Monday, January 26, 2015

A Sad Anniversary: The Desecration of Oliver Cromwell's Tomb

From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) comes this review of Lord Charles Spencer's latest book:

On Jan. 26, 1661, in Westminster Abbey, the tomb of Oliver Cromwell was broken open and his corrupted corpse was removed. Four days later, it was ritually hanged and beheaded at Tyburn before thousands of jeering onlookers. Cromwell’s severed head, encased in an iron cage, was then skewered on a pike and erected before the House of Lords. There it remained for a quarter century—an emblem of the wages of treason.

Nearly three years earlier, Cromwell had been interred with stately pomp. During the English Civil War he had commanded the victorious armies of Parliament against King Charles I. He had engineered the king’s public trial for treason and then his execution in 1649, eventually ruling all of Britain as Lord Protector. But this revolution did not survive his death, and in 1660 the monarchy was restored by the king’s eldest son, Charles II. Oliver Cromwell, once lionized by John Milton himself as “our chief of men,” was now the hated ringleader of the regicides.

There has been a great deal written about Charles I; somewhat less about the men who executed him. These regicides are the subject of Charles Spencer’s “Killers of the King.” The ninth earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, knows a thing or two about monarchy. The sympathies of his book incline against the institution. Perhaps familiarity does breed contempt.

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I is published by Bloomsbury. It's one thing to charge the living with a crime, another thing entirely to desecrate the dead! Of course, the royalists thought of the king's body as a sacred thing that had been violated, so they responded in kind when they had the power. The reviewer, Jeffrey Collins, professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, offers some corrections and context to Lord Spencer's views:

But this narrative of suffering valor is overdrawn. Mr. Spencer portrays Charles II as a “man of vengeance,” goaded on by royalists “baying for blood.” In truth, prudence and insecurity moved the king to moderate his reprisals. As “Killers of the King” itself demonstrates, the regicides’ worst enemies were their old parliamentary allies. Those who had fought Charles I but had avoided his trial were eager to isolate the regicides and sacrifice them as “scapegoats for half the kingdom.” Many of the regicides were captured by former allies who turned in their captives to prove their own conveniently rediscovered royalism.

This cycle of betrayal was ugly but predictable. The regicides had not represented the popular will. They had purged Parliament of their enemies and summarily dissolved the House of Lords; they were the architects of a military coup. Like most revolutionaries, they postured as a vanguard and sacrificed constitutional order to their own sense of heavenly justice. Charles Spencer captures the sincerity and the conviction of the regicides, but he cannot vindicate the justice of their actions. The regicides killed the king, but they could not kill the monarchy. Our capacity, centuries later, to be fascinated by their story is a measure of their failure.

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