King Slayers in America: The 17th-Century Regicides Who Went on the Lam in Colonial New England

The Execution of Charles I of England
The Execution of Charles I of England / Artist unknown, Wikimedia // Public Domain

As Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe huddled inside a claustrophobic cave in the colony of New Haven in June 1661, there was little they could do but sit in quiet contemplation—and marvel at just how far they’d fallen.

Just a few years earlier, the men had been heroes. As prominent allies of Oliver Cromwell—the Puritan general who had led his parliamentary army to victory over the Crown a decade earlier, amid a series of English civil wars—they'd personally signed King Charles I’s death warrant and were likely present at the monarch’s execution in 1649. Afterward, both men had taken prominent roles in Cromwell’s new regime and worked diligently to create what they viewed as a purer and godlier England.

Within a decade, however, Cromwell’s death and a rejection of Puritan ideology, among other factors, led England to restore the monarchy and place Charles’s son, Charles II, on the throne. Suddenly, Whalley, Goffe, and dozens of their peers saw their defining act of heroism devolve into a life-altering stigma. Not unlike Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones, Whalley and Goffe became renowned kingslayers—regicides—a term that clung to them on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cromwell's Allies—and Charles II's Foes

According to historian Matthew Jenkinson, author of Charles I’s Killers in America, the events that followed are one of the most neglected stories in early American history. Both Whalley and Goffe escaped to British North America in May 1660, then fled investigators across New England not once but twice, hiding at various points within an enclosure later named in their honor as “Judges’ Cave.”

Neither Whalley or Goffe had liked their chances under the Restoration, and both feared retribution. A cousin of Cromwell's, Whalley was a major in Cromwell's regiment of horse during the first English Civil War. After the conflict, he and his regiment personally guarded Charles I during his 1647 incarceration at Hampton Court. Goffe—who married Whalley’s daughter—had perhaps even more to fear. During debates held at Windsor Castle in 1648, he denounced the king, with implications about shedding the blood of his own people, a rationale that ultimately provided the legal basis for Charles’s execution.

As it turned out, Whalley and Goffe’s worst fears soon came to pass. Soon after retaking the throne in May 1660, Charles II pardoned most of his father’s political opponents through what historians now refer to as the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. He did not, however, extend this courtesy to those who had participated in Charles I’s trial. In ensuing months, several signatories of the king’s death warrant resolved themselves to martyrdom and defended the justness of their actions all the way to the chopping block. Some had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Others fled to the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Only Goffe, Whalley, and John Dixwell—a former member of Parliament—sought refuge among sympathetic Puritans in New England, where, according to Goffe, they hoped “to cleave to the Lord, & to Love him, & serve him forever.”

This decision quickly proved sound. Of the 39 surviving signatories at the time of the Restoration, nine were executed, 10 successfully escaped, and the rest spent the remainder of their lives in prison.

The Regicides' Early Years in New England

Whalley and Goffe arrived in Massachusetts aboard the Prudent Mary on July 27, 1660. According to Thomas Hutchinson—the then-lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whose 18th-century History of Massachusetts is a key source regarding the regicides—their initial movement in the colony was far from covert. “They did not attempt to conceal their persons or characters when they arrived,” Hutchinson wrote, “but immediately went to the Governor, [John Endecott], who received them very courteously.” In a surviving entry from Goffe’s journal, the regicide noted that after arriving in America, he and Whalley also attended a public sermon on Hebrews. Afterward, they visited a gathering, where many of Massachusetts Bay’s most prominent preachers reveled in their presence.

This favorable treatment ended the following year when the Crown officially condemned the men. Fearing that harboring the regicides might jeopardize their royal charter, Massachusetts officials debated what to do next. Sensing shifting winds, Goffe and Whalley elected to leave the colony. That month, they found refuge in New Haven with a preacher named John Davenport. On May 6, 1661, Governor Endecott finally issued an arrest warrant, after receiving formal orders from the Crown to apprehend the regicides. Soon thereafter, Endecott commissioned two local royalists—Thomas Kellond and Thomas Kirke—to hunt the men. He did so, however, only after he had delayed enough for news to reach the regicides’ caretakers in New Haven.

Goffe and Whalley’s association with Davenport soon came to light, and so the men moved on to the home of one William Jones. According to Hutchinson, the fugitives stayed with Jones until May 11, when they hid in a local mill. Two days later, accomplices “conducted them to a place called hatchet-harbour, where they lay two nights, until a cave or hole in the side of the hill was prepared to conceal them.” The regicides stayed in this cave—the aforementioned “Judges’ Cave”—with only a few exceptions until June 11.

Throughout this period, New Haven officials continuously delayed and obstructed Kellond and Kirke, most notably on the crucial weekend Whalley and Goffe fled into the woods. As the regicides hid in their cave, deputy governor William Leete delayed the two royalists, first by questioning the wording of their warrant, then, the next day, by refusing to allow them to travel on the Sabbath. Leete finally commissioned a search the following week, but by this time the regicides were long gone. Frustrated, Kellond and Kirke eventually retired to Boston, where, according to Jenkinson, magistrates arguably bought them off with 250-acre estates.

The King Tries Again

Goffe and Whalley occupied their cave off and on throughout the summer of 1661. In August, they traveled to Milford, Connecticut, where, according to Hutchinson, they remained in the house of a man named Tomkins for two years “without so much as going into the orchard.” This brief period of calm ended, however, when Charles II grew distrustful of colonial officials and tasked four of his own agents with locating the regicides in 1664.

These men ran into similar problems as Kellond and Kirke. Throughout 1665, they interrogated several of the regicides’ known acquaintances. Most refused to cooperate, and Whalley and Goffe once again avoided capture, this time by slipping away to Hadley, Massachusetts. There, they took on assumed names and lived on the property of the Reverend John Russell.

Letters written by Goffe to relatives in England show that he and Whalley soon established a network in Hadley, through which loved ones sent them money and supplies. “Money,” Goffe wrote, “be it more or less, may be put into the hands of our Dear & Reverend friend, Mr. John Russell … or such person or persons as he shall appoint to receive the same.”

According to Jenkinson, this system was far from elaborate. Charles II’s government might have discovered it had not plague, war, and domestic religious divides preoccupied its attention during this period. “Faced with all of that,” Jenkinson says, “plucking two aging Puritans out of the American wilderness started to go down the priority list.”

As it turned out, Charles II’s shifting priorities allowed America’s regicides to live out their lives in relative peace. Whalley, it seems, died around 1675, roughly 15 years after his arrival in Boston. Goffe followed suit sometime in the 1680s—but only after one final chapter in his great American adventure.

The Angel of Hadley

A depiction of the Angel of Hadley legend
A depiction of the Angel of Hadley legend / Frederick Chapman, Wikimedia /// Public Domain

According to Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts, Goffe avoided attention in Hadley for more than a decade. In 1675, however, he reemerged mysteriously during King Philip’s War—a devastating three-year conflict that pitted New England and its Native American allies against the Pokanokets, other members of the Wampanoag nation; the Narragansett, and other native communities.

Citing a story related to him by descendants of Massachusetts governor John Leverett, Hutchinson claimed that a Wampanoag army attacked Hadley during a worship service on September 1, 1675. As the congregation panicked amid the chaos, “a grave elderly person appeared in the midst of them.” Calling for the congregants to defend themselves, the man—whom Hutchinson implied was Goffe—“put himself at their head, [then] rallied, instructed and led them on to encounter the enemy, who by this means were repulsed.”

Early American historians reported this story as fact. In 1874, however, a historian named George Sheldon argued that contrary to Hutchinson’s claims, contemporary histories of King Phillip’s War reported no attacks on Hadley in September 1675. There was, however, an attack there on June 12, 1676. Sheldon noted that Goffe likely wouldn't have emerged on this date, as a company of Connecticut militiamen were stationed in Hadley at the time. Their presence, Sheldon suggested, would not only have disincentivized Goffe from taking part in Hadley’s defense, but also made it unnecessary for townspeople to take up arms. The New York Times reprinted this argument in 1905, and, thereafter, most historians considered the “Angel of Hadley” story debunked.

In 1987, however, the historian Douglas C. Wilson discovered that June 12, 1676, fell within a short period in which the Connecticut and Massachusetts militias combined for a pincer attack in Northampton. It turned out that Hadley was undefended on the date the Wampanoag attacked the city. This made it at least plausible that Goffe would risk exposing himself in defense of his adopted home, albeit on a different date than the one relayed by Hutchinson.

Jenkinson, for one, believes the event occurred similarly to how Hutchinson originally described it. As such, the Angel of Hadley provides a fitting end to the regicides’ story—like other elements of their flight through New England, it defies belief and yet still somehow withstands historical scrutiny. “There have been a few myths that have sprung up around the regicides in America,” Jenkinson says. “But it seems that the most heroic and daring [of these stories], the most absurd on the face of it, is probably the one that is actually based on reality.”