Killers of the King by Charles Spencer Focuses on a Pivotal Moment in English History
Charles Spencer has had a lifelong love of English history. Among his works are Blenheim and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier, both with a bent toward Britain’s martial glory. But his first books focus on the history of his own family–the Spencers, some notables of which include duchesses, compatriots of kings, and of course his sister, the late Princess Diana. His most recent foray into pivotal moments of English history is Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I.
The execution of the king at the hands of Parliament marked a high water mark, but by no means the end, of years of brutal civil war. It was an irreversible act and a powerful gesture, one that still echoes through British and European history centuries later. The men involved, including most of the leading lights of Parliament, were committing their very lives to this cause–lives that might be forfeit should the kingship ever be restored.
Charles’s reign effectively ended on August 18, 1648 with the surrender of his forces to Cromwell’s army. Charles refused to believe he had lost the war, even after he was taken captive and his trial began. But any illusions he may have entertained were irrevocably dashed on January 30, 1649, when he was executed. With the stroke of the headsman’s axe, the 135 men officially involved with the regicide shook the European world.
In telling the tale, Spencer quickly brings the reader up to speed on the progress of the wars, collectively known as the English Civil War, that led to this moment. We’re there for the execution, but the bulk of the narrative is given over to what happens to these 135 men following the execution of the king. It’s a fascinating story. The Civil War(s) continued. Cavalier and Roundhead continued to battle, but within a few years Parliament found itself asking Charles’s son, the soon-to-be Charles II, to return home as king. Britain’s governance has never been based on a single document, like the United States Constitution. It found itself unable to govern without a legitimate monarch on the throne. And those 135 men, about two-thirds of whom were still alive by the time of Charles’ coronation, found themselves on the wrong side of history, justice, and their new king’s wrath.
As an American, I didn’t enter adulthood with much of a grasp of the English Civil War. The words “civil war” conjured impressions of Abraham Lincoln, the emancipation proclamation, and lines of blue- and gray-clad infantry. But in more recent years, I also think of Roundheads, Cavaliers, and Cromwell’s decomposed head on a pike. Yes, though Cromwell died before the monarchy was restored, his corpse wouldn’t be spared the king’s vengeance. It was dug up, tried, and decapitated, and the rotting skull was put on display. Spencer gives us all the details.
Again, as an American, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence and the members of Parliament who executed Charles I. Both were made up of men seeking to found a new government and to break with the old. One did it with strokes of a quill, the other with the stroke of an axe. Many books have been written that follow the lives of the signers, all of whom knew their lives would be endangered should the English crown quell the rebellion. The regicides of more than a century earlier knew as well that they would meet grisly ends should that same crown ever return. And many did.
The surviving regicides (the others having fallen in battle or succumbed to disease or old age) scattered across Europe and overseas. Though some turned themselves in and threw themselves upon the court’s mercy, the majority fled. This flight only increased as word of the fates of some of these men–drawing and quartering being among the punishments–was carried abroad.
It is here, in the years following Charles II’s ascension to the throne, that Spencer shines brightest. He hounds these men, much like the lawmen and bounty hunters of the day had. He takes us to Holland, France, and Germany. And he takes us to the safest havens, to be found in Switzerland and Puritan New England. We’re there for ambushes, kidnappings, assassinations, betrayal, political intrigues, and into the hidden lives of some of the men who even managed to begin anew under assumed names. Spencer is required at times to go light on the details, but what he does reveal is enough to fill thriller, action/adventure, and literary novels.
Though Spencer’s purpose is simple–to share the story of these regicides–the reader can’t help but marvel at the forces at play. What-if’s abound in such a tale, as we’re left to ponder the decisions and leadership of men that led to Charles’s head being lopped off, Cromwell’s desiccated head on a pike, and royal warrants left outstanding even decades later. Though too many centuries old in scope to be a political book, one can’t help but look for its echoes in the modern world.
About the contributor: Justin Lindsay is American. He is an aspiring author, a member of the HNS web team and a frequent blogger. Find out more here
Author photo by Jonathan Ring