This is an introduction to my latest Civil War book.
How many names were on the death warrant of Charles I? Did you know that there were fifty-nine? If you are interested enough to read this, you probably know some of them. Oliver Cromwell, of course; that goes without saying. Then the judge, John Bradshaw and Cromwell’s ally, friend and relative Henry Ireton. Perhaps the colourful Henry Marten will be known to you. After that, even the well informed are often struggling. What about the others? Who were they, and why did they do it?
Who were these people? In short, they were puritans, politicians, soldiers, lawyers, bureaucrats, merchants. Some were opportunists, cowards, men filled with spite and personal ambition, while others sacrificed their life for a cause that dominated their lives. To distil the list further, the majority of signers were army officers or MPs, or both. Some of them claimed their place in British history but the majority-a clear majority- are very little known. They signed one of the most significant documents in British history. They deserve to be remembered just for that.
This book fills that gap. There are books on the subject, and very good ones, but some settle on a handful of famous people and some define regicide quite loosely. This book is about all of the names on the warrant. Most books on the civil war mention most regicides mostly in passing, but this one mentions them all with between 500 and 3000 words depending on their importance, and tries to bring together their motivations. The problem inherent in this process is that their relative degrees of importance are compressed- Henry Ireton is more than six times as important as John Venn, but at least the opposite, more common problem has been attacked. The civil war was not all about Cromwell and Charles and without men like John Venn, there would have been no civil war and no regicide.
The plan is to find at least one interesting thing about each regicide which adds to the answer- why did they do it? Not one of the fifty-nine let me down; there was something personally interesting about all of them, and they all provided reasons for why the civil war happened.
This is not a book of mini -biographies. Such a book would both repeat itself tediously and fail to get over some of the similarities between the men that help to explain events A biography, ‘mini’ or ‘maxi’, is not even possible for many of the regicides. The evidence is often scarce and tainted by the centuries of hatred and resentment. Information about character and personality is rare and not always reliable; but it has been pounced on when it is available. It is also a book about men. This is down to the sources. Women mattered in the civil war. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; this applies to many of the men also. When women made a difference, their story has been told where it is known.
Each chapter is a group; some people are so pivotal that they are in a group of one, but the following chapter contains more people in the same group. They can only be grouped by the use of generalisations. Pains have been taken to make the groupings work, but they are never one hundred percent convincing. Some apparent groupings turned out to be illusions; there were six Sussex regicides, but there was nothing about Sussex that united them, apart from their Puritanism. A group called Puritans would have fifty plus members. That Sussex was more puritan than most was not a categorization that shone any light on their motivations and actions. Buckinghamshire was another Puritan county but their regicides could not hang together in the same group, despite the fact that they lived close together and were members of the same extended families.
I know I would say this, but this is an excellent first or fifteenth book on the Civil War. If it is your first, you will be introduced to a variety of king killers, all different but all sharing characteristics that explain the momentum for the 1649 execution. Then, your next journey to the main figures would be easy and better informed. If this is your fifteenth book, then you will meet some people who have passed fleetingly through the narrative before, adding a lot to your understanding.
More details here.
My other books on the Civil War.
10 thoughts on “Introducing ‘ Charles I’s Executioners’”