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CHAP. VII

CROMWELL'S PART. 239 no more than fifty-two appeared, Fairfax, Cromwell, and Ireton being among them.

We must pause to consider what was the part that Cromwell played in this tragical unravelling of the plot. For long it can hardly have been the guiding part. He was not present when the officers decided to order the king to be brought from Hurst Castle to Windsor (December 15). He is known, during the week following that event, to have been engaged in grave counsel with Speaker Lenthall and two other eminent men of the same legal and cautious temper, as though he were still painfully looking for some lawful door of escape from an impassable dilemma. Then he made a strong attempt to defer the king's trial, until after they had tried other important delinquents in the second war. Finally there is a shadowy story of new overtures to the king made with Cromwell's connivance on the very eve of the day of fate. On close handling the tale crumbles into guesswork, for the difference between a safe and an unsafe guess is not enough to transform a possible into an actual event; and a hunt after conjectural motives for conjectural occurrences is waste of time. The curious delay in Cromwell's return to London and the centre of action is not without significance. He reaches Carlisle on October 14, he does not summon Pontefract until November 9, and he remains before it until the opening of December. It is hard to understand why he should not have left Lambert, a most excellent soldier, in charge of operations at an earlier date, unless he had been wishful to let the manoeuvres in parliament and camp take what course they might. He had no stronger feeling in emergency than a dread of forestalling the Lord's leadings. The cloud that wraps Cromwell about during the terrible month between his return from Yorkshire and the erection of the High Court, is impenetrable; and we have no better guide than our general knowledge of his politic understanding, his caution, his persistence, his freedom from revengeful temper, his habitual slowness in making decisive moves.

We may be sure that all through the month, as “ he lay in one of the King's rich beds at Whitehall,” where Fairfax and he had taken up their quarters, Cromwell revolved all the perils and sounded all the depths of the abyss to which necessity was hurrying the cause and him. What courses were open ? They might by ordinance depose the king, and then either banish him from the realm, or hold him for the rest of his days in the Tower. Or could they try and condemn him, and then trust to the dark shadow of the axe upon his prison wall to frighten him at last into full surrender ? Even if this design prevailed, what sanctity could the king or his successors be expected to attach to constitutional concessions granted under duress so dire ? Again, was monarchy the indispensable keystone, to lock all the parts of national government into their places? If so, then —the king removed by deposition or by abdication, - perhaps one of his younger sons might be set up in his stead with the army behind him. Was any course of this temporising kind practicable, even in the very first step of it, apart from later consequences ? Or was the temper of the army too fierce, the dream of the republican too vivid, the furnace of faction too hot ?" For we have to recollect that nothing in all the known world of politics is so intractable as a band of zealots conscious that they are a minority, yet armed by accident with the powers of a majority. Party considerations were not likely to be omitted, and to destroy the king was undoubtedly to strike a potent instrument out of the hands of the presbyterians. Whatever reaction might follow in the public mind would be to the advantage of royalism, not of presbyterianism, and so indeed it ultimately proved. Yet to bring the king to trial and to cut off his head—is it possible to

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CHAP. VII CROMWELL'S DELIBERATIONS 241 suppose that Cromwell was blind to the endless array of new difficulties that would instantly spring up from that inexpiable act ? Here was the fatal mischief. No other way may have been conceivable out of the black flood of difficulties in which the ship and its fiery crew were tossing, and Cromwell with his firm gaze had at last persuaded himself that this way must be tried. What is certain is, that he cannot have forgotten to count the cost, and he must have known what a wall he was raising against that settlement of the peace of the nation for which he so devoutly hoped.

After all, violence, though in itself always an evil and always the root of evil, is not the worst of evils, so long as it does not mean the obliteration of the sense of righteousness and of duty. And, however we may judge the balance of policy to have inclined, men like Cromwell felt to the depth of their hearts that in putting to death the man whose shifty and senseless counsels had plunged the land in bloodshed and confusion, they were performing an awful act of sovereign justice and executing the decree of the Supreme. Men like Ludlow might feed and fortify themselves on misinterpretations of sanguinary texts from the Old Testament. “I was convinced,” says that hard-tempered man, “ that an accommodation with the king was unjust and wicked in the nature of it by the express words of God's law; that blood defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it." Cromwell was as much addicted to an apt text as anybody, but the stern crisis of his life was not to be settled by a single verse of the Bible. Only one utterance of his at this grave moment survives, and though in the highest degree remarkable, it is opaque rather than transparent. When the ordinance creating the High Court was before the House of Commons, he said this :-" If any man whatsoever hath carried on the

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design of deposing the king, and disinheriting his posterity; or, if any man had yet such a design, he should be the greatest rebel and traitor in the world ; but since the providence of God and Necessity hath cast this upon us, I shall pray God to bless our counsels, though I be not provided on the sudden to give you counsel.” Providence and Necessitythat is to say, the purpose of heaven disclosed in the shape of an invincible problem, to which there was only one solution, and that a solution imposed by force of circumstance and not to be defended by mere secular reasoning.

However slow and painful the steps, a decision once taken was to Cromwell irrevocable. No man was ever more free from the vice of looking back, and he now threw himself into the king's trial at its final stages with the same ruthless energy with which he had ridden down the king's men at Marston or Naseby. Men of virtue, courage, and public spirit as eminent as his own, stood resolutely aside, and would not join him. Algernon Sidney, whose name had been put in among the judges, went into the Painted Chamber with the others, and after listening to the debate, withstood Cromwell, Bradshaw, and the others to the face, on the double ground that the king could be tried by no court, and that by such a court as that was, no man at all could be tried. Cromwell broke in upon him in hoarse anger, “I tell you, we will cut off his head with the crown upon it.” “I cannot stop you,” Sidney replied, “but I will keep myself clean from having any hand in this business.” Vane had been startled even by Pride's Purge, and though he and Oliver were as brothers to one another, he refused either now to take any part in the trial, or ever to approve the execution afterwards. Stories are told indicative of Cromwell's rough excitement and misplaced buffooneries, but they are probably mythic. It is perhaps true that on the first day of the trial,

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CHAP. VI THE HIGH COURT'S AUTHORITY 243 looking forth from the Painted Chamber, he saw the king step from his barge on his way to Westminster Hall, and “ with a face as white as the wall,” called out to the others that the king was coming, and that they must be ready to answer what was sure to be the king's first question, namely, by what authority they called him before them.

This was indeed the question that the king put, and would never let drop. It had been Sidney's question, and so far as law and constitution went, there was no good answer to it. The authority of the tribunal was founded upon nothing more valid than a mere resolution, called an ordinance, of some fifty members—what was in truth little more than a bare quorum-of a single branch of parliament, originally composed of nearly ten times as many, and deliberately reduced for the express purpose of such a resolution by the violent exclusion a month before of one hundred and forty-three of its members. If the legal authority was null, the moral authority for the act creating the High Court was no stronger. It might be well enough to say that the people are the origin of power, but as a matter of fact the handful who erected the High Court of justice notoriously did not represent the people in any sense of that conjuror's word. They were never chosen by the people to make laws apart from king and lords; and they were now picked out by the soldiers to do the behest of soldiers.

In short, the High Court of Justice was hardly better or worse than a drum-head court-martial, and had just as much or just as little legal authority to try King Charles, as a board of officers would have had to try him under the orders of Fairfax or Oliver if they had taken him prisoner on the field of Naseby. Bishop Butler in his famous sermon in 1741 on the anniversary of the martyrdom of King Charles, takes hypocrisy for his subject, and declares that no age can show an example of hypocrisy parallel

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