13

Mischief, Blood, Abduction, Defeat

‘We know not but this may be the last time we may speak to you, or the world publicly. We are sensible unto whose hands we have fallen; and yet we bless God we have those inward refreshments, that the malice of our enemies cannot disturb. We have learnt to own ourself by retiring into ourself, and therefore can the better digest what befalls us.’

Charles I to the Prince of Wales, 29 November 1648

A little before eight on the evening of 30 November, Henry Firebrace entered the king’s chamber to confirm that his worst fears had been realised. Carisbrooke Castle was now occupied by 2,000 infantrymen who had landed on the island the same morning, and ‘some souldiers with pistolls in their hands’ had been noticed ‘busily prying about the House, where the King was lodged’. When the Royalist risings flared in summer and the New Model Army girded itself for the challenge, it had been agreed at a momentous prayer meeting at Windsor ‘that it was our duty, if ever the Lord brought us back again in peace, to call Charles Stuart, that Man of Blood, to an account for that blood he had shed, and mischief he had done to his utmost, against the Lord’s Cause and People in these poor Nations’. Thereafter, Fairfax’s army had gone on to pacify the south once more, while Cromwell’s northern force had little more than mopping up to accomplish. But the current mood remained bitter as well as confident: bitter because of abiding suspicion that Parliament was bartering away the reforms that had been dreamed of for so long and fought for so hard; confident because victory on the field of battle had been so comprehensive. In consequence, on 16 November, the fateful decision was taken that the king should be brought to trial and a remonstrance drafted to limit the term of the present Parliament’s existence.

When, moreover, Charles told Firebrace that they could nevertheless depend upon Hammond’s protection, since he would soon be back from a trip to London on personal business, he was swiftly informed of the Governor’s arrest at Farnham for not ‘rendering such ready obedience to orders as was required’. Hammond had refused, in fact, to hand the king over without orders from Parliament, and consequently been transferred to Reading on parole, leaving Charles with only the slenderest hope that John Newland’s boat might somehow be reached through the chaos of the troop takeover in the November gloom. ‘Commit yourselfe to the mercie of the sea, where God will preserve you,’ Firebrace urged, though the king drew back once more. Instead, he called for further information from the Duke of Richmond, the Earl of Lindsey and Captain Edward Cooke, an officer from Hammond’s regiment who had secretly defected. Cooke, it was agreed, would use his links to the notorious Major Rolph in an effort to glean whatever intelligence might be available before proceeding.

The captain’s return brought little consolation, however, for Rolph could only guarantee that the king ‘shall have no Disturbance this Night’, while Charles himself, notwithstanding the entreaties of his advisers, remained adamant that escape was impossible. Indeed, when they argued that he could exploit the confusion caused by the army’s arrival, and even sent Cooke out through the swarming soldiers to prove as much, Charles continued to demur, as a result of ‘the great Difficulties, if not Impossibility of accomplishing it’. He feared, too, that ‘in case he should miscarry in the Attempt’, it would only serve to ‘exasperate the Army and dishearten his Friends’, and even when Cooke subsequently returned from Carisbrooke with further desperate news, the king would not budge. Hammond’s deputy, Captain Thomas Boreman, had been threatened, it seems, ‘with immediate Death if he but so much as whispered with any of his own Servants’, and was in no doubt that ‘there were some great Designs on foot’, though ‘he knew not what they were’. When quizzed, he had conceded that the abduction of the king was ‘not improbable’ – a prospect fully confirmed by the throng of soldiers continuing to mill about the king’s lodgings in Newport upon Cooke’s return. For guards had now been set not only around William Hopkins’ house and at every window, but within too – even, in fact, ‘on the King’s very Chamber-door, so that the King was almost suffocated with the Smoak of their Matches’.

Faced with so critical a situation, Charles chose to place the burden of decision squarely upon the captain’s shoulders. The officer had faced ‘such Extremity of Weather, the Wind blowing very high, and the Rain falling very fast’ that he was drying himself by the fire when the king asked of him: ‘Ned Cooke, What do you advise in this Case?’ Nor would the king accept Cooke’s ‘humble answer’ that ‘he suspected his own Judgement too much to offer any Advice, considering both the greatness of the Danger, and the Person concerned in it’. On the contrary, Charles now pressed Cooke in a manner that left no further scope for evasion. ‘Ned Cooke, I command you to give me your advice’ were Charles’ final words, to which the captain, according to his own account, responded as follows:

Supposed I should not only tell your Majesty, that the Army design’d suddenly to seize your Majesty; but by concurring Circumstances should fully convince you, that it would be so; Also, that I have the Word [password], and Horses ready at hand, they not being far off, in readiness under the Pent-House, a vessel attending at the Cows, nay hourly expecting me, myself likewise both ready, and desirous to attend your Majesty, and the Darkness of the Night, as it were, fitted for the purpose; so that I can foresee no visible difficulty in the thing; which I suppose in all its particulars to be the true state of the present Case: The only remaining question is, If so, What will your Majesty resolve to do?

It was plainly the most unequivocal invitation to bold action that Cooke could have offered. The key was control of the sentries’ password, to which he had access, and the bustle of activity outside, which might still be exploited to steal the king away against all the odds. Cooke himself had already passed to and fro, employing his so-called ‘Leaguer’, or full-length military cloak, and his aim, presumably, was that Charles might use the same garment to effect his escape. He had also carried out the same ploy with the Duke of Richmond, to show the king how it might be done. However unlikely, therefore, Cooke, who was an experienced soldier, of course, remained convinced of the possibility, and Richmond and Lindsey were equally persuaded that the gamble was worth the try. Yet, after a short pause, Charles finally quashed all hope. ‘They have promised me, and I have promised them,’ he replied, ‘and I will not break first.’ When, moreover, Cooke expressed further concern at ‘the Greatness of your Majesty’s Danger, and Unwillingness to obviate it’, the king’s familiar refrain remained unaltered. ‘Never let that trouble you,’ he declared, ‘were it greater, I would not break my word to prevent it.’

With that, Charles retired to his bed, saying that he intended to take his rest for as long as he could. ‘Which Sire,’ responded Cooke, ‘I fear will not be long.’ Under the circumstances, there was little else for the captain to do than return to his own lodgings, though he did not go to bed all night, he tells us, in spite of the fact that the army’s noose was tightening all over Newport ‘with such Secrecy and Quiet, that not the least Noise was heard, nor the least Cause of Suspicion given’. Over at Netley on Southampton Water, as the wind shifted momentarily over to the south, there were some, it is true, who thought they heard ‘drums, and guns, and noises from the Isle of Wight’. But it was not until daybreak next morning that Charles finally heard a ‘great knocking’ at his dressing room door, and found ‘some Gentlemen from the army … very desirous to speak with him’. In an instant, before the king was even allowed to rise from his sheets, they had ‘rushed into his Bed-chamber’ and ‘abruptly’ informed him of their orders. ‘From whom?’ Charles asked. ‘From the Army,’ came the reply. When Charles then asked where he was to be taken, he was told, ‘after a short whispering together’, that his destination was Hurst Castle. ‘Indeed, you could not have named a worse,’ he rejoined.

Yet there was further vexation to come. Lieutenant-Colonel Cobbett, whom by now Charles realised was the leader of the newly arrived troops, added insult to injury by refusing to show him his orders from General Fairfax. Instead, the prisoner was forced into his coach so quickly that he was left no time to eat the breakfast arranged by Firebrace. Indeed, when Firebrace had arrived to tell him it was ready, he found ‘these wretches’ already leading the king downstairs to hurry him away’. ‘I kneeled downe, and kissed his hand,’ Firebrace tells us, ‘at which he stopped to give me leave to do so, when they thrust him; saying, Go on Sir, and so thrust him up into his coach which was set close to the door.’ But even this was not, it seems, the end of the king’s indignity, for thereafter, as Firebrace relates, ‘one Rolph, who had before attempted to murther him; impudently (with his hat on) stept up into the coach to him; but his Majestie with great courage rose up, and thrust him out; saying it is not come to that yet: Get you out’. ‘Thus disappointed,’ Firebrace continues, ‘[Rolph] took his saddle horse, which was there for his Majestie and got upon him; and so using insulting words, rode by the coach side.’

Permitted by Cobbett to take only those servants ‘as are most useful’, Charles nominated Herbert and Harrington and ‘scarce a dozen more for other service’. Herbert, in fact, had been absent for three days, being ‘sick of an ague’, but now ‘arose and came speedily to his Majestie’ as soon as he was summoned, along with others that included Mr Lewin ‘of the Celler and Buttery’, Mr Catchaside ‘of the Pantry and Ewry’, Captain Joyner, who was retained as Master Cook, and Mr Muschamp ‘of the Wood Yard’. The Duke of Richmond, however, was ordered away from the party, only 2 miles into its journey from Carisbrooke, ‘scarce being permitted to Kiss his Majesty’s hand’. In spite of his sadness, he might have done well to count his blessings, for Charles and his party were headed first to Worsley Tower, one of the bleaker spots near Yarmouth, where they were to await the boat that would eventually take them on their choppy journey to Hurst Castle, which, though only 1½ miles in total, nevertheless took all of three hours to accomplish.

Hurst Castle itself, moreover, would prove every bit as unattractive as Charles himself had declared upon learning initially that it was his destination. Its governor was the singularly unprepossessing Lieutenant-Colonel Ayers, whose appearance did not, it seems, belie his demeanour. ‘His look,’ we are told, ‘was stern, his Hair and Beard were black and bushy [and] he held a Partizan in his Hand, and (Switz-like) had a great Basket-hilt sword by his side [so that] some of his Majesty’s servants were not a little fearful of him.’ Though he ‘quickly became mild and calm’ after an unexpected reprimand from Rolph, and was subsequently ‘very civil to the King both in his Language and Behaviour’, this did little to offset the broader inconveniences of the place he oversaw. For the royal accommodation was ‘neither large nor lightsome’, making it necessary for its occupant to read by candlelight even at noon. The air, too, in this ‘dolorous place’ was ‘equally noxious’ by reason, Sir Thomas Herbert tells us, ‘of the marish grounds that were about, and the unwholsom vapours arising from the Sargasso’s and weeds the salt water constantly at tides and storms cast upon the shoar, and by the fogs that those marine places are most subject to’. The only place for exercise, it seems, was the causeway joining the castle to the coast of Hampshire, some 2 miles in length and ‘over-spread with loose stones a good depth, which rendered it very uneasy and offensive to the feet’. Here alone, when weather permitted, was Charles allowed to trudge the pebbles each day at 11 a.m., conversing with Herbert and Harrington, or sometimes the Governor or Captain Reynolds, his assistant. With three or four soldiers always in attendance, he could look out mournfully across the Solent at the low grey outline of the Isle of Wight and ponder at length the squadron of Parliamentary vessels further barring his passage to freedom.

On 8 December, Charles wrote to Hopkins, asking to be commended to Jane Whorwood and declaring that, though ‘closely kept’, he was also being ‘civilly used’. Only two days earlier, however, his situation had become even more perilous when the army finally purged Parliament of its opponents. The Commons’ decision on 5 December, by a vote of 129 to eighty-three, to continue negotiations with the king had proved in fact the final straw, and sparked the descent upon Westminster of Colonel Pride and his musketeers, who blocked the stairs into Parliament and excluded some 110 recalcitrant MPs. After which, around 160 more proceeded to resign in protest, so that by the middle of January, the remaining ‘rump’ would have difficulty in achieving even a quorum of forty. Compliance was guaranteed, resistance unthinkable. Henceforth, indeed, Parliament was nothing more than a broken reed, pointing limply in whichever direction the army might choose to blow; and what the army now wanted incontrovertibly was the trial of Charles I.

A week or so later, the new status quo was confirmed by Harrington’s dismissal from the king’s service. During a conversation with Governor Ayers and a gaggle of officers, he had enlarged, it seems, upon the wisdom displayed by the king in both his arguments with the commissioners and in his learned disputes with Presbyterian divines. More provocatively still, Harrington had further maintained that but for the intervention of the army, the Newport Treaty might well have succeeded. This, it seems, was enough to guarantee his discharge after he had refused a request to retract his claims. Plainly, the leeway once afforded the king and his circle was no longer available, and though deeply resentful of the outcome, even Charles himself appears to have ‘blamed Harrington for not being more wary among men that at such times were full of Jealousies and very little obliging to his Majesty’.

Nor were what Herbert termed Charles’ ‘melancholy apprehensions’ helped by the visit of Colonel Thomas Harrison, one of Fairfax’s aides, who would eventually join the committee that determined the form of the king’s trial. Tried himself as a regicide after the Restoration, Harrison was plainly a man for the king to fear, as the declaration to his fellow committee members, which eventually led to his execution, made all too clear: ‘Gentlemen, it will be good for us to blacken him what we can; pray let us blacken him.’ So when Charles was awoken by the noise of the drawbridge being lowered at midnight and learned next morning of Harrison’s arrival, he became convinced that an assassination attempt was imminent. Herbert, indeed, claims to have wept upon seeing ‘his Majesty so much discomposed’, and lost no time in discovering the nature of Harrison’s mission from Captain Reynolds.

Much to Herbert’s relief, however, Harrison had merely arrived with orders that the king be removed to Windsor. Far from being murdered, then, Charles actually found himself buoyed for the moment by the news of a stay at one of his favourite castles – ‘a place he ever delighted in’ – and on 19 December, he and Lieutenant-Colonel Cobbett, escorted by a troop of horse, duly made their way along the shingle spit path from Hurst to the mainland, after which they headed for the New Forest and thence to Winchester, where a warm welcome was in store from the mayor, local gentry and common people who flocked to see the king in great numbers, ‘some out of curiosity to see, others out of zeal to pray for his enlargement and happiness’. There was all due formality, too, outside Alresford the following day when the commander of a cavalry squadron lining the road, ‘gallantly mounted and armed’, gave the king an appropriate bow with his head – ‘all a Solade’, as Herbert put it. The officer concerned was, in fact, none other than Colonel Harrison, whose arrival at Hurst had previously caused such alarm, and at Farnham, just before supper that evening, Charles saw fit to confide his earlier concerns to him. ‘The law,’ Harrison replied, ‘was equally obliging to great and small.’ For this reason there had never been cause for the king to fear assassination.

But while the colonel’s reassurance was welcome, this would not prevent a final vain attempt at rescue by the king’s supporters, notwithstanding the fact that he himself was by now finally drained of will and wholly resigned to his fate. Upon taking his leave of Parliament’s commissioners on 25 November, Charles had effectively admitted as much, consoling himself only with the thought that he might be ultimately vindicated by events. ‘In my fall and ruin,’ he had told them, ‘you may see your own.’ But his defeat was no longer in question, and in accepting as much, he was now prepared to submit to what ‘God shall be pleased to suffer men to do to me’. In his exhaustion, it seems, he no longer dreamed of ‘Dutch pincks’ or other waiting boats that Firebrace had said were ‘always ready’. Nor for that matter was there any more consolation to be had from Jane Whorwood’s pleas or Ashburnham’s promises of horse relays ready from Netley to Hastings to ease his escape to the Continent. He had handed himself over to ‘God’s people, now called the Saints’, as they were described by Oliver Cromwell, and they – ‘by providence, having arms’ – were wholly in the ascendant.

In the meantime, Charles had not forgotten his friends at least. On 5 December, indeed, his laundress Elizabeth Wheeler – now ‘Lady’ since her husband’s knighthood at Newport – had taken letters from Hurst to Firebrace and Oudart, and conveyed greetings to Jane Whorwood, who was in London. They were inconsequential in tone and had been sent, as Charles himself admitted, ‘like poor men’s gifts to great persons to gain by giving’, for the king, it seems, now valued human contact more than schemes for escape. From these few letters, he hoped ‘to gain many’ in return, and once more, on 17 December, he appealed to Firebrace that he should ‘not be behind hand’ with Jane ‘in civility’ and should ‘put her in mind’ to answer his letter as soon as possible. Hopkins too received further messages – now signed ‘I’ by the king – urging him to encourage Jane ‘to correspond with me speedily and often’. But when word arrived of another attempt to free him, he showed little of his previous enthusiasm, making clear indeed that any initiative would have to spring from others. For though, as he confirmed to Oudart en route from Winchester, he ‘liked well the instruments you name’, he left no doubt that ‘you at London must lay the design’ and ‘I can only expect it’.

In the event, it was only fitting perhaps that the final escape bid should have proved so desultory. Lord Newburgh, the 27-year-old groom of the king’s bedchamber, had already offered to abduct the king as he exercised along the causeway at Hurst, but the transfer to Windsor had occurred too soon. Now the ever-resourceful Newburghs were again intent upon spiriting the king away as he rested some hours at Bagshot Park. Equipped with a fast horse that Charles knew well from hunting, a breakneck dash through surrounding woods would enable him to elude his captors, or so his friends believed. But the horse, in spite of its reputation as the swiftest in England, went lame, and a wary escort colonel at the head of 1,200 cavalrymen was not to be outwitted by this or any other means. On the contrary, he would hold his prisoner fast and deliver him, as planned, on 22 December – just before the ‘former’ feast of Christmas – to the now cheerless palace of Windsor, the nation’s chief castle and main headquarters of the army.

Though the king found himself lodged in his ‘usual bedchamber’, the chill in the weather outside amply reflected the coldness of his reception within. By now the Thames was frozen and the battlements cold. As Charles walked them with Colonel Whitchcott, his last jailer, he did so without even the consolations of the season, for as at Carisbrooke in 1647, all Christmas festivity was strictly banned. Perhaps as a gesture to his captors, he made sure to dress for the day itself, and was consoled in part no doubt by messages from those close to him, since Jane Whorwood and Lady Newburgh both sent letters dated 25 December. Indeed, Charles informed Firebrace that he had received ‘two letters from N’, before another arrived through the agency of Hopkins, to which the king ‘enclosed an answer’ on 30 December. Three days later there was even a message from the queen, delivered on this occasion by Lady Wheeler, who remained to the end a particularly ‘trusty messenger’ of the king.

But the letters were the last of their kind, and in losing contact once and for all with Jane Whorwood, he found himself beset once more by taunts and provocation. The first few mornings after his arrival were spent in prayer and ‘other exercises of piety’, and the afternoons with Colonel Whitchcott. He also attended church in St George’s Chapel. But the place seemed naked now without the banners of the Knights of the Garter that had formerly hung above the choir stalls, and when Hugh Peter, the ranting Puritan, was selected to preach, the king walked out in protest, though there was no real hiding place on offer. For while most of the common soldiery, in Sir Thomas Herbert’s opinion at least, ‘gave no offence either in language or behaviour’, there were those, it seems, who lost no opportunity to snipe. One unpaid trooper of the garrison saw fit, indeed, to task the king over his diet of £15 a day, and dubbed him ‘Stroker’ – a sneer at the royal practice of touching for the ‘King’s Evil’.

Likewise, though Charles ‘had liberty to walk where and when he pleased’ both ‘within the castle, and in the long terrace without, that looks towards the fair college of Eaton’, there was now, more than ever, a bar to contact with the outside world. ‘None of the nobility nor few of the gentry,’ Herbert tells us, ‘were suffered to come into the Castle to see the King, save upon Sundays to sermon in St George’s Chapel.’ For, prompted by the ‘easy possibility of escape’, Parliament had personally required of Cromwell ‘speedy care of the close securing of the king’s person and preventing of recourse to him’. The Newburghs, it seems, had conveyed a master key to Charles, affording him passage to the river and a waiting boat, but it had been discovered on his person, and no similar lapse in security was to be repeated. Instead, oaths were at once administered to those around the king, forbidding their assistance in his escape, and the prisoner was swiftly transferred to ‘James’s Palace’ – now suitably shorne of its former ‘saintly’ title – on 19 January.

‘Whilst his Majesty stayed at Windsor,’ wrote Herbert, ‘little passed worth the taking notice of.’ Yet Herbert’s account of some of the king’s experiences during this period still captures some of the more personal dramas that occurred within the royal household as altogether more momentous events unfolded in the political world beyond. On one occasion, for instance, we hear how Charles reacted to the loss of a table diamond attached to one of his watches, which, ‘as his custom was’, he wound up every night before retiring to bed. Next day, ‘for near an hours space’, Herbert tells us, the king ‘walked upon the terrace, casting his eye everywhere’ but refusing to confide in the officers of the garrison who ‘imagined he had lost something’. Ultimately, the jewel would literally come to light that evening – ‘by good providence’ – after Charles saw something sparkling in his chamber from the glow of ‘a good charcoal fire’ and the ‘wax light burning’. Herbert, in spite of the king’s distress at losing the jewel, had been bidden earlier ‘not to vex himself about it’, but was now delighted to be able to retrieve the item and present it to his master.

Rather more dramatically, Herbert was also involved in an accident that, as he readily admitted, ‘might have proved of ill consequence, if God in mercy had not prevented it’. The groom was lodged, it seems, ‘in a little back room near the king’s bedchamber, towards Eaton College’, adjoining a back stair that ‘was at this time rammed up with earth, to prevent any passage that way’. In his efforts to keep himself warm – ‘for the weather was very sharp’ – he had laid the pallet on which he slept ‘somewhat too near the chimney’, where two baskets were filled with charcoal. The result – ‘either from some spark of the charcoal, or some other way he knew not of’ – was a fire which soon reached Herbert’s pallet-bed and caused him to run ‘in amazement’ and ‘in a frightful manner’ to the king’s chamber. Yet Charles remained unruffled throughout, notwithstanding the fact that his own door had been bolted from within, as he always ordered. Plainly, the personal danger to which he had been subjected was not inconsiderable. But once the fire had been ‘stifled with clothes’ and ‘confined to the chimney’, he responded with characteristic indulgence. Nor, for that matter, did Charles chide Herbert on another occasion when he appears to have ‘over-slept his time’. Instead, he bought him ‘a gold alarm-clock’ from the Earl of Pembroke’s watchmaker – a certain ‘Mr East of Fleet Street’.

Yet perhaps it was weariness as well as kindness that explains Charles’ generosity. For, as weightier events bore in upon him, the more minor mishaps of his household are certain to have appeared more inconsequential than ever, and the continuing affection of his servants all the more precious. Certainly, the same lassitude that had previously overcome Charles at times of crisis was still much in evidence on more important fronts. Sir John Temple, for instance, remarked upon the king’s striking indifference to the ongoing preparations for his trial, which were proceeding apace. Though his life now hung unequivocally in the balance, he hid in trivia, even ordering that some melon seeds should be kept aside for planting in spring, so that he could enjoy them at harvest time. Desultory talk of long-dead hopes now became his only play at politics, it seems. ‘He hath a strange conceit of my Lord of Ormond working for him in Ireland’, Temple observed on 3 January, noting also how ‘he hangs still upon that twig’.

Even the final exercise of regal pomp, for that matter, was largely reduced to parody, when the royal coach, drawn by six horses, left Windsor on 19 January. For although the roads beneath the castle’s keep were lined with musketeers and pikemen, they were only there to foil the king’s escape, as he passed in silence largely hidden amid Colonel Harrison’s squadron on his last journey to London. The bumpy, ice-rutted road through Brentford and Hammersmith was the same he had taken seven years earlier when fleeing the capital, and now, as he returned largely unnoticed, he was in little doubt that his flight had been in vain. ‘I do expect the worst,’ he had written at Hurst, acknowledging the pass to which he had come, and even then aware, perhaps, of how his whole adult life had ultimately been but a prologue to what was now at last unfolding. ‘I will rather die,’ he had declared in 1638, ‘than yield to the impertinent demands … of these traitors.’ After two wars against the Scots, the acrimony of the Long and Short Parliaments, a bloody Irish rebellion, two civil wars involving five major battles and countless skirmishes, not to mention six or more abortive attempts at peace, he was about to make good his declaration.

Less than two months earlier, Ireton and Cromwell were still intent upon his survival, and even as late as Christmas, they were prepared to spare him as the figurehead of a new government. Even bad Old Testament rulers had, after all, been spared from prosecution, and had not David, as Cromwell declared publicly, refrained from killing Saul? But when Charles confided to his son that his conscience was ‘dearer to me than a thousand kingdoms’, he showed both his measure as a man and shortcomings as a ruler. Made no more compliant by protracted suffering, he had sealed his fate politically, though in the process his humanity had become more apparent, and nowhere more so, indeed, than in his dealings with his own children. The contrast between the austere, distant figure whom Hendrick Pot had painted standing at the other end of a long table from his wife and heir was now in fact subtly but decisively altered. He had worried continually about his offspring’s safety and done his best to spare them from his troubles. ‘Dear Daughter,’ he had written to Princess Elizabeth in 1648:

it is not want of Affection that makes me write so seldom to you, but want of matter such as I could wish; and indeed I am loath to write to those I love when I am out of humour (as I have been these days past) lest my letters should trouble those I desire to please.

No doubt, too, it was love for his children that helped sustain the king as death drew ever nearer. A quarter of a century earlier, on 3 April 1625, John Donne had preached before his sovereign that ‘the Holy Church of God ever delighted herself a holy officiousness in the Commemoration of Martyrs’. Eight months later, at Charles’ coronation, the text had been the twenty-third verse of Psalm 21: ‘Be faithful unto death and I will grant you the crown of life.’ At Holdenby, he had requested a copy of The Crown of Thornes, and it was no coincidence either that Eikon Basilike would include a poem, ‘On a quiet conscience’, apparently written by the king himself:

Close thy eyes and sleep secure,

Thy soul is safe, thy body sure.

He that guards thee, he that keeps

Never slumbers, never sleeps.

A quiet conscience on thy breast

Has only peace, has only rest.

So when eventually Charles took his seat beneath the massive hammer-beamed roof of Westminster Hall on 20 January 1649, he was as prepared as any man might be for the trial to come. It was the place at which the Earl of Strafford had been condemned on his behalf less than eight years earlier, and upon his entrance, Herbert tells us, ‘a hideous cry for Justice, Justice’ went up among certain soldiers and officers, ‘at which uncouth noise the King seemed somewhat abashed, but overcame it with patience’, just as he would the ordeal that followed, refusing the right of the court to sit in judgement and keeping his hat on throughout as a token of defiance. ‘I would know by what power I am called hither,’ Charles famously declared at the outset of proceedings. ‘Let me know by what lawful authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer.’ On the same day, Lady Anne Fairfax shouted vainly from the gallery how Cromwell was a traitor and that her husband, the army’s commander-in-chief, would take no part. ‘Shoot the whores,’ came Colonel Hacker’s orders to his guards, as other women joined in the outcry.

But the outcry was in vain, and the court’s response to the king’s own pleas would ultimately prove just as unyielding. For one week later, he was finally condemned, ‘lifting up his eyes to heaven’ and ‘smiling’ when judgement was pronounced, or so Herbert informs us, after which, according to Purbeck Temple, he was whisked away in a sedan chair along King Street, ‘as they carry such as have the plague’. Just as his wife had declared at the time, Sir Thomas Fairfax, sick and ashamed, had indeed refused to attend the court, and on 29 January, after spending the morning in efforts to delay the execution, there were reports that he planned a rescue at the head of 20,000 volunteers. By then, Henry Hammond, the favourite royal chaplain, along with forty-seven ‘ministers of the Gospel of the Provinces of London’, in an ecumenical coalition of goodwill, had also approached the army’s leaders, praying ‘that God would modify your hearts towards the king … or else interpose his hand to rescue his royal person out of your power’. But God’s hand remained unmoved, notwithstanding other rumours of revenge after an informer – ‘troubled in conscience’ – apparently warned Parliament that ‘some have entered into an oath, taken the Secret and entered into an Engagement with their blood to murder the Commissioners that judged the king’.

In the meantime, however, Charles quietly prepared for the inevitable. Upon his return from court, he had been transferred after dark to Whitehall Place and thence to St James’s for his last two nights, out of earshot of the scaffold-building that was now underway. There were prayers to be said, sermons to be heard, papers to be burnt and a final touching meeting with his children. She must not cry, he told his daughter, for he was to be a martyr, and the Lord would one day settle the throne upon her eldest brother. Then, when Elizabeth became distraught, he comforted her further. ‘Sweet heart, you will forget this,’ he told her, before expressing concerns that his youngest son, Henry, might be made a puppet ruler in his place. ‘I will be torn in pieces first,’ came the 9-year-old’s reply – a response which is said to have reduced the hardened veterans in attendance to tears.

But while Charles had expressly ordered that only his children be allowed to visit, there was, according to Sir Thomas Herbert, at least one other person for whom he intended a final thought. For ‘that evening’, it seems:

the king took a ring from his finger which had an emerald set between two diamonds and delivered it to Mr Herbert and bade him, late as it was, to go with it presently from St James to a lady living then in Channel Row, and give it to her without saying anything.

The street concerned, better known as Cannon Row, was in fact the dwelling-place of Elizabeth Wheeler, the former royal laundress and courier, who was married to the newly knighted Sir William, and Herbert specifically referred to ‘the king’s lavander’ as the recipient in a letter to Sir William Dugdale three years after his Narrative was eventually completed. ‘She was wife to a knight,’ he told Dugdale in 1681, ‘and if it be desired I will give you her name and shall satisfy you herein.’

Yet in the original manuscript of 1678, Herbert had annotated that the recipient was none other than ‘the wife of Brome Whorwood Esq., daughter to James Maxwell’s wife by Rider, her former husband’ – a claim that, in spite of Herbert’s later denials, the Oxford chronicler, Anthony Wood, would also always subscribe to. Wood, moreover, was close to Herbert, and no less a figure than Jack Ashburnham remained convinced that ‘his authority is not to be made light of’. Why Herbert also went so far as to emphasise to Dugdale later that ‘it was not Mistress Jane Whorwood to whom I gave the ring His Majesty sent me, as you find related in my short narrative of some occurrences’ is, of course, even more intriguing. For in 1681, there was still further reason for concealing any possibility of a link between Jane, whose husband had by then been accused of Whig sedition against Charles II, and the regal martyr saint who had died more than three decades earlier.

The fact that Cannon Row was also the address of Lady Anne Everard, who had collaborated closely with Jane Whorwood since 1642, may also be of no little significance, of course – not least, because she had already been investigated by Parliament in April 1648 for receiving ‘papers or other matters of value’ from the king. But far more tantalising still is a reference in an inventory of 1684 relating to a ‘ring box with an emerald ring and two diamonds’ which appears to have been in the possession of Jane’s daughter, Diana Master, who had continued to live at Holton House after her mother’s flight from her husband in 1657. Had Elizabeth Wheeler, on the other hand, indeed been the recipient, as Herbert was at pains to suggest, there is also the puzzle of why she made no reference to it in her own will. Certainly, her husband, who predeceased her, made proud boast in his own bequest of ‘the sword wherewith the late king of glorious memory knighted me’ at Newport.

But while the mystery of the recipient may abide, at least no doubt remains concerning the fate of the man to whom it had once belonged. For on 30 January, he strode briskly – ‘marching apace’ – to the scaffold across St James’s Park, accompanied by Bishop Juxon, Colonel Tomlinson and Thomas Herbert, all surrounded by Colonel Hacker’s halberdiers, alert to any threat of disorder. Herbert, in fact, would describe his master’s final passage to the executioner’s block as ‘uneventful’, though other sources suggest that the king’s dog, Rogue, was taken from him and that a joiner who had helped construct the scaffold insulted him upon his way. Certainly there was weeping, particularly among women, but whether soldiers mocked and spat, as some suggested, and the sky turned dark from the flight of ducks above St James’s lake remains doubtful. The image of a Via Dolorosa for a martyr king was clearly no less appealing to future propagandists and romantics than the apocryphal tale of ‘the faithful red haired figure’ who allegedly ‘stepped forward to greet him’ as he left for Whitehall.

In the event, the king’s death, though anything but prosaic, proceeded largely without incident. The scaffold, draped in black, was equipped with four staples attached to hooks and pullies which were intended to restrain him in the event of a struggle, though they proved unnecessary. ‘Hurt not the axe that may hurt me,’ he commented when someone on the scaffold bent down to test the blade’s sharpness. And while Bishop Juxon had to remind him to make the traditional declaration of faith, he was still sufficiently composed to utter his most famous saying of all: ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbances can be, no disturbances in the world.’ Nor, in doing so, did he hesitate, for the stutter that had troubled him throughout his life now deserted him.

Thereafter, at a little after 2 p.m., having been on the scaffold for all of fifteen minutes, Charles finally knelt before his heavily disguised executioner. Richard Brandon, ‘a man out of Rosemary Lane’, who had become Common Hangman of London after inheriting the post from his father Gregory, had certainly balked at the prospect of regicide when first approached. But it was he who had beheaded the Earl of Strafford almost eight years earlier, and he who was later purported to have confessed to dispatching the king himself, assisted, we are told, by ‘one Ralph Jones, a Rag-man’, who also hailed from Rosemary Lane, and in return for a suitably princely sum of £30 – ‘all paid him in half crowns, within an hour after the blow was given’. For such a fee and in such company, it was no surprise perhaps that the killing went unbotched. On the contrary, the axe’s descent severed the victim’s neck unusually cleanly, at the third vertebra, sending him painlessly and at long last to the liberty and lack of ‘disturbance’ that had eluded him for so long.

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