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How to Succeed in Regicide Without Even Trying
John Fowke gets away with murder
Mercurius Politicus is considered an early newspaper, but today we might see the format as a newsletter, for each edition was printed with articles in sequence, as a single column. John Fowke, merchant adventurer of London, purchased an advertisement in the 22-29 March 1660 edition of the paper to refute widespread misinformation about his role in the trial and execution of Charles I, which had taken place eleven years before. Put another way, Fowke was fighting fake news with paid news. Today, legal notices like this one appear in their own section of the newspaper:
Whereas mention hath been made in several printed Books, that John Fowke Alderman was one of those Persons that did actually sit as Judges upon the Trial of his Majesty, with the Council and Attendance of the Court; and was in the number of the Judges at the King’s Sentence of death. These are to give notice to all men, that the same is most false and scandalous, as will many ways appear; and in particular, by the Certificate of Henry Scobell, Clerk of the Parliament, in these words following, viz.
In a Book Ordered by the Parliament to be kept among the Records of the Parliament read in the House the 11th of December 1640 and entitled, A Journal of the proceedings of the High Court of Justice, erected by Act of the Commons of England, instituted, An Act of the Commons of England assembled in Parliament, for Erecting of an High Court of Justice, for erecting a High Court of Justice for the trying and judging of Charles Stewart, King of England, which Book are set down the names of the Commissioners appearing each day in Court; Having diligently searched the same, the name of John Fowke, Alderman of London is not therein mentioned as being present with the Commissioners at any meeting upon the said Tryal, either publick or private.
March 28. 1660.
Henry Scobell, Clerk of the Parliament.
Having done as much as any Londoner possibly could to prepare for war with the king, to raise an army to meet the king in battle, to bypass the normal rules of governance in London to do that, urging action and raising troops and even collecting taxes for the purpose, agitating all the while for an open rebellion against Charles instead of halfhearted insurrection, John Fowke finished his long personal war with the king by … staying home. When the Commonwealth collapsed and a restoration of monarchy became inevitable, he was ready to dodge the consequences for all of it with a certificate of non-attendance at the trial.
It seems so anticlimactic, and yet it is so quintessentially John Fowke. He was such a canny, shrewd political operator. One cannot help but imagine Fowke conducting a whip count on the 19th of January 1649, and then having determined that the fix was in, choosing to let the matter proceed without his input when Parliament convened the next day. I do not think that Fowke stood on any other principle than self-interest here. The risks of becoming a regicide, only to see Cromwell’s commonwealth fail, were unacceptable. If the commonwealth flourished without a king, Fowke would still have all the connections needed for his merchant trade, as well as the status of a Member of Parliament. As he was close enough to the Cromwell administration to advise and serve it, but was not part of it, Fowke would have been in a position to appreciate just how fragile a kingless England might prove to be, and how a restoration of the monarchy would follow.
Put simply, he was a long-term investor hedging his bets.
Fowke’s political career began in April 1641, when he helped organize a petition drive that brought about the execution of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Charles signed the death warrant under tremendous public pressure. This petition, estimated at between ten and thirty thousand names, was the work of Isaac Pennigton, a rising star in London politics, as well as Fowke and ten other men. Nine of them, including Fowke, would later serve on the Committee of Safety in 1642. Pennington was named Lord Mayor of London on 12 August 1642 and then Lieutenant of the Tower in July 1643. This was his political machine, and his brief mayoralty was the high tide of radicalism in the City — as well as the flourishing of Fowke’s new political career.
In June 1641, just weeks after the execution of Strafford, Fowke participated in the effort to reform London’s constitution by reducing the power of the Aldermanic Court, the upper house to the Common Council. It was the legislative choke point where conservative resistance had long stymied popular demands for change. The effort failed, but it was a preview of Fowke’s role later, while serving as alderman, in undermining the power of that body.
That same month, City elections were disputed over alleged ineligible voters in the crowded meeting hall. While such fraud was not unknown at the time, public participation had in fact never been higher, and from the Puritan perspective the stakes were also greater than ever before. The matter was referred to the House of Lords, which ultimately put Fowke and five other City opponents of Charles on the committee that decided who would serve on the Common Council.
Elected to the Common Council himself in December 1641, Fowke organized a petition against “bishops and popish lords,” presenting 15,000 names on a roll of paper more than 70 feet long to the House of Lords. Known as the “Root and Branch Petition,” its spokesman claimed that it would have been even longer if not for the interference of the mayor at time, who was a royalist. Held as risible by court commentators, the moment actually showed how much the issue had galvanized resistance to the king within the City.
We can only imagine how Charles must have felt when, on 31 December 1641, his longtime antagonist Fowke and other “new men” showed up to “mingle” with the Common Council men he had called to a royal audience, even though Fowke had not formally taken his seat yet. Five days later, Charles failed in his infamous attempt to arrest John Pym and four other MPs on the floor of the Commons. As Charles fled London the next day, fearing for his safety, Fowke took his seat early and participated in the brand-new Committee of Safety, the ad hoc body that would ultimately be responsible for recruiting and supplying parliamentary troops — circumventing the Lord Mayor and aldermen, who normally controlled all forces raised in the City, to do so.
Fowke personally lobbied to make this move against tradition, and Mercurius Civicus, the royalist newsletter, blamed the “impetuousness and Clamour” of “Fowke the Traytor” and his faction for it. In the years to come, Fowke would be one of the most militant members of that committee and take part in the formation of the New Model Army. Put simply, the English Civil War would not have been possible unless the Committee of Safety put the militia in the hands of revolutionaries rather than royalists, and Fowke was a crucial instigator in this matter. Charles called Fowke “notoriously guilty of schism and high treason,” blaming him along with Pennington’s brother-in-law and deputy, Randal Mainwaring, as the two men most responsible for organizing the Root and Branch mob which had done so much to make Charles feel unsafe in London.
This political trajectory is all the more remarkable for a man who had never even run for Master of Haberdashers, the livery company through which Fowke took part in the merchant trade. Such positions were seen as essential elements of a political portfolio at the time, but it seems this was an afterthought to Fowke. Only after the Battle of Edgehill, in December of 1642, did he finally seek and win the coveted office. He would not hold it again until 1652, and then he had his own stint as Lord Mayor the following year, when he also served as a commissioner for the sale of the executed king’s estate.
Perhaps Fowke did not care to become a regicide himself, but he had no scruples about profiting from the regicide of others.
Fowke remained a militia commissioner in London in 1660, when he was finally elected a Member of Parliament for London at the head of the poll in what is described as a very noisy campaign season. That this event took place just weeks before the Restoration is not a coincidence. John Fowke understood what “parliamentary privilege” meant, and that a measure of political power could help ensure his survival upon the inevitable demise of the Commonwealth.
After all, he would need to speak to the Clerk about a favor, and Henry Scobell was a busy man.