Published by Levellers Press, Amherst, Massachusetts
“A boy of seventeen, standing a long way off in the throng, saw the axe fall. He would remember as long as he lived the sound that broke out from the crowd, ‘such a groan as I never heard before, and desire that I may never hear again.’”
Eyewitness to the beheading of Charles the First, London, January 30, 1649
I did not know until I was 28 that I was directly descended from John Dixwell, one of the 59 men who condemned Charles I to death for “high crimes and treason” against his own people. I was named after him, too: Sarah Dixwell Brown, but my father never told me his story. I found it myself, by chance. That chance encounter, in an elegant reading room in the British Museum, launched me on a decades-long quest to learn all I could about the regicide whose story had mysteriously vanished from my branch of the family. I wanted to understand what led him to make the momentous decision to condemn his king to death. I hunted down numerous scraps of information about Dixwell’s childhood, education, political activities and eventual flight from England. All the while, I struggled with how to feel about my renegade ancestor. Were his actions justified? Was he a criminal or a hero? A traitor or a patriot? My passion for learning more eventually took me on a journey throughout England, from Dixwell’s birthplace to the mansion he lived in, and to Dover Castle where he’d served as governor shortly before Charles the Second ascended the throne and Dixwell fled. I brought with me an extraordinary artifact–John Dixwell’s key to Dover Castle. After being safely passed down through eight generations, it was one day casually handed to me by my father. That key was to open a treasure trove of knowledge, both historical and personal.
As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held responsible if even a small one were to be lost.
E.B. White, “The Ring of Time”
Chapter One—A Key and a Quest
The last time the big iron key in my desk drawer was turned in a lock was late spring of 1660. John Dixwell locked the door of the governor’s quarters at Dover Castle, the military fortification overlooking the English Channel, and then he fled for his life.
Everything Dixwell had fought for was in tatters. He had wanted England to be a republic governed by the consent of its people, not a monarchy subject to the whims of a king or queen. John Dixwell had wanted this so badly that he agreed to be one of the 59 men who served as judges of King Charles the First. In 1649, after they found Charles guilty of tyranny and treason, they had him beheaded in a public execution attended by a vast crowd of his subjects.
For the next eleven years John Dixwell was part of the complicated machinery of a new form of government being invented and reinvented. It ended badly and now Charles the Second, the dead king’s son, was returning triumphantly from France to be crowned. Soon John Dixwell and the other judges were ordered to appear in court for their role in the killing of their king.
It was time to leave, quickly and quietly. Dixwell arranged for passage across the channel then got himself safely to Hanau, Germany where he was able to live openly with several other judges, called regicides now that the monarchy had been reestablished. But then the noose tightened. Several of them were caught, taken back to London and drawn and quartered. John Dixwell fled again. He wound up living under an assumed name in New Haven, Connecticut, and had children for the first time late in his life, which is why he has untold numbers of descendants in the United States. I wonder how many of them know what he did in 1649.
Although John Dixwell is my seven greats grandfather and my parents named me Sarah Dixwell Brown, I didn’t know he existed until I found him in an old book in the British Museum when I was 28. His story, in my branch of his descendants, had all but disappeared.
John Dixwell’s key to Dover Castle was another thing I knew nothing about until my father gave it to me unceremoniously one day when I was in my early 40’s. He’d bundled it in a plastic produce bag from the local supermarket. “You should have this,” he said, “Your name is Dixwell. Besides, you’re the only one who’s taken the time to find out about him.”
The strangeness of that moment has stayed with me all the decades since. Why wasn’t my father excited to be in the eighth generation to own that key? If anything, he seemed a bit embarrassed to be burdening me, the ninth, with the unusual responsibility of owning the key of a king killer.
Wrapped around the rough, rusty shaft of the key was a small label covered with the handwriting of my great great grandfather Epes Sargent Dixwell (1807-1899). “John Dixwell, regicide, in Command,” he’d written on one side, and on the other, switching to capital letters in what looks like enthusiasm, “Dover CASTLE,” and his initials, “E.S.D.”
It shocked me to hold that key in my hands and stare mutely at the word “regicide.” Epes had attached his label so long ago, some later descendant had fortified it with cracked and yellowing cellotape. I did not yet know a whole lot about John Dixwell, but right then I realized that owning his key obliged me to find out everything I could about the man who turned it in the lock the day he fled.
Human history is full of times when people resorted to violence in their desperation to effect political and social change. In the United States we have had our own revolutionary war and then civil war, the first to throw off British rule and the second to end slavery. Gradual, diplomatic means had not worked. In seventeenth century England, the people who felt it imperative to end Charles’s despotic rule decided slowly, and reluctantly, that the only way to stop him was to kill him. It wasn’t their first choice, or even their fourth. For years, Parliament had tried to come to agreements with the King. By the time they brought him to trial the country had been through two civil wars and considerable chaos and suffering.
In a way, the regicide was just one in a sea of dramatic changes. It was a time of fascinating ferment. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation a century earlier, new religions sprang up, and people questioned having a state-sponsored church. In the decade before the king was killed there was an explosion of uncensored publishing of opinionated pamphlets. It was inexpensive and easy to spread new ideas. A young generation of lawyers brought their skills to contemplating not only how to limit or abolish the monarchy but to restrict the powers of the State over the liberty of individuals. Ideas of religious tolerance and checks and balances on the powers of the king, parliament and the army were ahead of their time, but a century later, they would inform the American Revolution. The framers of our own constitution benefited from looking back at both what had and had not worked.
On the day I encountered John Dixwell for the first time, I did not understand how world-shifting his beliefs were. But as the years went by and I delved deeper into finding everything I could about his life and his era, I felt so lucky to have him as a lens for seeing how an individual played a vital role in the forcing of changes that helped later generations hammer out the democracy I live in now. What were the particular circumstances of his journey, from birth to death, that shaped him into a person who acted so boldly? I wanted to know.
Chapter Two—Surprise in the British Museum
I only requested the book because it had the name Dixwell in its title. I was supposed to be researching a paper for a master’s degree I was earning back in California, but in an idle moment I decided to look up old family names in the card catalogue. Yes, card catalogue. I was in the Reading Room of the British Museum, in London, that spring day in 1980, and the card catalogue with its countless narrow wooden drawers was the most beautifully extensive one I’d ever seen.
The library’s collection was astonishing. It was a massive task, in that pre-digital world of 1980, to get your hands on obscure documents, but the Reading Room seemed to have anything and everything that had ever been published. Sure enough, there were two books about someone named John Dixwell. I copied their titles carefully into the red notebook I’d bought at a quaint stationer’s across the street from the museum.
The first book’s title began with a word new to me: The Regicides in Connecticut, Welles, Lemuel A., 1935. What was a regicide, and why Connecticut? Then high school Latin came back to me. Regicide must mean “king killer.” My scalp prickled.
The other book was A History of Three of the Judges of Charles I. Major-General Whalley, Major-General Goffe, and Colonel Dixwell, Stiles, Ezra, 1794.
The way you got books in the British Museum was to fill out a little paper request, whereupon gentle Reading Room employees would pad silently into the stacks to fetch whatever you wanted. I requested the Stiles book first, attracted by its antiquity. While I waited I gazed up at the robin’s egg blue dome high above long tables where silent patrons sat immovably, their work lit by brass lamps with green opaque glass shades. Everyone seemed so British and proper, and suddenly I felt awkward and American and even a little nervous. Dixwell was an uncommon name. Might I be related in some way to this John Dixwell?
I still have the red notebook with my careful notes from Stiles’ book, a first edition in excellent condition that probably hadn’t been requested for a hundred years. Its title went on and on:
“who, at the Restoration, 1660, fled to America; and were secreted and concealed . . . for near thirty years.”
Then Ezra Stiles, in 1794 the president of Yale and no doubt in a ferment of patriotism in the wake of the American Revolution, dedicated his book to “All the patrons of real, perfect and unpolluted liberty, civil and religious, throughout the world; this history of three of its most illustrious and heroic, but unfortunate defenders, is humbly submitted, and dedicated, by a hitherto uncorrupted friend to universal liberty.”
Stiles seemed awestruck; I was shocked. Someone sharing my unusual name was one of 59 judges who signed the death warrant for Charles I. It was the first and only time in England that ordinary persons, instead of resorting to assassination, had the conviction and boldness to bring their king to trial, find him guilty of treason and execute him in as nearly a legal fashion as they could muster. It alarmed royal families throughout Europe. Many of Charles’s subjects, horrified by the execution, concluded he was a Christian martyr, a title he holds to this day.
He was no martyr to Ezra Stiles, who might have been talking about the future impeachment of Donald Trump right there on the second page of his narrative: “The era is now arrived, when the tribunal for the trial of delinquent Majesty, of Kings and Sovereign Rulers will be provided for, in the future policies and constitutions of Sovereignties, Empires and Republics: when this heroic and high example of doing justice to criminal Royalty . . . will be contemplated with justice and impartiality.”
Stiles said twenty-four of the original fifty-nine judges were dead by 1660 when, after 11 years of England having no king, the monarchy was restored and Charles II embarked on avenging his father. Some regicides fled to Switzerland, Holland and Germany. Quite a few were put to death. Three of them, Major-General Edward Whalley, Major-General William Goffe and Colonel John Dixwell crossed the Atlantic to the New World, where they “found a friendly asylum and concealment in Massachusetts and Connecticut.”
This caught my attention. If John Dixwell wound up in New England, I might be descended from him. The possibility both electrified and upset me. In the hushed, deeply British decorum of the Reading Room my heart began to race. I’d always known I was descended on both sides from English ancestors, but not from someone who’d done something like this. If I were related to the regicide sharing my name, would I even now be an enemy of England? Queen Elizabeth would not have me to tea, though I had secretly and atavistically hoped she would, my being so very English in my roots. Perhaps I should turn up my collar, sink down in my chair and make sure none of the mesmerized readers under the timeless blue dome realized a Dixwell from the wrong side might be in their midst.
I began leafing through Ezra Stiles’ book. Could this John Dixwell have had kids in the New World?
“He came to New England a bachelor,” I read, relieved.
It sounded as if he was rich. “The Colonel was a gentleman in good and easy circumstances, being possessed of a manor and sundry other estates in England” Still, I thought to myself, he couldn’t have been too rich after becoming a fugitive from justice. A grudging concern for the man came unbidden. What did he live on after he fled?
Stiles had the answer. When Dixwell got to New Haven, he moved in with an elderly childless couple, Benjamin and Joanna Ling. He had changed his name to James Davids to avoid capture. Just before Mr. Ling died, “Mr. Davids” helped him settle his estate and agreed to take care of his wife. Oh good, I thought to myself, he may have killed a king, but he was kind to the Lings. Then, on the very next page, Stiles listed worrisome information he got from “New-Haven records.”
“Mr. James Davids and Mrs. Joanna Ling were married by Mr. James Bishop the 3d of Nov. 1673.”
“Mrs. Joanna Davids, wife of Mr. James Davids, died (between 15th and 26th in the entries) Nov. 1673.”
My eyes widened. Joanna died not only in the same year as their marriage but in the same month. Had this man not only signed the death warrant for a king but also speedily dispatched his first wife in order to get a house and money?
The next entry, from four years later, was even worse:
“Mr. James Davids and Bathsheba How were married the 23rd of October, before James Bishop, assistant, 1677.“
I felt sick. It looked as if this Dixwell person, who had lots of money and land and prestige in England, but had to flee for his life to New England, lacked a moral compass. He had gotten back on his feet by marrying an aged widow, perhaps hastening her death by who knows what means. Because the Lings had had no children, Dixwell inherited everything. He got not only their house, where he lived for the rest of his life, but, Stiles wrote, 8 or 9 hundred pounds. Then, four years later, he married another woman and had children with her. I was transfixed. I would have been even more amazed had Stiles included the year of Dixwell’s birth, which he did not. Later I read in various publications that John Dixwell was born about 1607, making him seventy when he married Bathsheba. Even later I would find out she was, at 31, about 40 years his junior, having been born in 1648.
The next three entries in my red notebook list the three children born to them: Mary, about 18 months after their marriage, on June 9, 1679, John on March 6, 1681 and Elizabeth on July 14, 1682.
I continued to put things together in unsettling ways. He had children in the New World after maybe murdering his first wife, so I might be descended from this shady character. “John Dixwell,” I read of his son, “settled in Boston around 1707 as a goldsmith.” Boston, city of my birth. Oh no.