Today (October 9) in London History – Payback time for the regicides

The trial of the regicides began on October 9th, 1660. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

 “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

The famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer’s catchphrase was “Let’s get ready to rumble.”

Well, this is London. I’m a London Walks guide. Indeed, the doyen of London Walks guides. The most experienced guide in London. So I’m thinking it’s time to Buffer this show – time we had our own catchphrase. Here’s my coinage. “Let’s get weird – this is London.”

And that’s by way of introducing Sir John Harington. A courtier and author, he was a prominent member of Good Queen Bess’s court. He was known as her saucy godson. He’s the guy who penned the famous political epigram, “Treason doth Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Anything else? Yes, he invented the flush toilet. Look, I warned you. Let’s get weird – this is London.

Today’s October 9th. The day the truth of Harington’s epigram was borne out. October 9th, 1660. The day treason got its comeuppance. The day it was proven – beyond any doubt – that treason doesn’t prosper. 

We’re at the Old Bailey. In the main courtroom. 34 commissioners are sitting in judgement. They’re presiding at the trial of several of the regicides, particularly those who had signed the death warrant of Charles I. The outcome of that trial was never in question. It wasn’t just the regicides who were going to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Treason was going to be hanged drawn and quartered.

And before we go any further, let’s get the big thing said here. Let’s answer the question: why was the execution of Charles I important? Why was the cutting off of a king’s head such a big deal? The answer to that question – well, if this podcast were to have such a thing, the answer to that question would be the metatext.

Here’s why it was so important. It set a precedent that monarchs could never dismiss from their consciousness. The assassination of reigning kings, the murder of kings captured in battle, the elimination of rivals for succession – all those were occupational hazards as old as monarchy itself. But to try a king, find him guilty and execute him…publicly behead him…whoa! The assertion of a right inherent in the people to punish a king – chop his head off – for levying war against his own subjects – that was uncompromisingly new. A Rubicon was crossed that January day in 1649.

Now, our three settings. And our dramatis personae. 

Charles I was tried in Westminster Hall. The whole world knows about Westminster Hall – has seen Westminster Hall – because that’s where the Queen lay in state just three weeks ago.

In front of Westminster Hall is a statue of Oliver Cromwell, King Charles’ great adversary. Directly across from him, in a niche on the east wall of St Margaret’s the ancient parish church of the House of Commons, is a bust of Charles I. It’s a nice British compromise. They’re looking at one another. Royalists say if you look closely at Cromwell, clearly the man is hanging his head, in shame, at his act of regicide. 

Cromwell would have been tried in that 1660 trial had he been around to be tried. He missed those fun and games, though. He died in 1858. Habeus corpus, though. They exhumed him, hanged, drew and quartered his corpse. And cut his head off. They put his head on a stake on the roof of Westminster Hall. And now you understand why they put it there. Underneath that roof was where Charles I was seated that day in 1649 – January 27th – when he was found guilty and his death sentence pronounced. Cromwell had company up on that roof. The president of the court that tried Charles I was John Bradshaw. He was also kaput. As was Henry Ireton. Ireton was Cromwell’s son-in-law. He was one of the signatories of Charles I’s death. His corpse was also exhumed. Like the other two he’d been buried in Westminster Abbey. Exhumed. And then hanged, drawn and quartered. And beheaded. Those three heads up there. Like rancid lollypops sticking up out of the roof of Westminster Hall. Cromwell’s think tank was up there for 20 years.

The court that tried Charles I – found him guilty, and sentenced him to death for “traitorously and maliciously levy’d war against the present parliament and the people therein represented” – comprised 135 named commissioners, any 20 of whom were a sufficient number for the court to sit. 47 of the named commissioners – more than a third of the total – never appeared. The other 80 were deeply complicit. 57 of them signed the death warrant. Be that as it may, most of them were treated leniently. 

In May 1660, when the monarchy was restored, Charles II sought a general pardon for all except those to be agreed upon in Parliament. In fact, at one point he even suggested limiting his vengeance to one member of the high court, its president, John Bradshaw. Later he spoke of a mere five or possibly seven exceptions. The House of Commons was more bloodthirsty than the king. In the end, only ten regicides were executed. For blowing the trumpet of sedition and “being instrumental in taking away the precious life of our late sovereign Lord Charles the first of glorious memory.”

And we’re here today, October 9th, 1660, here at the Old Bailey – because the trials of the regicides are getting underway. And you may be sure, they were show trials – there was never any question about the eventual outcome. I spoke of our three London locations: the first being Westminster Hall, the second, the Old Bailey. The third was Charing Cross, where the regicides were hanged, drawn and quartered. Where the equestrian statue of Charles I stands today, looking down at the spot of his execution, just outside the Banqueting House. 

The first of the regicides to be executed was Major General Thomas Harrison. I’m going to pass the mic over to Samuel Pepys. He’ll tell you what happened at Charing Cross. He was there. He saw all.

Sam, tell us about it: “I went out to Charing Cross to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered – which was done there – he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down and his head and his heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.”

But we’re not done yet with Major General Harrison’s head. It was put on a stake at the front end of the death cart, facing the back end. The cart trundled back to the Old Bailey to pick up Major General Harrison’s fellow regicide, John Cook, and take him to Charing Cross, his hour having come round. Poor John Cook, chained, bound, sitting at the back of that death sledge, not four feet from his face, the head of Major General Harrison on a stake, bobbing and weaving, leering at John Cook on his last ride across London. Poor Cook, all the way along Fleet Street and the Strand, will have been thinking, “that’ll be me in fifteen minutes, ten minutes, five minutes…”

I want to end though with the most intriguing of the regicides. The executioner. He in fact died just a few months after he chopped off Charles I. Had he been alive in 1660 he would have joined that macabre procession from the Old Bailey to Charing Cross.

His name was Richard Brandon. His occupation, “common hangman.” He was to the manor born. We know that his father Gregory Brandon was the hangman of London in 1611. A face in the crowd that William Shakespeare will have known – and shuddered at. Son Richard was sometimes called ‘young Gregory’ – and indeed for a time the gallows at Tyburn was known as “the Gregorian tree.”

The Brandons lived in Whitechapel – you know, Jack the Ripper’s stalking grounds. Young Brandon succeeded his father at the job. He claimed the post by inheritance. He was conscientious. He prepared himself for his calling from an early age by decapitating cats and dogs. He was good at his job. Especially with the axe. He never needed to strike more than once. 

He is said to have refused to carry out the execution of Charles I but he was given no choice. He was taken to the scaffold by a troop of horseguards. He was masked. He was wearing a false beard and periwig. True to form, he decapitated the king with a single blow. He received £30 for his pains. Plus a handkerchief from the king’s pocket. And an orange stuck full of cloves, which he sold for ten shillings. Two months later he executed an earl, a duke and lord, all with the same axe he had used on the king. He died on June 20, 1649. He was said to be full of remorse for taking the king’s life. He’s buried in Whitechapel churchyard. 

Well, that’s it for this one, that’s it for October 9th. That get weird enough for you? This is London – where weird is the order of the day.

And for a Today in London recommendation. Well, I’m thinking it’s de-tox time again. Been to the South London Gallery? If not, you better remedy that state of affairs. For the next seven weeks or so they’ve got a major new Simeon Barclay Exhibition there. It’s called In the Name of the Father. It couldn’t be more cutting edge, more “today” – but in a weird – oops, there’s that adjective again – in a weird way it connects with those father-son goings on in this town several hundred years ago.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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