BOOK REVIEW: ‘Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I’: The Extremes of Revenge in 17th Century England

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Before you tackle Charles Spencer’s “Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I” (Bloomsbury Press, 352 pages, photo inserts, notes, index, $30.00) you might want to see if you can handle the gruesome parts of this tale of the search for and disposition of the men who were involved in the beheading of England’s King Charles I on Jan. 30, 1649.
BOOK REVIEW: 'Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I': The Extremes of Revenge in 17th Century England

Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana, and a master of eloquent, evocative prose, describes the process of hanging, drawing and quartering in the book, but he also laid it out (no pun intended) in an interview with the Canadian magazine Macleans:

“Spencer describes the punishment airily, almost brightly. “You were dragged through the streets of London, hanged until you were unconscious, woken up, castrated, gutted, your guts were burnt in front of you while you were alive and at some point in all of that, you died of shock or blood loss. You’d then have your head cut off and stuck in the place of your crime and your body was quartered and sent to different parts of the kingdom as a deterrent. It was, I’d imagine, a fairly unpleasant way to go.””

From a Canadian journalist’s interview with Spencer
Maclean’s Oct. 11, 2014

It’s hard to imagine any other animal creating such a sadistic way of destroying a fellow creature’s life, but in my eighth decade on earth, I’m rarely surprised at any horror emanating from the most flawed species on the planet — human beings.

When Americans  talk of civil war, what took place between 1861 and 1865 was actually a sectional war between the states. The South didn’t want to rule the entire country: They wanted to create their own independent country. In 17th century England, the Civil Wars were actually that: Overthrowing one regime — the Stuarts under Charles I — and the establishment of a republic of sorts under Oliver Cromwell. To many, Cromwell’s creation, which ended in 1660 with the Restoration of the Stuarts under Charles II, the son of the overthrown king, wasn’t much better than the regime it replaced.

On August 18, 1648, with no relief from the siege in sight, the royalist garrison holding Colchester Castle surrendered and Oliver Cromwell’s army firmly ended the rule of Charles I of England. To send a clear message to the fallen monarch, the rebels executed four of the senior officers captured at the castle. Yet still, the king refused to accept he had lost the war. As France and other allies mobilized in support of Charles, a tribunal was hastily gathered and a death sentence was passed. On January 30, 1649, the King of England was executed.

“The Killers of the King” is Spencer’s  account of the fifty-nine regicides, the men who signed Charles I’s death warrant.

Recounting a little-known corner of British history, Spencer explores what happened when the Restoration arrived. From George Downing, the chief plotter, (Downing Street, where the prime minister lives, is named for him) to Richard Ingoldsby, who claimed he was forced to sign his name by his cousin Oliver Cromwell, and from those who returned to the monarchist cause and betrayed their fellow regicides to those that fled the country in an attempt to escape their punishment, Spencer examines the long-lasting, far-reaching consequences not only for those who signed the warrant, but also for those who were present at the trial and for England itself.

The long arm of revenge reached out to Holland, where many of the regicides fled to, Switzerland, a  refuge for puritans under the Calvinist rule of Geneva, and the colonies of New England, where one of the most intriguing searches for two men, Whalley and Goffe, involved New Haven, a separate colony before it was merged into Connecticut.

The old saying about people getting the government they deserve is appropriate when discussing the British Royal families. I don’t think anyone deserved the Stuarts, with the possible exception of King James I. Both Charles I and his dissolute son Charles II were miserable excuses for rulers, in my reading of English history — and my opinion. For all the talk about the Tudors, I don’t think they were much better. Royal families tend to be parasites on the body politic — a harsh view, but one I think is realistic.

Charles Spencer is often tabloid fodder, but with his latest book, “The Killers of the King,” he demonstrates that he’s a historian of substance. It’s a thoroughly sourced, very readable (if you can stand the descriptions of barbaric executions!) page-turner.

Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer

About the author

Charles Spencer, born in 1964,  is the bestselling author of ‘Killers of the King’, and of ‘Blenheim: Battle for Europe’. He worked for 10 years as a foreign reporter for NBC News. He lives with his third wife,  Canadian philanthropist Karen Gordon, in Althorp, Northamptonshire.  He was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford University.


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