Should you ever be passing through the city of New Haven, in the US state of Connecticut, overlooking Long Island Sound, the names of its thoroughfares might strike a memory chord. There are two avenues called Dixwell and Whalley, and a street named Goffe.
As an English Civil War addict, I realised that these three names were those of English “regicide” exiles, who had fled to this American colony rather than face the humiliating and excruciatingly painful execution after the Restoration of 1660. All three, along with 56 others, had signed the death warrant to behead Charles I in 1649 and were therefore on the list of wanted traitors.
Colonel Dixwell had been sheriff of and MP for the county of Kent and had died in New Haven in 1689 at the ripe old age of 82. Edward Whalley was one of Oliver Cromwell’s Ironside cavalry colonels who rose to the rank of major-general. And William Goffe was another Parliamentarian hero who had fought gallantly at the battles of Dunbar and Worcester and later became another of Cromwell’s major-generals under the Protectorate. Both of the last two had been hunted by Royalist agents, forced to exist “in the wilderness”, and both had narrowly escaped the long-armed vengeance of Charles II under the protection of pioneer settlers who shared their Puritan persuasions.
Another group of “regicides” had sought sanctuary in Switzerland at Vevey on the northern shore of Lake Geneva and died there. Chief of them, and last to be buried there, was Lieutenant-General Edmund Ludlow. He had been second to Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, when he governed Ireland, but under the alias of “Edmund Philips” took the different decision to cross the Channel to seek safety in Switzerland amongst like-minded Calvinists. He died in Vevey at the age of 72, but not before he had written his Memoirs, a major source of contemporary evidence for his times.
To abandon wife and children, home and country, estate and status and to choose to live in fear and poverty for the rest of your days might seem an unbearable price to pay, but the alternative for these men was truly appalling.
Ever since the thirteenth century, the penalty in England for high treason had been hanging, drawing and quartering, three words that fail to convey the atrocities they were in practice. Noblemen and royalty were allowed the “concession” of being beheaded; women could be burnt to death at the stake for treason; and sometimes the guilty had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment and disinheritance. However, none of these concessions were offered to regicides. Charles II was determined to take the utmost revenge available.
Usually after cruel, solitary confinement in cold, damp, verminous prisons such as the Tower of London or Newgate, the condemned were transported on low hurdles or sleds through the streets of the capital to Charing Cross or Tyburn. They were permitted to wear only a shirt and a cap and from the scaffold address spectators briefly, though not to excuse or justify their conduct. From then on they were at the mercy of the executioner.
First, the hanging was by way of a short rope which strangled the victim and did not break his neck or spine. Taken down, still alive, he was then castrated and disembowelled with a red-hot metal gouge. The corpse was then beheaded with an axe, the heart removed, and both displayed to prove to the crowd that death had actually occurred! Finally, the body was butchered into four more parts and the severed head stuck on a long pole or pike. All five pieces were placed on prominent public buildings such as Westminster Hall roof, London Bridge, or the City’s gates. Such was the stench of burning human flesh at Charing Cross that local residents complained and afterwards all the executions took place at Tyburn, three miles west of the City.
Those Members of Parliament, lawyers and Army officers who tried Charles I at the end of January 1649 must soon have realised that, however they might be convinced of the justice of their verdict, ultimately it was his life or theirs that were at stake. During his trial, the king never tried to conceal his contempt for his accusers or his conviction that they would suffer for their actions. If, when they began to sit in Westminster Hall, they expected to punish him with no more than permanent exile, by the end most of them were persuaded that a death sentence was unavoidable. Charles intended to become a royal martyr: he would not be cheated by any other verdict.
Even before the end of 1649, the Royalists in exile had taken the first of the King’s murderers into the next world. Dorislaus, the Dutch academic, the first lecturer in History at Cambridge university, a zealous republican and junior counsel for the prosecution against Charles was murdered soon after he arrived back in Holland by a gang led by Walter Whitford, a Royalist colonel. The Council of State brought his embalmed body back to England. It was laid in state at Worcester House on the Strand before receiving a lavish funeral and interment in Westminster abbey.
Less than a year later, a similar violent fate ended the life of Anthony Ascham. He had been sent by the Commonwealth government as resident to the king of Spain, but soon after landing there was murdered by Royalist swordsmen. Ascham had been tutor to the king’s youngest son, James, and had no part in the trial or death sentence, but was mistaken for John Aske, a barrister, who had assisted Dorislaus to prepare the case for the prosecution.
It seemed therefore that the only sure way of avoiding the vengeance of Charles II was to die before he was restored to the throne in 1660. Of the eighty or so “regicides”, more than a quarter had gone during the eleven years since the execution of his beloved “martyred” father. They included three leading Yorkshiremen who had served as commissioned officers in Parliament’s Northern Army under the Fairfaxes, John Alured, Sir William Constable and Sir Thomas Maulverer, and two older men, Sir John Bourchier of Beningbrough and Sir Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough.
(to be continued)