Socialist Worker

To Kill a King: the world turned upside down

A new film explores the question of reform or revolution during the English Civil War, writes Matthew Cookson

Issue No. 1852

To Kill a King is an interesting new film about the English Revolution in the mid 17th century. A revolt, led by parliament, broke out against the tyranny of Charles I's regime in 1642. After years of civil war and attempts to compromise broke down, revolt became a full-blooded revolution.

Charles I was executed in 1649 and England became a republic. To Kill a King focuses on the relationship between Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax, two of the leading figures in the anti-Royalist camp. It uses their differences to explore the question of revolution. By 1649 Cromwell had come to the conclusion that the only way forward was to have the king executed and no longer have someone standing above the rest of the nation purely by an accident of birth.

Fairfax wants to ensure that the king's powers are reduced, but that the monarch remains as the head of the nation. Cromwell and Fairfax are pushed into conflict over whether there should be reform or revolution. Dougray Scott is the dashing and charismatic Fairfax, the leader the masses adore. Tim Roth's Cromwell, in contrast, is a puritan type, lacking in power. He is a tad shifty with a tyrannical streak.

It is difficult to believe that anyone would follow him in a revolt that would lead to the execution of Charles I and the transformation of Britain. The major fault with To Kill a King is that it doesn't quite get to grips with the dynamic of the revolution. The masses of people are shown as either cheerleaders for Cromwell and Fairfax or supporters of Charles I.

The real reason that ordinary people took up arms against the king, in violation of all tradition was that society was fundamentally changing. The rising influence of merchants and traders was beginning to challenge the power of the old feudal order, transforming all the old social relations and creating new ideas of equality.

The English Revolution was a key stage in the replacement of feudalism with capitalism. Cromwell had built his army from 'the middling sort' of better-off working farmers who were politically committed to challenging the power of the king. Their commitment and discipline was key in defeating the Royalist armies. After the victory, the rank and file of the army began to take more radical positions.

They elected 'agitators' to express their views and radical groups like the Levellers gained huge support within the army. Cromwell used the radicals within the army to carry through his revolution. But then he turned upon them, crushing any opposition to the domination of society by the wealthy class, whose interests he represented. The film will make you want to find out more about the background to the English Civil War. I would recommend the following books:

  • The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill looks at the radical groups that were born during the English Civil War.
  • Roundhead Reputations by Blair Worden examines different views on the leading anti-Royalist figures, including Cromwell.
  • A People's History of the World by Chris Harman has a sharp and short explanation of the English Revolution.
  • Englishmen with Swords by Montague Slater is a factually based novel which gives a good feeling of the revolutionary turmoil.

All of the books mentioned are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 24 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1852
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