Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

However many victories we win, there will still remain the king.” (The Earl of Manchester)

Charles Spencer’s Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I is an engaging, through examination of a small, yet significant corner of history: the trial of Charles I, his execution and then the fate of the regicides when Charles II claimed the throne. The book’s in-depth account of the fates of the regicides is the focus here with the capture and trial of Charles I, and Cromwell’s growing unpopularity as lead-in material. I’ve always had a fondness and interest in the Civil War/Restoration period, and Killers of the King, with its tight focus, illuminates how the tides of history turn, so bitterly, within a few short years.  Ironically for those who signed Charles’s death warrant, many did so all too aware that “if the King were restored to anything approaching his former powers, it would be inevitable that he would seek out vengeance against the men who had defeated his forces and slain his friends and followers.” This very valid concern of retribution helped fuel the execution, and yet retribution was only delayed; with the triumphant return of Charles II, those who’d contributed to the trial and signed the death warrant were (mostly) sitting targets.

Killers of the kingDuring Charles I’s imprisonment and the trial, his arrogance was quite apparent. Modern readers have the examples of Louis XVI and the Romanovs in our heads, and so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that this deposed king was executed, but through the author’s account, it’s clear that Charles I never quite ‘got it’ and “felt sure he was indispensable.” During his imprisonment he thought he had bargaining chips, rejected sensible advice, and repeatedly strung along his captors as they presented their demands. As time wore on, rather than softening, his captors hardened. There’s also the sense that some decisive motion had to be made concerning Charles I as many in parliament “spoke openly of pricking the unprecedented power of the army.” With Charles in custody, an ugly mood descended on the victors; the soldiers were unpaid, and Charles’s flight from Hampton Court Palace to the Isle of Wight illustrated that the situation could not continue indefinitely. The First and Second Civil Wars caused the “loss of an estimated 190,000 of the five million inhabitants of England, and 60,000 of the one million Scots. (Figures for Ireland are less easy to establish but, during the same period, warfare, plague and exile reduced the 1.4 million population of Ireland by around 600,000.) Many believed Charles had caused the suffering, and they were adamant that he would always encourage further bloodshed–for nothing would dissuade him from attempting to regain power, whatever the toll on his people.” Author Charles Spencer shows, through this methodical account,  exactly how the execution of the king, given the volatile political climate, became inevitable.

Charles consistently overestimated the strength of his hand, and the patience of his enemies, as he played Parliament. the army and the Scots off against one another. He felt sure that none of these competing forces could achieve what they wanted without his support. At the same time, he felt no qualms of conscience about his many deceits: all was being extracted from him through duress, while he was in effect a prisoner. The king believed this negated his concessions: he fully intended to go back on any promises made, once his freedom was restored. He wrote as much, repeatedly, in letters that he intended for sympathisers on the mainland. Many were intercepted.

Details of the trial of Charles I are included–along with an account of Pride’s Purge–“effectively a military coup,” in which MP’s who “could not be trusted to implement the New Model Army’s will” were denied access to Parliament, and in some cases were arrested. Yet in spite of this, some people involved in the legal case against Charles, going into the trial, still imagined that a compromise would be reached.

In due course, Charles II returned to England, and the book shows how once again the inevitable occurred, and yet this time we see that a large number of regicides, those still alive in 1660, were largely caught off guard. It’s interesting to see an almost invisible hierarchy of complicity form–with those who considered themselves less culpable (or hoping they’d be considered so) in the death of Charles I rounding up those they considered more culpable and then handing these regicides over to the new king, as if laying down tribute–“a scramble for redemption amongst Parliamentarians.”

We were taught in school that Charles II was not a vengeful monarch, and I suppose, in the big scheme of things, that statement is true. Charles II’s Declaration of Breda must have been the item that my old history teacher quoted. It’s certainly a document that hints of reconciliation except for the fine print that must have got the attention of those involved in the trial of Charles I.  Charles II didn’t exactly scour the countryside for every former Roundhead–instead the focus was on the remaining regicides. I was surprised to read how many people actually signed Charles I’s  death warrant, and that number combined with those who ran the trial added up to a fair number of people (around 80) who had to pay the price for Charles’s death. Interestingly, the identity of Charles I’s executioner became a hot topic, and on another note, it was news to me that John Milton was such a political animal. He wasn’t executed, but, symbolically, I suppose, his books were burned by a hangman at the Old Bailey. Fairfax and his wife also emerge as interesting characters here. While the regicides sometimes tried claimed acting on their consciences as a defense, Fairfax also acted on his conscience and washed his hands of the trial of Charles I. It’s notable, in terms of Charles II’s actions, that Fairfax was not punished–in spite of the fact that he was a major figure in the Parliamentary military forces. He refused to attend the trial of Charles I, but his wife was there and boldly heckled at the prosecution.

The trials of the regicides make for interesting reading, and as author Charles Spencer points out the “bar  [was] set so low for guilt for treason that even imagining the deed could lead to conviction and execution.” The scenes of the executions (hang-drawn & quartering) made for gruesome reading. Some of the regicides had blood on their hands from the Civil Wars, but nonetheless the details of the executions are difficult to read. Some went bravely and unapologetically to their deaths–others were terrified as they watched others tortured before their eyes and knew that their turn was next.

Given the subject matter, Killers of the King could have made for dry reading, but this is an engaging book and plunges the reader firmly in to the turmoil of 17th century England. Many groups and personalities emerge from the chaos of the Civil War: the Levellers, with their “strikingly modern” beliefs and the  Fifth Monarchists who believed in the  “imminent second coming” with Judgement Day falling in 1666. Match these strong beliefs married to military might against Charles I–a man who stubbornly clung to the conviction of his Divine Right and that he’d “inherited” the people of England. No wonder people died. Drawing on memoirs & eyewitness accounts, Charles Spencer has brought this slice of history to life, and at the end of the book, in the acknowledgments, the author saves a few words for the regicides themselves.

Recommend for anyone interested in reading the history of this period.

Review copy.




Filed under Non Fiction, Spencer Charles

15 responses to “Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

  1. i share your interest in this period Guy but I never knew the regicides had been rounded up and punished for their part in the execution. Charles death became inevitable after repeated instances where his opponents discovered he was secretly plotting agains them and clearly had no interest in answering their many issues.

  2. A few years ago I read a bunch of books on this period of English history. It can be fascinating. As it is one of the areas of history that I throw some extra attention at I think that I will read this book. It sounds very good.

  3. I suppose the idea of kingship as God-given was at the bottom of Charles’s intransigence. He must have been expecting, not only the internal collapse of the forces allied against him, but something like a thunderbolt and the voice of God speaking from the heavens. I’ll be reading this.

    • Coverage of the trial makes it quite clear that Charles was outplayed. He was even tapping one man of the shoulder with his cane as the charges were read. Not only was he ignored but the head of his cane fell off (how’s that for symbolism) and then he expected that someone would pick it up. I suppose that the trial showed how out of touch he was.

      • Interestingly, I’ve just been reading the entry on Marvell in Michael Schmodt’s “The LIves of the Poets”. which reminded me of the Horatian Ode – “He nothing common did or mean/upon that memorable scene….Nor called the gods with vulgar spite/to vindicate his helpless right”. Pretty good press!

  4. I’m certainly not a historian and I know almost nothing precise about Britain’s history.

    However, I think that one of the big differences between Charles I and Louis XVI (apart from the obvious differences in century, country, political context…) is that the French Revolution happened during the Enlightnement which questioned political models, after the change of regime in Britain and after the constitution of the USA. It was easier for Louis XVI to think of his execution as a possibility than for Charles I in 17th Britain.

  5. The Levellers! Close cousins to The Ranters, My favs!!

    Good point by Emma: As Chomsky notes, the ruling class believes its own spin.

  6. Loving this book! The spectacle of raw power in play is always educational.

    I guess you could say the big jerk in all of this was Oliver Cromwell. He certainly seems to have hastened the Restoration.

    I was shocked at the figures on casualties from the wars. Civil wars are nasty – look at Syria today…200,000+ and counting

    Another great GT (Guy tip)!

    • I’m glad to see someone reading this as I wonder how big an audience a book like this gets. Did you get to the part about Ireland yet? I had heard that the campaigns there were particularly bad but the details were shocking.

      I came across a quote years ago about civil wars that went something along the lines that civil wars are particularly nasty because none of the sides can just pack up and go home.

      • Yeah, right…the two sides can’t be quit of each other. Sort of like family quarrels. And, yes, I read the part about Ireland, and Cromwell’s (and Milton’s, alas!) special hatred of its people.

        I like to read a lot of history, and have always had a soft spot for England. 🙂

  7. Inspired me to warch Cromwell (1970), which I saw as a boy. I was routing for Alec Guiness. A heroic treatment of Oliver…

  8. Forgive my tablet orthography 😦

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