Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

Review of Charles I's Killers In America, by Matthew Jenkinson, pub. OUP 2019

This announces itself as being about the "lives and afterlives" of Edward Whalley and William Goffe, two signatories to Charles I's death warrant who, on the eve of the Restoration, escaped to America. Lives, in the sense of what became of them in their new land; afterlives in the sense of their posthumous reputation there and its effect on later events.

This is the sort of odd corner of history that always attracts me, but I felt the "afterlives" bit was considerably the more interesting, and where the book really came alive. You would think that two men trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the officials sent out to arrest them would make a gripping narrative. If it doesn't, I think that is because Whalley and Goffe never really come alive as people. From the chapters dealing with the war and the Commonwealth, we learn that they were both good soldiers and very religious, which one might have guessed, and later we learn that Goffe was prone to depression and always felt a stranger in America. But that's about it. These men had wives and families in England, and were in correspondence with them, but we learn nothing of their personal relationships, and much as I sympathised with their cause, it was hard to get really interested in the fate of two men practically without personalities. In fact, the interest lies more in how their survival becomes tangled up with the political differences between Charles II and his already-murmuring American colony.

This may not be altogether the author's fault, because to judge by the fragment of Goffe's diary that remains to us, and is included as an appendix, he at least was an obsessively god-bothering bore of the first order. It is after he and Whalley die that they become part of America's mythology, and a good deal more interesting in legend and fiction than they ever were in life. The story of the "Angel of Hadley", which just might, fascinatingly, be true, has Goffe surfacing from hiding to lead the inhabitants of a town in fighting off an attack by indigenous tribes (who, you may not be surprised to hear, were entirely in the right of the quarrel). Hawthorne may have had this tale in mind in his short story "The Gray Champion", where an ancient Puritan returns from the dead at critical moments in his country's history, and the Angel story, true or not, is clearly related to legends in which other countries' champions - Arthur, Joan, Theseus, Holger Danske - appear to soldiers in battle centuries later. Other stories cluster around these two in folk memory - everyone seems to have wanted to claim a family connection to them, especially at times of conflict with England.

Their myth was helped to prosper by an astonishingly silly act on the part of the English government, which I hadn't previously known about. In 1662, just after the restoration, a statute was passed decreeing that the anniversary of Charles I's death, January 30th, should be observed in all churches of England, Ireland, Wales and the dominions as "an anniversary of fasting and humiliation" on which sermons should be preached lamenting disobedience to monarchs. Given that many, certainly in New England, regarded the day in question as anything but lamentable, this was a provocative folly which served only to keep grudges and resentment alive. "30th of January sermons", both in England and America, quite frequently became subversive, drawing attention to the faults of kings rather than their supposed divinity.

The way the two men become part of a country's myth and fiction is intrinsically interesting, and well documented here, as is the way their star rises and falls in popular estimation according to what is happening in politics at the time - heroes during the War of Independence, less so after the murders of Lincoln and Kennedy, both of which, at the time, were described as "regicides". I think the writing style could be livelier, and less inclined to repeat points already made. The contemporary pictures and engravings reproduced in the book are welcome, if a bit blurry.
Tags: history, non-fiction, politics
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