The Hunt For The Regicides

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The death warrant was signed on Monday, and the business was then pushed with all haste. At ten o’clock on Tuesday morning—it was January 30, 1649 —Captain Hacker brought King Charles out of St. James Palace. The air was still and very cold—ice was piled up under the Thames bridges. Charles walked briskly, urging his guard to be quick: “March apace!” To the solemn muted roll of drums he crossed the park between lines of soldiers and entered Whitehall.

The death warrant was signed on Monday, and the business was then pushed with all haste. At ten o’clock on Tuesday morning—it was January 30, 1649 —Captain Hacker brought King Charles out of St. James Palace. The air was still and very cold—ice was piled up under the Thames bridges. Charles walked briskly, urging his guard to be quick: “March apace!” To the solemn muted roll of drums he crossed the park between lines of soldiers and entered Whitehall. The crowd that had streamed in from all over London shivered in the streets, packed tight as pebbles on a beach. About two o’clock Hacker, who was observed to have been seized with trembling, escorted the King along the corridors of Whitehall Palace and through a dismantled window of the banqueting hall directly onto the broad, black-draped scaffold. There, at last, Charles saw the block with its iron staples and tackle, the close ranks of soldiery, the masked headsmen grotesque in false grizzled beards and wigs. With composure, the King made a short speech, and then, handing his “George” (a jewelled collar from which hung a pendant of St. George slaying the dragon) to Bishop William Juxon with the one word, “Remember!” he pushed his hair up under a white satin cap and lay down (o the block. The axe glinted; a shudder ran through the crowd and a vast groan echoed up the streets. In that instant the fifty-nine signers of the death warrant became regicides.

Their lives would never be the same again. For the next decade they struggled to make a success of the Commonwealth government and, failing, watched in despair the Stuart Restoration of 1660. At the return of Charles II, regicides who had had the good fortune to die in peace during the Commonwealth were condemned posthumously, their bodies exhumed and abused, and their heirs’ property confiscated. Of the living, twenty-four vanished into royal dungeons or were executed with the cruelty reserved for traitors: a mere dozen escaped abroad. The three who fled to the American colonies have written a dramatic page in our history.

Among those who dared to kill a king on that fateful day in 1649 were Edward Whalley, William Goffe, and John Dixwell. In the gray, strenuous world of the Puritan revolt they were mighty men, deeply committed to an astringent and demanding faith, and strong in the conviction that the political cause for which they fought was just. As they saw it, Charles Stuart had threatened their political and religious liberties from the moment that he ascended the throne in 1625. Dissolving stubborn Parliaments, ruling by council and decree, levying new taxes to pay for his disastrous misadventures on the Continent, Charles had alienated all defenders of parliamentary rights. Further, his attempt to force the Prayer Book on the churches had raised cries of popery from Puritans. The Calvinistic Scots revolted. With King, nobles, and church leagued against Parliament and people, the issue was joined beyond conciliation; only arms would settle it. Charles had raised his standard at Nottingham in August of 1642.

Whalley, Oliver Cromwell’s cousin, had thrown himself into the civil war at the first rattle of sabers. With the zealot’s eye he saw the King as a traducer of liberties, and the established church as Roman Catholicism in disguise. Essentially he was a soldier, but like many men in an era when the rawest recruit argued theology and politics over the campfire, he was up to the elbows in affairs of state; and he was appointed one of the 135 members of the special High Court of Justice that tried the King. About half of those appointed never attended, but Whalley missed only one session of the Court and stood up to vote for the execution. He was among the fifty-nine signers of the death warrant, writing his name in fourth place, immediately after the bold, fierce signature of Oliver Cromwell.

William Goffe had married Whalley’s only daughter, Frances. His career paralleled that of his father-in-law, and their lives were knit to the end. An able soldier, a frequent “prayer-maker, preacher and presser for righteousness and freedom,” he attended a meeting of officers gathered for mutual counsel on the fate of the King and spoke with such fervor, and invoked God’s wrath on Charles with such eloquence, that tears flowed. Goffe voted for the execution and signed the warrant in fourteenth place.

Compared to Whalley and Goffe, Dixwell was a quiet one. His ability to vanish into the wainscoting was to serve him well in his later years as a fugitive. He sat in three Parliaments and was twice a member of the Council of State, a position that he held at the time of the King’s trial. Never distinguished as a soldier, he was commissioned as colonel of a Kentish troop after the fighting was over. There is evidence, taken from the trials of the regicides in 1660, that Dixwell was less than enthusiastic about the condemnation of Charles. However, he attended the sessions regularly and signed the warrant thirty-eighth, in a precise, clerical hand.