Execution of Charles I – ‘King-killer’: the Making of a Regicide

In the fourth in our series on the tumultuous events of the winter of 1648-9, and following on from the trial of Charles I, we turn now to the consequence of a guilty verdict.  Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 considers the process whereby one MP became a signatory to the death warrant for Charles I, executed at Whitehall on this day 370 years ago, 30 January 1649…

King Charles I’s death warrant was signed on 29 January 1649 by 59 men; no doubt there were 59 individual reasons for doing so.  One might mention the army radicals, such as Oliver Cromwell, committed republicans, including Henry Marten, or religious zealots, like Sir John Bourchier, or Edmund Ludlowe, whose rationale for ‘Delivering justice’ was quoted in the previous post in this series.  But rather than attempt to provide a group portrait, this post concentrates on the experience of one man, Sir Hardress Waller.  How did a fairly unremarkable country gentleman become a king-killer?

Circled is the signature of Sir Hardress Waller on the death warrant of Charles I – courtesy of Wikimedia

Sir Hardress Waller’s background made him an unlikely revolutionary. Born in Kent in 1604, the son of a well-established gentry family, in 1629 he married the daughter of Sir John Dowdall, an Old English (but nevertheless Protestant) landowner from co. Limerick, and acquired an interest in extensive estates on the Shannon Estuary.  Waller soon became closely involved with his new Irish relatives and neighbours, and was elected to the Irish Parliament in 1634 and 1640.  He went on to join the attack on the unpopular lord lieutenant, the 1st earl of Strafford (Sir Thomas Wentworth), travelling to Westminster to assist the prosecution in 1641 – a move that was supported by all the different communities across Ireland, whether Catholic or Protestant.  This spirit of cooperation came to an abrupt end in the following October, when the Irish Catholics rebelled against the government.  Many of Waller’s former friends and allies among the Old English gentry joined the insurgents. His estate was robbed by the rebels in January 1642 and a few weeks later it fell into enemy hands, with Waller losing (by his own estimate) goods, livestock and lands worth over £11,000.

The trauma of rebellion, and the years of bitter warfare that followed, had a huge impact on Waller.  He was thrown into the thick of the fighting in Munster, first as a field officer and then as governor of the city of Cork.  He was a vigorous opponent of the king’s efforts to broker a ceasefire with the Irish rebels in the autumn of 1643, and joined the defection of the Munster Protestants to Parliament in July 1644.  Afterwards, he went to England as the agent of the Protestant commander of Munster, Murrough O’Brien, Lord Inchiquin. Waller received a warm reception – not least from his cousin, the parliamentarian general Sir William Waller – and when the New Model army was created in the spring of 1645 he was given command of a regiment of foot. He fought at the decisive victory of Naseby in June of the same year.

Service with the New Model seems to have had a profound impact on Waller, religiously as well as politically.  His zealous enthusiasm for Parliament’s cause was noted at the siege of the Catholic stronghold of Basing House, Hampshire, in October 1645, when he led his regiment againat the most heavily defended outworks and was wounded.  The change in Waller’s attitude is also apparent in a letter of 4 December 1645 written to his old Munster friend, Sir Philip Percivalle, in which he praised the rising star of the New Model: ‘tis certain our greatest hopes for Ireland is from this army, about which I have had many free and serious discourses with Lieutenant-General Cromwell, whose spirit leads much that way’ [HMC Egmont, i. 264-5].  Waller’s approval of Oliver Cromwell was a sign of things to come.  In October 1647 Waller was named to a committee of officers to consider the The Case of the Army Truly Stated  – the political manifesto tendered by radical agitators within its regiments – and played a key role in the ‘Putney Debates’ that followed.  Interestingly, by this stage he was advocating use of the threat of force to bargain with the king or the Parliament, advising the army ‘to let them know that these are our rights, and if we have them not, we must get them the best way we can’ [The Clarke Papers ed. C.H. Firth, Camden Society (1857-1936), i. 344]. Waller was also involved in the purge of the Commons in December 1648, when he joined Colonels John Hewson and Thomas Pride in arresting ‘malignant’ MPs as they entered the House.  William Prynne, a particular enemy of the army, protested, and was treated roughly on the steps of the Commons:

Colonel Pride thrusting him down before, Sir Hardress Waller and others laying hands on, and pulling him down forcibly behind, to the court of requests’ great door.  Mr Prynne thereupon demanded by what authority and commission and for what cause they did thus violently seize on, and pull him down from the House.  To which Pride and Waller, showing him their armed soldiers standing round about him with their swords, muskets, and matches lighted, told him, that there was their commission.

Old Parliamentary History, xviii. 448-9

Pride’s Purge of the Commons was followed by further debates by the army as to the next move.  In mid-December Waller was involved in the army’s discussion of a new constitution, the Agreement of the People.  As before, he was impatient that a far-reaching solution should be reached, for ‘if there be not need of an agreement now, there never was since the sons of men were upon earth’ [Clarke Papers. ii. 180-1].  In the meantime, there was one outstanding item of business of the political agenda: the trial of the king.  In early January 1649 Waller was selected as a commissioner for the high court of justice.  He attended the trial proceedings 21 times – as many as Hewson or Cromwell – and he was present on 27 January, when sentence was passed.  On 29 January Waller signed Charles I’s death warrant, and the king was brought to the block a day later.

The Execution of Charles I, artist unknown

Waller’s support for the regicide marked the end of a long process of radicalisation.  In less than a decade he had shifted his position many times: initially a conservative Anglo-Irish landowner with strong connections with the Catholic population, he became a commander of Irish Protestant forces locked in an existential battle against the Catholic insurgents; thereafter he was a zealous New Model officer and supporter of Oliver Cromwell, eventually becoming an out-and-out revolutionary, willing not only to purge Parliament but also to pass the death sentence against his king.  Even contemporaries recognised there was something unusual about the metamorphosis of Sir Hardress Waller.  As one hostile witness put it, he was ‘sometimes [a] Cavalier, then a violent Presbyterian, and now a tyrannical Independent’ [Clement Walker, Anarchia Anglicana (1661), 30 (BL, E.1052.2)].

The regicide caste a long shadow over Waller’s later career.  Although he enjoyed considerable influence in Ireland in the 1650s, and was elected as MP for cos. Limerick, Kerry and Clare in the three Union Parliaments, when the Cromwellian state collapsed he was treated with increasing suspicion by others within the Irish Protestant community.  Faced with the certainty of the Restoration of the monarchy in early 1660, Waller mounted desperate coup attempt, briefly capturing Dublin Castle, but he was soon ousted by his former allies.  Waller escaped to the continent but returned to faced trial, and was himself sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment.  He died, disillusioned and disappointed, in Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey, in 1666.

Meanwhile, the republic to which the regicide had given birth had been short-lived.  This will be the subject of our final blog in the series, to appear on 7 February.


Further Reading:

The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I, ed. Jason Peacey (2001)

Biographies of the following MPs are being researched and written by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section: Sir John Bourchier, Oliver Cromwell, John Hewson, Edmund Ludlowe, Henry Marten, Sir Philip Percivalle, Thomas Pride, William Prynne, Clement Walker, Sir Hardress Waller, Sir William Waller.

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