To complete Charles’ isolation from power, it was also made treasonable for anyone else to apply to the king without Parliament’s express approval: something which elicited a predictably pungent response from the Scots, who promptly discovered that they, too, were to be excluded from free access. Plainly, the facade of Anglo-Scottish co-operation was now as unnecessary as it was unconvincing, and the inevitable renewal of hostilities only a matter of time.
Indeed, with any illusions of the Scottish embassy to Charles’ castle at Carisbrooke over Christmas long since exploded, the so-called Committee of Both Kingdoms, which had embodied the pretence of amity since 1644, was already being superseded by the Committee of Both Houses, or ‘Derby House Committee’ as it was more commonly known. ‘The House of Commons,’ wrote Cromwell to Hammond on 3 January, ‘is very sensible of the King’s dealings, and of our brethrens, in this late transaction.
The agreement between Charles and the Scots had, in fact, been a foolish bargain from the outset, though especially so from the king’s perspective. The Scots, after all, had no prospect of mustering an army capable of matching that of Fairfax and Cromwell, and would have to count on powerful risings in their support. But they were hardly likely to win the hearts and minds of Englishmen by dictating in advance the answers to such delicate questions as the control of the armed forces, the appointment of ministers and the royal veto, and, worse still, by closing the door to liberty of conscience. In effect, Charles’ decision to enlist the help of a Scottish army before he had fully exhausted the possibility of achieving a peaceful restoration would prove the most disastrous decision of his life. If he had been in Scotland, with a reasonable chance of escape in the event of his allies’ defeat, the gamble might have been less reckless, though he would still have incurred incalculable damage for plunging his kingdoms once more into bloodshed. Yet to count on Scottish help when still a prisoner on the Isle of Man was tantamount to suicide – both political and personal. For defeat in a second Civil War would leave him friendless and defenceless against a surge of outrage that even his royal status could never withstand.
To compound Charles’ predicament, there were clear signs, too, of a reconciliation between Parliament and the army as the breach with Edinburgh widened. About a week after the escape from Hampton Court, there had been talk at Ireton’s headquarters at Kingston-upon-Thames that the king might come to terms with Parliament, and the general’s response had been duly ominous. Warming himself at his fireplace, he had expressed the hope that so treacherous an agreement might be such ‘as we might with good conscience fight against them both’. Now, however, Parliament was no less distrustful of the king than the army, and Cromwell in particular had become anxious to sever links with the king once and for all. The autumn of 1647 had seen him paying court to Charles whilst executing summary justice upon extremists within his army. At one point, indeed, there had been the real prospect of an accommodation between king and army to the exclusion of Parliament. But now, as the growing influence of Scots and Presbyterians raised fears once more of a settlement that excluded his men, Cromwell had come to see Westminster as the lesser of evils.
The general’s change of mood may well have been triggered, moreover, by an incident that he is said to have related to Robert Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, years later. The son of the Earl of Cork and formerly a staunch Royalist, Boyle had become, by 1655, a keen devotee and trusted confidant of Cromwell, and it was in this capacity that he seems to have elicited from the general the remarkable story of his final disillusionment with the king, which dated to the winter of 1647, when trust, respect and goodwill were still largely intact on the army’s part. At that time, indeed, negotiations were still ongoing, when a warning appears to have been raised by an army spy ‘who was of the king’s bedchamber’ that the king had written to his wife that he was bent on abandoning the generals. The offending letter was to be sewn up inside the skirt of a saddle, it seems, and delivered to Dover by an unwitting messenger who would be stopping en route at the Blue Boar Inn in Holborn at 10pm that very night. If Cromwell could intercept him, he could learn for himself, first-hand, of the king’s double-dealing.
As Boyle’s account develops, it tell us, furthermore, that Cromwell did indeed make his way to Holborn, with his son-in-law Ireton in tow. Dressed as troopers and accompanied by a lone soldier, who was left on watch outside, Cromwell and Ireton duly entered the Blue Boar and supped beer while they waited for news of the messenger’s arrival, which occurred at the predicted time, and proved the signal for action. For the two generals now approached their quarry with drawn swords and warned him that everyone entering or leaving the inn was to be searched. When the saddle was cut open, the letter was discovered just as foretold and pored over at leisure back inside the inn, while the messenger, who had no idea of his saddle’s contents, was allowed to go on his way. Nor did any shadow of doubt remain as Cromwell and his son-in-law read the incriminating document, which spoke of Charles’ courting by both the army and the Scottish Presbyterians, and his apparent preference for the latter. He would, in effect, sell himself to the highest bidder, as convenience dictated and, by implication, abandon even them when opportunity afforded.
‘Upon this,’ Cromwell is said to have related, ‘we took horses and went to Windsor; and finding we were not likely to have any favourable terms from the King, we immediately, from that time forward, resolved his ruin.’
No date for the entire incident is given by Boyle, though it seems likely to have taken place after the army’s headquarters had transferred to Windsor late in November, and before the agreement with the Scots had been made at Christmas. Certainly, its timing would help to explain Berkeley’s chilly reception upon his own arrival at Windsor, and while the tale has its improbable elements – not the least of which is a beer-supping intervention by Cromwell himself on such an errand – it is by no means implausible in its essentials. Albeit in less melodramatic circumstances, various interceptions of royal correspondence were subsequently made by the Derby House Committee, which had assumed effective oversight of the king’s incarceration, while an unnamed correspondent to the Earl of Lanark confirmed on 4 January that the queen had been furnished with news in Paris that the king was close to agreement with the Scottish commissioners – ‘although she have no certainty thereof neither from the King nor any of your Lordshipes’.
But whatever the cause, the New Year of 1648 began surely enough with the army and Parliament newly aligned in opposition to the king, and the ‘Vote of No Addresses’ firmly supported by both parties in a vote of 141 for to 91 against. No further negotiations were to take place between Parliament and the King. Fairfax and the army’s general council issued a declaration, in fact, openly endorsing the measure, and while Charles continued to take afternoon walks at Carisbrooke when weather permitted, there could be no doubt that the net was tightening ever closer around him.
Extracted from The Prisoner King: Charles I in Captivity by John Matusiak