Where Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean

Over the past week I've acquired a sudden interest in the English Civil War, most notably as it applied to Charles I, the only English king to be executed for treason. I won't go into the politics of that, but let me just say that I think he got the dodgy end of the deal...

I've never been particularly interested in the 17th century, but it's suddenly all I can think of. Funny, too, because both sides of my family were active participants in the drama, and on opposite ends of the argument. Sort of. Even within the Waller and Wolcott clans people were divided, but that's what civil war does.

There were two notable Wallers, Sir William and Sir Edmund. Both were MPs and both had estates to protect. This is where it gets humorous, though.

Sir William Waller
Sir William Waller was a parliamentary general who traveled across England upsetting things a bit, shall we say. He and his army entered old, established estates, seizing property, art and money, and slaughtering the household staff and brave family members who, receiving news of his arrival, refused—or weren't allowed—to run for the hills. Ah, dear uncle Willy... everyone just loves when you pop in for tea... Oh, and please, feel free to take our hard-earned fortune back to Cromwell in this doggy bag, will you?

There is a redeeming factor in the divided Waller clan, however. Well, depending on how you look at it.

Sir Edmund Waller
Enter Sir Edmund Waller. The Poet Laureate of England serving as Court Poet in the employment of Charles I. You know him best for his poem, Go Lovely Rose!

Uncle Eddie was a funny bloke. Everyone said so. I've read quotes by his fellow MPs about how, "It wasn't a House until Waller arrived." Gee, that sounds like what people used to say about how a party just wasn't a party until I walked in the door... Edmund was known for being sporting, jolly, tolerant, fanciful, and affable. I like Uncle Eddie a whole lot better than Uncle William.

Edmund was a staunch royalist who hatched an obscure anti-Parliament plot ("Waller's Plot") for which he and his mates were arrested and thrown into the Tower. Paying the £10,000 bail (a mind-boggling fortune back then—I guess the Arts really paid off in those days), he was released and exiled to France. His friends didn't make out so well. They were executed. After seven years Parliament invited him back, whereupon he penned a congratulatory ode to Cromwell, A Panegyric to my Lord Protector, which was certainly an expedient gesture. Of course, upon the Restoration of the Crown, which placed Charles II on the throne, he wrote a little ditty singing his praises titled, To The King, upon His Majesty's Happy Return. When asked by the king to explain why this latter piece was inferior to the eulogy of Cromwell, Edmund cleverly replied, "Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction". Yeah, I love Uncle Eddie.

Oliver Wolcott
On the other side of the family, the Wolcotts, too, were similarly divided. I won't go into all that history since I've never felt close to them, but while some remained in England to support the Crown from their landed estates, one faction (the religious side of the family) escaped to the New World, where, over time, they did well for themselves. Uncle Oliver became the governor of Connecticut and a member of the Continental Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. To this day, one cannot drive through Connecticut without seeing the Wolcott name everywhere. And the Wallers? Some of them sailed to America to form the largest and most successful tobacco plantation in the state of Virginia.

But back to the unfortunate Charles I. I guess I'm a royalist. I can't stand Cromwell and his merry band of slaughtering armies, and the very thought of how the plantation farmers justified slavery just makes me ill. No one's perfect, and Charles had his foibles as well, but in the end, if I had to have dinner with anyone from this cast of characters, I would choose to dine with King Charles I and Edmund Waller.


  1. It is the lesson of history that religion and politics don't mix. On the one hand, we have a king (Charles I) who is convinced that he is king by divine right and that God put him there as the ultimate authority. On the other hand we have a man who is convinced that this king is the very embodiment of evil and tyranny, the face of the anti-Christ and the enemy of God. Cromwell is a man on a mission--to bring his nation and his people to the true and living God. Both men are equally delusional and misinformed. Both men resort to tyranny and violence to make their point and they both do it in the name of God. I now understand the passage in the Bible that says, "And Jesus wept."

  2. Let me also state that I agree with you that Charles was the "lesser of two evils" and did get the "dodgy" end of the deal. He, after all, was raised to believe in the Divine Right of Kings, and it was his duty as king to uphold and defend the Anglican Church. His Achilles Heel was in his absolute refusal to acknowledge the authority that Parliament exerted over him after he surrendered in Scotland. He lost his head due to his arrogance and a stubborn refusal to believe that anyone had the right to question his authority, even if he had been defeated in battle and was brought to trial under that authority. Might doesn't make right, but it does hold its own authority and we often have to choose whether or not it's worth it to play the martyr. That was his choice, but somehow, I don't believe that he thought it would come down to that.

  3. I wish Charles I would have allowed himself to compromise with his opposition a bit. That's all Parliament really demanded of him. It was his refusal to bend that lost him his head.

    Still, I really feel for him. All he wanted was to do what his father would have approved of; for all of his liberalness, James I was a staunch believer in Divine Right. Charles was an insecure, gentle man who never wanted to be king in the first place. It has been proven that law of "line of succession" has destroyed more than one life. Only Edward VIII stood up and said, "Enough of this crap! I'm bailing!"

  4. I agree. Charles was between a rock and a hard place, and in his mind, compromise wasn't an option. Cromwell got his, though. He learned as Lord Protectorate that it wasn't so easy to be "king" and that when you create anarchy, rebellion, and lawlessness, it will come back and bite you in the ass. He died a depressed, defeated man with a nation that was in shambles and directionless. It didn't take long for England to reestablish its monarchy and in 1661, they dug up Cromwell's body and hanged it in effigy.


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