Book Bag: ‘Regicide in the Family’ by Sarah Dixwell Brown; ‘What Remains To Be Said’ by Robert B. Shaw

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  • Sarah Dixwell Brown, author of “Regicide in the Family,” spent years researching her ancestor John Dixwell on his role in the beheading of King Charles I of England (whose image is on the book cover). Image from Twitter

  • An image from the time that King Charles I was executed in England in the mid 1600s. Wikipedia/public domain

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2022 6:38:31 PM
Modified: 6/17/2022 6:36:16 PM

Regicide in the Family:
Finding John Dixwell

by Sarah Dixwell Brown; Levellers Press

Any number of families might have an outcast somewhere in their ranks, the proverbial black sheep of the family.

What if you had someone in your family tree who played a role in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, the only English monarch ever sent to his death? How would that make you feel?

That’s a question Sarah Dixwell Brown wrestles with in “Regicide in the Family,” her lively account of discovering that a distant ancestor, John Dixwell, was one of 59 judges who signed the death warrant for King Charles following the conclusion of the English Civil War, which had pitted the king’s forces against those of Parliament.

Brown, a former writing teacher at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and other schools, stumbled upon this family connection back in 1980 when she was a graduate student spending time in England. But it wasn’t until some decades later that she undertook serious research to find out more about the man she refers to as her “sevens great-grandparent.”

Along the way, Brown, of Amherst, discovered John Dixwell had joined two other regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, in hiding in colonial Hadley for a time when the three men were forced to flee England around 1660 after the monarchy was restored under Charles’ son, Charles II.

Her interest was also cemented when her late father presented her with a rusty iron key dating back centuries. The key was to an historic castle/fortification in Dover, England, where John Dixwell had served as governor before fleeing the country. He took the key with him, and it had been passed down to generations of his descendants in America, including Brown’s father.

Yet her father, Preston, a taciturn Massachusetts doctor, seemed almost embarrassed by this legacy and confessed to knowing little of the story, Brown says, which leads her to reflect on her own conflicted impressions of her ancestor.

“I’d been groomed by my father to be a law-abiding citizen,” she writes. But John Dixwell, she notes, had so “flouted the law of the land” that he’d been forced to flee his country, while his own kin at the time had largely disowned him, wiping him from family records. “How I was to feel about him?”

To sort out those issues, Brown became determined to discover all she could of Dixwell’s life. A few years before the pandemic, she arranged interviews with several historians, writers and archivists in England, then traveled there, though not without trepidation: She worried that the English, who still revere their monarchs, would look askance at her connection to John Dixwell and be dismissive of her project.

Yet in one funny scene, as she eats breakfast at a London inn, an Englishwoman at her table asks what she’s doing in the city. When Brown hesitantly tells her about the regicide in her family tree, the woman chides her: “Don’t be do self-conscious! … There was another Charles. It wasn’t the end of the world.”

Brown’s trip through England in search of Dixwell’s past makes for an engaging travelogue, as she journeys to a town near Newcastle, in northern England, where his father, Edward, was a vicar and where John Dixwell was born in 1613. She explores Lincoln’s Inn, a historic training center in London for barristers that dates to the 13th century; Dixwell spent seven years there studying law.

Brown also visits a nearly 600-year-old classroom at Eton College, with worn wooden desks scored by students over the centuries, where Edward studied in the late 1500s; later, she shows her ancient iron key to some genuinely impressed archivists at Dover Castle.

Though born of modest means, Dixwell, through an unusual chain of events, would end up managing a huge private estate in Kent, in southeast England. In addition to his work in the law, he became a member of Parliament, which in the first decades of the 1600s pushed for a greater role in governing England and viewed Charles I as an arrogant tyrant who had betrayed his people.

When Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660, many of the 59 judges and members of Parliament who had signed his father’s death warrant were arrested and publicly executed in gruesome fashion. Dixwell fled first to Germany, then came to New England in the mid-1660s, eventually settling in New Haven, Connecticut after spending a brief time in the tiny settlement of Hadley.

Brown teases out some more interesting stories from his years in New Haven, where Dixwell adopted the name James Davids and lived a much more modest life, marrying in his 60s and starting a family; he died in 1689 (a small monument in the city commemorates his life). In addition, the author offers sketches of her other ancestors in Dixwell’s line, showing how some of them kept his memory alive.

In her extensive search through these family records, Brown comes to admire her distant ancestor, who she says was opposed to the divine right of kings and queens and imagined a more representative form of government for England — ideas that came to animate the American Revolution a century later.

His decision to sign Charles I’s death warrant cost Dixwell “his career, his home, his lifestyle, and nearly his entire family of origin, but I don’t think he regretted it,” she writes. “He died knowing he had held fast to his ideals and would never give up hope.”

Sarah Dixwell Brown will read from and discuss “Regicide in the Family” in the Hadley Public Library Community Room on Saturday, June 18 at 11:00 a.m.

What Remains To Be Said

by Robert B. Shaw; Pinyon Publishing

Poet Robert B. Shaw, professor emeritus of English at Mount Holyoke College, is, in the words of one critic, “one of those poets who is profound without sounding so … [his] observational verse progresses by accumulation of detail or plot and aims to unify meaning and music.”

Shaw’s latest collection, “What Remains to Be Said,” is a hefty volume running to 300 pages that includes new poems as well as selected work from past volumes, dating back to the late 1970s (and in the case of one poem, to the 1960s). These mostly free-verse poems cover a wide range of topics and also examine the span of the poet’s life, which includes having studied at Harvard University with Robert Lowell.

His voice is an engaging one, at times wry and plainspoken and sometimes more satiric and critical. Among his new work is “March 20,” which begins with a wonderful image of the erratic weather of that time of year: “Two sumo wrestlers in a ring— / Winter is one, the other, Spring— / conduct their semi-annual bout, / straining to shove each other out.”

Another new work, “After the Latest Mass Shooting,” seems sadly topical at the moment, and with its sing-song rhymes it sums up the endless cycles of gun violence and political paralysis in the U.S. better than any op-ed: “The motto’s changed: Live free and die. / No time for us to wonder why, / as each new rabid burst of rage / brings politicians to the stage / to fill a slot in the day’s news / by nattering their threadbare views.”

Fellow poet Mark Jarman, reflecting on “What Remains To Be Said,” says he’s admired Shaw’s work for decades and regards “this volume, a gathering of poems from the 1970s to the present, as essential reading for anyone who cares about contemporary American poetry.”


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