With a key to an English castle, western Mass. author discovers her family's regicidal roots
Every family is different about how they talk about their ancestors — and whether to be proud or ashamed.
“I think I was kind of indignant that my father hadn't even told me, because it's a really important story,” author Sarah Dixwell Brown said. “My first cousin, first Brown cousins, they also weren't told the story, although lots of second cousins were. I don't know what it was about my branch of the family that they were somehow uncomfortable and ashamed of being connected in any way to somebody who had been such a radical.”
That radical was John Dixwell, among the 17th century Englishmen, known as the regicides, who signed the death warrant for King Charles I. Charles had ruled England with a heavy hand, demanding exorbitant taxes and waging two wars. He was tried, convicted and beheaded.
But when his son came to power years later, the new king wanted revenge. With help from Parliament, he went after those who signed his father's death warrant, including Dixwell.
"They sent out notification to all the regicides that signed the death warrant: 'You have to appear in court. There's going to be a trial.' And so John Dixwell wrote back and said, 'I will come, but I'm sick at the moment, I'm ill.' And so they said, 'OK.' And then he immediately got in a little tiny boat and went across the English Channel and went to Germany, where he lived for probably four years, anyway," Brown said. "And then somehow he got across the Atlantic and the first place he showed up, which was just incredible to me, especially in more recent years when I moved to Amherst, he showed up in Hadley."
This is where my family connection comes in. Brown's seven-greats-grandfather, Dixwell, stayed at the home of my ten-greats-grandfather, the Rev. John Russell of Hadley, Massachusetts.
"Where two really important regicides had been already hiding for about five years. So they were major generals under Oliver Cromwell. So they were in the crosshairs of Charles II," Brown said.
But Dixwell decided not to stay in Hadley for very long.
"John Dixwell was younger, wasn't as interesting, probably, to the king. And so he changed his identity and went down the river to New Haven," Brown said. "He was able to live as a free man, not hiding, and even got married, twice, in New Haven and had kids from whom I'm descended."
Still, in colonial New England, there were plenty of people with sympathies for the crown. Brown said Dixwell had a close call.
"Governor Edmund Andros, who was a major royalist, spotted Dixwell in a church service and he could have gotten caught then. That was in New Haven. But he didn't go back to church that afternoon and somehow it died down again," she said. "I think John Dixwell was a pretty clever guy."
That's all in Brown's book, "Regicide in the Family: Finding John Dixwell." In it, she chronicles her discovery of her family's history.
Brown, who previously taught writing at Mount Holyoke College, UMass Amherst and elsewhere, explains where the prompt for this transatlantic fact-finding came from.
Sarah Dixwell Brown, author: I think it was two things. The first thing was that my father hadn't told me about John Dixwell, even though that is my middle name, and so I just bumped into him when I was 28 in the reading room of the British Museum, a book about him. It was published in something like 1794 or , describing these three men who fled to the New World, and one of them was named John Dixwell. So I thought, "Oh my goodness, am I related to this guy?"
And I went home and asked my dad and he said we were directly descended. And ... he didn't seem pleased, which I think was one of the reasons I wrote the book, because I felt ashamed to be related to somebody who had done something so violent, and it took me years to realize there was actually something very brave. And things are always complicated, but it did shift us towards being able to imagine democracies — the beheading of Charles I, the bringing of a tyrant to trial.
And then the second thing was that [my father] didn't tell me for 10 years that he had John Dixwell's key to Dover Castle. So when he gave me that, it was sort of like the iron entering my soul, like it was such an enormous responsibility to have this incredibly old key to a castle, no less. I thought, I'm going to have to tell the story of this man!
Carrie Healy, NEPM: I imagine with Queen Elizabeth's passing last year, you must have had some mixed emotions. How did you reconcile the actions of John Dixwell with what was actually going on and the ascendancy of another Charles?
I mean, I make some teasing references in the book that even back in 1990, Queen Elizabeth was not going to have me to tea, even though I'm mostly directly descended from English people.
I actually feel that ... the best they could do back [in the 17th century] was try to find a quasi-legal way of bringing someone to trial who was ruining everything in the country.
So I ended up having a lot of respect for John Dixwell because everybody that signed that death warrant, there were 59 of them, they were putting a bounty on their own heads for the rest of their lives. And they knew it, and they did it anyway because they were interested in what they call the "Good Old Cause," which was the idea that we would have a republic governed by the consent of its people. We wouldn't have taxation without representation. You know, all those ideas were born in the 1640s and 1650s in England that have informed our own Constitution.
Your book is a little like reading the PBS show "Finding Your Roots" — only you are both Henry Louis Gates and the guest. So how does that feel?
It feels wonderful. It was just incredible what I was able to find. I mean, in England, I found that [John Dixwell's] father went to Eton College, which is the prep school for princes, where William and Harry went. Edward Dixwell went there in the 1580s, and they still had the piece of paper that they let me see and photograph. They still had the bill for his food and room and board. You know, 1588, the piece of paper. And it was like that all over England.