I had a wonderful primary school teacher; loved by my classmates and myself, we were entranced by history lessons he turned into exciting stories. The plots, peopled by heroes and villains, who had the power to determine the fate of others, the events that unfolded were thrilling and sometimes terrifying.
King Charles I (1600-1649) of England, came under my teacher’s scrutiny and got a bad press.
The facts presented were of a tyrant who because of financial extravagance and tyrannical behaviour got what he deserved – removed by Parliament as England, Scotland and Ireland’s leader, he was tried for his role in the suffering and slaughter of his subjects and beheaded.
But was he really so bad, or simply a man who from birth had been brainwashed into believing in his divine right to govern and was unable to accept that the times they were a changing?
Charles Spencer, in his well-researched new book, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles 1, presents a sympathetic, well rounded portrayal of the King of England and the historical events that led to his downfall.A man of strong religious faith and a loving husband and father, King Charles I was bedevilled by money problems; keeping his household and estates financially viable was difficult.
The Parliament of the time, loud voiced and unruly, saw no reason to fund what they saw as the King’s excesses and were determined to wrest power from his grasp.
Charles’ answer to their demands was to try and divorce himself and his finances from parliamentary control.
When this didn’t work, he invoked his divine right to rule and raised an army with a view to dissolving Parliament.
What he didn’t reckon on was the size of the Parliamentary army and the puritanical zeal that had spread through England during the seventeenth century.
People wanted a return to a simple religious life, which included food, shelter and employment for all and they were prepared to die to get it.
The savage civil wars that ensued, bloody, with terrible losses on both sides, many did die.
Charles I lost the first round of the war. Not one to accept defeat gracefully, he raised another army and fought on, hoping for victory and the return of his kingly power.
Charles Spencer writes well – history comes alive as he narrates the factual events surrounding a dark chilling time in the history of the British people.
Captured by Parliamentary forces, Charles I escaped to Scotland only to be re-captured by the Scots who sold him to Parliament.
Charged with being the instigator of the civil wars which caused terrible suffering to his people, the King was denied legal counsel and defended himself.
During the course of the trial he often invoked the divine right of kings to rule and did not reply to the Parliamentary prosecutor – bound to have consequences.
Before and during the trial he was offered deals by Parliament, which could have ensured his head stayed firmly on his shoulders but he would not compromise.
It is not surprising that Parliament, fighting to keep control of a large powerful army who wanted King Charles I to pay for his actions, found him guilty as charged and ordered his execution.
The re-telling of the King’s trial and his beheading is written with poignancy and beautiful clarity.
It invoked in me feelings of sadness for a man, who, right or wrong, went to his death bravely with great dignity. Before the trial began it was difficult to find anyone who would either act as part of the Parliamentary prosecution team or serve as a jury member.
There were two reasons for this: firstly, many parliamentary supporters thought the King should be punished but not executed.
Secondly, there was a real fear of retribution from royalist supporters and sympathisers.
Prevalent in all corners of England and Europe an attack by royalist death squads, hell bent on exterminating the killers of their King, was a risk many did not wish to take.
Parliament put in place a slash and burn policy to weed out royalist sympathisers.
The slashing and burning horrifying, it was only equalled by the terrible price that all those involved in King Charles I’s execution suffered, after his son, King Charles II (1630 – 1685), who had escaped to France, was restored to the British throne in 1660.
The narration then centres on the return of King Charles II and the hunt for the killers of his father.
The regicides, mostly historical figures I had never heard of, were a mixed bunch, lawyers, judges, officers of the scaffold; some working class men who had risen to prominence through long service to the parliamentary cause.
Fascinating reading, the old saying ‘justice is swift and terrible’ was certainly true of the vengeful rampage Charles II, upon regaining the English throne, embarked on to systematically find and punish his father’s killers.
The writing of the hunt for all those involved in Charles I’s death has the hallmarks of a modern day thriller; pacy and riveting it interlaces details of the men’s lives with the grim reality of their flight to escape retribution (some did escape overseas) which presented itself in the form of a grisly death or years of suffering in prisons comparable to WWII Concentration Camps.
I put the questions below to Charles Spencer on his thoughts about the historical figures he re-created in Killers of the King:
Q1. Your scholarly research, detailed and perceptive, have you been able to arrive at a conclusion as to who was the better king for the time in which they served: King Charles I or his son, King Charles II?
I believe Charles I couldn’t really have been a worse king, given the enormous political, social and religious tensions in Britain during his reign. To be fair, he was never meant to be king — his elder brother died after an ill-advised dip in the River Thames — and his temperament was better suited to being a bishop: he loved studying the Scriptures, being a patron of the art, and playing gentle games, such as lawn bowls and chess. And he was a weak man, who generally took the advice of the last person to speak to him. During a time when firm leadership was required, Charles I was unfortunately on the throne. I like Charles II. He was intelligent, if lazy, and he managed to keep the royal show on the road despite many attempts to overthrow him.
Q2. During your investigation of the lives of the killers of Charles I was there one or more of the regicides whose earlier life and fate you would have liked to explore in greater detail than your book format allowed?
There were several of the killers who really struck me as particularly interesting.
The most intriguing, for me, is Edmund Ludlow — I hadn’t even heard of him before I started to research this book, and yet he was quite something: a fine general, accomplished politician, and a great recorder of current affairs. He takes a central role in Killers of the King, and he’s such a fascinating man that I would love to know more about him in his youth. I want to know where his clever judgement of a situation stemmed from — he was a brilliant fugitive, a natural leader, and full of wisdom.
Q3. What’s next for you?
I’m still promoting Killers of the King — I’ve given about 60 speeches on it since it came out in Britain in mid-September, and still have another 14 to go. I can only keep doing this because I believe in the book so much. And then I will start researching my next book, on a similar subject, which I believe has the same potential for being pacy and fun. That’s the intention, anyway . . . !
Thanks to Charles Spencer for adding his personal summations on the real-life characters featured in his book.
Detail, realistically vivid, Killers of the King, is not just for history buffs, it’s a suspenseful exciting read – I loved it!
Janet Walker, Special Features, Victoria, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Comments ©2015 Charles Spencer, author of Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I
Charles Spencer Author Bio
Charles Spencer, author of Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, was educated at Eton College and obtained his degree in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a reporter on NBCs Today from 1986 until 1995, and is the author of four books, including the Sunday Times bestseller Blenheim: The Battle for Europe (shortlisted for the History Book of the Year, British National Book Awards) and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier.