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Regicides (act. 1649), were opponents of Charles I and, generally speaking, involved in his death. On 27 January 1649, the last day of his trial for having ‘traitorously and maliciously levyed war against the present parliament and the people therein represented’ (Wedgwood, 130), Charles I was sentenced to death by the high court of justice, an ad hoc tribunal created specifically for the purpose of trying the king. That court, established on 6 January 1649 by ‘An Act of the Commons Assembled in Parliament’ (ibid., 122), comprised 135 named commissioners, any twenty of whom were to be a sufficient number for the court to sit. The numbers were a telling indication of the Commons' anxious hope for broad participation in the proceedings and its more realistic anticipation of the difficulties involved. The trial of a sovereign by his subjects was without precedent, and it was soon to be clear that recruiting men to that purpose would be no easy task.

Participation in the trial and execution of Charles I

Some commissioners, notably John Lilburne and Bulstrode Whitelock, were on record as having been solicited to serve before the list was drawn, but refused to participate. Most, however, were not given the opportunity to decline in advance, having been named without their prior consent. More than a third of these, forty-seven of the 135 nominated, simply never appeared. Several who did attend one or more preliminary meetings of the court withdrew before the trial began. , lord general of the army, conspicuous by his absence during the four days of the public trial and later criticized for not having intervened to save the king, was present only at the first private meeting of the court. , who attended three such private meetings, stepped down a day before the trial began and later echoed on jurisdictional grounds the king's own protest at the trial that ‘first, the king could be tried by noe court; secondly, that noe man could be tried by that court’ (R. Blencowe, ed., Sydney Papers, 1825, 237). Others, namely , , and , attended several meetings, both before and during the trial, but all claimed to have participated only to have a voice for preserving the king's life, and when that proved not to be possible withdrew before sentence was pronounced.

Still, whatever their initial hesitations or subsequent excuses, more than eighty named commissioners were deeply complicit in the proceedings of the high court and were later at risk of being branded as regicides. That, however, did not prove to be the result. Politics, the law, and the weight of tradition have treated most of these commissioners more leniently, limiting the designation of ‘regicide’ to a maximum of sixty-nine. Of those, sixty-seven were present at the end of the four-day trial and were recorded as having stood to signify their assent to the sentence. On 29 January all but ten of the sixty-seven signed the death warrant. and , two commissioners who were not present at the sentencing, added their names to the warrant, bringing the number of signatories to fifty-nine. The following day, 30 January, Charles I was brought to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall and beheaded. It would therefore appear that there were sixty-nine commissioners directly and most immediately involved in the destruction of the king, either in sentencing him to death on 27 January or in subscribing the warrant for his execution two days later. If these sixty-nine had been the only men proceeded against at the Restoration or the only men singled out by later commentators for condemnation, the designation ‘regicide’ would be a simple matter, but neither was the case.

Statutory retribution and royal mercy in 1660

In May 1660 the monarchy was restored, and consistent with his declaration of Breda, Charles II sought a general pardon for all except those to be agreed upon in parliament. The king would probably have been content with only a handful of exceptions. In the early years of his exile Charles had even suggested limiting his vengeance to only one member of the high court, its president, , and later he spoke of a mere five, or possibly seven, exceptions. When, in summer 1660, the House of Commons seemed vindictively inclined to extend its retribution further Charles implored the members to except none other than the ‘immediate murderers’ of his father. ‘[A]s the king saw them quick in their justice, so he thought them too slow in their mercy’ (Englands Triumph, 115). The result, after months of squabbling and hard bargaining, was that in August a total of 104 men were named and excepted from ‘An act of free and generall pardon indemnity and oblivion’ and were to be subjected to varying degrees of punishment. Of those, forty-nine named men then living, plus two unknown executioners, were selected to be tried for capital crime, being designated as persons ‘to be proceeded against as traitors’ for their ‘execrable treason in sentencing to death, or signing the instrument for the horrid murder, or being instrumental in taking away the pretious life of our late soveraigne Lord Charles the first of glorious memory’ (12 Car. II c. 11).

Nowhere in the act did the word ‘regicide’ appear, either to define the crime of killing the king or as a label for those responsible for it. The word itself was unrecognizable in law. Regicide was a sin, but it was not a crime. In English law it never had been. The government therefore eschewed the word, abandoning the debate over its use to the arena of popular discourse, where the allegations of regicide were trumpeted from the pulpit and elaborated in the press. Accordingly, every man arraigned, tried, and convicted in 1660 was brought to justice for the crime of high treason, for compassing and imagining the death of the king, as set forth and defined by 25 Edward III (1352). Nor was any reference made in any of the legislative or judicial proceedings to the execution of Charles I. In 1660 such references to the event as there were spoke only to his murder and to the treason of the men who committed it. Men might be damned loosely for regicide, but they would be condemned legally for treason.

The term ‘traitor’ was wide enough to encompass as many men as parliament chose ultimately to identify and as Charles II in the end would allow. As well as the forty-nine living and the two executioners, a further twenty-four men, since deceased, all of whom save one, , had either signified their assent to the sentence on the last day of the king's trial or had signed the death warrant, were to have their property subject to forfeiture. By that count then there were at least seventy-four commissioners on record as having been proximately responsible for taking the life of the king (seventy-five if Fry is to be included) and who might reasonably have been styled ‘regicides’ if that term had ever been accorded any status in law. And this figure excludes an additional seven men who were excepted from the pardon but not put at risk of punishment extending to their lives, and a further twenty whose lesser punishment was their having been barred by the act from accepting or exercising any ecclesiastical, civil, or military office.

Identifying ‘regicides’

It was left therefore to contemporaries, and later to polemicists and historians, to apply the regicide label as they might choose, and for that reason there has been considerable disagreement about whom to include. At first relatively few commentators used the word ‘regicide’ at all, preferring instead the designation ‘murderer’ to identify anyone associated with the king's trial and execution. Neither word, however, was employed with much precision. John Evelyn, one of the first to use the term in reference to the execution of Charles I, recorded in his diary on 11 October 1660, that ‘this day were those barbarous Regicides, who sat on the life of our late King, brought to their Tryal in the old baily’, implying that he was restricting the word to the king's judges (Evelyn, 3.258). Yet six days later, commenting on the result of the trials, Evelyn noted the execution of ten of these ‘murderous Traytors’ and included among them , , , and , none of whom were members of the high court and had not therefore passed sentence on the king nor signed the warrant of execution (ibid., 259). Gilbert Burnet ran to even greater imprecision. After the initial executions Burnet indiscriminately labelled all the remaining miscreants as regicides, making no attempt whatever at either enumeration or definition. He merely observed of those still living that ‘though the regicides were at that time odious beyond all expression … the king was advised not to proceed further’ (Burnet, 1.281). It may therefore have been William Winstanley in 1665 who first offered an exact number, although he too avoided attempting a definition. In his Loyall Martyrology he named a total of eighty-four men, counting sixty-nine as the king's judges and then listing an additional fifteen as ‘accessory regicides’ (Winstanley, 144). Included in the latter group was , who had refused to serve as one of the high court commissioners and who had no role whatever in the trial of the king, but who was none the less excepted from the pardon and who in 1662 was tried and executed, an unfortunate victim of his republicanism, religious radicalism, and, perhaps most important, his lack of contrition.

Later writers have shown less reluctance to number the regicides, but no greater certainty about whom to include. Those taking the most restricted view have been willing to count only those commissioners who signed the warrant for Charles's execution; others have widened the category to add all who sentenced him to death. But because the 1660 act excepted from pardon any who had been ‘instrumental in taking away the [king's] life’ the category of regicide has proved seductively elastic. In the early eighteenth century the anonymous author of A History of King-Killers ran the number of 1649 regicides into the hundreds; in 1798 Mark Noble, somewhat less expansively, chose to include all 135 named commissioners in his Lives of the Regicides; and at the end of the twentieth century historians were still not agreed on how to either contract or amend that number. Most however have conceded that four men standing outside the category of the king's judges are none the less properly on the list, largely because all were excepted from the Act of Pardon, but more importantly because all were tried, convicted, and executed: John Cook, the principal prosecutor at Charles I's trial; Daniel Axtell, the commander of the guard at the trial; Francis Hacker, commander of the halberdiers charged with custody of the king during the trial; and Hugh Peter, the fiery preacher who had no official function at the trial but who had conspicuously demanded from the pulpit that Charles be called to capital account. Some historians have also accepted several other functionaries at the trial as regicides: Andrew Broughton and John Phelps, the two clerks of the court, and Edward Dendy, the serjeant-at-arms. All three were excepted from the general pardon. Even more elusive are the two masked executioners, who might well be styled regicides. Their identities remain unknown, although it seems very probable that , hangman of London, was the one who delivered the fatal blow. In sum, there is no agreement about the length of the list of regicides or about whom to include in that list—nor in the absence of an accepted definition, legal or otherwise, is it reasonable to expect that there could be.

Forfeiture, exhumation, assassination, and exile

All that is certain is the number and identity of those named and excepted from the Act of Pardon. Not all, however, proved to be within the reach of the king's justice. Twenty-four men excepted from the pardon had already died. For twenty of these the act limited their post-mortem punishment to the forfeiture of their property, but a more exacting vengeance was reserved for those most despised: John Bradshaw, , , and . Their remains were directed by order of parliament to be exhumed and then, on 30 January 1661, the anniversary of Charles I's execution, to be hanged, beheaded, and cast into a pit below the gallows. One other deceased traitor, curiously omitted from those excepted from the Act of Pardon but no less complicit in ‘taking away the … life of the king’ was , counsel to the high court of justice, who was instrumental in drawing up and managing the charges against the king. On an official diplomatic mission to the Netherlands for the republican government in May 1649 Dorislaus was murdered by English royalists, becoming thereby the first of two assassinated abroad for his role in Charles's trial and execution. The other was who, having fled to the continent at the Restoration, was tracked down and murdered in Lausanne in 1664.

In all there were twenty others who chose to become fugitives on the continent rather than face the uncertainties of retribution at home. One, , surrendered in Brussels and was returned to England to become among the first to stand trial; he was convicted and executed in October 1660. A similar end awaited , , and , who were apprehended in Delft in 1662 and were also remanded to England for trial and execution. The sixteen remaining exiles fared better in that they all eluded capture and settled, most in the Low Countries or Switzerland, in relative if sometimes anxious peace. Three, , , and , found their way to New England. Dixwell survived under an assumed name in New Haven, while Whalley and Goffe eventually sought a more secure refuge further north in the Connecticut River valley. It was there that, according to local legend, Goffe emerged mysteriously from hiding in 1675 to lead the colonists of Hadley, Massachusetts, in repelling an Indian raid. The best known of the exiles, however, was , probably the one man at large during the 1660s to be regarded by the government as the most capable of reigniting the threat of republicanism and regicide. Yet over time that perceived threat receded, as did the need to keep the fear of regicide actively alive by retaining the anniversary of Charles I's execution as a national day of fasting and humiliation. The 30 January commemorations were many years from disappearing entirely, but by 1689 they were being observed from significantly fewer pulpits. The result was a post-revolution political atmosphere that prompted Ludlow to return to England but the government's memory of regicide, although dimmed, had been by no means extinguished. After he had been in London for several months a royal proclamation was issued for his arrest, and once again he was obliged to seek refuge on the continent, where, in 1692, he was the last of the regicides to die.

Judicial proceedings and their consequences

Those who out of choice or necessity remained in England to negotiate their fate met with differing results. In the regicide trials in October 1660 and , having pleaded guilty at their arraignment, were sentenced to death without trial, but both avoided execution owing to their useful political connections and their having voluntarily given themselves up pursuant to the proclamation of 6 June 1660 requiring the judges at Charles I's trial to surrender within fourteen days. A further seventeen of the accused who pleaded not guilty and proceeded therefore to trial and conviction on the charge of high treason were similarly spared execution, they too having surrendered themselves in response to the king's proclamation. All nineteen had their sentences temporarily commuted to imprisonment, their executions being suspended pending another act of parliament for that purpose. In the end, whether owing to personal contrition, royal clemency, or family and political connections, none was ever executed, most living out their lives in prison. For others it was a different story. Men like , , and Thomas Scott, who were entirely unrepentant, could expect no mercy and were dispatched by the court in 1660 without difficulty. Three others who sat in judgment on Charles I, , , and , were only slightly less defiant, but they too claimed their secular authority as high court commissioners from parliament and their greater authority from God. They too were convicted and executed. Their punishment, like that of the others condemned, was not only for having blown ‘the trumpet of sedition’, but for having succumbed to the thrall of ‘spiritual pride’ (State trials, 5.1055, 1076). It was also convenient to denigrate the origins and status of the regicides. It is true that only one commissioner, , was a peer, but there were no defining social or economic characteristics to describe the high court of justice as a whole. Despite the impression left by a succession of vengeful royalist writers, the commissioners for the trial of the king were just as often men of education and means as they were base-born adventurers motivated in their treason by the desire for economic and political preferment.

In all only ten men were executed as a result of the trials in 1660, being six of the sixty-nine commissioners who sentenced Charles I to death or signed his warrant of execution, plus four others, Axtell, Cook, Hacker, and Peter, all of whom under the comprehensive yet vague heading of ‘being instrumental in taking away the pretious life of our late soveraigne Lord Charles the first of glorious memory’ were adjudged equally guilty. Added to the three (Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey) who were captured on the continent and brought back for execution in 1662, there were still only thirteen men hanged, drawn, and quartered for their treason in 1649 (fourteen if Vane is included), far fewer than the original 135 commissioners and others who in some way were regarded by contemporaries, and could just as easily have been regarded by the law, as responsible for the death of the king. Sir Orlando Bridgman, presiding at the trial of the regicides in 1660, was quick to remind all the defendants, whatever their degree of complicity, that ‘[I]f any of you should say, that we had no hand in the actual murder of the king, remember that they that brought him to the bar, were all as one as if they had brought him to the block’ (State trials, 5.1075–6).

Exemption, official restraint, and the national memory

Many, of course, were inaccessible to being called to capital account for their crimes because they had died before the Restoration, fled into exile, bargained like for nothing worse than being barred from public office, or, like the well-connected , escaped without any punishment beyond the burning of his books, despite his having been the most prominent voice during the republic in defence of the killing of the king.

With treason as the normative pattern of official retribution from 1660 the government was free to proceed as widely as it wished. Specifically there was no need to limit its prosecution to the commissioners who sentenced Charles and signed his warrant of execution. The law could, as it did, extend its reach to include Axtell, Cook, Hacker, Peter, and Vane, all of whom were executed, and William Hulet, a trooper in regiment, convicted as one of the masked hangmen on the scaffold, but in the absence of further proof never put to death. Yet the government and even parliament proceeded with strategic restraint. In place of widespread retribution it was left to the press, and especially to the church through the vehicle of the 30 January anniversary sermons, to keep the memory of the day alive, to nurture the image of national sin, and above all, by preaching passive obedience and non-resistance, to demonstrate that regicide was the predictable, if not the inevitable, outcome of rebellion.

Howard Nenner


12 Car. II c. 11, ‘An act of free and generall pardon indemnity and oblivion’ (1660) · ‘An act of the Commons of England assembled in parliament for erecting of a high court of justice for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart, king of England’ (6 Jan 1649) · State trials, vol. 5 · J. Nalson, A true copy of the journal of the high-court of justice for the tryal of King Charles I (1684) · H. Nenner, ‘The trial of the regicides: retribution and treason in 1660’, Politics and the political imagination in later Stuart Britain, ed. H. Nenner (1997) · C. V. Wedgwood, The trial of Charles I (1964) · A. W. McIntosh, ‘The numbers of the English “Regicides”’, History (1982), 195–216 · M. Noble, The lives of the English regicides, 2 vols. (1798) · W. Winstanley, The loyall martyrology (1665) · The history of king-killers, 2 vols. (1719–20) · Englands triumph (1660) · Evelyn, Diary · G. Burnet, History of my own time, 1 (1894) · A. L. Rowse, The regicides (1994)


group portrait, line engraving, pubd 1660 (The regicides executed in 1660), BM · line engraving, NPG