Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine historical thriller based on the manhunt for the regicides of Charles I

The Act of Oblivion was a key law in British history. It paved the way for restoration of the monarchy by promising to forget the offences of most, but not all, of those who had waged war on Charles I.

Exempted from the act were the regicides, those who signed the death warrant of Charles. For them the fate of hanging, drawing and quartering awaited.

Many foolishly surendered to the crown and were tortured to death in this way in spite of their pleas for mercy. Others had to be hunted down.

Robert Harris’ book focuses on the manhunt for two of the regicides: William Goffe and his father-in-law Edward Whalley. Goffe and Whalley have had the good sense to make for North America as Charles II approached English shores. But, they wonder, as the search for them reaches across the Atlantic, is this far enough?

Act of Oblivion is a fine thriller. It is also a fine historical novel. It would be a superb introduction to the English Civil War for anyone ignorant of the subject. It is, appropriately enough, a warts and all portrayal of the period, charting the descent of the parliamentary cause into a horrendously bigoted, brutal military dictatorship. It also details the bloody revenge of the royalists following the collapse of the Commonwealth

Other reviewers have described Goffe and Whalley’s principle pursuer, a fictional character called Richard Naylor, as a “monster.” But I think this misses the point of the book.

While the principle sympathy of the book is with Whalley and Goffe, Nayler has become what Goffe and Whalley once were and would have continued to be had they not fallen from power: a merciless zealot.

Early in the book Harris quotes the biblical verse “an eye for an eye.” Because Martin King was not born until the 20th Century he cannot go further. But this book is an illustration of King’s point that, if pursued, this maxim of vengeance leaves the whole world blind.

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