Books, History

“A King and a Gentleman”

charlesiexecution

"Ou es le Comte de la Fère?"

And The Memory Of The Wicked Shall Rot?’ is now officially this blog’s most-viewed post, turning from a little-read trifle to a slow-burning curio to a hitrate behemoth, and proof of the old adage ‘if you want traffic, use keyphrases from A-Level syllabi’. Interest in the execution of Charles Stuart isn’t anything but new, of course. One of my favourite bits of Charles I nonsense is in the novel by Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After. I’m unusual perhaps in finding this the best of the Musketeers novels (whether you split them into three or five), but its slightly more melancholic tone, its emphasis on politics, and the depth of its characterisation make it very compelling. Anyway, in chapter LXX, Athos finds himself underneath the scaffold on January 30th, 1649:

All of a sudden the drums rolled discordant and gloomy; a sound of heavy and continuous footsteps was heard above his head. It seemed to him as though an extended procession tramped across the floors of Whitehall; he soon heard the very planks of the scaffold creak. He cast a glance out on the open square, and the attitude of the spectators told what a last hope, still lingering in the depths of his heart, hitherto had prevented him from surmising.

The murmurs of the crowd entirely ceased. All eyes were fixed on the window of Whitehall; half-opened mouths and suspended breaths indicated the expectation of some terrible spectacle. The tramp of steps, which, from his position under the floor of the king’s room, Athos had heard above his head, was reproduced on the scaffold, which bent under the weight so that the planks almost touched the head of the unfortunate gentleman. It was evidently two files of soldiers taking position. At the same instant a well-known and noble voice said above his head, “Colonel, I want to speak to the people.”

[…]

“Oh!” said Athos to himself, “is it indeed possible that I hear what I hear, and see what I see? Has God abandoned his representative on the earth so far as to let him die so miserably? And I have not seen him! I have not said ‘Adieu!’ to him.”

[…]

There was a momentary silence, then in a full, sonorous voice which was heard not only on the scaffold, but also in the open square above it, the king said, “Remember!

He had scarcely uttered the word before a terrible blow shook the scaffold; the dust was shaken from the drapery, and blinded the unfortunate gentleman beneath. Then suddenly, as if mechanically, Athos raised his head; a warm drop fell on his forehead. He drew back with a shudder, and at the same instant the drops became a black cascade, which gushed on the floor.

Dumas was an historical novelist who played fast and loose with the periods he chose to play in, but a lot of the usual froth about the regicide is here: the emphasis on Charles’s nobility and stoicism in the face of death, the hush of the aghast crowd, the revulsion at the spilling of royal blood; that last minute awareness of the awfulness of murdering a monarch ruling by divine sanction. In the next chapter, Aramis intones, “the king dies, but royalty does not.” Dumas picked his side clearly throughout the Musketeers cycle – the fading of the aristocracy is its central tragedy. It is perhaps in part that attraction to the romanticism of fallen nobility which keeps the level of interest in the regicide so consistently strong.

That and OCR.

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