Charles I’s Killers in America: The Lives & Afterlives of Edward Whalley & William Goffe by Matthew Jenkinson - review by Edward Vallance

Edward Vallance

Regicides on the Run

Charles I’s Killers in America: The Lives & Afterlives of Edward Whalley & William Goffe


Oxford University Press 255pp £20

The story of Edward Whalley and William Goffe, two of the three signatories of Charles I’s death warrant who fled to New England after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, has seen a revival of interest in recent years. No fewer than three popular history books have tackled their adventures in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the past decade and, as Matthew Jenkinson notes, Goffe even played a minor role in Channel 4’s New Worlds, a poorly received historical drama released in 2014. In New England itself, Whalley, Goffe and their fellow ‘regicide’ John Dixwell have long been celebrated figures. Monuments to them stand behind the congregationalist church on New Haven Green, while three intersecting streets in the city bear their names. Outside New Haven, in West Rock Ridge Park, tourists have long enjoyed visiting the Judges’ Cave, where Whalley and Goffe once hid from their pursuers. You can even walk the ‘regicides trail’, a demanding sixteen-mile hike, not to be undertaken in bad weather (as this reviewer belatedly realised) since the path tacks along the edge of a rock escarpment with a steep drop on the other side. If you survive that walk, an hour or so’s drive north will take you to the small town of Hadley, Massachusetts, likely the final resting place of Whalley and Goffe. Here, two streets are also named after the fugitives, though one street sign is now sadly obscured by a billboard advertising the services of a local dentist.

Much of this interest, at least in the modern era, has been generated by the legend of the ‘Angel of Hadley’. The tale of how an aged William Goffe emerged from hiding to save the townsfolk of Hadley from an Indian attack caught the imagination of many novelists and poets in the early 19th century, including Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Southey. Although an earlier generation of historians dismissed the legend as itself a work of fiction, Jenkinson notes that there is evidence suggesting the story may have a basis in fact: Goffe might indeed have assisted in the defence of Hadley in June 1676, but contemporary accounts may have deliberately obscured his role so as to prevent the elderly regicide’s discovery.

The literary fascination with the regicides was, as Jenkinson ably demonstrates, built upon the historical recovery of their lives, which was given impetus by the revolutionary politics of the latter half of the 18th century. For New England Puritan ministers such as Jonathan Mayhew, the regicides were not ‘king-killers’ but men who had shown legitimate resistance towards a tyrant. As the dispute between Britain and its colonies grew more severe, Charles I increasingly became the ‘bête noire’ (as Jenkinson puts it) of North American preachers. Conversely, as Alfred Young demonstrated, those attacking British rule in the colonies in New England newspapers and periodicals increasingly deployed the names of Parliamentarians, including Whalley and Goffe, as noms de plume.

The recasting of these 17th-century Puritans as modern-day revolutionaries was completed in Ezra Stiles’s unusual History of Three of the Judges of King Charles I, published in 1794. Stiles, president of Yale College, was a fanatical Jacobin whose book ended with a lengthy republican screed anticipating the imminent downfall of all monarchies. Whalley, Goffe and Dixwell were, for Stiles, the forerunners of the ‘heroes’ of the French Revolution.

Stiles’s views were certainly at the more extreme end of the political spectrum in the United States at the time. However, his history provided the source material for much more conventionally patriotic reimaginings of the regicides in the 19th century by gathering up much of the local folklore that had surrounded Whalley and Goffe. Many of these myths, including the story of the ‘Angel of Hadley’, cast the two men as doughty defenders of the colonists and fearless opponents of royal tyranny, as represented by Charles II’s agents.

By the mid-19th century, Whalley and Goffe’s story was so familiar that Henry David Thoreau could make a brief allusion to them in Walden (1854), safe in the knowledge that his audience would immediately know who these men were. This familiarity was in stark contrast to the situation in Victorian England, where what scant references could be found to the regicides were typically deeply unsympathetic (at least in political terms). Even genealogical research into these figures was fraught with risks: the clergyman and antiquary Mark Noble did serious damage to both his literary and ecclesiastical careers by publishing a collective biography of the regicides in 1798. Over a century after Charles I’s execution, families still did not wish to be reminded of their connection with the ‘national sin’ of the regicide. In New England, however, the exact opposite was the case: descendants of Dixwell, who had lived in America under the assumed name of James Davids, reclaimed their family name as an act of patriotism.

As Jenkinson skilfully demonstrates, however, the story of the regicides with which Americans have become familiar both exaggerates the danger that Whalley and Goffe were in and also overlooks the complexity of their experience of exile. Jenkinson stresses that, in part, Whalley and Goffe were able to elude the clutches of the crown’s agents because Charles II realised that the vigorous pursuit of the remaining regicides would be counter-productive: the thirteen men who were executed between 1660 and 1662 had become martyrs for the ‘Good Old Cause’, their sacrifice a rallying point for political and religious dissidents. For Whalley and Goffe, the deaths of their comrades in England also posed uncomfortable questions: would it not have been better for them to have died bravely defending their principles in their own country rather than to have fled and gone into hiding?

Jenkinson also highlights the fact that the regicides were only actively ‘hunted’ for a small proportion of their time in exile. The king’s reach in his New England colonies was limited and dependent upon the cooperation of the colonial authorities. The Massachusetts Bay Colony and New Haven were respectively governed in the early 1660s by John Endecott and William Leete, who had little sympathy with the monarchy and little interest in effectively facilitating its intrusion into their jurisdictions by assisting in the capture of these men.

Jenkinson’s work therefore offers a refreshing corrective to recent popular accounts, which have tended to rehearse the now familiar story of the dramatic pursuit of these ‘king killers’ across the wilds of New England by Royalist bounty hunters. While successfully busting these myths, Jenkinson remains alive to the power of the legend surrounding the regicides, especially in the USA, where they have been accepted as honorary founding fathers. The picture presented by Jenkinson of the increasingly cloistered existence endured by two ageing revolutionaries wracked with spiritual doubt may make for poorer fiction but is certainly the stuff of excellent history.

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