The Sussex men who killed a king...

Chichester historian and author James Hobson takes an unusual approach to the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Chichester historian and author James Hobson
Chichester historian and author James Hobson

He looks at the life stories of all 59 of the men who signed the king’s death warrant in Charles I’s Executioners (Pen and Sword History). Included are the tales of the six Sussex king killers.

On an icy winter’s day in January 1649, on a scaffold outside Whitehall, Charles I, King of England, was beheaded. The king had been held to account and the Divine Right of Kings disregarded. Regicide, a once-unfathomable act, formed the basis of the Commonwealth’s new dawn. The killers of the king were soldiers, lawyers, Puritans, republicans and some simply opportunists, all brought together under one infamous banner. While the events surrounding Charles I and Cromwell are well-trodden, the lives of the other 58 men – their backgrounds, ideals and motives – have been sorely neglected, James says: “Their stories are a powerful tale of revenge and a clash of beliefs; their fates determined by that one decision.

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When Charles II was restored he enacted a deadly wave of retribution against the men who had secured his father’s fate. Some of the regicides pleaded for mercy, many went into hiding or fled abroad; others stoically awaited their sentence. This is their shocking story: the ideals that united them and the decision that unmade them.” As James says: “Six of the regicides had strong links with Sussex. The county was well known in the 17th century as a bastion of the kind of puritan Protestantism that was famous for abolishing Christmas and the theatre when it finally took power during the civil war.

"There was one Chichester man in the group, William Cawley, who built to the Cawley Almshouses in 1625. In 1642 the buildings were used as a vantage point to launch artillery fire on to the Northgate when Chichester was regained by Parliament.

“Cawley became a nationally important politician and signed the king’s execution willingly in January 1649.

“The book investigates the personality and motivation of Cawley and the other regicides, most of which have been forgotten by history. Cawley himself is one of the most mysterious – on the one hand he was convinced of the need of changes in religion, on the other hand he made a lot of money. Like most of the historical figures in the book, he had principles. Before the war, he refused to accept a knighthood from the king and was fined £40 by Charles for his impertinence. He was also a strict Puritan, ready to commit what most people today would call robbery and vandalism. When the town was taken, the cathedral was ‘cleansed of popery’, and the silver located from its hiding place and sold for the war effort. In August 1643 he was appointed by the House of Commons as one of the commissioners ‘for demolishing superstitious pictures and monuments’ in London. He was also famous for his personal greed. He bought up land from those landowners who had been defeated by the parliamentary army that Cawley never fought in.

“The book fills a historical gap – the motivations and personalities of those who wanted to kill their king, with a conclusion about what type of people they were.” As James says, he comes to a conclusion on all of the men, including Cawley: “Was it greed or was it principles that made him put his name and seal to the most famous warrant in British history?”