Charles Spencer: The men who dared to kill a king
PUBLISHED: 16:34 20 April 2015 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 April 2015
Historian and author Charles Spencer's new book tells the story of the men who dared to sign the death warrant of Charles 1. He talked to Katie Jarvis about this bloody and turbulent period of English history
There’s plenty written about Charles I, the king who sparked a revolution. But what of the men who dared to challenge him outright? The men who signed his death warrant. In Killers of the King, historian and author Charles Spencer tells the stories of the price they paid for their deed, uncovering tales of dreadful and bloody revenge in this most turbulent period of English history.
Charles, the current Earl Spencer, read history at Oxford, before working as a foreign news reporter for American television network NBC. Katie Jarvis asked him more about his book, ahead of an appearance ‘in conversation’ at The Convent, Woodchester, on April 30.
Q: What was it that made you want to explore the histories of these men who dared to do the unthinkable?
A: The Civil War is such a dramatic period that it has naturally always gained a great deal of attention from historians. However, the period immediately after it ended – with the monarchy restored, surprisingly and completely – tends to be less well known. This gem of a story – involving a manhunt across continents, with bloody vengeance against all those intimately involved in the death of Charles I as its theme – was immediately appealing to me.
Q: It must have been a Herculean task for you, both to research and then to manage the stories of this panoply of King-killers.
A: My publishers (Bloomsbury) were clear with me from the start that my big challenge would be the actual structure of the book, because there were so many interesting characters and tales involved. I went through all the killers, before picking out the most fascinating – in terms of their fates, and of their characters – to focus on. It was never going to be possible to tell the story of every one of the 80 killers of the king, but I hope the ones I settled on are representative of what was going on across the board in the 1660s.
Q: They were extraordinary men, weren’t they? We might, at this remove, be able to envisage the dreadful import of killing royalty; but the idea of Divine Right – that the King was appointed by God – made this act all the more shocking: they were going against a whole natural and religious order.
A: The idea that kings were God’s representatives on Earth, answerable only to the Creator, of course seems absurd now – but Charles I and his father, James I, genuinely believed that to be the case. For the killers to see through such superstitious nonsense, and make Charles Stuart stand trial for the terrible bloodshed they felt he was responsible for, was a very bold move indeed. But many of the dozens of men who judged Charles I were leading soldiers who had seen the suffering of the Civil War, first-hand. They felt the death of the King might just restore order to Britain and Ireland.
Q: I’m not suggesting sympathy or otherwise with Charles I, but you must have more of an understanding of him than many, in the sense that he had a life thrust upon him; that he was scrutinised to the nth degree and subjected to myth and gossip; in the sense that money and ‘privilege’ come with a degree of responsibility but no official training. How should we think of him?
A: Charles I was an extremely likeable man – devout, intelligent, sensitive, a great patron of the arts, and a fine husband and father. I knew these things before embarking on Killers of the King and assumed I would disapprove of his being put to death. But he really was a terrible failure as a monarch, partly because of his weakness of character, so I understand why he had to die. Charles was not the eldest son of his father – his elder brother, Prince Henry, went for an ill-advised dip in the Thames, and died of typhus. Poor Charles had little training, and no aptitude, for kingship. He would have been a good church leader, I think.
Q: Your descriptions of the retribution that these King-killers suffered at the hands of Charles’s son, Charles II, are understandably graphic. Were you shocked by your discoveries of their brutal, in some ways summary, deaths?
A: It was a brutal time. If you took on the Crown, you knew that any retribution was likely to be merciless and vicious. “Hanging, drawing and quartering” was a spectacularly unpleasant way to go, with unimaginable suffering before death. I found the final farewells between the condemned men and their wives and families so very hard to read. Nearly all of the killers of the King acted with incredible bravery at the end. It is amazing what a prop strong religious faith can be.
Q: Tell us a little more about the lives of the ordinary people during this turbulent era of shifting loyalties.
A: Most people would not have understood the intricacies of the arguments between the King and Parliament. That said, they would have found it very hard to avoid the suffering – the Civil Wars remain the bloodiest conflicts, in terms of loss of life per head of population, that this country has ever suffered, including the First World War. Around the Cotswolds, it was worse than in many other parts, with frequent fighting as well as war-borne disease causing huge casualties.
Q: We might think of all this as happenings of a long time ago; but there are repercussions today. An impossible question, I know, but how different might our lives have been had these men not acted?
A: Impossible to know. I do think that, if Charles I had eventually triumphed, the Crown may well have become over-powerful, and Britain might have experienced a bloody revolution to rival the one that overtook France 150 years later.
Q: Did you feel yourself taking sides – not so much because of your own blood-ties but emotionally and intellectually - and does that matter?
A: I never take sides in my books – to do so would be to insult the memory of the men involved, and of the reader. This is an unusual approach with a topic as divisive as the Civil War, but I believe it is essential – I am writing as a historian, not a lawyer. Only in the postscript do I say how brave I found the regicides to be. As for blood ties – I’m in a fairly even state over that: I’m descended from four of his sons’ mistresses; but also from two of the King’s killers!
Q: You own Oliver Cromwell’s campaign table – a largely irrelevant but interesting detail! Isn’t it astonishing, though, that father and son both escaped any real retribution?
A: I’m not sure where that myth came from – we don’t have Cromwell’s campaign table!
Oliver Cromwell died suddenly and unexpectedly, having survived assassination plots, and the vicious hatred of the Royalists. His son, Richard, hadn’t taken any part in the death of Charles I, and (after Oliver’s death) he wasn’t interested in ruling Britain, and retired quietly. That decision led to the Restoration of the Stuarts – and they were grateful for that.
Q: Is there one of the men you researched whom you admired more than most? Whom you’d particularly like to have met? And, if you could, is there anything you’d ask him?
A: Edmund Ludlow is a rather remarkable man – a Parliamentary general, a politician, and a very astute man. Although the Royalists promised he would be safe if he handed himself in, he couldn’t trust them and fled for safety in Switzerland. There were endless attempts on his life and his freedom, but he remained resolute that staying where he was was the safest course for him, and he was joined by eight other fugitive killers of the King. He wrote beautifully about the tribulations he and his comrades suffered.
Q: You’re coming to Woodchester to give your talk. Diana, clearly, had an affinity with the Cotswolds, her home for many years. Do you have a feeling for the area?
A: I love the Cotswolds – the area’s beauty is very reminiscent of the stunning corner of Northamptonshire where Althorp, my family’s historic home, is. Also, some of my favourite characters from the Civil War used to gather at Great Tew, one of the great Cotswold villages, to discuss what the country was going through, and how the King should act. One of these, Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland, is one of the great tragic figures of the Civil War – it’s generally accepted that he was so distraught at the conflict that he effectively killed himself at the Battle of Newbury. You live in a very historic and poignant corner of England!
Charles Spencer will be in conversation with James Long on April 30, 8pm, at The Convent, Convent Lane, South Woodchester, Stroud GL5 5HS. For more information, log onto theconvent.netgig.co.uk or call 0330 2232 707; www.theconvent.net
Killers of the King, The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I is published in hardback, £20 (eBook £17.99) by Bloomsbury