‘Charles I's Killers in America’ Review: Regicides on the Run

Historians in the News
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We Americans look to the Founding Fathers when we think about the American experiment in democracy. But to whom did the Founders turn for guidance? More than a few found inspiration in the England of the previous century, when the conflict between Parliament and King Charles I erupted into civil war. The victorious parliamentary leaders—mostly Puritans—abolished the monarchy, executed Charles for treason in 1649, and established England’s first and only republic, led by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.

Cromwell’s death in 1658, however, left a power vacuum that, two years later, was filled by Charles’s eldest son and the restoration of the monarchy. Fortunately for him, and for Great Britain, Charles II was a shrewder, more tolerant and certainly less obdurate man than his father, who died for his belief in the divine right of kings. Charles II’s return from exile in 1660 was eased by a general policy of toleration and lenience. Only a handful of the surviving parliamentarians who had signed his father’s death warrant a dozen years earlier were ineligible for amnesty.

“Charles I’s Killers in America” tells the story of two regicides who sought refuge in the American colonies, Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe. Whalley and Goffe were figures of some importance in the civil war, and in Cromwell’s commonwealth, but they are more prominent in American annals than English ones. In the summer of 1660 they fled to the Puritan stronghold of Massachusetts Bay. In the colonies, they led an uncertain existence until Whalley died in 1674-75 and Goffe about 1679. No one is entirely certain where or when either died, or where they are buried.

Matthew Jenkinson, a British historian, argues that the saga of the wandering regicides—or “judges,” as they tended to be known for their participation in Charles I’s trial—was once a popular tale in American folklore and that many radical democrats of the revolutionary and early republican era in America were inspired by the example of England’s rebels. There is some evidence for their political influence, rather less for their cultural significance. We tend to shrink a little at the idea of regicide these days, but the insurgent colonists who overthrew British rule, and celebrated the violent end of the French monarchy, felt otherwise. 

Whalley and Goffe were invoked in revolutionary pamphleteering, and they make appearances in novels and plays of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including some minor fiction of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A cave in which they hid in New Haven, Conn., for several months features a plaque commemorating their presence. In 1794, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, wrote a hagiography that included them titled “A History of Three of the Judges of Charles I.”

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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