The Act of Indemnity and Oblivion passed after the Restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne in 1660 was a general act of pardon for those who had acted against Charles I in the English Civil War and its aftermath. It was intended as a reconciliation between the incoming King Charles II and his people, a fresh start for the nation, to let bygones be bygones.
However, a number of people were excepted from the Act to receive exemplary punishment as a deterrent to any present or future enemies of the monarchy. These exceptions included the regicides – those who had sat on the High Court of Justice that tried Charles I for treason and had signed his death warrant – as well as several others considered particularly dangerous to the public peace.
Writing to his father in November 1660 from Italy, the English republican Algernon Sidney considered the Act of Oblivion a ‘deceptive’ piece of legislation, given the treatment his allies had received in England. By the time he was writing, the first ten regicides had been executed, most of them hanged, drawn and quartered. Sidney himself had served as a diplomat under the Commonwealth. He was not among the signatories of the King’s death warrant and not excepted from the Act himself, yet he still decided not to go back to England after concluding his last mission for the old regime, which had taken him to Denmark and Sweden. Instead he decided to stay in continental exile until it was safe to return.
Many other republicans had escaped England to seek refuge elsewhere. Naturally, the situation was hardest for the regicides, as the King had issued proclamations for their arrest and set a bounty on their heads, encouraging adventurers to hunt them down and reap the reward. Among those wanted by royal proclamation were Edmund Ludlow, Oliver Cromwell’s former lieutenant-general of the horse in Ireland, who managed to escape to Switzerland in September 1660 just before the warrant for his arrest was issued, as well as William Cawley and John Lisle, who soon followed him to the Continent. (The exiles in Switzerland have cameo appearances in AofO.) A proclamation had also been issued for the arrest of the regicides and former Major-Generals William Goffe and Edward Whalley who boarded a ship to America before they could be found.
It doesn’t happen very often that a subject so close to my own research gets turned into a historical novel. So I was quite excited to see Robert Harris’s Act of Oblivion about Goffe and Whalley in America climb up the bestseller lists. It has taken me a while to read the more than 450 pages, but it was totally worth it. Harris has done an excellent job depicting the precariousness of the exiles’ situation in New England, moving from place to place in search for somewhere safe to stay, while constantly looking over their shoulders for agents of the King who had come to hunt them down.
As a plot device, Harris here introduces the figure of Richard Naylor, a secretary to the Privy Council charged with hunting down the regicides. Blaming the death of his wife on an incident from the Interregnum, Naylor bears a personal grudge against the regicides, which drives him into action armed with a list of the fugitives and a determination to seek revenge – not just for the King.
The introduction of the fictional Naylor is probably what I liked least about the novel, not just because it suggests a much more centralised and focused hunt for the regicides than there probably was, but also because his motives seem somewhat contrived. True to his role in the novel, he is of course an entirely unpleasant character, but his parts of the novel also seem the least credible. Harris is upfront about filling the gaps in the historical record, and it is true that the figure of Naylor gives the novel a narrative arch it might otherwise have lacked. But it also somewhat undermines the feeling of authenticity the novel otherwise simulates so well.
Harris very convincingly describes the tedium of life in exile the two men in the prime of their lives must have experienced. By the time the novel begins, Whalley is in his 60s, Goffe in his 40s. They are father and son-in-law connected through their service in Cromwell’s Army and through Whalley’s daughter Frances, who had fallen in love with the fiery millenarian Goffe at her father’s house and was left behind with their children in London. Once at the centre of events in England during the Civil War and Interregnum, the two men are now forced into inertia living in hidden lofts and windowless basements, scared to leave their abode in daylight. They occupy themselves with Bible study and conversations about God and their cause, while worrying about those left behind at home, uncertain if they will ever return to England or see their loved ones again.
The other thing I thought Harris did remarkably well, was to give a sense of the broad support network the regicides had behind them in the colonies. Having emigrated in earlier times for their religious faith, the Puritans in New England welcome the regicides and are prepared to hide them in their private homes offering both practical material and moral support without expecting anything in return, just acting as good Christians helping their brothers in need. Again, the experience of Goffe and Whalley looks similar to what we find among the exiles on the Continent.
Harris also has a knack for characters: Edward Whalley, Ned, from whose perspective much of the first part of the story is told, is a cousin of Cromwell and a seasoned and pragmatic war veteran; the younger Will, William Goffe, is the millenarian sometimes too radical even for his father-in-law. We get a sense of their close friendship through thick and thin, but also of their patience at times wearing thin with one another as they share narrow rooms, food and even a bed. We can see Ned rolling his eyes over Will’s religious zeal, while Will resents Ned’s nagging doubts about the justice of their cause. And yet, the two men remain close until Whalley’s death.
Harris has done his research well, visibly using many historical sources, although – as a good novelist – he not only makes up the dialogue, he also incorporates and fleshes out apocryphal stories, such as the legend of the Angel of Hadley. According to this story, Goffe emerged from hiding during King Philip’s war to lead the inhabitants of Hadley, Massachusetts in their fight to fend off an attack by native Americans.
At the very end, Harris cannot help himself and gives the story an unexpected and highly unlikely twist with a distinct Wild West flavour when Francis re-enters the picture and Naylor and Goffe finally meet. It is all made up, of course. We do not know what really happened to Goffe. Historians have lost his trace sometime around 1679. So who is to say?
Robert Harris, Act of Oblivion (London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2022), hb £22.00; pb £9.99.