The trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649 for treason against his people, following his defeat in the English Civil Wars, was unprecedented in English history. King John had limits on his power imposed by his rebel barons through the Magna Carta of 1215. There were subsequent kings, such as Edward II, Richard II an Henry VI, who were deposed and quietly murdered behind closed doors. Henry VIII placed two of his queens on trial – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – and sanctioned their executions. England’s “9 days Queen,” Lady Jane Grey was tried and executed for treason by her successor, Mary I.
The case of Charles I was different from all of these previous kings and queens. The responsibility for Charles I’s fate was not the will of a subsequent monarch or a small group of rebels but was shared by eighty people. Fifty-nine men, including future Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, signed the King’s death warrant and another twenty-one were involved in the courtroom proceedings and the execution itself. In Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I, Charles Spencer (brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales), author of Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier and Blenheim : Battle for Europe provides a dramatic account of what happened to the “regicides,” the men who had condemned and executed Charles I.
Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I is a series of courtroom dramas interspersed with bloody battles, assassinations, beheadings and hangings, drawings and quarterings. (Readers unsure about what hanging, drawing and quartering entailed will find a detailed description at the beginning of Chapter 7). Charles I’s eldest son, Charles II has gone down in history as “the merry monarch” for his mistresses and love of the theatre but through the fate of the regicides, Spencer reveals another side to his character. Following his Restoration to the English throne in 1660, Charles II was determined to avenge his father’s death and brutally punish those involved. His subjects were initially content to see a small group of regicides act as scapegoats for the much larger proportion of the population who opposed Charles I’s rule during the English Civil Wars.
Spencer devotes much of the book to how the regicides met their end. Sixty of the eighty people involved in Charles I’s trial and execution were still alive in 1660 and ten were promptly found guilty of treason and hung, drawn and quartered. Others fled abroad though whether they traveled to the Netherlands, Switzerland or New England, they rarely found safety and security. Some repented their involvement in Charles I’s death while others defended the act of regicide until their dying breath. Spencer begins the book with Charles I’s last years, trials and execution. It would have been interesting to read more about the lives of the regicides before their fates were bound together by the beheading of Charles I. The trial and execution of an English King was unprecedented and controversial and the book would have been strengthened by more material that showed how the regicides stood out from their contemporaries.
Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I is an engaging and suspenseful history of the fate of Charles I’s judges and executioners. When it came to his treatment of the men responsible for his father’s death, Charles II was far from a “merry monarch.” Instead, he began his reign in 1660 with a bloody reckoning for the events of the English Civil Wars that culminated in the death of Charles I. The reprisals lasted for twenty-five years, finally ending in 1685, when Dame Alice Lisle, widow of one of the regicides, became the last woman in England to be beheaded for treason.
Next week: Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada by Robert Bothwell