The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I (review)

So, it has been a while since my last, yet again. Things I learned: teaching American History is very easy and Winstanley had a very interesting mind. I am currently trying to rework an article to make it publishable (we will see how that goes) and am looking for full-time employment. It is likely that I will be leaving academia. Oh, and my first article just came out in Parliamentary History. But on to the topic of this post.

I will be writing a partial review of Jason Peacey, ed., The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001). I have read chapters from this book before, but I recently called it back up from the library to look it back over while putting some polish on my article. I have not read all of the pieces and I will not even be reviewing all of the chapters that I have. For instance, Jason Peacey’s chapter, “Reporting a Revolution: a Failed Propaganda Campaign” is worth a read, but because I discuss it in my article, you can see some of my take on it in my article, if it ever comes out. Instead I will be reviewing these chapters:  John Morrill and Philip Baker, “Oliver Cromwell, the Regicide and the Sons of Zeruiah”; John Adamson, “The Frighted Junto: Perceptions of Ireland, and the Last Attempts at Settlement with Charles I”; Sean Kelsey, “Staging the Trial of Charles I”; David Scott, “Motives for King-Killing”; Andrew Sharp, “The Levellers and the End of Charles I”; and Elliot Vernon, “The Quarrel of the Covenant: the London Presbyterians.”

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the regicide is when Oliver Cromwell decided to kill the king. After all, his decision was the most important. One of the traditional dates for this decision is late December (perhaps Dec. 26) 1648 and the failure of the earl of Denbigh’s mission to reach some kind of accord with the king. This mission has traditionally been dated Dec. 25. Gardiner believed that while Cromwell had wanted to save the king’s life, Charles’s refusal to even meet with Denbigh turned Cromwell against him (Gardiner, 4:285-7). Recently, Mark Kishlansky has thrown this chronology into disarray. In “Mission Impossible: Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and the Regicide” (2010), Kishlansky argues that the Denbigh mission never happened. I bring this up because Kishansky’s argument, which appears sound, has to force us to reevaluate the sequence of decision-making, but these chapters were written nearly a decade before Kishlansky’s piece was published. They all assume the existence of the Denbigh mission. I want to be clear, I do not fault them for this; everyone accepted the existence of the Denbigh mission. Their arguments just have to be taken with a little more salt.

Ch. 1: Morrill and Baker, ” Oliver Cromwell, the Regicide and the Sons of Zeruiah,” 14-35.

Morrill and Baker seek to show the evolution of Cromwell’s thinking about Charles from October 1647. They do this using the lens of biblical allusion. Perhaps my favorite line from the whole piece is that “there is not a shred of evidence from this period that Cromwell read anything other than the Bible” (17). The authors argue that Cromwell was not opposed to monarchy itself before the regicide, but he became convinced by early November 1647 that God wanted Charles to be struck down, but he was uncertain about his and the army’s role.

The piece gets its title from one of Cromwell’s allusions. When Col. Harrison called for the prosecution of the king in 1647, Cromwell made a reference to David saying that he would not prosecute Joab for killing Abner because “the sons of Zeruiah were too hard for him.” The implication was that while Charles did deserve punishment, he was too dangerous for justice. The constant refrain throughout the chapter is that Cromwell wanted Charles dead, but also believed that killing him was a bad idea.

Morrill and Baker conclude that Cromwell was resolved on trying Charles by Nov. 25, 1648, but he had not committed himself to abolishing monarchy or necessarily killing the king, though the latter was a definite possibility. They show that Cromwell was not interested in overthrowing the monarchy through his references to the story of Gideon and Isaiah.

My own grasp of these biblical allusions is very weak, so I am not in a position to evaluate their accuracy, but from what I can understand Morrill and Baker have done something very interesting and useful here. It is generally accepted that Cromwell was a very devout man, and so it seems odd that there has not been more of these studies before now. In the absence of clear evidence about Cromwell’s sentiments leading up the regicide, his biblical reading and meditation are the best ways to understand his thinking.

Ch, 2: Adamson, “The Frighted Junto,” 36-70.

It may not surprise you to learn that Kishlansky took a very unflattering view of Adamson’s chapter. If there was not Denbigh mission, many parts of Adamson’s argument become suspect. However, he does follow through on one of his main purposes for his paper: to remind us that Charles was the king of three kingdoms. He also wants to explain the delay between Pride’s Purge and the king’s trial and the last minute attempts to make an accommodation with the king, particularly the Denbigh mission, despite the fact that the New Model’s “clarity of purpose . . . had shown through its public manifestos in November” (36-7).

Adamson, in keeping with his views of the wars as a final baronial revolt, puts a handful of lords at the center of the politics of the regicide. The delay of the trial was part of an attempt to get some of the Independent peers on board, or at least to keep them from becoming enemies. Warwick was a key figure in this because he controlled the fleet. Because of the “revolted ships” (mutinous ships that broke off from the rest of the fleet) and a potential invasion from Ireland, it was very important to keep Warwick happy.

Adamson makes a lot of guesses about secret meetings and peace proposals. For instance, he argues that Warwick brought proposals to settle the kingdom of some sort to Fairfax, but it is not clear what those were. Also, he argues that the Independent peers used the new of a trade agreement between the Dutch and the Kilkenny Confederation, making them defensive allies, to put pressure on the army to reach an accord with the king. The evidence for these meetings and plans do not appear to rest on clear evidence, but appear to be rumors more often than not.

There is much clearer evidence for the fear of Ormond. The army was enraged by Charles’s attempt to start a third war. Adamson also argues that the Denbigh mission was part of an attempt to halt plans for an Irish invasion. However, with the failure of the Denbigh mission, Cromwell began to accept that there would have to be a trial. Adamson believes that Cromwell had been trying to postpone or avoid a trial, and instead wanted to exact justice against notable royalists.

When it looked like Charles, Ormond, and Inchiquin were planning to go forward with an Irish invasion, the Lords tried to get parliament to pass a bill that made it treason for a king to raise a new war against parliament, which would have absolved him for the last two wars, but not if he launched a third; it was a threat. According to Adamson, attempts to reach an agreement with the king to halt an invasion continued, perhaps into the trial. However, “what the trial established, then, far more decisively than the monarch’s guilt for crimes past, was Charles I’s continuing determination to fight another war” (61). Adamson ends with the provocative line: “On the scaffold outside the Banqueting House, Charles I became the first casualty of the Cromwellian reconquest of Ireland” (62).

If there was no Denbigh mission, than much of Adamson’s argument does not hold up. Even so, there is not much supporting evidence for the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that the Lords were supposed to have been behind. However, the arguments concerning the fears of an Irish invasion appear sound. So much focus has been made on Charles’s “blood guilt” that, in much of what I have seen, not enough attention has been paid to Charles’s intention to start a third war. If the second was damning, the third would have been wantonly evil. In this way, Adamson has integrated the story of the regicide into the revisionist “wars of the three kingdoms.”

Ch. 3: Kelsey, “Staging the Trial of Charles I,” 71-93.

If you have not read any of Kelsey’s pieces, he wishes to prove that the trial of the king was not originally intended to be a show trial, but was part of an “extended negotiation” with the king. This negotiation failed because Charles refused to submit to the court and enter a plea. The piece in this book refers to that argument, but seeks to make a much more guarded point, that the people involved with the trial had different goals in mind, and not all of them were intent on regicide. Kelsey uses the symbolism of the materials used on the court and the insistence on there being a trial in Westminster under parliamentary control prove the above point. As an example, he argues that, because most of the commissioners appointed to the High Court of Justice were connected to parliament and because the trial was held in Westminster rather than Windsor, the message to Charles was that parliament was in charge and that the ancient constitution was not being threatened.

Kelsey’s other works have recently been taken to task by Clive Holmes, who dissects and disproves many of Kelsey’s arguments. My own work on the regicide, which may or may not be published sometime in the future, has also worked against Kelsey’s interpretation. However, the more careful point that Kelsey makes toward the end of this piece is more compelling. He says that “the trial had not been intended as a ramp for a republican settlement. By giving all parties something to hold onto, it had become the only way to keep on board as many parliamentarians as possible after the revolutionary hurricane broke at Westminster in December 1648” (86). While I am not sure that agree with all of the interpretations of the evidence here, this point warrants more consideration. If we are to follow Underdown and Worden, as I assume that we should, that in the aftermath of the Purge, Cromwell and the New Model officers tried to bring as many moderates on board with the new government as possible, even to the point of watering down the Engagement to the new government and cost of readmittance, why should this have not been the case with the High Court of Justice? When you kill a king, you do not want to be standing alone, after all, and by bringing on more moderates, you might be able to counterbalance the more radically minded conspirators (86).

Ch. 6: Scott, “Motives for King-Killing,” 138-60.

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece though, as Scott admits, there is not enough evidence to be certain about much. Scott wants to try to give backgrounds to some of the regicides to better understand why they would have signed the death warrant. While he cannot discuss all of them, he instead chose to focus on the regicides from the north: Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, Durham, and Yorkshire. There were a surprising number of regicides from these five counties, and Scott wants to know why.

Republicanism was not a major motivator for most of these men. Scott frequently pointed to defense of godly religion as being centrally important, but it is not always easy to see how he made those leaps. For instance, with regard to John Alured, Scott assumes that because he did not appear to be a social or political revolutionary, “his motivation for regicide was either millenarian zeal or militant Puritan notions concerning the workings of providence” (145).

I enjoyed this piece as much as I did because it brought back the three-kingdom problem. In this case, the problem was not Ireland, but Scotland. Scott reads into these men, and the north in general, a powerful anti-Scottish feeling. Scott points out that these counties had the most experience with the Scottish armies, as allies to the English parliament and as enemies. Therefore, when the king allied with the Scots, he earned their hatred. This combined both the three-kingdom dimension to the war and the sense of Charles’s blood guilt.

Ch. 8: Sharp, “The Levellers and the End of Charles I,” 181-201.

Sharp’s overall goal is to explain how the Levellers came to be accused of royalism despite their anti-monarchial writings. He also wants to explain why the Levellers, who should have been overjoyed by the regicide because they had been asking for the king to be punished for years, came to oppose it. In short, the Levellers were ambiguous about the regicide when it happened. They came out against it because they were upset with the way the army was settling the kingdom, or, in Sharp’s words: ““Leveller royalism, such as it was, was the accidental production of the odium in which they held the new regime” (198).

Sharp’s argument is fairly simply stated and his evidence is not new, taking lots from Leveller pamphlets, particularly Lilburne’s Legal Fundamentall Liberties, so I am not going to go too deeply into it. The argument makes sense and does a good job of explaining the gap in Leveller propaganda in late 1648 and early 1649. He shows that Lilburne, from the start of the Whitehall Debates, made it clear that he did not trust the army to carry out justice against the king before they settled the kingdom, because he believed that the king was necessary to counterbalance the army for the time being. This is where Leveller royalism came from. I would recommend reading the chapter.

However, Sharp makes two points that, while not critical to his argument, were more questionable. Sharp agrees with Lilburne that Ireton used the debates over the Agreement to distract the Levellers while he and the officers went about preparing to execute Charles. This may be true, but it is a contested point, and I am not sure that there is enough evidence to prove it. Second, he points out that the Moderate supported the trial and execution, but refers to the newsbook as a Leveller paper, following Howell and Brewster. This would seem to work against his argument which depends on the Levellers having mixed feelings over the High Court of Justice. My own reading of the Moderate is that it was not a Leveller newsbook, but a radical Independent publication. This generally agrees with the interpretation by Jürgen Diethe, though I differ with him on a number of details. I would say that you could read about that in the fourth chapter of my dissertation, but it won’t be available for another 1.5 years. In any case, this latter reading of the Moderate helps to smooth out Sharp’s argument for the better.

Ch. 9: Vernon, “The Quarrrel of the Covenant”

I admit that I had never paid too much attention to the Presbyterian response to the regicide. I have looked at a lot (probably most) of the surviving pamphlets from this period and I noted some consistent themes, but because it was not my primary interest and what I saw generally seemed to match what I expected, I did not adventure further. Vernon explains the main thrusts of Presbyterian propaganda in this period as they sought to stop the regicide.

There were a few steps to this process. First, the Sion College ministers had to prove that they could legitimately get involved in politics. They used Paul and various parts of the Old Testament to do so, arguing that it was their duty to renounce sin or else be stained with it.

Then they had to answer charges that their own declarations from earlier in the war made regicide possible. They argued instead that it was the army that was breaking the rules of resistance. The Presbyterian ministers said that they had argued for resisting Charles through the lesser magistrate theory of resistance; parliament, which was itself part of the supreme authority over England along with the king, could justly resist the king. The army, however, was a “multitude of Private Persons” who had no authority to resist on its own (207).

The ministers kept going back to first engagements to demonstrate the army’s error. After all, if the army had been created by parliament to resist the king, how could the army use force against it? Also, if the war was about defending rights, privileges, and religion, what authority was there to kill a king? The Presbyterians kept going back to the Covenant, which itself became a “Presbyterian shibboleth” (212). This was a religious oath that the Presbyterians believed the army was breaking and in doing so threatened the country’s relationship with God.

There is a bit more to the argument than this, but it became clear that the central part of their argument against the regicide was the Covenant.

A few last general thoughts:

Much has been made over Charles’s blood guilt, and certainly that appears to have been a central motivation for regicide, but one thing that a few of these pieces make is that it was not just the past wars but the threat of future war that made it necessary to kill Charles. In general, more attention needs to be paid to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms aspect and more tangible parts of the war, such as suffering, than religious and political arguments over whether or not it was okay to kill the king While it is no longer a new book, I think it does help to stimulate further thinking about the regicide, and through that, the nature of the conflicts of the 1640s.

I have begun reading Baker and Vernon’s edited collection on the Agreements of the People. With my other responsibilities (child care, household maintenance, applying for jobs, etc.) I only get at best a chapter of reading in a night, but I will be putting together a review of it when I am done. I have gotten a lot out of their work in the past, so I am optimistic about the book. It has been nice having even the limited time that I have to get back into keeping up with the scholarship of the period.

This blog post has already chewed quite a bit of my time, so it has only received very cursory proofreading. My apologies.

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