April 19th, 2012 Headsman
Happy 350th death day to three English regicides renditioned from Holland.
Like everyone else on that parchment, they were in a world of hurt when Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne. And like a great many of those who figured to reap the whirlwind, they sensibly fled the realm.
Had they stayed hunkered down in Germany, they might have died in their beds.
Instead, they trusted a friend … and died half-hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces on a scaffold.
It was an ugly sight from start to finish. The capture of these fugitives was a dirty business mixing treachery, diplomatic subterfuge, and dubious legality, all in the service of violent statecraft. Sort of like it was ripped from the Downing Street memo.
This guy was coming into the prime of his continent- and polity-spanning career: from Puritan New England, to the West Indies, to a gig in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. (It was John Okey himself who hooked Downing up: Downing matriculated with Harvard University’s first graduating class thanks to Okey’s sponsorship, and it was in Okey’s regiment that Downing was retained as chaplain.)
An able diplomat for the Protectorate, Downing was able to communicate his discreet abjuration to the exiled Charles II once the handwriting was on the wall, and he therefore effected a convenient volte-face and went right to work for the new boss … even when it meant hunting down his own friends and patrons. You might say it was the zeal of the converted, but maybe it was better-expressed by Downing’s own pledge to secure the refugees with vigor “as much as if my life lay at stake in the busines.”
Sound policy, considering his history. And he couldn’t have pulled it off with an ounce less.
Officially, the Low Countries had agreed not to give refuge to regicides: in reality, regicides could rest pretty easy there. Pro-immigrant, pro-Protestant,* and jealous of their sovereignty, the Dutch had little desire to enforce such clauses at any level of government; and, thanks to a federal structure, multiple state organs each held effective veto over enforcement. Moreover, a silly legalistic fetish required that fugitivies have warrants sworn out against them — warrants that would cause regicides’ many friends and sympathizers to raise the alarm before the target could be taken, which is exactly what happened when Downing tried to get Edward Dendy arrested in Rotterdam.
Downing cogitated all manner of extra-legal options to black-bag a few of the Protectorate personnel for his Majesty’s pleasure. What he ended up with was cunning, vicious, and just barely legitimate.
Turning one of the regicides’ contacts with threats and bribery, he secured advance warning of Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey’s planned visit to Delft in early March 1662. He then waited until the very day he planned to spring his trap to procure a general arrest warrant (concealing the names of his prey) from the Estates General’s capable leader Johan de Witt, and pounced within hours — using a force of his own men and a little more payola to circumvent the inevitable reluctance of the local bailiffs.
Now that the regicides were in irons, Downing had to double down on duplicitous diplomacy by maneuvering to get them delivered to the English — and that against a growing popular resistance as their capture became known. The Delft aldermen dilated; sympathetic local worthies visited the prisoners in their cells; petitions on the Englishmen’s behalf circulated nationwide. The notion of actually marching these guys out into English hands seemed to promise a riot.
Downing spread more palm grease around, maneuvered to frustrate legal aid for the prisoners, posted his own men to watch the prisoners 24-7, and after several tense days finally made arrangements
in the dead of the night to get a boate into a litle channell which came neare behinde the prison, and at the very first dawning of the day without so much as giving any notice to the seamen I had provided … forthwith to slip them downe the backstaires … and so accordingly we did, and there was not the least notice in the Towne thereof, and before 5 in the morning the boate was without the Porto of Delft, where I delivered them to Mr. Armerer … giving him direction not to put them a shoare in any place, but to go the whole way by water to the Blackamore Frigat at Helverdsluice.
Downing was exultant.
“This is a thing the like thereof hath not been done in this country and which nobody believed was possible to be done,” he gloated in his correspondence. “And there is not a thing that hath happened these many yeares that hath occasioned so much discourse here, saying that they are now no longer a free Countrey, and that no man is now sure here.” De Witt and the Dutch Estates General, having never had any intention to actually deliver a regicide to condign punishment in England, had been embarrassingly played. Ordinary Hollanders were infuriated and ashamed at having been a party to the whole business.
Nobody could dispute the excellence of Downing’s operation. But anybody on either side of the channel who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Royalist was somewhere between discomfited and revolted by it, especially as it was achieved against his own personal benefactor by a guy who had once urged Cromwell to make himself king.
Diarist Samuel Pepys (who witnessed the executions, reporting the victims “very cheerful” on that occasion) recorded the mood of the English burgher upon the news
that Sir G. Downing (like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it) hath taken Okey, Corbet, and Barkestead … all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains.
See: Ralph C.H. Catterall, “Sir George Downing and the Regicides,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1912)
* Dutch affinity for religious dissent and for foreigners was all of a piece with its prosperous mercantile empire. One liberal Englishman (quoted by James Walker in “The English Exiles in Holland during the Reigns of Charles II and James II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 30 (1948)) proposed that “Liberty of Conscience would be a more serious blow to Holland than all the victories yet gained.”
Also on this date
- 1928: Charles Birger, bootlegger
- 1996: John Martin Scripps, British serial killer
- 1314: Tour de Nesle Affair adulterers
- 1945: Gen. Charles Delestraint
- 1995: Richard Snell - did he go out with a bang?
Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Netherlands,Notable for their Victims,Notable Sleuthing,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason