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King Charles II

The wrath of a king: How Charles II avenged the 'regicides' with his 'Royal Kill List'

Would you hunt down the 59 men who were responsible for the death of your father? That's exactly what Charles II following his restoration.

Image: Portrait of King Charles II by John Riley

Royal Kill List is a story about espionage, revenge, power, loyalty, and the moment that changed the landscape of British politics and society forever. The three-part drama-documentary follows King Charles II’s hunt for his father’s killers – the Regicides - as a window into a remarkable and often overlooked historical period. The show airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY. The full series is now available on demand to Sky and Virgin customers.

Royal Kill List

On 30th January 1649, King Charles I of England was executed at Whitehall and a short while later his son, Charles II, was driven from the country. The English monarchy was no more, as the nation shifted to a republic under the influence of Oliver Cromwell.

However, that was not the end of royalty in Britain and 11 years later the monarchy was restored with Charles II on the throne. The execution of Charles’ father couldn’t be ignored and all those who’d signed the death warrant were now directly in his crosshairs.

Many fled to far-flung reaches of the globe, but Charles wasted no time and spared no expense in hunting them down and ticking them off his notorious ‘Kill List’.

How many were there? Did any escape? Let’s find out the whole story.

Sins of the father

Like his father before him, James I, Charles I believed in the divine right of kings. Thinking he was above the law, Charles alienated himself from Parliament, often dissolving it when faced with opposition and choosing to rule alone. He’d also chosen to marry a Catholic, which lost him the trust of many of his Protestant subjects, especially the Puritans.

In the end, his actions led to a series of civil wars between Royalists and Parliamentarians, with the latter eventually coming out on top. After a show trial, 59 people signed Charles' death warrant and upon his execution, the country entered a period known as the Interregnum.

Cromwell and restoration

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, basically making him king in all but name. However, after he died in 1658, a void was left that his son couldn't fill. The power vacuum eventually led to the return of Charles II in 1660, which heralded the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy.

Charles agreed to a different policy from that of his father, pursuing more political tolerance and power-sharing. Upon his return, Parliament also passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act which pardoned all those involved in the Protectorate during the Interregnum. However, 104 names were left off that general amnesty, including the 59 names written on Charles I’s death warrant.

The Kill List

Those now facing the wrath of Charles II were all involved in the trial and execution of his father. Known as the Regicides, the 104 men found themselves being hunted down.

By 1660, 24 of the 104 had already died which included the main protagonist, Oliver Cromwell. Not willing to let things lie (quite literally), Charles II ordered Cromwell’s body be dug up, hung and beheaded. His body was then thrown into a pit below the gallows, whilst his head was stuck on a spike in Westminster Hall, where it remained for the next 30 years. Two others were posthumously executed alongside Cromwell, including his son-in-law and the president of the court that tried Charles I.

Guilty as charged

The speed at which the Restoration happened caught many of the accused off-guard. Some denied being involved only to be undone by parliamentarian records. Around 28 stood trial in the aftermath of Charles II’s coronation. Without legal advice and accused of high treason, few were reprieved. 19 found themselves imprisoned for life, whilst others suffered a more gruesome fate.

The unlucky ones were hanged, drawn and quartered; a grisly medieval method of execution that was the statutory penalty for men convicted of high treason. Many Regicides faced their fate unrepentant and with remarkable courage. Examples include Thomas Scot and Thomas Harrison, both were signatories on Charles I’s death warrant. Before his death, Scot launched into a speech about liberty and the righteousness of his cause, whilst Harrison managed to take a swing at his executioner mid-torture.

Running for their lives

The 54th of the 59 signatories was Gregory Clement who immediately went into hiding when Charles II was restored to the throne. It didn't last long before the wrath of the new king turned over the rock he was hiding under. Clement was sentenced to death.

Others chose to leave the country entirely and 21 Regicides successfully managed to flee abroad, some with more long-term success than others. A few were captured and returned to England to meet their fate or killed abroad, whilst others lived the rest of their lives on the run.

Notably, three Regicides managed to make it to America. William Goffe, Edward Whalley (Goffe’s father-in-law) and John Dixwell all made it across the Atlantic and settled in New England, amongst Puritan communities who sheltered them.

For years, agents of the king attempted to track the fugitives down, all to no avail. It’s believed Dixwell died under an assumed name in 1689, whilst Goffe and Whalley also changed their names and evaded their pursuers on several occasions. When Royalist agents came to the community they were hunkering down in, the pair were tipped off in advance and went into hiding in a nearby cave, where they spent the next few years living. Fresh efforts to track them down a few years later meant they had to relocate to Hadley, Massachusetts where very little is known about the rest of their lives.

Other Regicides went eastwards toward Europe and successfully lived out the remainder of their days in exile.

Legacy and aftermath

History has viewed the men hunted down by Charles II in a variety of ways, some choosing to see them as martyrs of the cause of liberty and republicanism, others as quite simply traitors to the crown.

Charles II went on to rule until he died in 1685 at the age of 54. Without a legitimate heir, Charles’ was succeeded by his brother, James II.