Review: “Killers of the King” by Charles Spencer

A few months ago, I found out about this upcoming release from Charles Spencer. Naturally, given its subject matter, I was excited. I was jumping up and down when I received an advanced copy of “Killers of the King – the Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I”.

I’ll be frank, this was the first history book I’ve read by Spencer, even though he has written several best-selling history books, many of which relate to the 17th-century, including a biography of Rupert of the Rhine. I’m happy to review it now, as those who read this website are 17th-century aficionados. The views expressed in this review are my genuine thoughts and I have received no remuneration for writing it.

As I began the book, I got the impression that it was going to be a wholly sympathetic look at the regicides (king killers), and I am personally of the opinion that there has been too much work done from historians with extremist views, and so I was somewhat concerned. Would this be, as so many others before it, a purely biased book in favour of the Parliamentarians or the Royalists? As I continued reading, however, my concerns were unjustified and I was very pleasantly surprised to have found it to be one of the most balanced analyses of the English Civil Wars. There is no Marxist-driven agenda a la Christopher Hill, but a remarkably well-rounded look at both sides of a still-controversial subject.

Oliver Cromwell, as painted by Samuel Cooper. © The National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

Still controversial, you ask? Why, yes, for only this week on Twitter (for the anniversary of the death of Oliver Cromwell) there was a rather heated debate between pro-Parliamentarians and pro-Monarchists. It was astonishing to me that, almost four hundred years after the execution of Charles I, and with obviously none of the players living, this topic can still arouse such anger – well, in the people that have bothered to learn about this period in history at all. It’s as though it happened yesterday! Several people became outraged by what another had written, leading to unfollowing – the normal outcome of modern online disagreement.

I found this book to be utterly absorbing, exceptionally well-written and detailed. His numerous sources show someone who has spent a very long time sifting through archival documents. All of his efforts have culminated in a fine historical work that is sure to be of interest to historian and general history reader alike. There were some bits which were naturally gruesome and cringe-worthy, such as:

“Hudson and his men were promised mercy on surrender. However, once the stronghold was secured, the victors poured in, and Hudson was pursued to the rooftop, where he clung from the edge by his fingertips. The Parliamentarians chopped off his hands, sending him plummeting into the moat below. Managing to flail his way to the bank, he was met with a flurry of blows and beaten to death.” (page 19).

In terms of potentially altering my previous views on certain figures involved in this memorable episode in history, Spencer’s book simply re-affirmed those opinions. I must confess that I find very little to admire in Oliver Cromwell, whom I believe to have been a hypocrite and a usurper. He seemed to get furious and there were several examples of his unkind behaviour.

When fellow Parliamentarian John Downes protested about an incident in which the king had been poorly treated:

“The judges withdrew to the Inner Court of Wards…and Cromwell turned on Downes, attacking him for his ill-timed intervention. Downes was reduced to tears by this dressing-down.” (page 48).

For example, Cromwell’s unabashed glee when it came to signing the king’s death warrant is simply another ugly side of his character:

“During the signings, Cromwell and Henry Marten were in such high spirits that they flicked ink at one another from their pens, like naughty schoolboys.” (page 50).

Portrait of Algernon Sidney, Wikimedia

Cromwell also had an argument with Algernon Sidney (who was much later executed for treason following the Rye House Plot of 1683). Sidney did not believe in the legality of the court set up to try the king. Cromwell replied:

“I tell you we will cut off his head with the Crown upon it!” (page 37).

The chapter in which the trial and execution of Charles I was carried out was done sensitively and, again, with a balance I’ve rarely encountered before in this subject.

“The Martyrdom of King Charles I” after Unknown artist, line engraving, 17th century. © National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Charles II was understandably much aggrieved by the violent way in which his father had died, and with the Restoration in 1660, those who had been involved in his father’s execution were punished. With great detail, Spencer goes on to explain what happened to these men. It made for a gripping read, jam-packed with historical information, yet completely readable.

King Charles II by John Michael Wright. Oil on canvas, circa 1660-1665. © National Portrait Gallery, London

I was so impressed by Killers of the King, that I promptly ordered all the other books he has written – and they are in a nice little pile on my desk. I think I’ll tackle Rupert and Blenheim as soon as possible.

I give this book 5/5.

You may be interested, as I am in Spencer’s other works, particularly those about 17th-century figures:

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Hear ye! 10 thoughts — so far — on “Review: “Killers of the King” by Charles Spencer”:

  1. francinehvr

    Lovely write-up. I admire Spencer in that he sticks to the ethos a true historian is devoid of bias in any quarter! That aspect I adhere to and stick to within novels as well. Else history becomes corrupted by “propaganda” written within the era itself, and that of later accounts penned by those with self-interested allegiance to the man or woman of the moment, which serves to enhance bias. Charles 1 was a dictator king, Cromwell a dictator commoner. Each had evil advisors whispering in their ears and both were under pressure to please opposing forces within their own circles – namely ambitious Courtiers and noted voices within Parliament. Far less fuss is made of Louis’ demise or that of Marie Antoinette within France or without it, and yet, it is the Bourbon influence that was part to blame in bringing England to the awful fate of civil Wars.

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  2. chasbaz

    I must read this. I confess to being sympathetic to the regicides, who in many cases were principled patriots who believed they were doing the right thing. Also because i am descended from Goff and Whalley so I am not biased in any way of course!

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  3. Julie McNeill

    Thankyou – I look forward to reading a scholarly work on the subject. As with Politicians of any era, they can shock our core values which they symbolised and as father figures or lovers terribly disappoint or betray us, being mere men afterall.
    Being a plebeian Brummy I was fascinated to read fellow Aussie Geoffry Robertson’s “The Tyrannicide Brief” about Judge John Cooke, who acted as the King’s prosecutor. Thankfully Robertson has brought to life one Puritan whose practice and precedent exists in the International Criminal Court, that ‘rulers who oppress their people must be brought to justice.’
    I’m definitley curious to see how this new book by Spencer adds to our enlightenment.

    Reply
  4. Jeff Adams

    An excellent read.
    One curious point, however: I find it odd that Spencer does not mention ‘The King’s Revenge’ written by two journalists, and in my view a better book than Spencer’s.
    There is no mention of it either in the Bibliography or throughout the book-he must have read it, surely?

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