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Remembering the Regicides - 350 Years On

It is time for a memorial service – a 350th anniversary celebration – of martyrs to the 'good old cause', who were barbarically massacred by Charles II and his turncoat judges in October 1660 and thrown into a mass grave at St Margarets’ Church. It should lift their spirits to see, across Westminster green, how their struggle to establish parliamentary sovereignty, open justice, the independence of the judiciary, freedom from torture and so many of the liberties on which we pride ourselves today, have come to pass. They are our true human rights heroes, dismembered and unremembered other than by the pejorative term 'regicide'. They had the temerity to put a guilty king on trial for tyranny, on Dr Thomas Fuller’s principle (now called the rule of law) that 'however high ye be, the law is above you'.

We teach our school children nothing about them – they finish the GCSEs believing that the battle for civil rights began in Mississippi in 1964 and not at Edge Hill and Naseby circa 1644. Yet this crucible period before and during the short-lived Republic marks the beginning of modern democracy, owed not to slave-owning Athenians but to Englishmen inspired by Magna Carta and the common law and the first book of Samuel (God’s witness against kings). No taxation without representation, the end of executive detention, comparative religious freedom (for all but Catholics) the return of the Jews; our first (and only written) constitution (The Instrument of Government) the abolition of the Star Chamber, the renunciation of torture and many other unique achievements were only consolidated by putting on trial the man determined to resist them – Charles I, that 'man of blood' responsible for the deaths of one in ten Englishman by starting two civil wars against his own people.

The need to put the King on trial was first discussed at the end of the Putney Debates. The Rump Parliament established a special court so that 'no chief officer whatsoever should contrive the enslaving and destroying of the English nation and expect Impunity for so doing'. It was the first trial of a Head of State for war crimes – the evidence, called by prosecuting barrister John Cook, proved that the king had supervised the torture of prisoners of war and the burning and pillaging of towns and had aggressively been planning a third war while pretending to negotiate peace with the corrupt Presbyterian MPs (an early version of Liberal Democrats). According to both Cook and to Lucy Hutchinson (wife of one of the judges) the death sentence would not have been passed had the king not told his guards that the only death he ever regretted was that of Strafford. He was a man utterly without remorse and maintained on the scaffold his determination to retake absolute power ('a subject and a sovereign are different things – a share in government is nothing pertaining to them').

The Republic started well: the House of Lords was abolished as 'useless and dangerous' and it was declared that 'the people under God are the origin of all just power ... the commons of England assembled in Parliament being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme authority of this nation'. In 1653 Cromwell thought otherwise, but the following year The Instrument of Government (drafted by John Lambert) provided England with a constitution – and a good one at that. Sadly, its provision for an elected successor on the death of the Lord Protector was fatally changed to allow Cromwell to name his own heir – instead of Lambert he chose his eldest son Richard - 'tumbledown Dick'. Chaos ensued, and the public reached out to the monarchy on that traditional British principle of 'better a keep a hold of nurse/for fear of finding something worse'. Roast rump and butts of sack all round.

Then came the king’s vengeance, wreaked on all who had been his father’s judges and many who had not. Their trials – at the Old Bailey in October 1660 – were monstrously rigged; the defendants were brought in irons from plague-infected prisons to be abused by the new lickspittle judges whilst the audience intoned the 'death hum' and the juries – packed with Royalists – were ordered to convict without leaving the jury box. These brave Republicans were then drawn on a hurdle to Charing Cross, where they were hung - but cut down while still conscious to watch their genitalia cut off and thrown to dogs. Then their bowels were extracted and burnt before their goggling eyes. Their hearts were cut out and exhibited to the crowd and their limbs were boiled and placed on spikes at the gates of London. Eventually, their body parts were thrown into a pit in St Margaret’s yard along with other Republican heroes whose bodies had been dug up and hung up at Tyburn. Not only Judge Bradshaw and Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell, but the corpses of Cromwell’s mother and daughter as well. Victims of this vicious Royalist revenge included the great MP John Pym, Admiral Blake who had destroyed the Dutch fleet; Thomas May the Parliamentary historian and William Strode, one of the 'Gang of Five' MPs who had once so famously defied the King.

The ten regicides torn to pieces during the October trials included John Cook (former Solicitor General who had championed the poor and was first to propose a legal aid system and a national health service), Reverend Hugh Peters (a founder of Harvard) and courageous MPs like John Carew, Thomas Harrison, John Jones, Gregory Clement and Thomas Scot. (Milton was lucky to escape, only through the intervention of his Royalist brother.) Their scaffold speeches were so courageous that the crowd’s jeers turned to tears and Clarendon advised the King against further executions. But what could be done about all the dangerous Republicans still left in prison who, if not brought to trial, might demand release under habeas corpus? It was the Lord Chancellor’s bright idea to imprison them on off shore islands where habeas corpus would not run. This devious precedent for Guantanamo Bay was reversed by the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679.

The lives and brutal deaths of these brave men have been ignored by celebrity historians, who tell our island story to children and on televisions through the indulged lives of kings and queens. The Civil War period is even omitted from the Home Office publication detailing British History for immigrants (its author said 'the wounds are still too fresh'). Yet this was the crucible period for English liberty. If MPs in their next session wish to refresh their commitment to human rights they should cross the road to St Margaret’s church and say a prayer for the regicides who rest there – martyrs to 'the good old cause' of true democracy.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC is author of The Tyrannicide Brief: The Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold (Vintage, 2005) and The Levellers: The Putney Debates (Verso, 2007). He is a keynote speaker at Notorious Delinquents: a Reappraisal of the Regicides, a study day organised by the Cromwell Association, Saturday 16th October, at The City Temple, Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2DE. More information is available at

Read more Geoffrey Robertson articles

What the Regicides did for us                               

Who Killed the King?