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

Killers of the KingThe king is dead…long live the king

Killing a king is serious business – even the most dedicated to their cause must undoubtedly feel a moment of trepidation before the deed is done and fear for what may come after. In 1649 several dozen Englishmen signed the death warrant for Stuart king Charles I in the hopes of creating a republican England. For most of the signatories the story ended on the scaffold, their dreams of a monarchy-less England gave way to tyranny and eventually the return of a person in the throne.

Charles Spencer explores the period surrounding the English civil wars in Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, a crackling yarn of war, betrayal and bloodshed and the men and women who shaped this tumultuous period in England’s history. As Spencer shows, when idealism clashes with reality – particularly in the world of politics – it is the later which usually wins the day and many of the signatories suffered spectacularly for their aspirations.

Killers of the King begins with Charles I, a king who seemingly could take any situation and turn it against himself. He earned the enmity of many for his religious policies, many believed them to be too Catholic, and made a sport of battling parliament to see who would be the supreme voice in the land – particularly over the issue of taxation. This eventually led to a civil war in 1642 which he lost a few years later. After a hasty trial in 1648 which saw his only defense being the divine right of kings, Charles I was executed by beheading in January 1649 and a republic called the Commonwealth of England was declared.

Unfortunately for the English the republic was more in name than deed. Oliver Cromwell, the victor of the civil war, consolidated power and like Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, flirted with taking the crown and title of king. As Spencer relates, royalists and opponents to the new political order were harassed and, if need be, permanently eliminated. Eventually the abuses grew to the point where many looked to restoring the monarchy and giving the old political order another try.

In 1660 Charles II, son of the deposed king, returned to England from his exile in Europe and was made monarch. Although later nicknamed the Merry Monarch thanks to a hedonistic court and his sensual appetite, Charles II wanted blood. While agreeing to amnesty for many, Charles II eventually identified 59 men who played the most prominent roles in the execution of his father. The men were relentlessly hunted in England, Europe and the young North American colonies and if captured faced a trial in name only and were sentenced to hanging, disembowelment, beheading before finally being drawn and quartered. Charles II’s anger was such that even the bodies of four men, including Cromwell, were disinterred and given the same punishment.

Much of Killers of the King is a detective story that combines exploration of how Charles II’s agents relentlessly searched for the regicides around the world, with their efforts to avoid capture. Unfortunately for them they generally weren’t successful as few governments wished to harbour such notorious fugitives even if they were sympathetic to their cause. While a small handful managed to elude their pursuers, even they were largely living in fear for the remainder of their lives.

Although Spencer is careful to maintain a fairly objective tone throughout the book, it’s not hard to sense an undercurrent of sympathy for Charles I, who despite his zealous belief in his divine right to do what he pleased, privately seemed a decent sort. The parliamentary side often comes across as a mob that while motivated by republican values, wasn’t prepared to carry its experiment through. If there is a criticism of the book it’s that while we get a good sense of who Spencer thinks Charles I was, his son is a more nebulous figure that seemed to only have revenge as his motivation.

Killers of the King is a deeply engaging history that manages to simultaneously educate and entertain. As many Americans would probably recognize today, hope for a new political order often eventually gives way to merely a new version of the old. The term realpolitik may have been coined in the 1850s by German political writer Ludwig von Rochau, but Spencer’s history shows that the collision between enlightenment ideals and power politics is an old story – and one that rarely a peaceful or happy one.

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