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Charles Spencer on Britain’s only regicides

7 September 2014 Charlie Kenber

“It is about much more than its stated subject: it is about courage, cowardice, terror, and decisions – correct and flawed.”

We caught up with Charles Spencer ahead of the release of his latest book, Killers of the King…

London Calling: You’ve written on quite a range of topics. What attracted you to this particular period of British history?

Charles Spencer: The three main history books that I have written have concentrated on the period 1642-1704 – quite a short period of time, in fact. I am not the first to be intrigued by the English Civil War – but my particular interest is in the characters involved: there seem to have been so many huge personalities active during that time of massive, national, upheaval. For me, History has always been more about people watching than dry statistics and dates. The mid- to late seventeenth century provides very rich pickings indeed.

LC: What makes your book different to other histories of Charles I and the subsequent Restoration?

CS: This is a book about the 80 or so men who were responsible for the death of Charles I – either as his prosecutors, judges, or executioners. I show how people react when under the greatest imaginable pressure – when in grave danger of having their lives taken from them, in the most barbaric of ways: being hanged, drawn and quartered. Some were cunning, others stoically brave, others waited to see if things really were going to be as bad as they feared, while others panicked and sadly fell apart. Charles II's Restoration was so sudden and unexpected that the killers of his father had little time to make their life or death decisions. Many became the victims of an intense international manhunt. Some escaped – though the fates of several make you wonder if freedom on such terrible terms was really worth it….

LC: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

CS: So much was surprising. For a start, when I put the original proposal to my publishers (Bloomsbury), I intended to concentrate on seven of the so-called 'regicides' (that is, killers of the king). But the more I researched, the more I kept coming across even more interesting characters. So the ones I end up concentrating on are almost entirely different from my original main subjects – the material was that rich. I also found it fascinating and tragic that the bloodiest wars that Britain and America have experienced, in terms of lives lost per head of population, remain each nation's respective civil wars. I hadn't realised that, beforehand.

LC: How crucial was such a large-scale enactment of revenge in reaffirming the power of the monarchy following the interregnum?

CS: Charles II naturally loathed those who had seen to his father's beheading. He was unable to exact vengeance on all those who had fought for Parliament, of course – approximately half the nation; but he was allowed to bring down retribution on the regicides. Originally he was only looking to make seven of them suffer, but many – especially in the House of Lords – wanted all those intimately involved in Charles I's death to die. They had their own reasons for vengeance. For a lot of Parliamentarians, choosing the king's killers as scapegoats took the attention away from their own years of rebellion against the Crown.

LC: Why is it important that we continue to write about events that happened four centuries ago?

CS: History tells us so much about ourselves, today. As a species we have changed very little during the past few thousand years – our reactions and our actions are pretty consistent. I think most people who read History from the past few hundred years find it easy to try to imagine how they would have reacted in the circumstances they read about.

LC: There has been a popular trend for micro or ‘bottom-up’ history recently. Do you think people can still connect as satisfyingly with histories of great royal figures?

CS: Killers of the Kingstarts with the fall of Charles I, and then his trial and execution. But the driving narrative is what happened to the many diverse men who came together to end his life. On the whole, these were not people with a grand background – they included a butcher's son, a jeweller, a brewer, and a tanner of hides – men who had risen through merit to regimental command in Parliament's New Model Army. British history tends inevitably to be seen through a royal prism, because – apart from the 11 years between Charles I's death and Charles II's restoration, of course – we have always had a monarchy.

LC: What audience did you have in mind when you were writing the book? Who do you think it will appeal to?

CS: When writing, I always have an audience I wish to pitch my story to. Killers of the King steps outside of the conventional "History" bracket, because it is about much more than its stated subject: it is about courage, cowardice, terror, and decisions – correct and flawed. In short, it's about human nature. While I hope it will appeal to those who love History, I also hope it excites those who enjoy a good, international, manhunt. There are also a lot of strong female characters involved – from Charles I's mistress, to several of the regicides' wives – so it is designed to appeal to both genders.

LC: You’re going to be talking at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival – how did this come about? What can people look forward to from the event?

CS: I was fortunate to be invited to the Ham & High Lit Fest. It has a very good reputation. I am particularly honoured because I will be interviewed by Lady Antonia Fraser – one of Britain's greatest and most popular historians, whose works I have long admired. This will be the first time in her career that Lady Antonia will have conducted an interview, rather than being the interviewee. That is a thrilling honour for me, and I greatly look forward to the evening – particularly as I interviewed her, last year, on her fabulous book on the 1832 Reform Bill, Perilous Question.

LC: Why do you think such festivals are so popular?

CS: I love literary festivals – in fact, I founded and oversee the Althorp Literary Festival, which has been running at my family's home for 11 years. It is a wonderful opportunity to collect a huge variety of authors, who people can see in the flesh, pose questions to, and understand more. This summer at Althorp, we had everyone from Boris Johnson to Emma Bridgewater, and Jeremy Paxman to Sir Roy Strong. A literary festival should be fun, informative, and stimulating.

LC: Do you have any plans for the next book – what else are you working on at the moment?

CS: I am incredibly choosy about the subjects I write about. My life is extremely busy, so if I commit to writing a book, I need to know that I will sustain the passion for it through the 2-3 years that it will take to compete. I can tell you, this was not a problem with Killers of the King – every day of research and writing, I felt so excited and privileged to be covering such a vibrant subject. I have not yet found my next subject matter – it might happen tomorrow, or it might not hit me for months or years. For now, I want this book to do as well as it can. I owe it to the magnificent figures I cover in the narrative. They were mighty men.

Charles Spencer will be interviewed by Lady Antonia Fraser at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival on 16th September at 8.30pm. Tickets £12, available here.

Killers of the King is out on 11th September 2014. It costs £20, available here.

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