Escaping the hangman’s noose

Carisbrooke castle on the Isle of Wight where King Charles I was held prisoner in 1648. Sir William Constable of Flamborough was in charge of the guard at the time.
Carisbrooke castle on the Isle of Wight where King Charles I was held prisoner in 1648. Sir William Constable of Flamborough was in charge of the guard at the time.

One of the first of Yorkshire’s regicides to die in 1655 was Sir William Constable of Flamborough, uncle of Sir Thomas Fairfax, and last of an illustrious family. He had been MP for Knaresborough and played a prominent and gallant part in Yorkshire’s Civil War campaigns. He was in charge of the guard at Carisbrooke castle on the Isle of Wight when the king was held prisoner there in 1648. Such was his eminence that he was awarded a state funeral and buried in the Henry VII chapel in Westminster abbey.

John Alured of Charterhouse in Sculcoates (now part of Hull), like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, had been MP for Hull. He was a colonel of horse in Fairfax’s Northern Army, took part in the siege and capture of Bolton castle, and signed Charles’s death warrant. He died in 1659, aged 52.

Yorkshire’s third military regicide who avoided Royalist retribution was Sir Thomas Mauleverer of Allerton Maulever. He sat in the Long Parliament, but the king’s bribe of a baronetcy in 1641 was accepted without change of heart. He was involved in several of the major battles in Yorkshire at Leeds, Adwalton and Hull, taken prisoner at the siege of Pontefract in 1645 and exchanged. During the war he raised two regiments of foot and a troop of horse for Fairfax’s army, but his son, Sir Richard, who fought on the other side, complained that by signing the warrant his father had robbed him of his rightful inheritance. Sir Thomas had an evil notoriety for cruelty and vindictiveness.

Seven of Yorkshire’s MPs refused to sign the death warrant, but of the 135 commissioners appointed to try Charles, 13 were from the county, more than any other, and they were outnumbered only by the Army’s 22 representatives. Similarly, its six regicides were a greater number than from any other county and fewer only than the Army’s 15.

Of the three remaining Yorkshiremen who escaped the hangman by early death, one was Peregrine Pelham, a Puritan merchant of Hull. He was Hull’s civilian representative in the Long Parliament and influential in persuading Sir John Hotham not to allow the king into the city in 1642 and 1643. In 1650 he was elected Hull’s mayor, but died before the end of his year in office. At the Restoration, his estate was confiscated by the Crown and his widow was supported out of Hull’s poor relief fund.

Sir John Bourchier of Beningbrough had been in almost continuous dispute with the Crown from the 1620s. He had refused to contribute to “forced loans” to the royal treasury and objected strongly to encroachments on his land and his rights of common. During much of 1634 he was in prison and fined £1,000 by the Council of the North. He was one of a group of Yorkshire’s Puritan MPs who felt hostile to the king’s chief minister, Lord Strafford, and testified against him at this trial. He died in 1659, unrepentant, and therefore his family forfeited his estate the following year.

Finally, Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough fled to Holland as soon as Charles II returned. By then he was 65-years-old and described as “an old man, full of grey hairs, a thick, square man”. By mid-August 1660 he was dead and buried in the graveyard of Middleburgh’s old church under a stone which named him “George Sanders”, presumably to avoid disinterment and desecration by royalists. Unlike so many of his fellow regicides, he was a hard-drinking, dissolute womaniser, once denounced in Parliament by Cromwell as a “drunkard”. In the words of a historian, he was “as far removed from a Puritan as the East from the West”. At the king’s trial, Chaloner presented to the court the letters found in the king’s abandoned coach after his defeat at Naseby. Their evidence that he had written of his desire to use foreign troops, Irish and French Catholics, Dutch or Danish, against Parliament was damning. Chaloner had never forgiven Charles for “robbing” his family of their just income from the alum industry which they had introduced on their land.

Other “regicides” who escaped execution did so only by dying of privation and ill-treatment in prison: at least five of them on the island of Jersey, at least one in a Tangier prison, and several on Drake’s island in Plymouth Sound, including the Yorkshireman, Major-General John Lambert, who would have signed the death warrant if he had not been besieging Pontefract castle at the time. Lambert spent the last 24 years of his life in prison and died there senile and insane.

Since he had written a pamphlet, “proving” from the Old Testament, that it was legitimate and lawful to kill a wicked and tyrannical king only three weeks after Charles’ execution, John Milton might have been treated as a regicide. However, though all his works were burned by the common hangman in 1660, he evaded all further punishment and was allowed to live out the rest of his days in complete retirement. It was during this time that his greatest poetical works were written and published.

Most regicides died in defiant contempt of their executioners and gaolers. Only by pleading guilty would they have been able to save their dependents and heirs from disinheritance, but few of them did. In fact, most of them died confident of their own salvation and convinced that their cause had been just and honourable. Some, like Whalley and Goffe, Fifth Monarchy believers, were convinced that the year 1666, “the day of Judgement”, would be when “the beast that comes out of the abyss” (ie Charles II) would be destroyed, as foretold in the 11th chapter of the Book of Revelation.

A few were ashamed of themselves for saving their skins and endangering their immortal souls. For instance, William Lenthall, Speaker of the Commons, was spared trial for treason after he had sent a gift of £3,000 to Charles II and testified against Cromwell’s chief intelligence officer. He died in 1662 having ordered that only two Latin words should be carved on his gravestone: Vermis sum (“I am a worm”).

Sir George Downing was a very rare defector. A graduate of Harvard, chaplain and preacher to the New Model Army’s only regiment of dragoons, appointed by Cromwell to represent the Protectorate in the Netherlands, Downing turned his coat and became one of Charles’ double agents and spies, who subsequently tricked and betrayed a number of former comrades. Even Samuel Pepys called him “a perfidious rogue”. Later, London’s most famous street was named after him!