Charles Spencer Looks at King Killers

By: - Jan 22, 2015

The Killers of the King

by Charles Spencer

Bloomsbury Press USA

January 20, 2015


Charles Spencer flies under his own banner as a first-rate historian and a lively, engaging storyteller. Ninth Earl Spencer be damned. He agrees with John Milton that the killing of his progenitor and namesake King Charles I was a distinguished action, an effort to heal a traumatized land.

Charles I was a nice man, but an incompetent leader. Mixing spite, foolishness and determination, he led Ireland, Scotland and England, the three countries he ruled, into a Civil War.  Spencer reminds that Charles I was responsible for the loss of the War. “When your country is consumed by bloodshed, you have to kill the man of blood who did this.” No king had ever been tried before.

But Charles appeared and sat before hundreds of his accusers. More dignified and noble than he had ever been as ruler, Charles rose to the occasion as he approached death. In preparation for the scaffold on a cold winter's day, he asked for a second shirt. He did not want to tremble and have people think it was fear and not the cold.

When his son was restored to the throne, Charles II promised a free and general pardon to supporters of Cromwell who acknowledged his right to rule. But this did not include men intimately involved. Spencer focuses on the regicides, 59 men whose names and seals were written on the King’s death warrant and another 20 who worked to bring the King to the scaffold. A decade before no one would have dared twist the laws and assume the power and prerogative to order a king’s death.

What a bunch of men.  Charles Coote tricked fellow regicides into capture. Colonel Hercules Huncks offered damning evidence against his former allies. Some fled to Switzerland and others to Hadley, Massachusetts.

Spencer was feted by Christie’s on pub day and took to the podium like the Today show correspondent he was for almost a decade. He is as good a storyteller live as he is in print.

Of particular pleasure in the book are blow by blow descriptions of the deaths and executions of various regicides. Isaac Dorislaus, who may have either swung the axe or displayed the King’s head to the assembled multitudes was on a diplomatic mission to the Hague. A royalist discovered him at an Inn, trapped Dorislaus in a chimney and butchered him. We get the picture.

At Guantanamo in the US and even more strikingly with ISIS in the Mideast we are looking at ways the death sentence is executed to convey a message. A message to the living.  Strike fear. No one wants to do what the beheaded did after watching an execution. Spencer spares the reader nothing: bodies disemboweled and dragged, heads pitched on poles. Better to die quick.  

When Cromwell was convicted, he had already died. But was he exhumed and hung and tortured dead, to show anyone who even thought or dreamed of doing what he had done what would happen to them. Execute dead or alive to teach. Wanted dead or alive takes on a new meaning. Message delivered by Spencer as he tells his tale with verve.

 The "Killers of the King", just published in the US by Bloomsbury Press, was a best seller in England. There’s no reason that “The Killers of the King” won’t do just as well in the former colony, who has thrived on tales of royalty gone awry ever since they dumped King George III.