Act of Oblivion 
by Robert Harris.
Hutchinson Heinemann, 480 pp., £22, September, 978 1 5291 5175 6
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Two decades ago​ , the historian Blair Worden praised a feat of deception ‘without parallel in English literature’. The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow were first published posthumously in 1698-99, and edited in two volumes in 1894 by Charles Firth, later the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. For centuries, the Memoirs were one of the best-known sources on the civil wars. Then, in 1970, a manuscript of Ludlow’s titled ‘A Voyce from the Watch Tower’ was auctioned at Sotheby’s and acquired by the Bodleian Library. Worden compared the texts and convincingly demonstrated that the Memoirs were in fact ‘a semi-forgery, based on, but transforming’ a manuscript by Ludlow of which the ‘Voyce’ was the only surviving portion. In 2002, Worden identified the deist and republican John Toland as the person most likely to have transformed ‘Ludlow, the builder of a godly commonwealth’ of the 1650s into ‘Ludlow, the radical Whig or “real Whig”’ of the 1690s.

This enduring deception would appeal to Robert Harris, whose Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries (1986) laid bare the combination of hubris and greed that prompted the premature newspaper publication in 1983 of extracts from sixty purported ‘diaries’ by Adolf Hitler – though that particular forgery was exposed in less than three weeks. Harris’s latest book (and fifteenth novel), Act of Oblivion, is ‘an imaginative recreation of a true story’: the manhunt undertaken by Charles II’s restored government for two men, Edward Whalley and William Goffe. Their names appeared, alongside Ludlow’s, on Charles I’s death warrant in 1649. Whalley was a first cousin of Oliver Cromwell and his was the fourth signature on the warrant. Goffe, his son-in-law, was the fourteenth signatory; Ludlow was the fortieth.

After the Restoration in May 1660, the signatories found themselves hunted regicides. Ludlow left London for Dieppe in August and spent more than three decades in exile, in Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey and Bern. Revolutionary change in 1689 prompted him to risk returning to England, but this led to a fresh arrest warrant and Ludlow retreated again to Switzerland, where he died in 1692. Whalley and Goffe acted more quickly, sailing from Gravesend on the Prudent Mary in May 1660, just days before Parliament demanded the seizure of all those who had sat in judgment on the former king. Harris’s novel begins with their arrival in America in July that year. Events in New England are interspersed with chapters imagining ministerial discussions in Whitehall, the plight of Goffe’s family in London and the arrest of fellow regicides on the Continent. In his preface, Harris confirms that ‘the events, dates and locations are accurate’ and that ‘almost every character is real’ – his sole invention being their pursuer, Richard Nayler, mockingly saluted by James, duke of York, as ‘our regicide-hunter-in-chief’.

The New England experiences of Whalley and Goffe are not unknown to historians; Christopher Pagliuco’s The Great Escape of Edward Whalley and William Goffe (2012) and Matthew Jenkinson’s Charles I’s Killers in America: The Lives and Afterlives of Edward Whalley and William Goffe (2019) both feature in Harris’s bibliography. But since sources documenting their clandestine lives are sparse, Harris invents his own compelling details, in a retelling reminiscent of his account of the Dreyfus Affair in An Officer and a Spy (2013).

On their arrival in Boston, Whalley and Goffe are greeted by the veteran governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Endecott – ‘an old man in a lace collar and black cap’, as they see him, a relic of ‘the England of Queen Elizabeth’. From Cambridge, Massachusetts, the regicides move on to New Haven but, fearing for their safety in the town, they set up camp a few miles away in a cave concealed by giant rocks. Whalley and Goffe hear ‘the forest settling down for the night, the haunting cries of the whippoorwills and the croak of bullfrogs’. They devise a ‘routine of hunting, trapping and fishing, gathering berries, leaves and fungi, skinning and drying, sleeping with their pistols cocked, listening to the wolves’. Meanwhile, the claustrophobic, rancid squalor of the 3000-mile sea voyage to New England – endured by Puritan pilgrims, fleeing regicides and government agents alike – yields ‘a cacophony of screams and shouts of panic, pleas to God, children crying, babies wailing, guttural sounds of retching’. Amid ‘the emetic stink of vomit’, passengers receive rations of ‘fatty, green-tinged meat’ and drink ale, since the water, like the biscuits, was ‘full of tiny, wriggling creatures’.

We know that Whalley and Goffe hid out near New Haven because, as the earliest local histories record, two Boston-based Royalists – a merchant, Thomas Kellond, and a mariner, Thomas Kirk – were granted search warrants in May 1661 and came within two miles of their camp. In Harris’s version, a disorientated and panicking Nayler enters the actual rock formation but is oblivious to Whalley and Goffe, who stand with ‘their guns still cocked and pointed … motionless in the absolute dark’ – an echo, perhaps, of the day in 1651 when Charles II evaded Parliamentarian soldiers by hiding in an oak tree. Harris’s denouement goes for theatrical effect and down-to-the-wire suspense, necessitating chronological compression and an outcome that remains – with apologies to those who like happy endings – rather unlikely. The final sentence shoots an arrow from the 17th century to the present day, neatly combining Puritan New England’s trust in ‘love, and their Bible, with their absolute certainty in the power of the Lord and the protection of their guns’.

Act of Oblivion is more than just a page-turner, however. Harris’s retelling takes in several thorny matters, not least of which is the volatility inherent in post-conflict politics. The novel’s title refers to the Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity and Oblivion, introduced to the Convention Parliament in May 1660 and given royal assent on 29 August. By pardoning all except the most serious crimes committed during the civil wars and interregnum, the legislation offered amnesty for past acts of rebellion. But along with the will towards oblivion was a desire to commemorate. Another law enacted the same day made Charles II’s birthday, 29 May, a ‘perpetual anniversary thanksgiving’. After two decades of civil war and republican experiment, Charles’s subjects were being exhorted to forget their past differences and at the same time to give thanks in perpetuity. Similarly, the impetus towards collective amnesia sat awkwardly with the sense that responsibility for so much bloodshed had to lie somewhere. Charles II wisely delegated to Parliament the task of identifying any individuals who should be exempted from royal pardon. When introducing the bill that became the Act of Oblivion, General George Monck, who had served as Cromwell’s military commander in Scotland, proposed only five men. In the end, Parliament agreed on more than a hundred. Some were already dead, some had surrendered and others, including Whalley and Goffe, were on the run.

To satisfy the popular demand for vengeance, Charles authorised a limited ‘festival of blood’, as Nayler terms the execution of ten regicides convicted of high treason in October 1660. The spectacle includes ‘the sharp knife flourished to the crowd, the severing of the cock and balls, the screams, the blood, the ecstatic groans and cheers of the mob, the slash of the blade through the stomach lining, the dragging-out of the entrails with red-hot tongs and corkscrews – yard on yard of glistening pink tubing, like strings of sausages dangling in a butcher’s shop’. Nor were those who had died before the Restoration allowed to rest in peace. On the twelfth anniversary of Charles I’s execution, the exhumed corpses of Oliver Cromwell, his son-in-law Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw, who had presided over the regicide court, were dragged by sledge to Tyburn and hanged, before the heads were severed, stuck on ‘traitors’ poles’ and displayed at Westminster Hall as a gruesome deterrent to future anti-monarchical agitators.

But Charles II had no wish to acquire his father’s nickname, ‘Man of Blood’. One of the novel’s themes is the tension between Nayler’s determination to apprehend – and if necessary assassinate – every surviving regicide and the growing inclination of Charles II’s ministers to let sleeping dogs lie. As early as February 1661, Clarendon warns Nayler that ‘obsession and good judgment seldom sit well together.’ When another regicide, John Okey, is executed in April 1662, Clarendon reiterates his view that ‘the temper of the times has changed.’ By staging public executions of unrepentant republicans, the restored monarchy risks ‘turning murderers into martyrs’. Although Nayler conceals his private reasons for pursuing Whalley and Goffe, he can’t deny that people were ‘indeed sick’ of interminable bloodletting. At Okey’s execution, he watches the crowd start ‘to drift away long before the quartering and the boiling of heads’.

Are injunctions to oblivion essential to ‘heal and settle’ divided societies? Addressing his first Parliament in July 1661, Charles II urged its members to ‘look forward, and not backward, and never think of what is past.’ Speaking next, Clarendon counselled England’s leaders to ‘teach your neighbours and your friends … how to learn this excellent art of forgetfulness.’ There is a careful balance to be struck between remembering and letting go. In the early 1650s, England’s republican leaders had cautiously rejected an ambitious redecoration scheme for several state apartments at Whitehall and the Banqueting House, which envisaged commissioning vast oil paintings of the key battles and sieges of the 1640s, alongside portraits of victorious generals and commanders. The conclusion of the civil wars saw no memorials erected to the fallen from either Royalist or Parliamentarian ranks. It was only names deserving of perpetual infamy that were to be remembered. In his Civil Wars of Great Britain and Ireland (1661), the Welsh writer John Davies supplied a roll of dishonour in the hope that the names ‘of such rebellious regicides … may be continually odious in all generations’.

Navigating the messy aftermath of the civil wars from the perspectives of Whalley, Goffe and Nayler allows Harris to remind readers of the precarity of events. While Goffe is convinced that his plight forms part of God’s providential plan, the irreligious Nayler sees only accidents of luck or misfortune. Among the dignitaries assembled to behold the regicides’ executions in October 1660, Nayler counts ‘men who had served Cromwell – Annesley, Ashley Cooper, General Monck, now elevated to duke of Albemarle – Roundheads who but for the grace of God and some nimble footwork might have been on trial themselves’. Even more distasteful to Nayler is seeing his own zeal for regicide-hunting matched by Charles II’s envoy to The Hague, George Downing. Nayler was, at least, a committed Royalist, who had been injured and captured by the enemy at Naseby. By contrast, Downing had served as chaplain to John Okey’s dragoon regiment before becoming the Protectorate’s ambassador to the United Provinces in the 1650s. Downing’s ‘eagerness to betray his friends’ is ‘insufferable’. In Delft, Nayler assists in the successful seizure of Okey and two other regicides, John Barkstead and Miles Corbet, in a trap that destroys the Dutch republic’s reputation as a secure refuge. But Nayler’s discomfort only deepens when Okey steadfastly refuses to supply information regarding the whereabouts of Whalley and Goffe: ‘Nayler contemplated him with reluctant respect. They were hard men even in their present pitiful state. Little wonder they had won the war.’

To relieve the monotony of the weeks, months and years the regicides spent in hiding, Harris has Whalley deciding, in 1663, to start writing a memoir of Cromwell, his cousin and childhood playmate, in the hope that it might one day be read by his daughter (and Goffe’s wife), Frances. This device also serves to provide the necessary backstory: Whalley’s ‘body might be trapped in the cellar, but his mind was soaring through the England of twenty years before, reliving the glory days of the war, when Cromwell’s Ironsides swept all before them’. But returning to the past brings ambivalence and regret as well as pleasure. Recalling the day of Charles I’s execution, Whalley realises ‘that the king had died exactly as the regicides had many years later – in the absolute certainty that he was right’. After four years, he concludes his memoir, confronted by ‘the question which I cannot answer’. Having fought to make England ‘a righteous republic’, free from the corruption of kings, princes, nobles and bishops, how can he accept that Charles II’s – ostensibly secure and peaceful – Restoration was part of God’s plan? Might it be, Whalley asks, that ‘we were in error all along’? As his father-in-law’s health begins to deteriorate, Goffe discovers the manuscript and, horrified by Whalley’s soul-searching and doubt, burns it, page by page, in the grate.

In reality​ , it was Goffe who kept a diary during the early years of his New England exile, but it was lost a century later when a mob attacked the Boston home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. After Goffe’s death, the diary had passed to a Puritan minister, John Russell, in Hadley, Massachusetts; it was eventually deposited in the Mather Library, from where Hutchinson had borrowed it. The rioters were angered by the determination of George III’s ministers to impose revenue-raising measures agreed at Westminster; in 1660, an earlier generation of colonial administrators had been similarly reluctant to relinquish autonomy to the Stuart monarchy, from which many of them had purposely emigrated. Massachusetts in particular was slow to order the proclamation confirming the Restoration, waiting until August 1661 (a year after loyalist Barbados), and took another two years to start issuing writs in the king’s name. Further south, John Davenport preached to his New Haven congregation on the second verse of Hebrews 13: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ But though Whalley admits that he is simply ‘thankful for a safe haven’, New Haven counted loyalists, disgruntled Scots ex-prisoners and avaricious informers among its inhabitants, alongside godly Puritans and republican sympathisers. New Haven’s legal status remained fragile and, as in other colonies, its mercantile viability depended on English trade and the protection of English ships against attack by French, Dutch and Spanish competitors.

Serial proclamations demanding Whalley and Goffe’s apprehension and threatening punitive fines for their concealment failed. Harris imagines Nayler leaving London and travelling to Guilford in May 1661, where he meets the deputy governor of New Haven, William Leete, together with ‘half a dozen granite-faced Puritans’. He recreates a documented exchange between Leete and the Boston Royalists Kellond and Kirk, in which Leete challenges the validity of Nayler’s commission – addressed to ‘the present governor, or other magistrate or magistrates of our plantation in New England’ – on the grounds that no such office as ‘the governor of New England’ exists. An argument breaks out, with Nayler exclaiming: ‘For God’s sake, sir! I have not come three thousand miles to debate syntax!’ Whalley and Goffe are able, on this occasion, to escape thanks to the colony’s strict prohibition of any non-religious activity on the Sabbath. Nayler vows to continue his pursuit, warning Leete that ‘when the royal charters are issued, there will be a state of Massachusetts, and there will be a state of Connecticut, but there will never – never as long as a king sits on the throne of England – never will there be a state of New Haven.’

Today, a small plaque in New Haven’s West Rock Ridge State Park identifies ‘Judges Cave’ as Whalley and Goffe’s former hideout. While ‘Judges Cave’ sounds less pejorative than ‘Regicides Rocks’, the plaque includes the defiant maxim: ‘Opposition to tyrants is obedience to God.’ In downtown New Haven, Whalley Avenue intersects with Goffe Street and Dixwell Avenue, named after a fellow regicide, John Dixwell, who lived in New Haven from 1665 until his death in 1689. Visiting Judges Cave in 1794, the French revolutionary Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord ‘made a very animated and impassioned address in French’, acclaiming Whalley and Goffe for ‘their amor patriae and their love of freedom’. By the mid-19th century, the regicides’ flight had been recounted so many times in American popular culture that their names served as shorthand for taciturnity: in Walden, Thoreau describes a visitor to his woodland cabin keeping himself ‘more secret’ than ever ‘did Goffe or Whalley’.

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