Killers Of The King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I, by Charles Spencer
Before finishing this book, I thought that Charles Spencer’s account of the regicides who had signed on to the execution of Charles I was particularly biased and unsympathetic. This did not particularly surprise me, for my distant cousin is the brother of the late Princess Diana of Wales, and his nephew is in line to inherit the throne of England, and he himself is part of a particularly honored house within the British nobility that has provided a great many leaders who have served England well like Winston Churchill. Be that as it may, by the end of the book it became clear that Spencer’s view of the regicides was decidedly ambivalent. He respected their religious and political fervor and their courage and was also appalled at the vengeful spirit of Charles II but it was clear that he was decidedly hostile to the extreme step of putting to death even a stubborn and incompetent ruler like Charles I. This ambivalence is not so different from my own (even if as an American I tend to be less deferential towards ruling elites), and it is precisely the right attitude in a story like this where cycles of violence are undertaken to pursue political ends.
This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into fifteen chapters. The book begins with a look at the hostility that many Englishmen felt towards Charles I after the English Civil War (1) and the way that the trial of the king (2) led to the establishment of a Parliamentary Republic (3). After that the author explores the new monarchy that Cromwell sought to establish after a fashion (4), and the tension that many English felt at the prospect of a Stuart restoration (5). The author explores the initial demands for some of the regicides to die as a sign that England was going to accept the rule of Charles II (6) and the fact that those killed included various religious figures (7), dwelling on the preparations made by some of these people in the face of judicial murder (8). The author then looks at the continuing hunt for the regicides (9) and some of their flight into exile (10) in places like the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland (11). The author explores the long vengeance that Charles II had (12) extending for decades and the reminder that people were not even safe in the Colonies of New England (13) and in the savage wilderness (14), ending by discussing the death and isolation of the last surviving regicides (15), giving praise to their resilience almost in spite of himself.
It is no great surprise that Charles II was so hostile to the regicides. What is more remarkable is that the men who dared to execute Charles I were not more conscious of their vulnerability. Many of them thought that a quick turn to honor Charles II would be sufficient to preserve their fortunes and lives. Yet it is no great surprise that as a political exile that Charles II would have been deeply shaken by the thought that England’s political elite would feel comfortable in killing a king and in removing a ruler from the sacred safety that he found essential. And so he sought to kill those who had consented to the killing of his father in such a brutal way that no one would dare raise a hand against a king in the future. This insecurity was itself a sign of his awareness of the weakness of royal power in England, and though he was able to reign peacefully himself, his brother was overthrown and a new agreement that provided the gentry with increased political power was necessary to end the revolutionary instability and cycles of vengeance within English elite society. It is hard not to have some compassion for those who suffered exile and brutal deaths as a result of their principled stand against tyranny.