Hutchison Heinemann, London, 2022, pp 463

Reviewed by Norman E. Gough, South Staffordshire, UK

There is a certain irony that this novel dealing with the aftermath of the execution of Charles I was released on 1 September, shortly before the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of Charles III to the throne. I am a long-standing fan of Robert Harris’ novels and particularly treasure his Cicero Trilogy, so I looked forward with great anticipation to this one. This excitement has been enhanced because the story of the arrival of the regicides Colonels Goffe and Whalley in America in 1660 is so well-known to GGFA members. Indeed, it is something of a legend that varies with each telling. There is no shortage of scholarly accounts about the fate of these regicides, so there is some apprehension that he surely cannot bring anything new to the story. Furthermore historical novels inevitably contain an imprecise mixture of fact and fiction, so it is difficult to gauge where one ends and the other begins. However, the author has a reputation for researching his subjects meticulously and assures us that he uses only one fictional name – for the regicide hunter – so we can conjecture that Daniel Gookin, who brought the regicides to Cambridge, and all of the other colourful characters from New Haven really did exist.

GGFA members will be only too aware that not all agree on the number and names of William Goffe’s children, whom the author names as Frankie, Betty, Nan, Judith and Richard. But the author’s proposal that his father the Rev Stephen Goffe moved to Wales after he was ejected from his living and that William was born there, will certainly come as a surprise. It never occurred to me before that the lack of information about this early period in his life may be due to the fact that we have searched in England for the evidence rather than in Wales. I do find it difficult to imagine William Goffe with a Welsh accent!

Robert Harriss conveys well the difficulties faced by the governors in New England, under threat from the English government who turned a blind eye to the fact that they were protecting fugitives with substantial bounties on their heads. The Rev Davenport seemed oblivious to any threats and comes over as a slightly crackpot zealot who believed it didn’t matter anyway, as the day of judgement was coming in 1666. The contrast between the religious fervour of Goffe and the more pragmatic approach of Whalley is also brought out well and when the author narrates Whalley’s account of the Civil War and the execution of the King, there is a suggestion that his sympathies are more with Whalley than Goffe. It is indeed possible that Whalley regretted not facing an honourable death on the gallows, as did his fellow regicides, rather that running for his life. In the end, 1966 did bring about a disastrous war with Holland, the plague and the fire of London in England, but the only problem faced by the independent Puritans in America was the ceding of New Amsterdam to the British. Instead of facing the expected day of reckoning, William Goffe lived out the rest of his life in a miserable self-imposed imprisonment, never able to venture out in daylight and always fearing that the next knock on the door would be his downfall.

The author does mention an unpublished dissertation about the Whalley family but sadly he sheds little light on the fate of William’s son Richard other than that he was apprenticed to a grocer in London. Despite the attempts of Burke’s Peerage to construct the family history, we still seem to have no evidence for, or reason why a grocer should have had lands reinstated in Ireland. The only obvious guess is that this somehow fits in with the movement of English to Ireland for the purposes of subjugation. The National Archives in England and Ireland are strangely silent on this and one would expect to see it mentioned in the royal accounts or parliamentary records.

Whilst there is not much new here for many Goff/Gough readers and if you are familiar with the story already, then any sense of excitement and intrigue is lost. But Robert Harris is the master story teller and this novel does not disappoint. He brings us a fresh and vivid account that takes us into the minds of the main protagonists and relives the pain of the regicides and their families as a consequence of their long exile. Those who have not yet read the history are in for a real treat. I am left with an overall impression of the horrors committed in civil wars and the feeling that the scars fade slowly and never disappear entirely. And as the war in the Ukraine reminds us, political, historic and religious divisions can easily resurface today and bring into conflict people who had previously lived together harmoniously.

1 In addition to many general accounts of the Civil War, the author cites specifically the following relevant works: Charles Spencer, Killers of the King, Bloomsbury Paperbacks UK 2015; Don Jordan & Michael Walsh, The King’s Revenge, Abacus Reprint 2013; Matthew Jenkinson, Charles’ I Killers in America, OUP Oxford UK; Christopher Pagliuco, The Great Escape of William Whalley & William Goffe, History Press illustrated edition 2012; Ezra Stiles (President of Yale College), A History of Three of the Judges of King Charles, 1794; as well as an unpublished account by Geoffrey Jagger, The Fortunes of the Whalley Family of Screveton, MPhil Dissertation, Southampton University, UK.

5 thoughts on “Robert Harris, Act of Oblivion

  1. Avatar
    Robert Davis-Goff says:

    I’m working with an English genealogist on William’s origins at the moment and she has been in touch with someone who did research for this book. The Wales story is viable. Happy to discuss at some point. Claire Bradley (on behalf of Sir Robert Davis-Goff)

    • Avatar
      Phillip G Goff says:

      Eager to hear what you find and the English genealogist discover about William’s origins. There is widespread interest among GGFA membership.

      • Avatar
        Robert Davis-Goff says:

        Yes, we’re excited too! We’ve already confirmed that his paternal grandfather was called Elias Goffe and from Hampshire.

  2. Hi there,
    I have a copy of the unpublished dissertation about the Whalley family if you wish to see it: The Fortunes of the Whalley Family of Scriveton Notts – unpublished MPhil thesis University of Southampton 1973 by Geoffrey Jaggar.
    In the meanwhile, I would be interested to hear about William\’s paternal grandfather, Elias.
    Shaun Goffe

  3. Apparently Harris suggests that Frances Goffe spent some time in Clapham just after the Restoration. There were certainly a number of Clapham residents with strong ties to Cromwell, the Model Army and to regicides living there. (see The First Clapham Saints by Timothy Walker) But does anypone know of evidence that she was in Clapham at any time?

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