Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 45

Our last chapter concluded with the dishonourable transaction by which the Scottish army surrendered Charles I into the hands of the Parliament of England, on receiving security for a sum of arrears due to them by that body.

The Commissioners of Parliament, thus possessed of the King’s person, conducted him as a state prisoner to Holmby House, in Northamptonshire, which had been assigned as his temporary residence; but from which a power different from theirs was soon about to withdraw him.

The Independents, as I have said, highly resented as a tyranny over their consciences the establishment Presbytery, however temporary, or however mitigated, in the form of a national church; and were no less displeased, that the army, whose ranks were chiefly filled with these military saints, as they called themselves, who were principally of the Independent persuasion, was, in the event of peace, which seemed close at hand, threatened either to be sent to Ireland, or disbanded. The discontent among the English soldiery became general; they saw that the use made of the victories, which their valour had mainly contributed to gain, would be to reduce and disarm them, and send out of the kingdom such regiments as might be suffered to retain their arms and military character. And besides the loss of pay, profession, and importance, the sectaries had every reason to apprehend the imposition of the Presbyterian yoke, as they termed the discipline of that church. These mutinous dispositions were secretly encouraged by Cromwell, Ireton, and Fleetwood, officers of high rank and influence, to whom the Parliament had intrusted the charge of pacifying them. At length the army assumed the ominous appearance of a separate body in the state, whose affairs were managed by a committee of persons, called Agitators, being two privates chosen from each company. These bold and unscrupulous men determined to gain possession of the person of the King, and to withdraw him from the power of the Parliament.

In pursuance of this resolution, Joyce, originally a tailor, now a cornet, and a furious agitator for the cause of the army, on the 4th of June, 1647, appeared suddenly at midnight before Holmby House. The troops employed by the Commissioners to guard the King’s person, being infected, it may be supposed, with the general feeling of the army, offered no resistance. Joyce, with little ceremony, intruded himself, armed with his pistols, into the King’s sleeping apartment, and informed his Majesty that he must please to attend him. “Where is your commission?” said the unfortunate King. “Yonder it is,” answered the rude soldier, pointing to his troop of fifty horse, which, by the early dawning, was seen drawn up in the courtyard of the place. — “It is written in legible characters,” replied Charles; and without further remonstrance, he prepared to attend the escort.

The King was conducted to Newmarket, and from thence to the palace of Hampton Court; and though in the hands of a body which had no lawful authority or responsible character, he was at first treated with more respect, and even kindness, than he had experienced either from the Scottish army, or from the English Commissioners. The officers distrusted, perhaps, the security of their own power, for they offered a pacification on easy terms. They asked an equal national representation, freely chosen; stipulated that the two Houses of Parliament should enjoy the command of the militia for four-teen years; and even agreed that the order of Bishops should be reestablished, but without any temporal power or coercive jurisdiction. So far the terms were more moderate than, from such men and in such a moment, the King could have expected. But on one point the council of officers were rigidly determined; they insisted that seven of the adherents of Charles, chosen from those who had, with wisdom or with valour, best supported the sinking cause of royalty, should be declared incapable of pardon. Charles was equally resolute in resisting this point; his conscience had suffered too deeply on the occasion of Strafford’s execution, to which he had yielded in the beginning of these troubles, to permit him ever to be tempted again to abandon a friend.

In the mean time the Parliament was preparing to exert its authority in opposing and checking the unconstitutional power assumed by the army; and the city of London, chiefly composed of Presbyterians, showed a general disposition to stand by the Houses of Legislature. But when that formidable army drew near to London, both Parliament and citizens became intimidated; and the former expelled from their seats the leading Presbyterian members, and suffered the Independents to dictate to the dispirited remainder what measures they judged necessary. Prudence would, as this moment, have strongly recommended to Charles an instant agreement with the army. But the Presbyterians of England had not resigned hopes; and the whole kingdom of Scotland, incensed at the triumph of the Sectaries, and the contumely offered to the Solemn League and Covenant, which had been stigmatized, in the House of Commons, as an almanack out of date, their commissioners made, in private, liberal offers to restore the King by force of arms. In listening to these proposals, Charles flattered himself that he should be able to hold the balance betwixt the Presbyterians and Independents; but he mistook the spirit of the latter party, from whom this private negotiation did not long remain a secret, and who were highly incensed by the discovery.

The Presbyterians had undertaken the war with professions of profound respect towards the King’s person and dignity. They had always protested that they made war against the evil counsellors of the King, but not against his person; and their ordinances, while they were directed against the Malignants, as they termed the Royalists, ran in the King’s own name, as well as in that of the two Houses of Parliament, by whose sole authority they were sent forth. To Independents, on the contrary, boldly declared themselves at war with the Man Charles, as the abuser of the regal power, and the oppressor of the saints. Cromwell himself avouched such doctrines in open Parliament. He said it was childish to talk of there being no war with the King’s person, when Charles appeared in armour, and at the head of his troops in open battle; and that he himself was so far from feeling any scruple on the subject, that he would fire his pistol at the King as readily as at any of his adherents, should he meet him in the fight.

After the discovery of the King’s treaty with the Scottish Commissioners, Cromwell, admitting Charles’s powers of understanding and reasoning, denounced him as a man of the deepest dissimulation, who had broken faith, by professing an entire reliance on the wisdom of the Parliament, while by a separate negotiation with the Scottish Commissioners, he was endeavouring to rekindle the flames of civil war between the sister kingdoms. After speaking to this purpose, Cromwell required, and by the now irresistible interest of the Independents he obtained, a declaration from the House, that the Parliament would received no further applications from Charles, and make no addresses to him in future.

The unfortunate King, while in the power of this uncompromising faction, by whom his authority seemed to be suspended, if not abolished, ought to have been aware, that if he was to succeed in any accommodation with them at all, it could only be by accepting, without delay or hesitation, such terms as they were disposed to allow him. If he could have succeeded in gratifying the principal officers by promises of wealth, rank, and distinction, which were liberally tendered to them, it is probable that their influence might have induced their followers to acquiesce in his restoration, especially if it afforded the means of disconcerting the plans of the Presbyterians. But Charles ought, as the same time, to have reflected, that any appearance of procrastination on his part must give rise to suspicions of his sincerity on the part of the military leaders; and that the Independents, having once adopted an idea that he was trifling with or deceiving them, had none of that sanctimonious respect for his title, or person, that could prevent his experiencing the utmost rigour.

The Independents and their military council, accordingly, distrusting the sincerity of Charles, and feeling every day the increase of their own power, began to think of establishing it on an entirely different basis from that of monarchy. They withdrew from the King the solemn marks of respect with which he had been hitherto indulged, treated him with neglect and incivility, deprived him of his chaplains, confined his person more closely, doubled the guards upon him, and permitted none to have access to him, but such as possessed their confidence.

Alarmed at these ominous severities, Charles now resolved to escape by flight, and left Hampton Court accordingly.(11th No.) Unhappily, either misled by his attendant or by his own indiscretion, he took refuge in the Isle of Wight, where the governor of Carisbrook castle [Colonel Hammond] was the friend of Cromwell, and a fierce Independent. Here the unfortunate monarch only fell into a captivity more solitary, more severe, and more comfortless, than any which he had yet experienced. He himself from his window pointed out to Sir Philip Warwick an old grey-headed domestic on the street, who brought in wood to the fire, and observed to him, that the conversation of that menial was the best that he had been suffered to enjoy for months. There is even reason to think his life was aimed at, and that the King was privately encouraged to make an effort to escape from a window in the castle, while a person was placed in readiness to shoot him in the attempt.

The council of war renounced all further communication with Charles; the Parliament, now under the Independent influence, sent down Commissioners to treat, but with preliminary conditions harder than any yet offered to him. Two resources remained to him — the services of the disbanded loyalists, whom his faithful adherents might again summon to arms — but they were dispersed, disarmed, and heart-broken; or the assistance of the Scots — but they were distant and disunited. Yet Charles resolved to try his fortunes on this perilous cast, rather than treat with the Parliament, influenced as it was by the army.

The presence of two Scottish Commissioners, who had accompanied those of the Parliament to Carisbrook, enabled Charles to execute a secret treaty with them, by which he agreed to confirm the Solemn League and Covenant, establish Presbytery, at least for a season, and concur in the extirpation of the Sectaries. These articles, if they had been granted while Charles was at Newcastle, would have been sufficient to have prevented the surrender of his person by the Scottish army; but it was the King’s unfortunate lot, on this, as on all former occasions, to delay his concessions until they came too late, and were liable to be considered insincere.

When this treaty (which was called the Engagement, because the Commissioners engaged to restore the King by force of arms) was presented to the Scottish Parliament, it was approved by the more moderate part of the Presbyterians, who were led by the Duke of Hamilton, together with his brother the Earl of Lanark, the Lord Chancellor Loudoun, and the Earl of Lauderdale; this last being destined to make a remarkable figure in the next reign. But the majority of the Presbyterian clergy, supported by the more zealous among their hearers, declared that the concessions of the King were totally insufficient to engage Scotland in a new war, as affording no adequate cause for a quarrel with England. This party was headed by the Marquis of Argyle.

I may here mention respecting this nobleman, that after Montrose’s army was disbanded, he had taken severe vengeance on the MacDonalds, and other clans who had assisted in the desolation of Argyleshire. Having the aid of David Lesley, with a body of regular troops, he reduced successively some forts into which Alaster MacDonald (Colkitto) had thrown garrisons, and uniformly put the prisoners to the sword. The MacDougals were almost exterminated in one indiscriminate slaughter, and the Lamonts were put to death in another act of massacre. Sir James Turner, an officer who served under Lesley, lays the blame of these inhumanities on a hard-hearted clergyman called Neaves. David Lesley was disgusted at it, and when, after some such sanguinary execution, he saw his chaplain with his shoes stained with blood, he asked him reproachfully, “Have you enough of it now, Master John?”

These atrocities, by whomever committed, must have been perpetrated in revenge of the sufferings of Argyle and his clan; and to these must be added the death of old Colkitto, the father of Alaster MacDonald, likewise so called, who, being taken in one of these Highland forts, was tried by a jury convened by authority of George Campbell, the Sheriff Substitute of Argyle, from whose sentence was are told very few escaped, and was executed of course.

All these grounds of offence having been given to the Royalists, in a corner of the country where revenge was considered as a duty and a virtue, it is not extraordinary that Argyle should have objected most earnestly to the engagement, which was an enterprise in which the King’s interest was to be defended, with more slender precautions against the influence of the Malignants, or pure Royalists, than seemed consistent with the safety of those who had been most violent against them. Many of the best officers of the late army declined to serve with the new levies, until the Church of Scotland should approve the cause of quarrel. The parliament, however, moved by compassion for their native monarch, and willing to obliterate the disgrace which attached to the surrender of the King at Newcastle, appointed an army to be levied, to act in his behalf. The kingdom was thus thrown into the utmost confusion between the various factions of the Engagers and their opponents. The civil magistrates, obeying the commands of the Parliament, ordered the subjects to assume arms under pain of temporal punishment; while the clergy, from the pulpit, denounced the vengeance of Heaven against those who obeyed the summons.

The Engagers prevailed so far as to raise a tumultuary and ill-disciplined army of about fifteen thousand men, which was commanded by the Duke of Hamilton. This ill-fated nobleman deserved the praise of being a moderate man during all the previous struggles; and, though loving his King, seems uniformly to have endeavoured to reconcile his administration with the rights, and even the prejudices, of his countrymen. But he had little decision of character, and less military skill. While the Scotch were preparing their succours slowly and with hesitation, the English cavaliers, impatient at the danger and captivity of the King, took arms. But their insurrections were so ill connected with each other, that they were crushed successively, save in two cases, where the insurgents made themselves masters of Colchester and Pembroke, in which towns they were instantly besieged.

Hamilton ought to have advanced with all speed to raise the siege of these places; abut instead of this, he loitered away more than forty days in Lancashire, until Cromwell came upon him near Warrington, where head and heart seem alike to have failed the unfortunate Duke. Without even an attempt at resistance, he abandoned his enterprise, and made a disorderly retreat, leaving his artillery and baggage. Baillie, with the infantry, being deserted by his general, surrendered to the enemy at Uttoxeter; and Hamilton himself, with the cavalry, took the same deplorable course. None escaped save a resolute body of men under the Earl of Callender, who broke through the enemy, and forced their way back to their own country.

The news of this disaster flew to Scotland. The refractory clergy took the merit of hiving prophesied the downfall of the Engagers, and stirred up the more zealous Presbyterians to take possession of the government. Argyle drew to arms in the Highlands, whilst the western peasantry assembling, and headed by their divines, repaired to Edinburgh. This insurrection was called the Whigamore’s Raid, from the word, whig, whig, that is, get on, get on, which is used by the western peasants in driving their horses, — a name destined to become the distinction of a powerful party in British history.

The Earl of Lanark was at the head of some troops on the side of the Engagement, but, afraid of provoking the English, in whose hands his brother Hamilton was a prisoner, he made no material opposition to the Whigamores. Argyle became once more the head of the government. It was during this revolution that Cromwell advanced to the Borders, when, instead of finding any enemies to fight with, he was received by the victorious Whigamores as a friend and brother. Their horror at an army of Sectaries had been entirely overpowered by their far more violent repugnance to unite with Cavaliers and Malignants in behalf of the King. Cromwell, on that occasion, held much intimate correspondence with Argyle; which made it generally believed that the Marquis, in their private conferences, acquiesced in the violent measures which were to be adopted by the successful general against the captive King, whose fate was now decide upon. The unfortunate Marquis always denied this, nor was the charge ever supported by any tangible evidence.

During these military and political transactions, Charles had been engaged in a new treaty with the English Parliament, which was conducted at Newport in the isle of Wight. It was set on foot in consequence of Cromwell’s absence with his army, which restored the Parliament to some freedom of debate, and the Presbyterian members to a portion of their influence. If any thing could have saved that unfortunate Prince, it might have been by accomplishing an agreement with the House of Commons, which Hamilton’s army was yet entire, and before the insurrections of the Royalists had been entirely suppressed. But he delayed closing the treaty until the army returned, flushed with victory over the English Cavaliers and Scottish Engagers, and denouncing vengeance on the head of the King, whom they accused of being the sole author of the civil war, and liable to punishment as such. This became the language of the whole party. The pulpits rung with the exhortations of the military preachers, demanding that the King should be given over, as a public enemy, to a public trial.

It was in vain that Charles had at length, with lingering reluctance, yielded every request which the Parliament could demand of him. It was equally in vain that the Parliament had publicly declared that the concessions made by the King were sufficient to form the basis of a satisfactory peace. The army, stirred up by their ambitious officers and fanatic preachers, were resolved that Charles should be put to an open and ignominious death; and a sufficient force of soldiery was stationed in and around London to make resistance impossible, either on the part of the Presbyterians or the Royalists.

In order to secure a majority in the House of Commons, Colonel Pride, a man who had been a brewer, drew up his regiment at the doors of the House of Parliament, and in the streets adjacent, and secured the persons of upwards of forty members, who, being supposed favourable to reconciliation with the King, were arrested and thrown into prison; above one hundred more were next day excluded. This act of violence was called Pride’s Purge. At the same time the House of Lords was shut up. The remainder of the House of Commons, who alone were permitted to sit and vote, were all of the Independent party, and ready to do whatever should be required by the soldiers. This remnant of a Parliament, under the influence of the swords of their own soldiers, proceeded to nominate what was called a High Court of Justice for the trial of King Charles, charged with treason, as they termed it, against the people of England. The Court consisted of one hundred and thirty-three persons, chosen from the army, the Parliament, and from such of the citizens of London as were well affected to the proposed change of government from a kingdom to a commonwealth. Many of the judges so nominated refused, notwithstanding, to act upon such a commission. Mean time, the great body of the English people beheld these strange preparations with grief and terror. The Scots, broken by the defeat of Hamilton and success of the Whigamores’ Raid, had no means of giving assistance.

Those who drove this procedure forward were of different classes, urged by different motives.

The higher officers of the army, Cromwell, Ireton, and others, seeing they could not retain their influence by concluding a treaty with Charles, had resolved to dethrone and put him to death, in order to establish a military government in their own persons. These men had a distinct aim, and they in some degree attained it. There were others among the Independent party, who thought they had offended the King so far beyond forgiveness, that his deposition and death were necessary for their own safety. The motives of these persons are also within the grasp of common apprehension.

But there were also among the Independent members of Parliament men of a nobler character. There were statesmen who had bewildered themselves with meditating upon theoretical schemes, till they had fancied the possibility of erecting a system of republican government on the foundation of the ancient monarchy of England. Such men, imposed on by a splendid dream of unattainable freedom, imagined that the violence put upon the Parliament by the soldiery, and the death of the King, when it should take place, were but necessary steps to the establishment of this visionary fabric of perfect liberty, like the pulling down of an old edifice to make room for a new building. After this fanciful class of politicians, came enthusiasts of another and coarser description, influenced by the wild harangues of their crack-brained preachers, who saw in Charles not only the head of the enemies with whom they had been contending for four years with various fortune, but also a wicked King of Amalekites, delivered up to them to be hewn in pieces in the name of Heaven. Such were the various motives which urged the actors in this extraordinary scene.

The pretext by which they coloured these proceedings was, that the King had levied war against his people, to extend over them an unlawful authority. If this had been true in point of fact, it was no ground of charge against Charles in point of law; for the constitution of England declares that the King can do no wrong, that is, cannot be made responsible for any wrong which he does. The vengeance of the laws, when such wrong is committed, is most justly directed against those wicked ministers by whom the culpable measure is contrived, and the agents by whom it is executed. The constitution of England wisely rests on the principle, that if the counsellors had instruments of a prince’s pleasure are kept under wholesome terror of the laws, there is no risk of the monarch, in his own unassisted person, transgressing the limits of his authority.

But in fact the King had not taken arms against the Parliament to gain any new and extraordinary extent of power. It is no doubt true, that the Parliament, when summoned together, had many just grievances to complain of; but these were not, in general, innovations of Charles, but such exertions of power as had been customary in the four last reigns, when the crown of England had been freed from the restraint of the barons, without being sufficiently subjected to the control of the House of Commons, representing the people at large. They were, however, very bad precedents; and, since the King had shown a desire to follow them, the Parliament were most justly called upon to resist the repetition of the old encroachments upon their liberty. But before the war broke out, the King had relinquished in favour of the Commons all they had demanded. The ultimate cause of quarrel was, which party should have the command of the militia or public force of the kingdom. This was a constitutional part of the King’s prerogative; for the executive power cannot be said to exist unless united with the power of the swords. Violence on each side heightened the general want of confidence. The Parliament, as has been before stated, garrisoned, and held out the town of Hull against Charles; and the King infringed the privileges of the Commons, by coming with an armed train to arrest five of their members during the sitting of Parliament. So that the war must be justly imputed to a train of long-protracted quarrels, in which neither party could be termed wholly right, and still less entirely wrong, but which created so much jealousy on both sides as could scarcely terminate otherwise than in civil war.

The High Court of Justice, nevertheless, was opened, and the King was brought to the bar on 19th January, 1649. The soldiers, who crowded the avenues, were taught to cry out for justice upon the royal prisoner. When a bystander, affected by the contrast betwixt the King’s present and former condition, could not refrain from saying aloud, “God save your Majesty,” he was struck and beaten by the guards around him. — “A rude chastisement,” said the King, “for so slight an offence.” Charles behaved throughout the whole of the trying scene with the utmost dignity. He bore, without complaining, the reproaches of murderer and tyrant, which were showered on him by the riotous soldiery; and when a ruffian spit in his face, the captive monarch wiped it off with his handkerchief, and only said, “Poor creatures! for half a crown they would do the same to their father.”

When the deed of accusation, stated to be in the name of the people of England, was read, a voice from one of the galleries exclaimed, “not the tenth part of them!” Again, as the names of the judges were called over, when that of General Fairfax occurred, the same voice replied, “He has more sense than to be here.” Upon the officer who commanded the guard ordering the musketeers to fire into the gallery from which the interruption came, the speaker was discovered to be Lady Fairfax, wife of Sir Thomas, the general of the forces, and a daughter of the noble house of Vere, who in this manner declared her resentment at the extraordinary scene.

The King, when placed at the bar, looked around on the awful preparations for trial, on the bench, crowded with avowed enemies, and displaying, what was still more painful, the faces of one or two ungrateful friends, without losing his steady composure. When the public accuser began to speak, he touched him with his staff, and sternly admonished him to forbear. He afterwards displayed both talent and boldness in his own defence. He disowned the authority of the novel and incompetent court before which he was placed; reminded those who sat as his judges, that he was their lawful king, answerable indeed to God for the use of his power, but declared by the constitution incapable of doing wrong. Even if the authority of the people were sufficient to place him before the bar, he denied that such authority had been obtained. The act of violence, he justly stated, was the deed, not of the English nation, but of a hew daring men, who had violated, by military force, the freedom of the House of Commons, and altogether destroyed and abolished the House of Peers. He declared that he spoke not for himself, but for the sake of the laws and liberties of England.

Though repeatedly interrupted by Bradshaw, a lawyer, president of the pretended High Court of Justice, Charles pronounced his defence in a manly, yet temperate manner. Being then three times called on to answer to the charge, he as often declined the jurisdiction of the court. Sentence of death was then pronounced, to be executed in front of the royal palace, lately his own.

On the 30th January, 1649, Charles I was brought forth through one of the windows in front of the banqueting house at Whitehall, upon a large scaffold hung with black, and closely surrounded with guards. Two executioners in masks attended (one wearing a long grey beard), beside a block and cushion. Juxon, a bishop of the Church of England, assisted the King’s devotions. As Charles laid his head on the block, he addressed to the bishop, emphatically, the word remember, and then gave the signal for the fatal stroke. One executioner struck the head from the shoulders at a single blow; the other held it up, and proclaimed it the head of a traitor. The soldiers shouted in triumph, but the multitude generally burst out into tears and lamentations.

This tragic spectacle was far from accomplishing the purpose intended by those who had designed it. On the contrary, the King’s serene and religious behaviour at his trial and execution excited the sympathy and sorrow of many who had been his enemies when in power; the injustice and brutality which he bore with so much dignity, overpowered the remembrance of the errors of which he had been guilty; and the almost universal sense of the iniquity of his sentence, was a principal cause of the subsequent restoration of his family to the throne.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29