The Trial of Charles I

As I start reading this book it is 371 years to the day (January 30th 1649) since the execution of King Charles I and the events that led up to initially the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland later that year and then by 1653 the Protectorate under the control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The republic he founded turned out to be somewhat less of a democratic state than its founders hoped, relying on military force to control the country rather than popular support. The appointment of Cromwell’s third son, Richard, as Lord Protector on the death of Oliver in 1658 and thus replacing one hereditary leader with another did little to suggest that getting rid of the monarchy had led to significant change and eventually led to the Restoration in 1660 with King Charles II taking his place on the throne. It’s a fascinating period of British history so I’m looking forward to tackling this slim volume published by the Folio Society in 1959 and bound to resemble a book from Charles I’s own library.

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The book is split into six sections, the first is a really good summary of the reign of Charles I and the issues that led to the Civil War and the subsequent trial after Charles lost the conflict. This twenty six page introduction is written by noted historian C V Wedgewood and she succeeds admirably in setting the scene for the remainder of the book which is made up from contemporary sources.  These take us from 13th November 1647 when Charles fled to the Isle of Wight hoping to avoid parliamentary forces and maybe get across the channel to France right through to his funeral in February 1649. The texts come from two sources and are interleaved as they cover the time period. Initially we come to Sir Thomas Herbert who was Groom of the Bedchamber throughout the book and was therefore in constant contact with the King right up until his death, the second source is John Rushworth who was a lawyer and collected information about any court cases that interested him and therefore is the best non-partisan recorder of the trial and its aftermath.

Thomas Herbert provides a lot of interesting background to the incarceration of Charles in the Isle of Wight and thence Windsor and ultimately St James in London for the trial itself. Although by inclination a Parliamentarian he provides a fair and balanced account of the Kings actions during this time and the publication of his account helped considerably with the improvement of the regard Charles was held in when it revealed the calm and dignified way he acted at all times compared to the treatment he received from his captors. Rushworth’s account of the trial itself, relying as it does on transcripts paints a clear picture of what would now be regarded as a kangaroo court where the decision of guilt had already been made before they started, the only question was if Cromwell could persuade enough judges to pass the death sentence. Charles is brought before the court and legitimately challenges the legality of the process. In fact there was no actual basis in law for Parliament to sit as a court and they were well aware of this as his repeated challenges simply result in adjournments to the next day whilst they try to come up with a legal argument. In the end Parliament simply ends up with the effective position that this is a legal court because we say it is and will not allow dissent from this statement. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days of ‘evidence’ where Charles was not allowed to attend let alone challenge anything given against him they decided on the death sentence that Cromwell had wanted from the first.

We then switch back to Herbert’s account of Charles’s last few days, which are spent in prayer and in trying to do what he can for his children. Rushworth is used again for a description of the execution before we return to Herbert to cover the funeral. These three sections are a lot shorter than the first two but again show the King in a favourable light. What is particularly interesting is the use of these two contemporary sources, I learnt about the Civil War at school and we probably covered the entire period of this book in one lesson being more concerned with the start of the conflict and the battles rather than the capture and trial of King Charles I. This book is an extremely interesting addition to my knowledge of this part of British history, for instance I didn’t know that the Scottish parliament had written to the English one complaining about the way they were handling the situation as Charles was also their King and they certainly didn’t want him executed.

There are four brief appendices, the most interesting of which concerns the death warrant itself and the changes made to it which suggest that it was written earlier and then had to be amended to fit the ultimate date along with two names that have been written over ones subsequently removed. It appears that the decision of the judges was more fluid than the Parliamentarians would have liked.

Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

This wasn’t the book I intended to read this week, but my friend and fellow book blogger Mixa in Barcelona (read her review here) saw a copy on my shelves and has tracked down a copy in Catalan so I thought it was probably about time to reread the book after a gap of about twenty years so that it would be fresh in my mind when she wants to talk about it. Nowadays Orwell (real name Eric Blair) is almost entirely known as a novelist and his journalism is largely and sadly neglected. Homage to Catalonia even started out being neglected. It was first printed on 23rd April 1938 and a year later by the start of WWII it had only sold around 900 copies and soon after went out of print. It would only be available sporadically until Penguin Books printed a copy in March 1962, since then it has never been out of print.

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The book tells of Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War as part of an international militia against the uprising of General Franco and he is very clear that this is the war as he saw it and for the most part it is a very readable account. There are two chapters where he attempts to make sense of the alphabet soup of political organisations and militias taking part and these are prefaced by clear warnings that it is about to get complicated, as shown in the below extract from paragraph two of chapter five…

At the beginning I had ignored the political side of the war, and it was only about this time that it began to force itself upon my attention. If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics. please skip; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. But at the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war.

What follows is a section I’m glad I read because I had to keep referring back to it to sort out in my mind the differences and indeed the similarities between PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU and AIT all of which were political parties or trade unions or possibly both, it does get very confusing, especially as in theory they were all aligned against the Fascists of Franco but seemed to spend most of the time fighting and bickering amongst themselves. This was particularly true during the short lived Barcelona uprising that Orwell got caught up in by happening to be on leave from the front after 115 days and arrived back in the city just before it all got even more complicated. But I am getting ahead of myself lets get back to chapter one with Orwell arriving in Barcelona with his wife, intending to write about the war but actually enlisting as a member of the POUM militia within days of getting there.  His wife Eileen stayed in the Hotel Continental in Barcelona throughout their time in Spain whilst Orwell was fighting on a front line less than 170 miles away. The photo below is by Robert Capa and is part of the John Hillelson Agency collection and shows the sort of trenches Orwell would be in.

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Initially Orwell writes of his surprise on arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 that unions and workers parties had taken over the city and everywhere he saw the red and black flag of the Anarchists who were in control. This appealed to the socialist principles that Orwell espoused and it was probably this that led him to opt to fight for them rather than simply report on the situation. Unfortunately for him later he chose the wrong set of initials to join up with, but as he had said above the internecine politics hadn’t registered with him at first and he effectively just joined the first group that would have him. The first chapter covers the ‘training’ or rather lack of it he received in the Lenin barracks the poor conditions and the largely useless equipment they were issued with, chapter two has him on his way to being posted to the front where he was finally issued with an ancient rifle.

Chapters three and four tell of his time in the trenches above Zaragoza on the Aragon front, a place where the 6 foot 3 inch Orwell was clearly unsuited being head and shoulders taller than his fellow militiamen as can be seen in the photo below from the University College, London collection and reproduced opposite page 65 of my edition.

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The time there was largely one of freezing temperatures, squalor and boredom, the two front lines were so far apart on opposite mountain tops that only by the merest chance could anyone be hit by firing from the opposition. What wounds and deaths did occur were mainly accidents of the sort you get when you hand unreliable weapons to 15 year old boys without showing them how to use them. The real oddity in the photo above though is that Eileen is there so she must have made a trip up from Barcelona although Orwell doesn’t mention her doing so in the book.

After the first of the political chapters, chapter six has him still bored at the front line

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened. The English had got into the habit of saying that this wasn’t a war, it was a bloody pantomime.

and reflecting on the effect that the war was having on the local population who were largely trying to live their lives as best they could. In chapter seven Orwell finally sees some action, it was decided to crawl at night across the hundreds of yards of no man’s land and attack the fascist line. It did not go well and although they did get into the enemy trenches they were told to retreat before morning and that would be the only time he faced the enemy in actual combat. Chapter eight is very short and is largely concerned with preparations to go on leave back to Barcelona.

Chapters nine, ten and eleven all concern his badly timed break back in the city. On his return he discovered that the workers revolution had largely petered out and life had returned to a sort of normality with the war something happening in the distance.  However this was not to last long, the tensions between the various groups was about to explode onto the streets and on the 3rd of May fighting began, initially at the telephone exchange but rapidly spreading through the main thoroughfares.  Orwell is caught up in the middle of this but it rapidly becomes as much of a stalemate as the ‘fighting’ on the front. The various factions take up strategic positions and sort of agree amongst themselves to not shoot each other. These chapters for me are the most interesting of the book, the endless boredom of the front is at least improved here by not only the considerably more action but also the shortness of the time scale before it all came to an end.

Chapter twelve sees Orwell return to the front but this was to be for a very short time as he was soon wounded by a shot through the neck which saw him invalided out. By this time he was increasingly disillusioned by the war, what he had seen in Barcelona had convinced him that this was not the great and noble calling that he once thought it was and his choice of POUM was about to become a major problem. Whilst in hospital and then trying to get his discharge papers signed off POUM were picked on as the scapegoat for the fighting in Barcelona and all members were to be arrested and probably shot as traitors. As he describes it this was definitely untrue but it was a convenient fabrication to allow the other factions to re-unite behind. So as well as being wounded he was now a wanted man. In the last two chapters he and Eileen manage to escape Spain and he reflects on his experiences. His conclusions went strongly against the narrative being pushed in the socialist press in the UK which he also heavily criticised and this meant that getting the book published proved difficult as his normal publisher wouldn’t take it.

The book is a fascinating study of the realities of war, the long periods of tedium enlivened by occasional periods of firing from the trenches in the beginning of the book through the difficulties of conflict within a city and is also surprisingly funny in places as he enlivens the tale. All in all it deserves to be better known. When most people think of Orwell what usually comes to mind is 1984 or Animal Farm, try his reportage, it is definitely worth seeking out.

My copy is the 1970 Folio Society first edition which was popular enough to have two further reprints in 1972 and 1975 before dropping out of the Folio catalogue until 1998. It then re-appeared as part of a five volume set of Orwell’s reportage along with “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “The Road to Wigan Pier” and two volumes of journalism and essays. This set has as yet not been reprinted. Although bought second-hand and with a badly sunned spine and grubby covers that don’t want to clean, what I like about this edition is the inclusion of contemporary photographs of Orwell and other people mentioned in the book on the front line. Regrettably not any by Orwell himself because as he explains in the book his camera and photographs were all stolen or impounded along with his notes and press clippings at various different times whilst he was involved in the war. I have reproduced a couple of the photos from the book above. The cover illustration is a view of the battlefield near Belchite on the Aragon front and is from the Fox Photos Ltd collection.

Burghall’s Diary – a record of the English Civil War

Until the advent of print on demand publications in the last decade or so the diary of Edward Burghall, vicar of Acton in south Cheshire was one of the most difficult to source of all local history accounts for that county. This was a pity as he was an eye witness to the progress of the English Civil War (1642-51) and his diary covers this entire period and once the style settles down it provides a real feel of how the county and its population was affected by the conflict.

The diary first appeared in print as an adjunct to the Chester edition of King’s Vale Royal of England by William Smith and William Webb, published by Daniel King in 1656, this book is now extremely rare and supplements like this are even rarer as they were not issued at the time but were additional extras that the publishers came up with as they found them. It was included in the combination volume of the relevant section of King’s Vale Royal with Sir Peter Leycester’s Antiquities of Cheshire published in two volumes by John Poole of Chester in 1778. The next time it is known to have been reprinted is as part of Cheshire Biographies by Barlow, printed in 1855 which is also a very difficult book to locate. After that we have to leap all the way to 1993 when it was printed for the first time as a separate book by The Tern Press of Macclesfield as a limited edition of just 200 under the title of Providence Improved and that is the copy on my bookshelves.

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As mentioned above Edward Burghall was vicar of Acton, a small village about a mile from the ancient market town of Nantwich which dominated the otherwise mainly rural surroundings in south Cheshire. Nantwich was for Parliament in the war against the Royalists so the diary does tend to cover the conflict from that side. The diary whenever it has been printed has included extracts from various years before the war which as well as illustrating the style of the diary at that time which was more of a series of notes rather than the  extended essays it became during the war also give an idea of Burghall’s belief that god shall strike down the unrighteous, there are very few examples of the righteous being blessed by god however.

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Interesting as these are is showing the beliefs and attitudes of the people at the time the diary really gets into it’s stride with the origins of the war and descriptions of military actions. Here Burghall proves to be a faithful witness of manoeuvres either seen by himself or reported by people involved in the local area and especially in the lead up to the siege of Nantwich and it’s aftermath in January 1644.

This page from May 1643 also includes a drawing by Nicholas Parry of the Crown Hotel which still looks pretty much the same now as it did then.

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Whitchurch is 14 miles (22½ km) from Nantwich so the soldiers starting at midnight marched 14 miles in 3 hours, fought a battle, won it, gained some booty from the defeated army and march 14 miles back again returning by 5 in the afternoon. Quite a days work! This isn’t the only example of similar there and back again in a day raids run out of Nantwich that are recorded in the diary; on another day they went to Chester, fought in a battle and got back a round trip of 41 miles (66 km)

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By the end of 1643, as can be seen above, the Royalists were clearly getting fed up about the way the troops from Nantwich were able to so disrupt their positions that it was decided to move against the town itself.  By then Nantwich was the only town still under Parliamentary control in the entire county so it was definitely becoming a nuisance and  skirmishes started in October that would eventually lead to the Battle of Nantwich on 25th January 1644.20180312 Burghalls Diary 6 Jan 1644

 

The battle is still commemorated in the town each year and since the 1970’s there has been a re-enactment and other entertainments suitable to the period on the Saturday closest to the 25th January and is known as Holly Holy day as back in January 1644 the townspeople wore sprigs of holly in their hats to celebrate the victory there being no other colourful plants at that time of year. I was born in Nantwich and lived there throughout my childhood which is why wanted this book so much when it came out. As I said at the beginning of this blog nowadays it is easy to get the text from more than one print on demand source both here and in America, it is always found with Memorials of the civil war in Cheshire and the adjacent counties by Thomas Malbon, of Nantwich as both books are quite short and it makes for an interesting read.

Another aspect of this book that I want to cover is how this edition came to be printed. Crowd-funding is seen by many as a modern phenomenon, sites such as KickStarter and GoFundMe are in common use now however the book business has used this model for centuries with subscribers editions and selling books against a prospectus. Printing a book was an expensive game, and still is if you want an object of quality, so subscribers would be sought to put up money in advance to ensure that the massive initial outlay was at least mainly offset before the publisher went to press. Subscribers would get the earliest editions and often their name printed in the back, also their edition may be on larger paper or have extra illustrations to make it stand out. The alternative would be a prospectus, a simple sheet of paper produced to interest buyers before publication and again persuade them to pay before the physical book exists, usually by getting a discount on the final published price. That was how Tern Press went about selling this book as can be seen below as I kept my copy of the prospectus and tucked it inside the book when I had it.

The specials were a lot more expensive (from memory about £200) but for that you got an original watercolour by the artist tipped into the book and you could choose what you wanted him to paint. I however couldn’t afford that so handed over my £48 in advance of publication and eventually received number 31 in the post.

You don’t have to be from Nantwich, or even be interested in Cheshire history to find the book interesting. Burghall eventually lost his position at Acton on the 3rd October 1663, as a fervent Parliamentarian he was always at risk after the restoration of the monarchy in May 1660, and he died in apparent poverty on the 8th December 1665.