Hugh Peter – The Cornishman who killed a King?

It would of course be unfair to blame just one man for the death of King Charles I but the Cornishman Hugh Peter may well have played a significant role in the monarch’s downfall. He was certainly guilty of stirring up malicious, regicidal feelings towards the king, encouraging Parliament to inflict the ultimate punishment on the king, and there were even those who believed that Peter actually welding the executioner’s axe himself.

So how did a man from a small Cornish village come to have so much influence during one of the most truly tumultuous periods of British history and what was his role in the death of the only English King to ever be tried for treason and loose his head on the executioner’s block?

Given that Cornwall was well known as a Royalist stronghold throughout the Civil War it seems strange to find a man so closely associated with the death of Charles I within our ranks. So who was Hugh Peter and did he come to be held responsible for killing King Charles I?

Beginnings in Cornwall

Hugh Peter was born in Fowey and baptised in the parish church there on 29th June 1598. His parents were Thomas Dykewood and Martha Treffry, the daughter of John Treffry of Place, and the couple, who already had two other children, had married in Fowey in 1594.

And Fowey was a lively town, both then and now, as one of Cornwall’s most ancient harbours with a long history of fishing and brave seamanship. At the time of Hugh’s birth it was also an important shipbuilding centre.

Fowey from the water

The town was once notorious for its ‘Fowey Gallents’, a band of roguish pirates who made their living from smuggling and raiding the coast of France and because it was also often subject to attacks itself King Henry VIII had built defensives, which still stand, at the harbour entrance. We can imagine that this was an exciting place to grow up.

It is perhaps worth saying a few words about the family’s name. Thomas Dykewood was a merchant who is thought to have emigrated to Cornwall with his parents from Antwerp in around 1543. The original spelling of their name may have been Dykeveldt, although I have also come across Dickwoode and Dirkwood too. It seems that Martha’s sister Deborah Treffry married a local MP called Henry Peter and that Thomas Dykewood decided to adopt this name too, possibly to avoid prejudice given his foreign roots. (Their adopted surname was sometimes spelt with or without an ‘s’ just to add to the confusion.)

Fowey Parish Church

Name changes aside, the Peter family were well off, comfortable one might say, and Hugh had a good education. After spending the first fourteen or fifteen years of his life in Cornwall he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge to complete his education. It was during those years at university that he decided that his future lay within the church.

“God struck me with the sense of my sinful estate, by a Sermon I heard under Pauls, which was about 40 years since; which Text was ‘The burden of Dumah’, and stuck fast.”

Hugh Peter, A Dying Father’s Last Legacy, 1660

His older brother Thomas Peter, baptised in Fowey in 1597, was already a clergyman for the Church of England. He had become the vicar at Mylor in 1628 and remained there until he was forced to leave by Royalists during the Civil War in 1643. Thomas then emigrated to New England in 1644 where he preached to the new settlers and Native Americans. He did return to Cornwall two years later however, resuming his old position at Mylor Church, where he remained until his death in c1655.

Mylor Church

Needless to say, his brother Hugh had an even more eventful career and met a much less peaceful end.

The Reverend Peter

” He loudly clamoured for the death of the King.”

The details of Hugh’s life between his graduation from Cambridge and the time of the English Civil War are complicated but the highlights are these.

He married his first wife, Elizabeth Cooke Reade, in 1625. She was 30 years older than Hugh and already had grown up children. Hugh became a passionate Puritan preacher, renowned for his stirring, fiery sermons and his words got him in to trouble more than once. On one occasion in 1627 he was imprisoned for openly insulting King Charles’ wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, for the “idolatry and superstition” of her Roman Catholic faith.

For a while Hugh escaped what he saw as religious persecution by travelling, as his brother Thomas would do later, to New England in 1635. He settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and used the knowledge he had gathered during his upbringing in Cornwall to advise the settlers on how to develop their fishing trade and shipbuilding.

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Early image of the colony at Salem

In 1636 Hugh became the fourth pastor of the first church in Salem (later famous for its witch trials) and continued to grow in power and influence within the fledgling community.

Sadly his wife, Elizabeth died in 1637 but he quickly married again, this time to Deliverance Sheffield and in 1639 his first and only child, Elizabeth, was born. It is said that his second marriage was not a happy one and there is the suggestion that Deliverance was mentally unstable in some way, which may explain why Hugh left her and his child behind when he returned to England in 1641.

Hugh Peter was said to keep a large hour glass on his pulpit and when 120 minutes had passed, he would wryly ask his congregation whether he should set it going again. His critics called him a fanatic, an eccentric, “a pulpit buffoon”, his supporters said he was articulate, charismatic, pious and dynamic.

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A cartoon of Hugh Peter with his hourglass whilst preaching. Credit: John Bunyan, London 1661

Hugh became known for his theatrics during sermons, he would pull exaggerated faces and wave his arms about enthusiastically. He certainly knew how to hold the attention of a room. There can be no doubt that his words, the way he delivered them, had power. A power that he, and Oliver Cromwell, would later use very much to their advantage.

Cromwell’s Parson

Hugh Peter returned to England from the Massachusetts’s colony in 1641 under the pretext of negotiating new terms on the taxes that the settlers had to pay. He found a country “embroiled in troubles and War.” Later, during his trial, it was revealed that he had not returned to England simply to act on behalf of the colony however, there was a strong implication that he had been sent to take advantage of the unsettled atmosphere and act to un-throne the king by whatever means he could.

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A cartoon of Hugh Peter with a member of his congregation pointing a gun at him, John Bunyan, London c1647

King Charles had dissolved Parliament 12 years before, but no Parliament meant no taxes for the Crown and he was now struggling to maintain control. Charles believed strongly in the divine right of kings, that he should be obeyed without question, and increasingly this was not sitting well with the general public. The situation was becoming increasing incendiary.

The king had been forced to recall Parliament to try and raise money for his military campaigns in Scotland, but when in 1642 the Puritan opposition tried to push through new laws that would basically have turned England into a constitutional monarchy Charles made the fatal decision to send his troops into the House of Commons to arrest the parliamentary leadership. This was the start of Civil War in England.

Meanwhile the persuasive orator and Puritan preacher Hugh Peter was becoming a favourite within the Parliamentary party ranks, he was now Cromwell’s personal parson and some even called him ‘Parliament’s Prophet’.

“Peters was a valued presence in the retinues of successive lord generals – the Earl of Essex, Lord Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. These immensely powerful figures valued Peters’ extraordinarily infectious words, which could rouse men to fight with a courage reserved for those utterly confident in God’s blessing. Peters whipped up New Model Army troops before battle, or in the prelude to attack on a besieged position.”

Charles Spencer, Killers of the King, 2014
Oliver Cromwell by Simon Cooper

Hugh was also repeatedly chosen to stand up and report their victories to Parliament because it was said that he would always “fire his audience, raise morale and stiffen resolve.”

For just these reasons he frequently travelled with the fighting forces and according to Sabine Baring-Gould in March 1645 Hugh Peter returned home to Cornwall. He was with the Roundhead army on one of their campaigns in the west and apparently gave a sermon at Bodmin in which he “harangued . . . against the Crown and the Church, and exhorted all good men and true to adhere to the cause of the Parliament.”

It is worth noting that Hugh was being extremely well paid for his public speaking, Parliament actually granted him £300 per year for life for his services. This was a massive amount of money, around £36,000 today, but in 1645 this was the equivalent of 11 years wages for an ordinary tradesman.

When eventually the tide turned against the King’s forces and Charles I surrendered in May 1646 Hugh was not simply content with Parliamentary rule, he made it abundantly clear that he wanted something more – he wanted the king’s head.

The Case against Hugh Peter

When King Charles was transported by carriage from Windsor to London to stand trial for treason Hugh Peter led the procession.

To say that his fiery sermons contributed to the villainization and condemnation of the monarch would be an understatement. He activity advocated for the king’s death. In the lead up to the trial when officials baulked at the idea of prosecuting a king it was Hugh that persuaded them that their actions were lawful and necessary, citing passages from the Bible.

A favourite was Pslam 149, verse 8: ‘Bind your Kings with chains, and your nobles in fetters of iron.’

Portrait of Hugh Peters with the devil on his back from a broadside published in London in 1660

In a sermon attended by Cromwell he said:

“There is great discourse and talk in the world, What? Will ye cut off the head of a Protestant Prince? I say Turn to your Bibles and ye shall find it there, whosoever sheds a man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. I see neither King Charles, Prince Charles, Prince Rupert nor Prince Maurice, nor any of that rabble excepted out of it . . . This is the day that I and many saints of God have been praying for these many years!”

A man called Chase who was present for this sermon recalled Oliver Cromwell laughing as Peter spoke.

On the 17th January 1649 diarist John Evelyn noted that Hugh Peter was determined “to destroy his Majesty” and Bishop Gilbert Burnet, a Scottish clergyman and historian, said that he “had been outrageous in pressing the king’s death with the cruelty and rudeness of an inquisitor.”

The Cornish Executioner?

There's Peters, the Denyer, nay 'tis sad
He that, disguised, cut off his Master's head;
That godly pigeon of Apostacy
Does buz about his Ante-monarchy,
His scaffold Doctrines.
- Epulae Thyestae, published in 1649

On 30th January 1649, the day that King Charles I climbed onto the scaffold at Whitehall to face the executioner’s axe he may have noted a set of four ropes and pulleys that had been attached to the wooden floor of the platform. These had been introduced at Hugh Peter’s insistence so that they could be used to pinion the king down if he refused to kneel before the block.

But there were some that believed that Peter’s participation in the king’s death that day went even further than this.

There were two executioners present on the scaffold, the headsman, who welded the axe and his assistant. Both men were heavily disguised in wigs and masks and there had been rumours that the usual executioner, Richard Brandon, had refused to take part in the death of the king. Another axeman had to be found and a reported 40 soldiers were offered the role in exchange for £100 and a speedy promotion. It has never been clearly established who swung the axe.

The Execution of King Charles, artist unknown. National Galleries of Scotland

As for Hugh Peter, he was very conspicuous by his absence on the day of the execution. Though he later claimed to have been ill in bed many seriously doubted this excuse. No only was there his enthusiasm for the execution, it seemed inconceivable that he would miss it, but he had also been seen in public just a short time before the event. This led to the speculation that he had been the headsman.

However, most agree that this is unlikely. The executioner that day was highly skilled and confident in his work, taking the king’s head off in a single, powerful blow. And importantly he had also been heard to speak, exchanging a few words with the king, and there is no way Peter’s voice wouldn’t have been recognised.

There is evidence that Richard Brandon had after all been persuaded to complete the execution. Years later a waterman, one of the hundreds of ferrymen working on the Thames, claimed that Brandon was on his boat that day “in a terrible state” having just beheaded the king.

But who was the executioner’s assistant?

Print of the scene of King Charles execution, 1649

The assistant – the man who bent down, picked up the king’s severed head and held it aloft for the crowd to see . . . well, it was noted that he did not speak. Despite the fact that it would have been tradition for him to shout “Behold the head of a traitor” at that particular moment he remained silent. Was this because he was overwhelmed by the act or because he feared his voice would give him away?

In his book, Killers of the King, Charles Spencer lays out the case against Hugh Peter. He writes that it seems implausible that a man who was accustomed to ill health would have absented himself at this moment of such unique magnitude, that he would have been able to resist witnessing the “thrilling conclusion” of all that he had worked for. Spencer also proposes that with such a God-fearing executioner as Richard Brandon holding the axe what better man than a preacher to assure him that he was doing God’s work?

“Might not Peters have been the man to hold aloft Charles I’s severed head?”

Charles Spencer, Killer of the King, 2014

In this detail of the illustration above you can see the masked executioner with his axe behind the body of the king while his assistant also in a mask holds his head up for the crowd.

But the final piece of evidence that seems to suggest that Hugh Peter played an active part in the King’s execution came to light years later in 1660 when he was on trial himself. Charles II had returned to claim the throne and was busy rounding up all the men he held responsible for his father’s death. Peter’s trial was held on 13th October and the evidence against him was damning.

One man, Robert Nunneley, swore that he had seen Hugh Peter at the scaffold on the day of the beheading. Nunneley recounted how he heard Peter summoning a carpenter called Tench to come and attach the iron pulleys to the wooden floor. He said that Peter suddenly vanished just before the king arrived and that he did not see him again until just after the execution.

“It was not until after Charles’ head had been severed that he [Nunneley] spotted Peters again – wearing a black cloak and wide brimmed hat, in conversation with the hangman. Nunneley swore that he later saw the two men drinking water together.”

Charles Spencer, Killers of the King, 2014

The only witnesses that Hugh Peter could produce to say that he had been at home on the day of the king’s death was his own servant, a witness that the judge deemed “deeply unsatisfactory.”

Ballads & Satirical Songs

“THE BEST MAN NEXT TO JUPITER

WAS PUT TO DEATH BY HUGH PETER”

– A contemporary Couplet from 17th century

After the King’s execution and all through the 17th century and beyond Hugh Peter became the subject of ballads, poems, pamphlets and satirical songs that accused him of drunkenness, adultery against his “mad” wife and inappropriate jollity at the fate of the King as well as being his murderer.

The illustration below comes from a ballad published by Humphry Crouch in 1647 called ‘Come buy a Mouse-trap, or, A new way to catch an Old Rat: being a true relation of Peters who tempting an honest woman was by her husband catch in a mouse trap.’

Cartoon from 1647, entitled – Another Side of Rev. Hugh Peter

The image and the ballad are a comment on Peter’s reputation as a womanizer. He is seen peering through a keyhole and reaching under the door for a key which he had arranged to be left there by the ‘honest wife’, when his fingers are caught in a mousetrap. The story is that the wife has told her husband that Peter is trying to seduce her and they set the trap for him. “The Rat is catch’t,” she says while Hugh Peters groans, “Oh, my fingers.

In 1660 as the net was closing in around those accused of Regicide a new spate of demeaning cartoons and ballads began to spread. In fact the bloodthirsty public feeling reached such a pitch that effigies of Peter were burnt in the streets. On the 19th June 1660 a pamphlet was released that claimed to contain a confession by Peter to his doctor that he was “a more than willing hand in the king’s trial and execution”.

Final Thoughts

“On the day Charles I was beheaded a vessel containing his wardrobe and other furnishings was driven by a sudden squall onto the Godrevy rocks. Fifty-eight persons were drowned, only a man, a boy and a dog reached the little island.”

Nooks and Corners of Cornwall, C. A. Dawson Scott

I am used to writing about Cornish heroes, singing the praises of men and women whose deeds and abilities have perhaps been forgotten or overlooked, so on this occasion I find myself in an uncomfortable position. It is not just the execution of the king and Hugh Peter’s role in it that bothers me, nor the fact that he appears to have abandoned his unwell wife and only child. Sadly, the more I researched him the less I liked this Cornishman.

View of Fowey harbour entrance

His time in New England is particularly unsavoury through a modern lens. Hugh Peter was harsh, even cruel, to his parishioners there, banishing anyone from the community who didn’t live up to his conservative standards. This kind of banishment in the still inhospitable country was pretty much a death sentence. But perhaps more damning was his treatment of the native population and other vulnerable individuals.

After conflicts between the settlers and the local Pequot tribe many young native women and girls were taken as slaves for the colony. There is record of a letter from Hugh Peter requesting a “share” of “a young woman or girl, and a boy if you think good” for his use. And then while in England he known to have assisted in the transportation of orphans or poor fatherless children back to the colony to work as ‘servants’ – in reality these children were little more than slaves.

However, it is important to acknowledge that Hugh Peter’s reputation was almost certainly defamed when Cromwell’s Commonwealth crumbled and Charles II took the throne. It seems that Peter initially thought that he could talk his way out of trouble when it became clear that the new king was out for revenge. It appears that he had forgotten just how publicly he had spoken out against Charles I and the monarchy.

At his trial the evidence quickly piled up against him and he was sentenced to by hung, drawn and quartered.

Tower of London

In his final days in the Tower of London he wrote a kind of treatise to his daughter, Elizabeth, entitled ‘A Dying Father’s Last Legacy to His Daughter’. (Read it here.) Over 118 pages he lays out his advice for her on how to live a good life which basically adds up to – follow the word of God, read the scriptures, avoid sin, don’t be lazy and all men are liars. On the final page he wrote:

“Let thy Thoughts Be Divine, Aweful, Godly.

Let thy Talk Be Little, Honest, True.

Let thy Works Be Profitable, Holy, Charitable.

Let thy Manners Be Grave, Courte∣ous, Cheerful.

Let thy Dyet Be Temporate, Con∣venient, Frugal.

Let thy Apparil Be Sober, Neat, Comely.

Let thy Will Be Confidant, Obedient, Ready.

Let thy Sleep Be Moderate, quiet, Seasonable.

Let thy Prayers Be Short, Devout, Often, Fervent.

Let thy Recreation Be Lawful, Brief, Seldom.

Let thy Memory Be Of Death, Punishment, Glory.

Cheery stuff. He also uses this document to protest his innocence perhaps in a last ditch attempt to save his life. All his appeals fell on deaf ears however.

The dreadful sentence was carried out on 16th October 1660.

Further Reading

The Monument to the Battle of Stratton

Anthony Payne: A Real Cornish Giant

Daphne du Maurier at Menabilly, Cornwall

The Tomb of John Bevill of Killigarth – Scandal, Angry Bulls & Daphne du Maurier

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