‘Miserable Distracted Kingdom’

‘Many things may be fitly offered to obtain a treaty that may be fitly altered when one comes to treat.’

Charles I to the Scottish Commission in London,

29 November 1647

Notwithstanding Cromwell’s parting message, Sir John Berkeley’s mission to the army had been a plain and unadulterated failure. When Berkeley took his more than timely leave from Windsor, however, he travelled not to Carisbrooke but to London, to try his luck with those self-same Scottish commissioners that the king both courted and loathed according to circumstance. Soon after his escape to the Isle of Wight, there had been efforts to placate feeling north of the border, for at the time of Charles’ departure, it had been understood that he would make for Berwick rather than place himself in the hands of the English army. According to the French envoy in Edinburgh, indeed, the Scottish leaders were nothing less than staggered by the apparent preference he had eventually displayed for the army’s Independents by his flight to Carisbrooke, and Montreuil’s same letter, written to Mazarin on 10 December, left no doubt either that gossip in the Scottish capital was increasingly disrespectful. Equally certain was the disapproval generated by the rapid publication of the king’s message to Parliament, with its proposals for toleration not only of the episcopacy but of the various sects that were anathema to all God-fearing Presbyterians. The king, it seems, was intent upon selling his soul to competing devils in preference to placing his body under Scottish protection, and it would now take every available resource to mend the broken confidence that his recent betrayal had guaranteed.

Certainly, Charles’ first efforts to rebuild bridges convinced nobody. On 19 November, he had written to the Earl of Lanark about his offer to Parliament, explaining that ‘the end of it is to procure a personal treaty; for which I have striven to please all interests with all possible equality (without wronging my conscience)’. ‘I hope no reasonable man will blame me,’ he added, before concluding with a justifiably sheepish appeal for continued support, notwithstanding the offence he freely acknowledged he had caused. ‘I hope all reasonable men on all sides will concur with me,’ he reaffirmed, ‘as I expect your Scotch commissioners should do, though I know you must dislike many passages in it.’ In an effort to bring peace at any cost to his troubled kingdom, he had therefore been left with no choice from his perspective but to cut his moral cloth according to circumstance, and his would-be allies to the north were to proffer their loyalty accordingly – irrespective of the fact that this loyalty had already been compromised at regular intervals whenever their own self-interest dictated.

As such, it was hardly surprising, of course, that the full scale of Scottish chagrin was barely concealed in their response of 22 November:

Your message left behinde you at Hampton Court gave Great hopes that your Majesty had gone to some place, where you might be safe from your Enemies, and where your Majesties friends might have accesse to you. But as the place to which you are gone, so your Majesties Message of the 16 hath infinitely disabled us to serve you.

Charles, the complaint continued, had granted ‘a full tolleration of Heresy and Schism forever’ and ‘divested himself of much of his royal power’. He had done so, moreover, in blatant disregard of the more favourable alternative he had been offered. The damage done by his decision was therefore both deep and definitive, it seemed, as the Scots made clear in a further message penned three days later. ‘It is of no advantage,’ they declared ominously, ‘to expostulate what is past, either about the carrying your Majesty into that sad place or the prejudice, your service and we suffer by your Majesties Message.’

So when Berkeley reached London to reassure the seething Scottish commissioners, he was faced with the most delicate of tasks. On 1 December, they had received Charles’ flimsy reassurance that his proposals to Parliament were, in effect, nothing more than a ploy to bring his protagonists to the negotiating table. But Berkeley himself now had no explicit authority to negotiate with the Scots, and when he had pleaded for it earlier at Carisbrooke, Ashburnham had strongly opposed the notion. Ashburnham, indeed, had nursed a smouldering antipathy towards Scottish high-handedness from the very moment that they had dismissed him from attendance upon Charles at Newark in 1646, and it was he who now undermined his master’s attempts at reconciliation. Already accused by Parliament of treachery in contriving the king’s escape from Hampton Court, he wrote from Carisbrooke with an artful justification of his conduct, blaming both Scots and army radicals. ‘I was not willing,’ he suggested, ‘to hazard my honour, nor my life, neither for Scot, nor Adjutator.’ The self-same letter was soon being brandished by eager London news-sheets, hungry for titbits to fuel the growing desire to be rid of Scotsmen and Independents alike.

It was the Earl of Lanark, moreover, who greeted Berkeley with a copy of just such a news-sheet upon his arrival in the capital, shaking it under the visitor’s nose during his first encounter with the Scottish commissioners and auguring a series of meetings that promised little further warmth over the days ahead. Nor was it any consolation to the Scots that Berkeley, Legge and the royal chaplains had all advised Ashburnham against including the offending reference to the Scots in the first place, for, in Berkeley’s own words, ‘he liked it so well that we could not make him depart from it’. In consequence, further discussion on Friday, 3 December yielded little, and it was ultimately no small relief for the Royalist representative that he was suddenly recalled to Carisbrooke the following day on what Ashburnham described in the king’s name as urgent business. Though his limp apology for abandoning the talks scheduled for Monday was taken ‘very ill’ by the Earls of Lanark and Lauderdale, Berkeley was at least free of his thankless mission, and at liberty, more importantly, to assist in what he now assumed to be an imminent escape attempt on the king’s behalf.

Only the next morning, therefore, Sir John was already dismounting in Carisbrooke’s courtyard, travel-stained and exhausted, and hurrying to the king in eager anticipation. Any hope of finding his master poised for departure was, however, utterly dashed when he found himself swiftly informed that he must press on with the very negotiations from which he had been so abruptly called away. Maddeningly composed and in confident good spirits, Charles greeted him ‘more graciously than ordinary’, thanking him for his dispatch from Windsor, before coolly observing that his current apprehension by the army was actually nothing less than an invaluable political lever, guaranteeing that the Scots ‘would take reason’ and offer the best possible terms. When asked by Berkeley why he was ‘still in the Island’, moreover, ‘since there were Forces design’d, both by Sea and Land, to secure his Person’, the king merely replied that he ‘would have a care of that time enough’. Escape would follow, but not before the Scots had been duly won over by treaty. With Ashburnham in close attendance and fully concurring, Berkeley had little alternative other than to comply. ‘Against this,’ he later reflected, ‘I argued the best I could, and when I saw it was in vain, I desired his Majesty would dispatch this Treaty, for his condition would admit no delays.’

In the event, Berkeley was spared the further indignity of returning to the capital, for the next day he fell sick, ‘what with my late journeying, and what with my vexation at this way of proceeding’. But the king remained set in his mind, and Mungo Murray and Sir William Flemming, who acted in turn as his messengers in the ensuing negotiations, faithfully wearied many a willing steed as they galloped back and forth to London throughout December, carrying letters loaded with heavy detail on the finer points of church government. The irony was all the more acute when Charles eventually summoned Berkeley to confirm that the Scots were also urging his escape. ‘I think you are a Prophet,’ the king confided, ‘for the Scots Commissioners at London have sent an Express, desiring me to do the same thing in effect you had moved’, though it was ‘now too late, for they would be come away before another Express could be gone out of the Island towards them’. Plainly, there had been dithering throughout, and by the time that Charles finally saw fit to grasp the nettle, the Scots had temporarily decided to call a halt to the wearisome grind of persuading a misguided man against his prejudices.

By now, in any case, the focus was shifting once more to Parliament. According to a report dispatched to Venice on 28 November, the king’s escape had ‘caused the Houses and the army much anxiety’, though the news of his arrival on the Isle of Wight, which was received on 15 November, produced little stir. On the contrary, the recent order closing the ports was cancelled and Carisbrooke Castle was calmly accepted as the most suitable residence for the time being. Indeed, the only notable sign of recrimination was an order that Ashburnham and his colleagues be arrested for their involvement in the king’s action. Within a day, naturally enough, Colonel Hammond had been instructed to appoint ‘a sufficient guard … for securing the king’s person from any Violence, and preventing his departing the said Isle, without the Direction of both Houses’. Yet Royalist residents of the island, who had duly compounded with Parliament, were, as we have seen, to remain unmolested, and only former soldiers forbidden access to the island’s forts and castles. With appropriate warrants from the Edinburgh Parliament, moreover, it would still be possible for Scots to parley with the king.

Such leniency played no small part, in fact, in Charles’ decision to send his message of 17 November, offering terms for treaty negotiations, notwithstanding the impact upon both the Scots and his English supporters at home and abroad who were left dumbfounded. ‘I could neither comprehend the reason of it,’ wrote Edward Hyde to Lord Hopton, ‘… but I conclude there is some mystery in it that will satisfy me if I know it.’ Worse still, Parliament showed little urgency in framing a response, which merely confirmed the impulsiveness of the king’s actions and the ongoing distrust of his intentions. In truth, a good deal of committee work was being conducted to produce a common front with the Scots, but by mid-December the Venetian Senate was learning that Charles had still not heard from Westminster, ‘as in London everything moves slowly and in disorder’, while as early as 6 December, the French ambassador, Bellièvre, was already deciding that the slow progress of events rendered further reports by every mail pointless.

It was upon this same day, furthermore, that the king’s own patience finally broke, as he produced an indignant aide-memoire to Parliament that crackled with reproof. ‘Had his Majesty thought it possible,’ the message ran, ‘that his two Houses could be imployed in things of greater concernment than the peace of this miserable distracted kingdom; he would have expected with more patience, their leisure in acknowledging the receipt of His Message of the 16 of November last.’ He had made, he complained, so many magnanimous concessions that appropriate goodwill should surely be reciprocated and, in repeating his request for the right to negotiate a ‘personal treaty’ in London, he appeared to confirm his increasing awareness of the tightening security arrangements at Carisbrooke that were making the castle appear less and less like a safe haven. For, as one newsletter reported on 6 December, ‘letters from the Isle of Wight speake of a Guard placed about his Majesty (not to restrain him from going abroad at his pleasure) but to keepe suche from coming to him as may bee hurtful to His person’. Removal to the capital was therefore both politically and personally imperative, and never more so than when another report informed its readers less circumspectly of ‘a very strict guard’ being placed around the king ‘to keep all malignants, and especially those who have borne arms against the Parliament, from having access to his Majesty’.

Charles’ fond belief that he could now expect to be trusted by his former enemies and treated to his accustomed dignities at Carisbrooke indefinitely was therefore under open challenge. ‘Hee had for a while,’ wrote Ashburnham, ‘all the satisfaction from the Governour which that place could afford (His flight from Hampton Court being understood by Parliament and Army to carrie greate innocencie with it).’ But the army’s commanders had soon digested the letter left by the king on his table at Hampton Court and reinterpreted the claim that he was ‘retiring my self for some time from the publique both of my friends and enemies’. As early as 21 November, indeed, Ireton was expressing his feelings to Hammond in no uncertain terms:

For the pretence of the king’s keeping himself within the protection of the army by coming into your hands, both reason, and all the circumstances I have heard make me believe, and the king’s own declaration, left behind upon his table, doth plainly discover, that he in his going away had other intentions; and his surrendering himself to you was besides his first purpose. And I cannot believe, but it was a second counsel, and that, tho’ appearingly a choice, yet really upon some emergent necessity, for the avoiding of a worse, when he some-way found himself stopt, and unable to get clear away, according to his first intention.

As if to confirm Ireton’s fears, there had been persistent rumours in London since the beginning of December that the queen was in Jersey and the king about to escape there. Talk emerged, too, that Hammond had been forced from the Isle of Wight by the inhabitants, and in such circumstances it was hardly surprising that neither army nor Parliament were keen to indulge their royal prisoner. ‘For these last 3 dayes,’ said a newsletter of 6 December, ‘he hath kept himself more retired, and not stirred forth unless it were aboute the walls and gardens of the castle’, while on 9 December the anonymous Venetian source was reporting that guards had been set all around the island ‘to prevent his Majesty from leaving or suspect persons from approaching him’. For good measure, the king was also being locked each night in his bedroom, and the keys carried to the Governor, since, as a newsletter put it, ‘they now know his Majesty’s design was not for that place’. ‘Here,’ another report ran on 10 December, ‘is a melancholy court, walking the round is daily recreation, for other there is none. Hope is superfluous.’

Charles’ only consolation from those in authority over him came in fact from Hammond, for in spite of all the current suspicion, and against heavy pressure from Parliament and his army superiors, he continued to trust his royal prisoner. Hammond wrote on 19 December:

The Kinge stands engaged in his word not to stirre, and doth protest this is the place hee first designed when he apprehended it not safe to continue longer at Hampton Court, and that if he were to chuse anie place within his three Kingdoms hee would not remove hence except to London upon a personall treaty.

Hammond, moreover, continued to resist orders for the arrest of Ashburnham, Berkeley and Legge, which he had received from Parliament as early as 18 November. Only the next day, he invited the Commons to reconsider, since the king’s friends had pledged their parole and had acted in good faith by conducting him to the safety of the Isle of Wight, and when Ireton, under Fairfax’s authority, applied further pressure forty-eight hours later, the Governor continued to stand firm. Indeed, even when an officer of the Serjeant of the House of Commons arrived in person on 1 December to collect the three ‘delinquents’, he was obliged to return empty-handed, leaving the arrest warrant to be duly rescinded, upon Cromwell’s intervention, on 2 December.

But if the king could still depend upon the good offices of his jailer, Parliament remained unbending and when their response finally came, it arrived as an ultimatum delivered not, as hoped, directly in London but within the confines of Carisbrooke’s grim stone walls. The proposals, such as they were, had in any case been continually and forcefully opposed by the Scots, who, on 17 December, had submitted a paper ‘in very high language’ roundly condemning them. It was only three days later that Parliament finally decided to press ahead, regardless of Scottish opposition, with a deputation headed by the Earl of Denbigh. Its purpose was to deliver to the king the contents of four bills, which were to be non-negotiable and would effectively divest him of royal power. The first transferred to Parliament for twenty years the control of all armed forces; the second revoked all proclamations against Parliament delivered during the war; the third cancelled those peerages granted by the king during the same period; and the last allowed Parliament to adjourn any session to a place of its own choosing. Only if the royal assent to these measures were granted in advance, moreover, would Parliament then agree to dispatch commissioners to the Isle of Wight to treat with the king in person on other issues, such as the abolition of the episcopacy and the establishment of Presbyterian government.

There was to be, then, no scope for argument and minimal time for manoeuvre, since a deadline of four days was imposed for acceptance. As Berkeley all too aptly observed, the proposals provided ‘work enough for abler men than any of us were’, while the French ambassador was soon noting how it was being mooted in Parliament that the king was bound to destroy himself just as surely by either accepting or refusing. Berkeley, indeed, was convinced that the bill concerning control of the militia amounted to ‘no more nor less than dethroning of the king and enslaving of the People by a Law’, since it ‘embraced ten times more power than the Crown ever executed’, allowing the two Houses to raise soldiers and collect money without any effective restraint. Yet he knew with equal certainty that his royal master’s hands were tightly bound, not least because ‘his Enemies would deliver his Majesty to the World as obstinate to his own and the Kingdoms ruin if he should not accept this offer’. While Charles might draw up the most ingenious response possible, ‘good penning did not signify much at that time’.

When the Earl of Denbigh and his fellow commissioners arrived in Carisbrooke’s imposing audience chamber at 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve, therefore, the scene was set for a fateful exchange. Receiving the proposals in good grace, Charles nevertheless confirmed that there could be no immediate answer on matters of such complexity and promised a reply within the next few days. After which, he duly withdrew with his advisers to spend the afternoon poring over the relevant documents in the agonising search for some ‘sorry expedient’, which would only emerge eventually not within the bills themselves, but from the very Scots who found themselves once more driven to his assistance as the lesser of evils. Even his old nemesis, the Duke of Argyle, had now been courted by Charles in his effort to rebuild bridges across the border. ‘Argyle, howsoever heretofore you and I have differed in judgement,’ he had pleaded, ‘I believe now that the present state of affairs are such as will make you heartily embrace my cause, it being grounded on those particulars that were never in question between you and me.’ And now, as control of the English army by Parliament duly loomed and Presbyterianism teetered under threat from religious Independents, Scottish recalcitrance duly melted under Charles’ new-found wish to compromise.

Reaching Carisbrooke on Christmas Day, the Earls of Lanark, Loudoun and Lauderdale therefore lost no time in declaring their dissent to the four bills and entering into private session with the king. The season, after all, was far from merry and Parliament’s proposals so wholly ‘prejudicial to Religion, the Crown and the Union and Interests of the Kingdoms’ that the Scots, notwithstanding the rigours of their midwinter journey, could brook no delay. Nor did the resulting negotiations, conducted behind closed doors though under the very noses of Denbigh and the English delegation, hold back from laying down an agenda that amounted to nothing less than a blueprint for the waging of a second Civil War. As Lauderdale put it, ‘[W]e did then, at Carisbrooke Castle, receive the King’s Commands for engaging Scotland, and raising of an Army for his Delivery and Restitution.’ In return, the king duly undertook, at the first opportunity, to recognise in Parliament the Solemn League and Covenant renouncing the episcopacy, and agree to the establishment of Presbyterianism in England for a period of three years, after which a convention of sixty divines would be called to settle the religious issues once and for all.

Additional articles were to provide for further political integration of the kingdoms of Scotland and England, but, above all, the king’s right to control the militia, veto legislation and appoint officers of state was maintained, so that even Charles had little hesitation in reaching a decision. By 26 December, indeed, two copies of the resulting agreement had been drawn up and signed: the first being kept by the king, hidden inside a writing desk in his bedroom; the second retained by the Scots and secreted much more elaborately still, at Ashburnham’s suggestion, by encasing it in lead and burying it in a garden in the castle grounds until it could be recovered later by their agents. That the treaty had been concluded with the English commissioners so close at hand was, of course, remarkable enough in its own right, but the resulting document was too detailed and bulky to be smuggled confidently through any search that might be conducted as the Scots took ship for London. Although they were eventually treated to nothing more than a snub from the town of Portsmouth on their return journey, their decision to leave the treaty behind them was a thoroughly sensible precaution, particularly when the stakes involved were so high.

After their successful departure, there nevertheless remained for Charles the delicate task of dealing with the unpalatable demands of the English commissioners who remained behind. Berkeley’s ingenious recommendation was to accept the four bills, to which there was no alternative, but only as part of a package encompassing four further bills, which, while thoroughly objectionable to Parliament, were ‘all most popular, and such as they durst not pass nor well deny’. The first and most important was ‘a Bill for payment of the Army, which contained their disbanding as soon as they were paid’, while the second proposed ‘a period to the present Parliament’. The third, in its turn, was to be framed with the intention of ‘restoring the King, Queen and Royal Family to their revenues’, and the last with the express hope of settling the ecclesiastical issue ‘without any coercive power’. If accepted, Berkeley’s strategy would at the very least have bought some time, and he seems initially to have had high hopes for it. ‘I shew’d this answer first to Mr Leg,’ he later recalled, ‘then to Dr Hammond and Dr Sheldon, who seemed to approve of the Expedient, and desir’d Mr Ashburnham would acquaint the King with it.’ ‘But,’ he added, ‘I never heard any thing from his Majesty; and I was resolved never to have it obtruded, lest I should appear fond of my own Conceptions.’

Instead, Charles opted for an altogether clumsier, less convincing and less effective policy of prevarication, drafting a paper declaring that, as he was anxious to satisfy all parties, he could not accept proposals with which the Scots were bound to disagree. Equally naively, he would insist that his blank rejection of Parliament’s proposals be delivered to Denbigh sealed and that it should remain unopened until its eventual arrival in Westminster. But when, on Tuesday, 28 December, Denbigh and his commissioners filed into the king’s presence, they were not to be thwarted so tamely. Sitting with the sealed document in his grasp and attended by his worried advisers, Charles asked the earl, wholly redundantly, whether he had authority to negotiate. When Denbigh confirmed once more that he had not, the letter was duly handed over, irrespective of the fact that there was no guarantee that the sealed message did indeed contain an answer – something which was quickly pointed out to the king after a hurried conference between the commissioners in private. Indeed, as Berkeley put it, Denbigh ‘seemed offended with his Majesty’ upon his return ‘and expressed his indignation in harsher terms than one ought to use to another’.

Whenever he had acted as the king’s ambassador in former days, Denbigh fumed, he had never delivered a message to foreign princes without knowing its contents – a comment which elicited an even more acerbic response from Charles to the effect that none of the two score ambassadors he had sent forth on diplomatic business had ever had the temerity to break his seal. Even Hammond was now impatient with the ‘long expostulations’ that followed before ‘his Majesty was perswaded to open his answer’, and far from placated by the nature of the contents when finally revealed. On the contrary, Berkeley tells us, the king’s response ‘so far from allaying the storm … increased it both in the Commissioners and the Governor, who altogether retired from the Castle of Carisbroke to Newport, an English mile from the Castle’. Just as all had fully expected, Charles had unilaterally rebuffed the four bills on the grounds that they would ‘not only divest him of all sovereignty’ but jeopardise his subjects’ rights. ‘His Majesty,’ the royal reply concluded, ‘is very much at ease with himself having fulfilled the offices of both a Christian and a king.’

But if Charles was, as always, secure in his conscience, his stubborn refusal to compromise his scruples would once again come at a cost. As Berkeley had pointed out at the time, the king’s decision to respond with ‘an absolute Negative’ was almost certain to lead to orders that Hammond should ‘look more strictly to his Person’ and thus hinder any intended escape. Yet even as the Governor was accompanying Denbigh’s frustrated party to Newport, the need for flight was plainly imperative, since the ploy to gain time by sealing his response had so signally failed. According to Ashburnham, even Charles himself was by now prepared to consider passage to France, since he had already written to his wife earlier in December, asking her to arrange for a ship to arrive in Southampton, which was now in place and awaiting his orders. At the same time, a certain William Lisle had also undertaken to provide a vessel that could transport Charles away from the Isle of Wight on the initial leg of his journey to the waiting French barque, travelling by night and braving the danger posed by the five naval frigates constantly patrolling the Solent. If these could be avoided and Henrietta Maria’s own ship safely reached, a favourable wind might carry the king without delay to liberty and a long overdue reunion with his waiting spouse.

Berkeley’s account suggests, in fact, that all was feverish preparation and bustle from the moment that Hammond and the commissioners departed the castle. Berkeley informs us:

As soon as they were gone, I went to Mr Ashburnham, who told me that he had newly dispatch’d away a Footman over the Water, to order four or five Horses to be removed from the Place where they then stood, lest they should be found and seiz’d by the Soldiers that were coming into the Island.

Whereupon, the account continues, ‘I conjured him by no means to do it, lest the Winds or the Parliament’s Frigats might force us in our escape to put ashore, and we should want Horses.’ Plainly in some confusion from the rapid progress of events, Ashburnham then dispatched another groom to countermand his orders, only to reissue the same command once more ‘within few hours’.

Ashburnham’s indecision was not, however, reflected in the king himself on this occasion, for, according to Berkeley’s account, ‘that night or next morning his Majesty resolved to endeavour his escape’. Seized, it seems, by an uncharacteristic gust of enthusiasm for decisive action, Charles was indeed soon dressing for the journey and eagerly watching the weather-vane on the Chapel of St Nicholas on the other side of the courtyard, if Ashburnham’s own, slightly confused, description of events is to be believed. ‘All things being prepared and adjusted,’ Ashburnham informs us, ‘I told his Majestie if Hee was pleased to goe, I did not doubt but carry him away without interruption.’ At which, the king ‘with great joy ranne to the window to see how the wind stood by the fane, and finding it perfectly faire, made all haste to draw on his bootes (for Hee had libertie then to ride abroad)’.

Indeed, it was only at the very point that Charles was ‘readie to go out of his Chamber’ that he was finally foiled by a cruel twist of events, for, as ‘Hee turned againe to look upon the fane’, Ashburnham relates, ‘so fatal a mischeefe did attend Him, as it was changed at that instant cleane contrary, and continued so for six dayes together, so as the Barque could not stirr’. ‘In the very instant’ that the wind ‘became cross’, moreover, we hear from Berkeley that ‘the Governor returned from Newport full of fury, and lock’d up the Gates, and doubled the guards, and went not to bed that night’. Why Charles had not opted in the first place for the much faster means of riding or even walking to Cowes rather than sailing down the River Medina to reach the port remains puzzling. But the return of Hammond in the nick of time had now delivered a killing blow not only to this particular escape attempt but to the generally lax security regime which had made it a possibility in the first place. That day had given the Governor his first direct experience of the king’s tortuous dealings, and he did not appreciate what he had witnessed, as was made abundantly clear by the letter to the Speaker of the House of Lords that he now drafted by candlelight:

My Lord, This Day, being in the Presence when the King communicated to the Commissioners of Parliament His Answer to the Bills and Propositions lately presented to Him from both Houses, and finding it so contrary to my Expectation, I thought it my duty to take a stricter Care than ordinary of the Security of the Person of the King, and for removing all from about him that are not there by Authority of Parliament, and to take all other effectual ways and means to preserve His Majesty’s Person from departing hence, until I received the further Commands of the Houses. By the Blessing of God, I shall omit nothing wherein I can serve the Parliament, in relation to this dangerous Trust. But yet, my lord, I must humbly beg it from you, because I know it is impossible long to secure the King here, that His Person may be removed as soon as conveniently He may; or else that I may be discharged from my Employment, it being a Burden insupportable for me.

Once more, it seems, Robert Hammond was weary of responsibility, or, more likely, sufficiently convinced of his indispensability to employ the threat of resignation as a surefire tool to gain what he wanted. He certainly showed no hesitation in making good his decision to rid the king of his inner circle, for Ashburnham, Berkeley and Legge were all expelled the very next day, ‘the Jealousies of those tymes, iudging it inconvenient to continue them in their attendance’. All, including the king, were dismayed if unsurprised, but all, except the king himself, it seems, knew equally well that ‘there was noe expostulating with the Governour about it’. For Hammond was not to be spared a stormy exchange with Charles when news of his decision finally broke and the Governor was duly summoned to the royal presence. To the question whether it became a man of honour and honesty to deal thus with those who had so freely cast themselves upon him, Hammond replied that both his honesty and his honour were in the first place to them that employed him, and that he had the authority of both Houses for his action. Nor, he added, was the king ignorant of the causes of his action, saying, ‘If he had done amiss let his head answer for it.’

Plainly, a fleeting flash of royal high dudgeon was wholly unavailing against the Governor’s own indignation, and after a sad last dinner with the king that afternoon, at which Ashburnham burst into tears, the king’s three most valued supporters duly took their leave: Ashburnham retiring to a Newport inn, while Berkeley, according to his own account, took up residence with Legge at ‘an Acquaintance’s house of ours in the Town’. Once more, there was talk of future hopes of escape, and contingency measures, probably involving the islanders Edward Worsley and John Newland, were already in hand, as Berkeley’s account makes clear. ‘Before we took our leaves,’ he tells us, ‘we acquainted his Majesty, that we had left the Captain of the Frigat, and two honest and trusty Gentlemen of the Island to assist his escape, and that we would have all things in readiness on the other side of the Water.’ The local merchant Newland was, indeed, probably the ‘acquaintance’ with whom Berkeley and Legge now took up temporary residence to wait upon opportunity.

Nor was it long before an intervention from an altogether unexpected source duly materialised. For not more than an hour after his arrival, Berkeley heard ‘a Drum beat confusedly’ and discovered ‘not long after’ that ‘one Captain Burley, with divers others were risen to rescue the king’. The son of the former Governor of Yarmouth Castle, Burley had in fact been born on the island and gone on to command the naval vessel Antelope before being discharged when the fleet declared against the king. Like many of his kind, however, the officer’s loyalty remained unwavering and he had thereafter joined the Royalist army, becoming, we are told, an ‘officer of good account’, serving both as Lieutenant-General of the Ordinance and Governor of Pendennis. Only the king’s eventual surrender, indeed, had finally persuaded Burley to return to the place of his birth, ‘where many of his kinsfolk were present’, and opt for what appeared to be both honourable and placid retirement.

When news came from Carisbrooke, however, that the king’s advisers had been dismissed and that Charles himself was to be subject to close restraint, the need for a brash gesture of derring-do seems to have become overwhelming. Sending a lone 14-year-old boy to fetch the town drum to raise a crowd, and crying ‘For God, the King and the People’, Burley publicly declared before an agitated throng in the middle of Newport his intention to rescue the king and prevent his murder. Though the resulting tumult among his audience proved little more than ‘the mere effervescence of otherwise inconsiderate language’, there was to be no drawing back. If others followed, Burley declared, he himself would be the first to enter the castle, notwithstanding the fact that his active supporters would ultimately consist of little more than a braying band of women and children – the ‘entire muster’, we are told, possessing no more than ‘one musket among them’.

Sorry-looking though the ‘rebellion’ may have been, however, it was certainly noisy enough to arouse Berkeley and Legge some way away, who lost no time in making for Ashburnham’s inn, where they found him, to both their surprise and alarm, ‘making Speeches to those well-affected People, advising them to desist from their vain Enterprize’. The risks entailed by Ashburnham’s intervention, as Berkeley wisely appreciated, were considerable, since any involvement – even an attempt to induce calm – was likely to be exploited by the authorities. With this in mind, both Berkeley and Legge prevailed upon their colleague to stop talking and withdraw: a decision that proved wholly warranted in the rebellion’s aftermath when, as Berkeley explained, prisoners were ‘not only examin’d concerning us, but promis’d Liberty and Pardon in case they would peach us’.

Before their eventual apprehension, however, Burley and his motley crew did just enough to guarantee the wrath of the authorities. Forcing his way through the participants, the Mayor, Moses Read, along with the few guards he had been able to muster, demanded the town drum’s return, only to be refused in ‘ill language’ by the boy in possession. Burley, indeed, was required to intervene on the Mayor’s behalf, rebuking his insolent drummer and ‘asking him whether he knew who it was he was speaking to’. Yet the disturbance was still, it seems, in progress well into the evening, and Burley, notwithstanding his respectful treatment of Moses Read, would pay a heavy price for his hot-headedness. For reinforcements were required before the gathering was finally dispersed, by which time both the magnitude and threat of the incident had become wildly exaggerated, as Captain Basket of Cowes Castle placed the commanders of the naval vessels in the Solent on standby, and his orders were confirmed by the parliamentary commissioners who heard of the news while returning from Carisbrooke.

By around 11 p.m., in fact, the ships’ captains had received a further dispatch from Basket to the effect that the Governor of the island was that night ‘besieged by some formerly of the King’s party, that had been in Armes against the Parliament … and that also divers of the Islanders were joined with them’. In consequence, a council of war was hastily convened upon one of the ships, and a decision taken that the vessels should be spread around the Solent ‘in such stations as might best prevent the putting off of boats to or from the Island without search’. The fact that, by morning, Burley had been ‘committed to a dungeon in the castle he had proposed to attack’ and sat there in the company of only three other prisoners was effectively neither here nor there. In such distracted times, the captain’s actions were not a matter for clemency, and Parliament was no less determined than local officials that punishment should be swift, visible and condign, so that when Hammond’s report was received by the House of Commons, little time was lost in ordering ‘that the general, Sir Thomas Fairfax, be required to grant a commission to the governor of the Isle of Wight, to try by martial law the chief actors in this mutiny, or that shall make any further disturbance’.

Ultimately, only Burley himself would be committed to the gallows for his actions, in a trial described by the antiquarian George Hillier three centuries later as ‘one of the most peculiar in history’. With a certain Sergeant Wild presiding, whom Hillier freely described as ‘a man of infamous character’, Burley stood accused of treason, we are told, for no other reason than ‘because he opposed those who were committing it’. The outcome of the hearing at Winchester, which began on 22 January 1648, proved painfully predictable. Less than a fortnight later, and following a short reprieve ‘because no one in Hampshire could be prevailed on to undertake the executioner’s functions’, the would-be rescuer of the king was duly put to death by a man called Gregory who had been specially brought from London ‘to perform his hateful duty’. After taking leave of his wife and children at the prison door and requesting that he ‘be driven speedily to his journey’s end, in order that he might obtain endless rest and peace’, the victim would finally suffer his fate, as Hillier’s description makes clear, in a way that deeply impressed not only onlookers but the king himself, who is said to have been ‘materially affected’ by the episode:

On coming to the place of execution, where were already the faggots to consume his bowels and the cleaver to divide his body, Burley requested the 12th chapter of Isiah to be read to him, together with the 8th chapter of the Romans, and the 69th Psalm; and having taken leave of the world, and repeated a prayer he had written for the occasion, which he presented to the sheriff, and which was afterwards published, ascended the gallows, where he was again moved by a minister to be humbled, that the Lord might have mercy upon him, and to confess his sins to God, particularly the treason for which he was to die. Burley said he was a sinner, but no traitor; and on being told what a fair trial he had, and how legally he was condemned answered, it was true the judge condemned him upon the bench, the ministers in their pulpits, and the gentlemen of the county in their verdicts, but still he was no traitor; whereupon he was urged how bloody an act he had agitated in seeking to take away the king through blood; to which he replied, he was happy to die so, and hoped his blood might be the last that should be so shed; when he again prayed fervently, and, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer proclaimed with undaunted courage, Fear God and honour the King. The hangman thereupon pulled the cap over his face, and the unfortunate man, as he was turned off, called, ‘Lord preserve my soul – Lord Jesus, receive my soul’.

In the meantime, however, Ashburnham, Berkeley and Legge had at least been able to avoid implication in Burley’s abortive insurrection, and had crossed to the Hampshire coast, where they took up residence at Netley Abbey, the seat of the Marquis of Hertford, and re-established correspondence with the king. Three weeks later, indeed, Berkeley proceeded to Henrietta Maria in France, while his two colleagues remained behind and continued to harbour hopes for a royal escape attempt. Only when the Derby House Committee caught wind of their activities, some five months later, were Ashburnham and Legge finally apprehended and confined in Arundel Castle, after which Ashburnham was eventually exchanged on 7 August for Sir William Masham on condition that he left the country within two months and in the meantime remained at his own house. All in all, it was hardly indicative of any new-found thirst for summary justice on Parliament’s part, and while Legge was forced to remain at Arundel, he too was treated with remarkable leniency, as the king’s opponents struggled to come to terms with a debilitating predicament arising from the novelty of the constitutional situation confronting them. For how could any confederate of the king, who remained the head of state, be deemed an enemy of the state, particularly when the king himself remained the theoretical lynchpin of the entire legal system?

Yet the alarm generated by Burley’s impulse to rescue his sovereign was real enough, and the consequences for Charles, in particular, no less tangible. Over Christmas there had been riotous demonstrations for king and church, almost amounting to insurrections, in Canterbury, Ipswich and other towns, while in London, Christmas decorations appeared defiantly in churches and other public places. Ejected clergymen resumed their pulpits and used the banned Prayer Book services at the very same time that Royalist newspapers and pamphlets were reappearing openly on bookstalls. While all this was more symptomatic of a widespread nostalgia for the old days of peace than of any genuine upsurge of support for Charles in his own right, it added undoubtedly to the growing undercurrent of anxiety on the part both of Parliament and the army leadership as fiscal oppression and arbitrary imprisonment continued on a scale to rival anything experienced before the war. While meat and salt had been freed from the hated excise tax in 1647, for instance, it still fell on other articles of mass consumption, making violent attacks on collectors commonplace. But the ongoing legal activities of Star Chamber, High Commission and the county committees were almost as unpopular in their own right, and there was also the nagging burden of free quarter for many communities to bear as a result of the ongoing shortfall in soldiers’ pay.

Any attempt to free the king, however ill-conceived, was therefore certain to be greeted with panic at such a sensitive time, and especially so when suspicions of foreign involvement had also been aroused. For on Saturday, 11 December, seven ships of the Dutch West India Company, carrying troops and supplies for Brazil, had been anchored on the island – two ships and two galliots in St Albans Road, and three frigates in Cowes Road. Though, as ships of a nominally friendly state, they had every right to shelter and victual there, they were nevertheless still in place as the end of December approached. When Burley finally made his hasty move, therefore, at least one news-sheet, The Perfect Diurnall, was already reporting fears of ‘a fearful story of the Prince of Orange with a great fleet of ships to begirt the island’, with the predictable result that when further news reached the English frigates off Cowes on the fateful night of 29 December that Hammond was besieged by Royalists, it was immediately feared that ‘the Hollanders riding there at Anker might be ingaged with them’.

Ultimately, the commanders of the Dutch vessels would be able to clear themselves under questioning and had left the island with their ships by 7 January. But their mere presence had underlined the vulnerability of Carisbrooke, notwithstanding the fact that within a week of the king’s arrival, Fairfax had diverted a troop of horse under Captain Peck to Redbridge near Southampton, with two infantry companies also put on short notice to transfer over to the island, if needed. Nor was it any surprise when, on 30 December, the very day after Burley’s commotion, these same companies duly became the advance guard for a new flow of reinforcements, 100 soldiers arriving in the early morning, to be followed soon after by a further 100 from Portsmouth. All, moreover, were of Hammond’s own regiment: crack troops of the New Model Army, and, for Ashburnham, Berkeley and their like, an altogether different proposition to the four squadrons of Newport men with whom the Governor had hitherto been holding the island.

Although their arrival was not entirely unexpected, it had clearly been hastened by the current emergency, and the Mayor and Corporation of Newport found themselves later that day in a hastily convened session to make improvised arrangements for the billeting and maintenance of some forty of the soldiers. Moreover, the advent of these troops marked merely the starting point of a much broader extension of precautions. For on 30 December, Fairfax dispatched three senior officers – Sir William Constable, Lieutenant-Colonel Salmon and Lieutenant-Colonel Goffe – to assist Hammond, while on Saturday, 1 January, the House of Commons not only furnished the Governor with powers of martial law but ordered Vice-Admiral Rainsborough to proceed with more ships to the island. Two days later, for good measure, it was also agreed that fifty barrels of powder, ‘with Match and Bullet proportionable’, should be placed at Hammond’s disposal.

Even more importantly, however, the Burley episode had played its part in underpinning Parliament’s no-nonsense response to the refusal of its four bills by the king. On 15 January, a measure was passed declaring that the two Houses would ‘make no further Addresses or Applications to the King’ and ‘receive no more any Message from the King’. To complete Charles’ isolation, it was also made treasonable for anyone else to apply to the king without Parliament’s express approval: something which elicited a predictably pungent response from the Scots, who promptly discovered that they, too, were to be excluded from free access. Plainly, the facade of Anglo-Scottish co-operation was now as unnecessary as it was unconvincing, and the inevitable renewal of hostilities only a matter of time. Indeed, with any illusions of the Scottish embassy to Carisbrooke over Christmas long since exploded, the so-called Committee of Both Kingdoms, which had embodied the pretence of amity since 1644, was already being superseded by the Committee of Both Houses, or ‘Derby House Committee’ as it was more commonly known. ‘The House of Commons,’ wrote Cromwell to Hammond on 3 January, ‘is very sensible of the King’s dealings, and of our brethrens, in this late transaction.’

The agreement between Charles and the Scots had, in fact, been a foolish bargain from the outset, though especially so from the king’s perspective. The Scots, after all, had no prospect of mustering an army capable of matching that of Fairfax and Cromwell, and would have to count on powerful risings in their support. But they were hardly likely to win the hearts and minds of Englishmen by dictating in advance the answers to such delicate questions as the control of the armed forces, the appointment of ministers and the royal veto, and, worse still, by closing the door to liberty of conscience. In effect, Charles’ decision to enlist the help of a Scottish army before he had fully exhausted the possibility of achieving a peaceful restoration would prove the most disastrous decision of his life. If he had been in Scotland, with a reasonable chance of escape in the event of his allies’ defeat, the gamble might have been less reckless, though he would still have incurred incalculable damage for plunging his kingdoms once more into bloodshed. Yet to count on Scottish help when still a prisoner was tantamount to suicide – both political and personal. For defeat in a second Civil War would leave him friendless and defenceless against a surge of outrage that even his royal status could never withstand.

To compound Charles’ predicament, there were clear signs, too, of a reconciliation between Parliament and the army as the breach with Edinburgh widened. About a week after the escape from Hampton Court, there had been talk at Ireton’s headquarters at Kingston-upon-Thames that the king might come to terms with Parliament, and the general’s response had been duly ominous. Warming himself at his fireplace, he had expressed the hope that so treacherous an agreement might be such ‘as we might with good conscience fight against them both’. Now, however, Parliament was no less distrustful of the king than the army, and Cromwell in particular had become anxious to sever links with the king once and for all. The autumn of 1647 had seen him paying court to Charles whilst executing summary justice upon extremists within his army. At one point, indeed, there had been the real prospect of an accommodation between king and army to the exclusion of Parliament. But now, as the growing influence of Scots and Presbyterians raised fears once more of a settlement that excluded his men, Cromwell had come to see Westminster as the lesser of evils.

The general’s change of mood may well have been triggered, moreover, by an incident that he is said to have related to Robert Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, years later. The son of the Earl of Cork and formerly a staunch Royalist, Boyle had become, by 1655, a keen devotee and trusted confidant of Cromwell, and it was in this capacity that he seems to have elicited from the general the remarkable story of his final disillusionment with the king, which dated to the winter of 1647, when trust, respect and goodwill were still largely intact on the army’s part. At that time, indeed, negotiations were still ongoing, when a warning appears to have been raised by an army spy ‘who was of the king’s bedchamber’ that the king had written to his wife that he was bent on abandoning the generals. The offending letter was to be sewn up inside the skirt of a saddle, it seems, and delivered to Dover by an unwitting messenger who would be stopping en route at the Blue Boar Inn in Holborn at 10 p.m. that very night. If Cromwell could intercept him, he could learn for himself, first-hand, of the king’s double-dealing.

As Boyle’s account develops, it tell us, furthermore, that Cromwell did indeed make his way to Holborn, with his son-in-law Ireton in tow. Dressed as troopers and accompanied by a lone soldier, who was left on watch outside, Cromwell and Ireton duly entered the Blue Boar and supped beer while they waited for news of the messenger’s arrival, which occurred at the predicted time, and proved the signal for action. For the two generals now approached their quarry with drawn swords and warned him that everyone entering or leaving the inn was to be searched. When the saddle was cut open, the letter was discovered just as foretold and pored over at leisure back inside the inn, while the messenger, who had no idea of his saddle’s contents, was allowed to go on his way. Nor did any shadow of doubt remain as Cromwell and his son-in-law read the incriminating document, which spoke of Charles’ courting by both the army and the Scottish Presbyterians, and his apparent preference for the latter. He would, in effect, sell himself to the highest bidder, as convenience dictated and, by implication, abandon even them when opportunity afforded.

‘Upon this,’ Cromwell is said to have related, ‘we took horse and went to Windsor; and finding we were not likely to have any favourable terms from the King, we immediately, from that time forward, resolved his ruin.’ No date for the entire incident is given by Boyle, though it seems likely to have taken place after the army’s headquarters had transferred to Windsor late in November, and before the agreement with the Scots had been made at Christmas. Certainly, its timing would help to explain Berkeley’s chilly reception upon his own arrival at Windsor, and while the tale has its improbable elements – not the least of which is a beer-supping intervention by Cromwell himself on such an errand – it is by no means implausible in its essentials. Albeit in less melodramatic circumstances, various interceptions of royal correspondence were subsequently made by the Derby House Committee, which had assumed effective oversight of the king’s incarceration, while an unnamed correspondent to the Earl of Lanark confirmed on 4 January that the queen had been furnished with news in Paris that the king was close to agreement with the Scottish commissioners – ‘although she have no certainty thereof neither from the King nor any of your Lordshipes’.

But whatever the cause, the New Year began surely enough with the army and Parliament newly aligned in opposition to the king, and the ‘Vote of No Addresses’ firmly supported by both parties. Fairfax and the army’s general council issued a declaration, in fact, openly endorsing the measure, and while Charles continued to take afternoon walks at Carisbrooke when weather permitted, there could be no doubt that the net was tightening ever closer around him. Now, of course, he was confined entirely to the castle, and the steady arrival of provisions and further servants merely confirmed that no end to his stay upon the island was imminent. ‘They intend if it may be,’ complained the Royalist Mercurius Pragmaticus, ‘both to winter him and summer him there.’ It was surely no mere oversight that when Vice-Admiral Rainsborough dined at Carisbrooke towards the end of January, he left without seeing the king. For, as Rainsborough’s ships continued to prowl the Solent, the prisoner’s isolation was now effectively complete.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!