The King Must Die
By J. H. PLUMB
WIEN Charles I was hurriedly taken by the Army in November, 1648, to Hurst Castle, a grim fortress on a spit of shingle that runs out into the Solent, memories of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI crowded in upon his close friends. Traditionally English kings who failed were slaughtered in silence. And the pro- found sense of enormity spread through Britain and Europe in January, 1649, sprang as much from the King's trial as from his execution. There lay the innovation. The fundamental difference between the seventeenth century and the recent, or even medixval, past arose not so much from the acts of men as from their motives. The death of the King was no longer sufficient, for the nature of Kingship itself was on trial.
Since the Romans the pattern of English history had been interwoven with rebellion, con- spiracy, riot and murder: the block and the axe has blazoned the histories of most noble families and the aristocracy had always used the sanction of war against the monarchs they distrusted. Charles I appealed at his trial to the fundamental law and ancient constitution of his realm, maintaining that for one thousand years monarchy had been indivisable and hereditary, that no law could be law without his consent, and no authority existed which did not derive from him or his Parliaments, which, for Charles, did not mean a Rump of the Commons, but himself with the Lords and all the Commons elected by ancient custom. Bradshaw, who pre- sided at his trial, had been taught his history, too, and quoted back at Charles the example of those nobles who had wrung the Great Charter from King John, and whose descendants had been forced to accept its reaffirmation time and time again under the threat of violence. He also pointed forcibly to the repeated promises of kings, on oath, to protect the liberties and free- holds of their subjects. Although the past brooded over that curiously muddled, ill-organised scene in Westminster Hall in January, 1649, it was the novelty that shocked. A King was being done to death, not by his cousins nor by his power-thirsty barons: he was being arraigned in the name of his people and his judges were, by the standards of their age, common people.
True, Cromwell, Ireton and their advisers had done their best to give an air of status and solidity to the Commissioners for the trial, and a few men of substance attended, but most were men of middle or lower-middle class origins, men of that self-same class that was to give birth more than a century later to those who would sign America's Declaration of Independence and man the Revolutionary tribunals of France. But in 1649, that sons of tailors, brewers and hus- bandmen should sit in judgment on their anointed King, condemn him for treason to his people, and execute him, seemed a violation of nature and God's law. Of course, it was an act of desperate men, caught in intractable cir-
cumstances, fearful for the whole fabric of society and driven to a headlong decision be- cause of what might follow. Indeed, such was their haste that the execution itself was held up whilst Parliament rushed through a Bill to prevent Charles H being proclaimed after the deed was done. No provision for a Republic or for any new constitution had been made.
And here lies the key to the situation. The Grandees of the Army had been profoundly dis- turbed by the Levellers, as disturbed, indeed, as they were worried by what compromise the Presbyterian leaders were going to make with the King. Caught between left and right, they acted in order to maintain power, not in order to re- construct English society. They knew that recon- struction of a sort would have to follow the King's death, but their bewilderment, their lack of insight into the revolutionary situation in which they were involved can be seen in their almost pathetic adherence to threadbare shreds of legality. After all, it was they who main- tained the absurd Rump and clung to traditional procedures in their Revolutionary Court, at- tempting to make their actions conform to past custom. They abdicated their revolutionary role almost before it had begun.
Yet momentous as the execution of Charles I was, this act, like the whole Civil War itself, means less to us than it did to our fathers and grandfathers and will mean less to our children and perhaps* nothing at all to our grandchildren. And this brings us to the heart of the matter —Miss Wedgwood's role as a historian. Her gifts are splendid and altogether exceptional. Had she lived in the nineteenth century or written in the early part of this, she would have been revered amongst historians as George Eliot is amongst novelists. She is a great craftswoman and a great writer. The structure of this book on the King's Trials is wholly admirable, based firmly on comprehensive scholarship and written with compelling clarity and a sensitive insight into the nature of men and their motives. Charles, Cromwell, Bradshaw come vividly alive.
This, one feels, is the men they were, this is why they were driven along by their strange neces- sities. And Miss Wedgwood, too, makes us aware of the deeper issues, the historic situation in which men were caught. And yet, in this book and in the first two volumes of her fine History of the Civil War,t now re-issued, she is writing. in a sense, for an age that is passing. The Civil War was the great crisis in the history of that class of Englishmen which has wielded political and social power in England since the Reforma- tion; and so its story has continued to fascinate
* THE TRIAL OF CHARLES I. By C. V. Wedgwood. (Collins, 30s.) t THE • KING'S PEACE. By C. V. Wedgwood. (Collins. 30s.) t THE KING'S WAR. By C. V. Wedgwood. (Collins, 30s.) generations of readers. But social and political power in England is rapidly changing hands, and now perhaps the story seems less important than the analysis of why the Civil War failed to achieve any lasting realignment in the class struc- ture of England. Such questions, of course, Miss Wedgwood touches upon both in this and her larger survey, but her avowed purpose is narra- tive history and evocation of the past in all its multiplicity of event and character. And she is in a sense writing from the inside, sensitively, sym- pathetically and with great skill and scholarship. In the fine analysis her heart is with traditional patterns, and Cromwell's failure does not touch her so deeply as the King's death.
,The Army, and Cromwell, in 1649 acted on necessity and waited for Providence: they had little capacity for revolutionary thought or action. They might hate the acts of the Monarchy, long for a wider toleration of belief, but they were deeply suspicious of any realignment of social power. In the end the crisis of authority which shook England was resolved in favour of its old, not new, masters. It was their political institutions, local and national, sanctified by time and made flexible by self-interest that survived. A class structure dominated by land-ownership that ab- sorbed economic and social change with the ease of a sponge lasted for more than two and a half centuries after the Civil War. Only for a very brief period, from 1647 to 1653, had this social power and these political institutions beeu. seriously endangered. Then and then only was a bourgeois revolution possible. But the moment quickly passed, and Cromwell became the care- taker of the past, not a midwife for the future. Hence for the English upper classes the Civil War and the trial and death of Charles I were traumatic—the time when they so nearly lost. Hence their continuing fascination!
In the nineteenth century, when the land- owning classes were again threatened by the prospect of massive social change, this historical epoch acquired a new hypnotic interest for them. Once again questions of freehold and liberty, of authority and democracy, of full religious tolera- tion, and, above all, of the distribution of political and social power, became issues charged with personal emotion. The small manufacturers of Yorkshire, excluded from authority by their religion as well as by their origins, could feel that Cromwell fought for them, that Marston Moor and Naseby were their victories. They were the heirs to the Roundheads. Likewise, those who possessed estates, whose cousins were courtiers and brothers were bishops, could revere the gallantry of their Cavalier ancestors and feel that their family had survived the worst of times and might do so again. But now, who cares? For the laboratory assistant in Billingham, the mechanic in Croydon, the salesman in Walsall or the executive in Golders Green, Charles is dead and Cromwell a bore : their society has different roots and they are hunting for a different sort of projection into the past. Caught in the greater crisis of fundamental social change, Roundhead and Cavalier lose their emotive force. And to their questions the beautifully written, scholarly narratives of Miss Wedgwood do not, indeed are not intended to, give an answer. Nevertheless, within the scholarly tradition in which she writes, Miss Wedgwood has few peers. Even though she may be a little unlucky to be writing when British culture is at the crossroads, she remains one of the outstanding historians of her time in English for mare than a generation. And for those of us who still feel deeply cm
- broiled in the seventeenth century, she is a peerless evocator of the past.