March 7: New Haven Hides the Killers of an English King

 

Soon after the then-separate Connecticut and New Haven colonies were established in the 1630s, their country of origin, England, was thrown into a long and brutal civil war pitting English Puritans against King Charles I. The Parliamentarians, as the king’s enemies called themselves, were ultimately victorious, and, after taking control of the government, they put Charles I on trial for being a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of the nation.” The King was found guilty, sentenced to death, and beheaded in London in January 1649.

Things after that did not go as smoothly as the Parliamentarians had hoped. After 10 turbulent years of a Puritan-led dictatorship, the former king’s son and heir, Charles II, was restored to the English throne in 1660. The “Restoration” monarch promptly sought to bring the men who killed his father to royal justice.

The death warrant of Charles I, containing the signatures and seals of 59 Puritan “judges,” including Whalley, Goffe, and Dixwell.

 

Charles I’s execution order had been signed by 59 commissioners (or “judges”), nearly all of them staunch English Puritans. Once Charles II ascended the throne, these former Puritan patriots instantly became “regicides” – king killers – traitors and enemies of the crown. Their arrest, trial and pay-back executions were a first-order royal priority. All 59 faced a tortured capital punishment if caught.

Two of these now-fugitive regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, secretly boarded a ship bound for New England in hopes of escaping the new king’s wrath. They chose their destination wisely; New England was largely populated by devout Puritans-in-exile who strongly sympathized with the regicides, and upon their arrival in Boston in February 1661, they were warmly received by city leaders. However, when a handful of Boston’s royalists loudly protested the regicides’ presence and threatened to inform English officials of their whereabouts, Whalley and Goffe fled south toward the Connecticut shore.

On March 7, 1661, the two fugitives arrived in New Haven, just ahead of a royal search party sent from England. New Haven’s Puritans brazenly risked royal retribution by both sheltering them and misleading royal bounty hunters to throw them off the regicides’ trail. The deputy governor, William Leete, for example, tried to delay two of the earliest-arriving King’s agents by repeatedly promising to provide them information without doing so throughout a very long Saturday afternoon. As soon as the sun set, however, Leete declared that he unfortunately could provide them with no further help, for the Sabbath had officially started and, any form of work on the Sabbath was strictly prohibited.

By the time a larger contingent of royal forces arrived in New Haven, the two regicides had been spirited away to a group of large boulders atop West Rock now known as “Judges’ Cave,” where they lived for several weeks until the coast was clear. Afterward, they spent the next three years living in a cellar near the Guilford town green. Then, however, increasing royal pressure on New Haven forced the fugitives to journey north to the then-frontier town of Hadley in Western Massachusetts.

Three of New Haven’s major roads are named after the three regicides who sought shelter in the Puritan colony in the 17th century. (West Rock Trails blog)

To this day, the city of New Haven remembers its rebellious history of providing safe haven to the Puritan regicides in a number of ways. The boulders that make up Judges Cave are a popular feature of West Rock Park and mark the terminus of a series of seven-mile-long hiking paths named the Regicides Trail. Three of the city’s main thoroughfares are named after Goffe, Whalley, and Dixwell (a third regicide who lived in New Haven under an alias after Goffe and Whalley had fled).

The colony of New Haven lived up to its name, providing a new and safe haven for a pair of fugitive regicides, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Christopher Pagliuco, “We Weren’t Always So Friendly to Royals,Shoreline Times

Alexander Winston, “The Hunt for the Regicides,American Heritage

The Regicides,” Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut

On the Trail of the Regicides,” West Rock Trails blog