use of other historians work is sparse to say the least. Spencer's use of narrative history writing has its defenders. Paul Lay  recent article in October's Literary Review called The Return of Narrative is one example.


Spencer’s book does fall into any recognisable historiographical school. On a broader point given the magnitude and richness of the subject there is a dearth of serious academic studies of the trial and execution of the king and subsequent politics contained within the trial and execution of the regicides. It is a richly rewarding subject to study. It is hard to understand why such an important event in the history of both Britain and the world has been so under researched.

Outside of C V Wedgewood’s The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I there has been books by Jason Dr Peacey, The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I Hardcover – 7 Dec 2001 Why Was Charles I Executed? 2007 by Clive Holmes and last but no means least in 2010 we have The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold by Geoffrey Robertson apart from these there is very little on offer.

Given that most historical changes happen slowly and over time, some at a glacial pace, the killing of a king by his own people showed that certain periods move not only at lightning speed but have the character of tectonic plates moving such is the momentous change.

Some reviewers of Spencer’s book have tried to place it in the “history from above” genre. I do not accept that classification. Despite dealing with a royal subject Spencer’s book is a bit more than that.

As to the event it there appears to be little agreement amongst historians how far back in the revolution the revolutionists were prepared to kill the king. Again in the 2011 foreword to a new publication of C V Wedgwood’s book Holmes defends the view that the regicides knew exactly what they were doing when they executed the king and had prepared for his killing a good few years before. Spencer broadly agrees with this viewpoint.

Not all historians agree with this premise. According to Ian Gentles   in a series of compelling articles Sean Kelsey has argued that the New Model Army and the purged Long Parliament actually had no wish to see the king dead when they brought him to trial on charges of committing treason against his own people”.

Sean Kelsey has also argued in his essay The Ordinance for the Trial of Charles I that Parliament had a significant bigger role in bringing the King to execution than had previously thought.  Historians as Kelsey say have paid little or no attention to the role of Parliament in bringing about the trial of the king. “The ordinance passed by the Commons on January 1st 1649 has never roused much interest amongst historians of the English Revolution, one of whom has remarked that “formal documentary evidence for this (first) tribunal is lacking”. Neither the House of Lords Record Office not the principal collections of parliamentary papers has yielded the secrets of the Ordinance. A search of the National Archives of Scotland has not yet located a copy of the Common’s measure which the commissioners of Edinburgh parliament resident at Westminster in January 1649 sent to their superiors shortly after its passage in the English lower house”.

High Road to Revolution

The trial and execution of the king was the high point and culmination of a long and protracted process called the English revolution. This view that there was a high road to revolution has also come under heavy attack from the revisionist historians . Admittedly the men who started the revolution against the king did not start out to kill him but to make revolutionary changes in 1642 for “king and parliament” but ended it cutting the kings head off. It is not Spencer’s fault that his book does not really answer this contradiction. The problem is not Spencer’s ability as a writer but his method or theory of historical events.

He could have consulted even an out and out revisionist historian such as Blair Worden who perceptibly writes, “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”.

His concentration on the narrative to the detriment of theory does not get us very far. While it is important to understand what went through the minds of the leading actors of the revolution such as Cromwell, Ireton and Harrison to do so would only give us a one sided understanding of the why a kings head was cut off and a republic established. Spencer is free to adopt whatever theoretical approach he wants to portray historical events. But historians such as Spencer preoccupation with narrative can take the reader only so far.

The rise of narrative history has been at the direct expense of Marxist historiography and has done untold damage to our understanding of the English revolution.

As Karl Marx correctly points out “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

Of course there was gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. This was not a “chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side”

A snapshot of the regicides shows that they came from diverse social backgrounds but were united by their opposition to the king. They were not conscious revolutionists in the mould of a Vladimir Lenin or Leon Trotsky but they were however the “ideologists of the revolution (who) ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”.

The most politically aware of the revolutionists were astute enough to understand that when they executed their king after a complex trial with long deliberation, it was the result not of an accident or misunderstanding. Many soldiers from the New Model Army who were mainly drawn from smallholders and lower yeomanry were acutely aware of what and more importantly why they moved against the king. when the king challenged Cornet George Joyce and asked him where he received his commission Joyce is reported to have waved his sword towards his troops and replied " here is my commission".

But as one writer put it “has a profound revolutionary significance entailing a complete break with the feudal past. Although the monarchy was later restored and the triumphant bourgeoisie were soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, no monarch sat easily on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria’s reign”.

The killers of the King is Spencer’s third book covering the English Civil war.  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.

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. 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”, he plotted and went 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.

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”
Spencer further elaborates on this matter “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”.

Spencer adds “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