Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I is a great historical page turner. Charles I was executed following a show trial in 1649. His autocratic style of rule led to conflicts with the English Parliament which sparked the English Civil War that was to claim over 100,000 lives. When Charles I’s son, Charles II restored the monarchy to power in 1660 he sought to avenge his father’s execution. A trans-continental manhunt attempted to bring all of those involved in Charles I’s execution to justice. The execution of Charles I ushered in the dubious benefits of republican rule under Oliver Cromwell (a man whose name is synonymous with massacres and barbarism in Ireland and the deportation of 50,000 Irish as slaves to the West Indies).
Of course “justice” in 17th century England was shockingly different to justice now. Although Charles I had the right to defend himself in a trial it was a show trial with a preordained verdict. Charles I was a poor king. He was arrogant and believed in the divine right of kings to such an extent that he thought he could ride roughshod over the powers enjoyed by Parliament. He convened Parliament irregularly and when he did it was to try and squeeze taxes (especially Ship Money) from his increasingly reluctant subjects. Monarchies generally don’t fall because of a sudden spontaneous revolution. They fall because an inflexible monarch’s actions have infuriated his subjects to such an extent they would rather take a chance on the unknown than continue with the status quo. As far as I know the last monarch to be overthrown was the Nepalese king. He managed the neat trick of both strengthening Marxist opposition to his rule and convincing liberal monarchists that they’d be better off with a republic. Following Charles I’s trial 59 people signed the king’s death warrant. It was these people plus those involved in the execution (the king was allowed a noble execution by beheading instead of the hanging, drawing, and quartering that would be meted out to his killers) that would be pursued by Charles II.
Execution for the regicides involved being publicly humiliated and torn apart in an exhibition of ISIS-like depravity. Spencer spares no details in his description of the executions of those who are caught by Charles II’s men. Were people in the early modern period so different from people today? Why was such extreme violence accepted? Of course those who turned up at executions had their own reasons for doing so, many people avoided such horrific spectacles. Life was significantly more violent in 17th century Europe (quite apart from the greater risk of dying from disease or injury). The current homicide rate in London is about 1 per 100,000 people. In the 1600s it was probably over 40 (and possibly over 50) per 100,000. That would make London, at today’s homicide rates, one of the most dangerous cities in the world (depressingly though you would be safer in 1650s London than in some cities in Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia today).
Killers of the King is excellent at portraying the religious, political, and personal motives behind the actions of those who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Seventeenth century England contained an extraordinary mix of Christian beliefs, many of them apocalyptic in nature, that created a fevered atmosphere. Radical changes were deemed necessary to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Naturally where one group sought the removal of the existing king for religious reasons their opponents had equally deep felt beliefs for fearing that regicide would bring God’s wrath down upon the nation.
Spencer’s account of the trial of the king and the pursuit of his killers is gripping. Charles II’s men scour Europe and the American colonies in search of their quarry. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the fugitives as they continually run for their lives knowing the dreadful fate that awaits them if they are taken alive. However some lack basic common sense, they travel in groups and still dress and carry themselves as elite Englishmen. This makes them relatively easy to find in a Europe of small towns and cities. Spencer is even-handed in his approach, he elicits sympathy for both Charles I and his killers. Both Charles and his killers (although both misguided) genuinely believed that they were leading their country in a better direction. The real tragedy was that their inflexibility played a part in the deaths of over 100,000 people in the English Civil War.