The History Woman's Blog

Murder in Lausanne: The Death of an English Regicide in Exile

Posted in Early Modern, History, Politics, Religion, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on September 5, 2020
Saint_François_IMG_4837_C19th

The Reformed Church of St François in Lausanne in the 19th century.

On Thursday, 11 August 1664 the Englishman John Lisle was shot dead in bright daylight on his way to church in Lausanne. His killers had been observing his moves. They knew his daily habits.

When Lisle went on that fateful day to hear the morning sermon at the Church of St François, several men were hiding nearby. One of them had been waiting for Lisle at a barber’s shop, and then, following him into the churchyard ‘drew a carabine from under his cloak, and shot him into the back.’ After the deed, the men escaped on horseback towards the town of Morges, allegedly shouting ‘vive le roi’.

The suspects in Lisle’s murder were Irish royalists who carried out the deed as agents of the English Crown, though it remains contested how many assassins there were and who of them fired the deadly shot.

The events that led to Lisle’s death had taken their beginning in January 1649 when after the Second Civil War a High Court of Justice tried the English King Charles I for treason and had him executed. As a commissioner of the High Court, Lisle had been a leading regicide who helped to draw up Charles’s death sentence, even though he did not sign the King’s death warrant.

Lisle continued to hold public office during the Commonwealth and Interregnum period. However, when the Stuart monarchy was restored in May 1660, the tables turned. Some of the regicides were tried and executed by the new government. Others went underground or escaped abroad to the American colonies or to the European continent.

Execution_CharlesI_I

The execution of Charles I in 1649.

Lisle was among those making their way to Europe. He managed to flee in time before a parliamentary vote in June that exempted him from a royal pardon and was recorded as staying in Geneva in spring 1662 along with his fellow regicides William Cawley and Edmund Ludlow.

The protestant Rome seemed a safe place for the three English puritans – at least until news broke in April 1662 that three further regicides, John Barkstead, Miled Corbet and John Okey, had been arrested in the Netherlands and handed over to England, where they were tried and executed shortly after.

While the council of Geneva promised help to Lisle, Cawley and Ludlow if they had to make a quick escape from the city, they stopped short of granting the exiles any official protection or naturalisation as citizens. With the help of the radical preacher Jean de Labadie and the chief minister of Bern, Johann Heinrich Hummel, however, they were taken in by the Excellencies of the Council of Bern, who allowed them to stay on Bernese territory in the Pays de Vaud.

They moved to the French-speaking Lausanne, where on 16 April 1662 all three were issued official letters of protection as persecuted members of the Reformed Church. Soon after, as a gesture of welcome, the English gentlemen were allocated their own seats in the Reformed Church of St François by order of the town council.

From late September, more republican refugees from England joined the little community in Switzerland, including William Say, John Biscoe, Edward Dendy, Nicholas Love, Andrew Broughton, Slingsby Bethel and Cornelius Holland. In the spring of 1663, a member of the Bern council suggested they should move to the quieter and safer Vevey further east along the shore of Lake Geneva.

Alas, the idyll did not last long. Several assassination attempts were made on the exiles in Vevey by adventurers and agents of the English crown, whom Ludlow suspected to have been sent across the border from France by the Queen Mother and Charles II’s sister Henrietta, the duchess of Orléans.

Eglise_reformee_Saint_Francois_Lausanne_inside

The interior of the Reformed Church of St François in Lausanne today.

Ludlow was doubtless the main target of the assassins. As Oliver Cromwell’s former lieutenant-general of the horse in Ireland, he was an experienced soldier and military leader, and (wrongly) suspected to be behind various republican rebellions planned in England. Likely, in an attempt to keep a safe distance from Ludlow, Lisle therefore soon returned to Lausanne on his own – a decision which was to prove fatal.

The next entry relating to Lisle in the council minutes of Lausanne dated Thursday, 11 August 1664 is the order to lay his body to rest after he had been shot dead by a stranger that morning. He was to be buried in the same Church of St François where the exiles had once been given their pews.

The murder of John Lisle was a turning point in the lives of the English republican exiles in Switzerland. After the assassination, the authorities in Vevey stepped up security in the little town by Lake Geneva and in the surrounding area, but still the exiles lived in constant fear. Further attempts on their lives continued for years, and few of them ever returned to England.

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