On this day in 1649 King Charles I of England was executed in London, marking the first procedural regicide in European history. After two civil wars, intrigues with both the Scots and the Irish, and numerous protestations that he was above the law, Parliament put the King on trial, found him guilty, and executed him. This was obviously a momentous moment in British and world history, but it had a local angle as well: eleven years after the execution of Charles, with his son newly enthroned, Hugh Peter, the fourth pastor of the First Church of Salem from 1636-41, was himself executed after his identification as one of the royal regicides.
How did a colonial pastor find himself on a London scaffold? The answer lies in his passionate Puritanism and his close personal connection to Oliver Cromwell, victorious leader of the Parliamentary army in the Civil Wars and then ruler of all England in the “interregnum” between the death of Charles and the restoration of his son Charles II. Peter traveled to England in 1641 as an agent of the colonial government and remained, serving successively as a very vocal chaplain to the army and to Cromwell himself. After the defeat and death of Charles, a collective cult of remorse developed in England, and Cromwell’s public perception changed from that of liberator to tyrant. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, anyone who had any direct association with Cromwell was in danger, and so Peter fell into the net.
THE CULT OF CHARLES I: The King’s speech before dying, Royalist memorial jewelry (pendant with Charles I and Charles II and ring), and anonymous late seventeenth-century portrait of Charles as divine-right ruler ( National Portrait Gallery, London).
THE DEMONIZATION OF OLIVER CROMWELL: two 1660 pamphlets from the British Library, demonizing Cromwell and his Cabinet by association. At right, Hugh Peter (L) has his back to us.
I’m not sure why Hugh Peter remained in England after the Restoration. He had certainly made his mark in New England, preaching, acquiring lots of land, forging strong political connections, and participating in the trial of Anne Hutchinson—why not return? Perhaps he thought he was safe, as he was not one of the 59 signers of Charles’ death warrant. Perhaps he simply didn’t have time to leave, as his arrest, imprisonment and trial followed very shortly after the accession of Charles II. He was vigorously attacked in the pamphlet press at the time (one pamphleteer even accused him of being Charles I’s masked executioner, as he was not present at the proceedings) and his prosecution was popular. While in prison, he was visited every day by his Salem-born daughter Elizabeth, to whom he dedicated his final work, A Dying Fathers Last Legacy to an Onely Child, which was published shortly after his death(by hanging, drawing and quartering) on 16 October 1660.