At the end of January 1649 a unique event occurred in London: the King of England was led out onto a specially-built scaffold outside Whitehall and, after a quiet speech and heart-felt prayers, placed his head low, on a six-inch-high block of wood. The masked executioner stepped forward, swung his axe, and with one blow severed Charles I’s head. The crowd groaned in shock, and some pushed forward to dip handkerchiefs in the royal blood: many considered Charles to be anointed by God, and believed his vital juices – even after death – could cure their ailments.
After the execution a squadron of cavalry rode through the centre of the capital, from Charing Cross to the Royal Exchange, halting at key junctions so its colonel could loudly proclaim that anyone who so much as questioned the justice of Charles Stuart’s death would in turn forfeit their own lives. For many Londoners this was a heavy-handed postscript to an already overwhelming day.
Charles had been condemned by the High Court of Justice – a body set up specifically to try the king, by those who despaired of trusting the defeated monarch: he had exasperated them with his endless double-dealing. Meanwhile there were increasing fears that foreign rulers might come to his aid. The High Court of Justice was composed of senior military men from the New Model Army (including Oliver Cromwell) who had defeated the Royalist troops, as well as other Parliamentary sympathisers, including figures from the City of London, as well as notables from the shires. These commissioners employed lawyers to prosecute the king – although most of the leading legal figures refused to be part of such a dangerous and controversial business as trying a king, several feigning ill-health in order to be excused. At the end of the hearing, in Westminster Hall, fifty-nine of the judges signed the royal death warrant – two of them, Cromwell and the womanising Henry Marten, were in such high spirits at the signing that they flicked each other with ink from their pens.
The signatories, the prosecutors, and the officers on the scaffold were termed ‘regicides’ – killers of the king. All in all, there were about eighty such men, intimately involved in Charles I’s death. They were hugely controversial figures from the start – lionised by republicans, and others who felt the king had to die if Britain was to have a chance of peace; but beneath contempt to Royalists. John Milton, the great poet, was employed to write learned defences of their breathtaking deed. These were distributed across Europe.
England now became a republic for more than a decade, with Cromwell at its helm until his sudden death in 1658. No other individual proved capable of succeeding him as supreme leader. Concerned that the power void might lead to chaos, the English quickly reverted to default: crowned rule. The younger Charles Stuart had become an increasingly isolated and impoverished exile in Europe, with almost no hope left of returning to reign. England’s need meant he abruptly and unexpectedly found himself heading back to Britain aboard the Royal Charles – the ship that had, till very recently, been called the Naseby, in memory of the great victory that had effectively destroyed the Royalist cause. (The figurehead of this ship, which was of Cromwell wearing the laurel leaves of victory, was hastily removed from the prow.)
Charles felt compelled to promise not to avenge himself against that half of the nation that had supported the Parliamentarian cause. But he left open the possibility that some of those most directly connected to his father’s execution could – and should – be held to account. Once he was securely on the throne, Charles grew bolder. With the freshly-elected House of Commons packed with returned Royalists, and the Lords hungrier still for re- venge, the killers of the king found themselves in grave peril. They were the perfect scapegoats for a nation eager to move on from its bloodiest ever conflict: Malcolm Laing, a Scottish historian, would write 200 years ago that: ‘The fury of civil wars, when the battle has ceased, is almost invariably reserved for the scaffold’. The regicides would be this conflict’s blood sacrifice. From being men of huge power and repute during Parliament’s ascendancy, they now experienced raw fear. They quickly appreciated that they were outlaws of the lowest order – hunted for their lives, with the ago- nising and degrading death of hanging, drawing and quartering the penalty for those caught.
I came across this gripping tale of terror and revenge by chance, when browsing the internet on what turned out to be the 350th anniversary of the death of Colonel John Okey: he and two comrades were put to death with maximum cruelty, for being regicides. I recognized Okey’s name in this report straightaway – he was a bit-part player in my last book, a biography of the Royalist general, Prince Rupert. I had not appreciated that Okey’s life had ended on the gallows, and felt compelled to learn more about his latter years, as well as to learn who else had a hand in Charles I’s death, or had been the recipient of Charles II’s retribution.
It transpired that Okey was betrayed by a man to whom he had shown great kindness. George Downing entered Harvard in 1640 – he was in that university’s very first year of graduates, where he was placed second, academically. A keen traveller, Downing crossed the Atlantic to arrive in an England riven by civil war. Penniless, he was taken in by John Okey – who appointed Downing his regimental chaplain.
Downing was an ardent supporter of the Parliamentary cause, and his fiery speeches helped inspire troops to succeed in battle. Less honourably, Downing proved also to be an accurate political weathervane, during a time of fluctuating fortunes for the two leading causes of the time. While MP for Carlisle, Downing was at the forefront of those who urged Cromwell to become king. Later, when it became clear that Charles Stuart would return as king, Downing became a turncoat and offered his services to him. He served as ambassador to the newly-restored king, in the Netherlands.
Okey was among the many killers of the king to flee to Europe, rather than remain at home, vulnerable to arrest, harsh imprisonment, and cruel death. He and a fellow fugitive checked with Downing that they would be left alone, if they entered the Netherlands to greet their wives who would be joining them in exile. Downing offered assurances that this would be fine: they would be safe.
This was a lie. Downing seized both regicides, and an unlucky third (who happened to be visiting them that evening), and smuggled them back to London, where they were immediately sent to the Tower. There was no need for a trial: the trio’s flight from England was seen as a flagrant admission of guilt. They were simply identified, and condemned. Okey, in his final address at Tyburn (modern day Marble Arch – London’s main place of execution for traitors, as well as lesser criminals), mentioned the dastardly Downing as ‘one – who formerly was my chaplain – that did pursue me to the very death.’
The celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys worked for Downing, and wrote that his master was: a ‘perfidious rogue’, while claiming that, ‘all the world took notice of him [for his betrayal of Okey] for a most ungrateful villain for his pains.’
That said, he was generously rewarded for his useful treachery: Downing was given a baronetcy the following year, and continued accumulating a fortune that allowed him to buy up property in Cambridgeshire and London. His name, of course, is consequently attached to the official address of this country’s prime ministers.
Another to suffer the traitor’s barbarous end of a public butchering was Gregory Clements. One of the last of the fifty-nine to sign the king’s death warrant, Clements was a successful London-based merchant, with overseas business interests that stretched from the Bahamas, to his large landed estate in Ireland. Clements had been a Member of Parliament, until caught in flagrante with a housemaid – unacceptable behaviour in a time of such rigid Puritanism. This was a regime that saw London’s prostitutes arrested in large numbers, the celebration of Christmas forbidden, and the capital’s Bankside Bear Gardens – where wild animals had been baited and killed for sport for generations – closed down. (As the final act in this place of animal suffering, the bears were shot by firing squad – except for one, light- coloured, cub that was spared.)
Clements judged that his best hope of avoiding capture was to lie low in London, rather than join the general exodus fleeing through Channel ports: he realised that Royalist authorities were searching for fleeing regicides there. Clements moved to a ‘mean house in Purple Lane near Gray’s Inn’. But he was unable to curb the expensive tastes acquired during his years of commercial success, and the authorities noticed particularly fine food being delivered to his very modest address. Suspicious, they searched the property. Clements was on the point of getting away when a blind man recognised his voice. He was soon hanged, drawn and quartered.
Many of the king’s killers succeeded in avoiding that fate. A colony of them formed in Switzerland, where they were the target of fortune-hunters and assassins, but most persevered till natural death claimed them. Others hid in the American colonies – though some of these did so in such miserable circumstances (as shown by their pitiful letters home) that you have to wonder if it was worth it. Others were spared their lives, but endured hor- rific prison conditions – at home, and in foreign outposts such as Tangier. As they suffered the backlash that accompanied the Restoration of Charles II, they must all have thought frequently of the reason they remain so intriguing today – their part in one of the most momentous moments in history, when fourscore men dared to kill a king.
Killers of the King, by Charles Spencer, is published by Bloomsbury on 11th September, 340pp, £20 (hardback)