The strange history of king-killers on the shoreline
For some Americans, our history begins with the mythic story of the black-buckled boots of the first Puritans who stepped onto Plymouth Rock. What followed, in our mythology, was a great winter feast, atonement, peace with the natives, and a 400-year journey to modern America.
But table talk among the Pilgrims may not have been dominated by those lofty ideals. It’s far more likely that they were consumed by the coming crisis of their day – the English Civil War. It was a war of such enormity that it changed the direction of western civilization; a war in which New Haven and other locations on the shoreline played a small but fascinating role.
The Connecticut shoreline is filled with sites that harken back to the legends and myths that tie this little part of the world to an event of extraordinary global importance. One of those legends involves the hiding of “king-killers” from the British crown by Connecticut’s citizenry.
A little background is in order. After a nearly 50-year build up, the climax of the English Civil War took place on a scaffold in London with the beheading of King Charles I, an incompetent but sympathetic king who was victim of a fraudulent court that found him guilty of treason. He was replaced as head of state by Oliver Cromwell; a very competent but unsympathetic dictator. When Cromwell died in 1660, Charles II was brought back to England from nine years in exile and the monarchy was restored.
Upon his arrival in Dover, England, Charles II was greeted by some of the very same troops responsible for the defeat and ultimate execution of his father. Charles II forgave all Englishmen who fought against his father—all, that is, except the jurors who participated in the illegal and corrupt tribunal that tried and executed him. The 59 men who signed Charles I’s death warrant were deemed regicides, or “king-killers” in Latin. A warrant was issued for their arrest. It was now their turn to face trial for treason and, if found guilty, their means of execution was to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
Of the 59 regicides, three—Edward Whalley, William Goffe and John Dixwell—fled to the shores of New England where they hoped to take refuge among their radical Puritan brethren. If these names sound familiar it is because they are the names of the three major thoroughfares that originate at the head of Broadway in downtown New Haven. Not only was William Goffe a son-in-law to Edward Whalley, but both men also were high ranking (and tremendously effective) battlefield officers in Cromwell’s forces. Although Whalley and Goffe originally arrived in Boston to a rousing hero’s welcome on July 27, 1660, public sentiment became far more subdued when the warrant for their arrest arrived that November. Of course, anyone caught helping the men could likewise be charged with treason and face the same gruesome death.
The pair of fugitives fled Boston for the even more radical and brazen Puritan community of New Haven colony. Arriving on the night of March 7, 1661, Whalley and Goffe initially stayed at the house of Reverend John Davenport, located on the corner of River and Broad streets. Shortly thereafter, on May 11, two royalist agents, Thomas Kirke and Thomas Kellond, arrived on the doorstep of New Haven Governor William Leete, who lived in Guilford (the namesake of Leete’s Island). Leete denied knowing the whereabouts of Whalley and Goffe, explaining that he had not seen the men in nine weeks. Kirke and Kellond didn’t buy it. They heard the men had been in Guilford more recently, and requested a warrant to search local properties and arrest Whalley and Goffe if found.
Leete took action. He first arranged for Whalley and Goffe to be warned of the arrival of the agents. Then he delayed Kirke and Kellond’s request, giving the fugitives time to escape. Finally, after deliberating (perhaps stalling) for hours, Leete explained to the agents that their work could no longer be completed since it was now the Sabbath, which had technically begun at nightfall. Leete said he would gladly provide them with fresh horses to resume their search on Monday morning. While Leete’s house is long gone, the locally known “Regicide Cellar” is marked on the corner of Broad Street and River Street in Guilford. It’s built on the foundation of Leete’s barn, where the regicide outlaws were once purportedly hidden, according to family tradition. While exact details of this myth are hard to confirm, a sign does mark Leete’s property and commemorates the defiance of royal authority that took place there.
Arrangements were hastily made for Whalley and Goffe to live in a cave located at the edge of town, in what is today Woodbridge. While the men waited for the cave to be prepared for them, they camped at a local spring. Having literally been running for their lives, they found themselves ill prepared for two nights in the woods. Goffe refers to the location of their brief stay as the Harbor, or possibly Hatchet Harbor, reflecting the good fortune of having found a useful hatchet on the ground during their short stay. A visit to the Elderslie Preserve in Woodbridge traces the steps on way to the cave, and serves as a reminder of the desperate straits they found themselves in during those harrowing days. Once major generals and intimate confidants of the most powerful man in England, the two were reduced to a life on the run in the backwoods of a distant, rogue colony.
Whalley and Goffe remained at “Judges Cave” until Kirke and Kellond were safely gone. The cave, which is formed by an array of leaning glacial erratics, is found near the summit of West Rock Ridge State Park. One legend has it that the former military heroes were sent fleeing down the mountain by a prowling “panther” that poked its head into the cave. The men lived secretly in the cave for nearly a month, from May 15 to June 11, 1661, and were secretly fed by a local farmer named Richard Sperry. Once safe from the pursuit of Kirke and Kellond, Whalley and Goffe then moved into a small two-story structure where at last their safety was assured.
In 1665, a third regicide, John Dixwell (another namesake to a New Haven thoroughfare), also sought the refuge of New Haven’s sympathetic population. Dixwell’s story differs from Whalley and Goffe’s in marked ways. Unlike them, Dixwell was only a minor player in the events surrounding the English Civil War and Charles I’s trial. And Dixwell did not arrive in New England to great fanfare, but rather slipped in discreetly, preserving his anonymity. Dixwell also chose to assume the alias “James Davids” and was, therefore, able to live relatively well in New Haven for over 20 years. Consequently, we are fortunate to know the location of Dixwell’s grave, which is found behind the Center Church on the New Haven green. Beneath the nineteenth century monument lies a more ancient and modest tombstone.
The stories of Edward Whalley, William Goffe and John Dixwell represent a tie to the larger historical context in which New Haven, and New England, were born. In many ways, this story does not end happily. While none of the three regicides were ever caught, none was ever to return to their native home as they had hoped. The New Haven colony lost her cherished self-rule and was placed by King Charles II under the authority of Connecticut colony to her north, partly as retribution for her citizens’ bold defiance.
Details of these men and their prominent locations on the Connecticut shoreline can be found in the book, The Great Escape of Edward Whalley and William Goffe, Smuggled Through Connecticut.