“The Killers of the King”, by Charles Spencer, is as exciting and dramatic as any novel.
It is the story of the trial and execution of King Charles the First in 1649, and of the grisly fate of those involved in this trial and execution, after the King’s son, Charles the Second, became King in 1660.
It was not self evident that the Parliamentarians would execute Charles the First after they had defeated him in the Civil War.
He was in captivity and there was a possibility that some sort of deal could be reached. But the King’s view of his rights as King did not allow him to make the sort of sincere, and far reaching, political and religious compromise that might have satisfied his captors. The Parliamentarians were split internally and the revolutionary mood in the country pushed them towards the unprecedented step of trying and executing their King, and thus becoming regicides.
After the King’s execution in 1649, Parliament soon proved incapable of making other effective decisions. The country drifted towards dictatorship. Cromwell took up the semi monarchical role of Lord Protector, but when he died in 1658, his attempt to create an hereditary succession in power to his son failed.
Elements in his Army then eventually decided that the best way of avoiding political chaos and restoring order might be to make a deal to bring back the legitimate monarchy in the person of the late King’s eldest son, Charles.
In return for the throne, Charles the Second promised to let the victors in the Civil War keep their properties, pay the arrears owed to soldiers in the Parliamentary Army, and give a” free and general pardon” to the late King’s enemies. This was sensible on his part, because the people recalling him to the throne were almost all people who had fought and defeated his father in the Civil War.
But the “free and general pardon” had a loop hole. It allowed Parliament to exclude some people. Once on the throne, The King ensured that there was an exclusion from the pardon of those who had been involved directly in his father’s trial and execution.
These included the large number of former members of parliament, who had sat as judges in the King’s trial, and also his gaolers and his executioners. Many of the MPs in question had been generals and in Cromwell conquest of Ireland in 1650. These were pursued with particular vigour by Irish agents in the King’s service, who had scores to settle.
The fugitives fled to the Netherlands (which afforded them little protection), to cities in Switzerland (which provided greater legal safety but was not proof against assassination,) and to the British North American colonies of Massachusetts, New Haven, and Connecticut. Indeed New Haven’s protectiveness towards the King’s killers was to cost it its independence and lead to its incorporation into Connecticut.
This book tells the individual story of all the figures on the King’s death list, and of how almost all of them were tracked down and killed. Some were tried and executed, others were assassinated. Only one or two seem to have survived to die in their beds. One of those who survived, in exile in Vevey in Switzerland, was Edmund Ludlow, who had been second in command of the Cromwellian Army in Ireland, and had shared in responsibility for the many atrocities of that campaign.
This book tells a dramatic story well, but it does not at all explore the motivations of Charles the Second. He is seen by history as cynical and politically skilful, rather than obsessively vengeful.
So why did he pursue this particular vendetta so fiercely?
Nor does it really explore how the regicides, who were generally very religious people, could reconcile killing their King with their tender consciences.