I could kill him again

On this date in history something pretty horrible happened. Well, OK, on every day in history something pretty horrible happened. Repeatedly. Everywhere. Those who expect to construct a utopia of human material seem to me to be suffering a variety of serious delusions.

That broadside delivered, I want to zoom in on the hanging, drawing and quartering of nine English regicides on October 17, 1660. Yes, here we go again (see the Oct. 3, 2016 It Happened Today) with the strangling, disemboweling and worse and so on. In this case it was nine of the 51 people not amnestied over their involvement in the execution of Charles I eleven years earlier.

By 1660 people were pretty fed up with the Commonwealth, the dictatorial rule of Oliver Cromwell and political radicalism generally. They didn’t just bring back the Stuarts in the smooth, genial, totally smilingly dishonest person of the Merry Monarch Charles II. They sought revenge.

So they tried 27 people on a capital charge. Why 27? Because 24 had died. Of the 27, one was beheaded and nine were hanged, drawn and quartered on Oct. 17. Three more were HDQed (man, you don’t want that to be so common you have an acronym) two years later, 19 were given life in prison back when it meant something, some were pardoned, and some fled, including three to New England where they were never captured by the British authorities. New England was always singularly favourable to the Puritan cause in England as in the New World.

Not so the folks back home. I was going to say 24 of the 51 accused were excused on grounds of being dead. But it ain’t so. Three of these, including Cromwell, were dug up and killed a second time, being first hanged and then beheaded (so perhaps that makes three) and then the bulk of them hurled into a pit beneath the gallows while the heads were put on spikes facing the spot where Charles I had himself been executed.

I don’t get it. Did you want Charles back? Don’t you remember why the Civil War happened? And aren’t you a bit embarrassed to be hurling invective and inflicting indignities upon a decaying body part? Don’t you feel that in some sense it is your dignity not that of the departed that is diminished by this spectacle?

Ultimately people calmed down. A bit. Cromwell’s head was on display outside Westminster until 1685 by which time I cannot help thinking it would have been rather sadly disgusting. It was then carried off, publicly exhibited, sold or given several times and finally buried in 1960 in an undisclosed location in case people are still raging mad. But he does now have a statue of his entire body outside parliament instead of just a spike for a neck.

Look, I’m no fan of Cromwell. I can see killing him once if malaria hadn’t gotten there first. But at some point you have to take a few deep breaths and try to regain perspective. Including, surely, on just how horribly you want to kill people who, eleven years earlier, had decided with varying degrees of reluctance that a bad king had to become a dead one.

If the point is to put the unpleasantness behind you, how does it help to revel in an exhibit of it in front of you?