There was a lot of buzz on British Twitter feeds over the last few weeks because January 30th was the 373rd anniversary of Charles the First’s beheading. Many people go on passionately discussing what happened, why, and whether it was worth it.
On January 26th, I listened to a British podcast about the king’s execution. “The Rest is History” that day featured Ted Vallance, a history professor at the University of Roehampton, in England. I listened to it twice.
Historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook peppered Vallance with questions. There was no video, so I’m guessing it was Holland who led off with this about Charles the First:
“He was a terrible King. He was obdurate. He refused to negotiate. He pushed England into a second bout of civil war. I think he had blood on his hands. At the same time, I don’t think that beheading him solved anything and I think in the long run it was actually a victory for Charles, for the monarchy, and particularly for Charles’s vision of the monarchy.” He described the whole situation as “an absolute mess.”
Vallance, who is writing a book about the king’s trial, cited a podcast listener who had asked this question: “What circle of hell do the regicides currently reside in?”
There it is again. People are still furious and horrified, all these centuries later, and I still have complicated feelings about being directly descended from one of those regicides. But Vallance immediately made me feel better when he said, of Charles, “This is a man who’s responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own subjects. He fitted, in many respects, the classical definition of a tyrant, a murderer, and a public enemy. He got what he deserved, really.”
Vallance compared Charles’s character with that of his father, King James, using the present tense. “James is much better at allowing debate and accepting that there will be criticism, that there will be arguments about policies and so on. Charles has a tendency to see criticism and argument as themselves a problem.”
“What James likes was disputation, where he could show off how intellectual he was. What Charles likes is these kinds of performance, these masques, where royalty appears and solves everything. It’s like the fantastic painting of him as St. George besting the dragon and basically the monarch has solved everything.”
I was so captivated, I listened to part 2, and lo and behold, Vallance talked about the three regicides who, after Charles the Second ascended the throne in 1660, made it safely to the New World. He said of my ancestor, “nobody ever finds out that Dixwell is over there because he goes to the Continent first of all and they think that he is somewhere in Germany, and they never kind of twig that he’s actually gone over to New Haven and is living under an assumed name.”
John Dixwell was a clever man.
The interviewers wanted to establish that the regicide was not, in the end, “terribly significant,” but Vallance disagreed. He described it as very significant. To this day, January 30th is marked with a “solemn procession down Whitehall” for the laying of a wreath before the king’s statue. Many people see the beheading “as a tragedy, as a national disgrace,” which requires “regular remembering and atonement for us as a nation.”
But then he pivoted. There is also, he said, “another narrative going along with it that this is a moment in which tyranny is resisted, in which oppressive power is overthrown and in which republican liberty is established, and for English radicals it’s always really problematic to acknowledge that and engage with that even if they do feel sympathetic. It’s the place you don’t want to go.
Thank you Ted Vallance, for untangling some strands of a complicated time and my mixed feelings about it. Here in the United States, where tyranny is on the rise, things are no less complicated and distressing.
Posted on: Feb. 14, 2022