KEVIN GORDON - Those Sussex men who wanted the king dead

The Trial of Charles I in Westminster Hall - the King is seated at the bottom.
The Trial of Charles I in Westminster Hall - the King is seated at the bottom.

As a tour guide at the Palace of Westminster, I regularly pass a fascinating document which is one of the most historically significant pieces of paper in the country – the Death Warrant for King Charles the First.

The parchment is 44cm by 21cm and has the signatures of the 59 commissioners (mainly Members of Parliament) who wanted the King to die. It includes the signature of Oliver Cromwell who was to run the country after the execution of the King in January 1649. Most signatures are followed by a red wax blob of the seal of each man.

The Death Warrant for Charles I - signed by the seven Sussex men.

The Death Warrant for Charles I - signed by the seven Sussex men.

I was recently looking at the document (now held under the huge Victoria Tower where the archives are held) and noticed, smack bang in the centre of the document at the top of the fourth row , a familiar name – Pelham! I am aware that the Civil War generally missed Sussex so could this be a Sussex man?

Much of the local gentry supported the ‘republican’ cause. These included Colonel Hubert Morley and Sir John Trevor who both lived in Glynde and Sir John Fagg, the MP for Rye who lived in Wiston House, West Sussex, and who was a friend of the author Daniel Defoe.

A Bill to call a court to try the King had been rejected by the House of Lords, but the House of Commons decided that it had supreme authority and the act was passed (but only by a margin of 29 to 26).

Subsequently 131 ‘Commissioners’ were selected to sit at a High Court of Justice in Westminster Hall in January 1649. Of these men no less than 11 had connections with Sussex. These were dangerous times indeed, three Chief Justices refused to sit and in the end an obscure lawyer John Bradshaw was appointed the President of the court. Bradshaw had a difficult and dangerous role; afraid of assassination he took to wearing armour under his Judges robes and a bulletproof beaver skin hat. The Sussex men were also nervous – of the 11 nominated, five did not turn up at the trial.

Of the 59 regicides, seven were Sussex men. Peregrine Pelham, Anthony Stapley, James Temple, Gregory Norton, William Cawley, William Goffe and John Downes. Considering that the county played no big part in the Civil War, that is quite a number.

Although Peregrine Pelham was an MP for Hull, he was a member of the Sussex Pelham family which was later to provide the county with many MPs and several prime ministers.

Anthony Stapley was MP for Lewes and later MP for Sussex. He was from Framfield but lived in Patcham just north of Brighton. He was also the Governor of Chichester. He died before the restoration of the monarchy. His two sons, John and Anthony, did not follow their father’s political views and support the 1st Duke of Ormonde in a plot of 1658 to restore King Charles II to the throne.

Kent born James Temple was a puritan, a supporter of Cromwell. He lived in Etchingham, East Sussex, but was the MP for Bramber. He was a soldier and fought as a ‘roundhead’ against the King’s ‘cavaliers’ at the Battle of Edgehill. Following the restoration, he was found guilty of treason but managed to escape execution and was exiled to Jersey where he died in 1680.

Sir Gregory Norton was MP for Midhurst and is remembered as profiteering from the sale of confiscated royalist estates. He also obtained the contents of Richmond Palace and sold them at huge profit. He died before the restoration and his lands were confiscated.

William Cawley was from Chichester and and was also a Sussex MP. He not only signed the King’s death warrant but also served on a number of parliamentary committees. After the restoration he managed to escape to Switzerland where he lived “in constant fear of detection and with scanty income” until his death in 1667.

William Goffe (sometimes Gough) was the son of the vicar of Stanmer. He became a parliamentarian soldier and rose to the rank of major-general, becoming a trusted advisor to Cromwell. He married the daughter of General Edward Whalley, who also signed the death warrant and following the restoration they both escaped to Newhaven in America. Goffe became friends with puritan minister Increase Mather (an interesting character who supported the banning of alcohol, ostentatious clothing and ‘unnecessary effort on Sundays’. He was also involved in the Salem Witch trials) Goffe died in the USA and is buried in an unmarked grave in Massachusetts.

The last Sussex regicide was John Downes who was the MP for Arundel.

He was also found guilty of treason following the restoration but the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment and died in the Tower of London.