Wight Life

The Secret Treaty of Newport

by Jack Jones (Curator, Carisbrooke Castle Museum)

ON SATURDAY 25 DECEMBER 1647 a small group of horsemen rode past the gatehouse guard and into the courtyard of Carisbrooke Castle. They were commissioners from the parliament of Scotland, and their arrival was almost unnoticed, but they were in fact about to pull off the diplomatic coup of the year.

The day was unremarkable, for Christmas Day was accorded the kind of muted observance that survives even today in Scotland. In Carisbrooke Castle the talk was only of the stirring events of the previous day, for on the Friday afternoon a delegation from the English parliament had arrived to present treaty proposals to Charles I.

The King was in a tight corner. Defeated in the Civil War by the alliance of the English parliamentary army and the Scots, he had spent much of the year under guard at Hampton Court, desperately searching for a crack in the opposing alliance into which he could drive a wedge, playing off the Scots against the English, the parliamentary Independents against the Presbyterians, the army officers against the agitators. Finally, alarmed by the influence in London of the army extremists, on 11 November 1647 he escaped from Hampton Court and within three days he was established at Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight, the reason for this unlikely choice being the recent appointment as Governor there of Colonel Robert Hammond, a Roundhead of known moderate views who made no secret of his wish for an agreement between Charles and parliament.

Within days Hammond persuaded the King to send peace proposals to London. Parliament was in no hurry to react, for many of its members suspected that Charles would use any agreement as a breathing space to strengthen his position. During December, however, parliament produced its answer: four draft bills that would remove the substance of royal power. The thinking behind this trap was formulated during the debate on the bills: 'if the King agrees, he will destroy himself; if he refuses, we shall destroy him'.

It was this unpalatable document that the parliamentary commissioners had handed to the King on Christmas Eve, requiring an answer in four days.

Four days, as it happened, was all the time Charles needed for his purposes. His autumn negotiations with the army had been abortive, and it was now clear that there was no understanding to be reached with parliament. That left the Scots.

An engraving of Charles I by Peter HuybrechCarisbrooke Castle Museum
An engraving of Charles I by Peter Huybrech

The Scottish commissioners in London had vigorously dissented from the four bills drafted by parliament, and it was agreed that they should visit Carisbrooke to deliver their formal document claiming that 'the Bills .... are so prejudicial) to Religion, the Crown, and the union and interest of the Kingdoms ... as we cannot concurre therein'. It was this paper that they handed to the King on Christmas Day, but the next move was an extraordinary one: Charles and the Scottish commissioners went into secret session in the King's room, even Charles's closest advisers being excluded. While the Roundhead guards went about their routine duties, they were encircling a conference at which the second civil war was being prepared. The King agreed to establish Presbyterianism, and the Scots — already squatting with their army over large tracts of northern England — agreed to invade England and restore Charles to the throne.

Such was the beginning of the civil war of 1648, when fromApril onwards royalist risings in South Wales, Kent, and elsewhere were finally joined by the Scottish invasion. Two copies of this dangerous agreement were made and signed, and the Scots left Carisbrooke in some terror of being searched, for they took their copy with them. They need not have worried. Their departure went as unnoticed as their arrival, and the treaty was soon on its way to Scotland. The King's copy remained a possible risk. For some weeks it lay hidden in his writing desk at Carisbrooke and eventually Colonel Hammond — by now full of suspicion about the Christmas visit of the Scots — searched the desk for it. He was just too late. At the insistence of his friends, Charles finally agreed to the document being smuggled out of the castle. It was carefully encased in lead and was buried by a royalist agent in a local garden — where, for all we know, it may still lie.

The Treaty of Newport in the autumn of 1648 is usually regarded as the diplomatic event of Charles's year on the Isle of Wight, yet this was no more than a formality. Before it began, Cromwell had mopped up the last patches of resistance in the north, and the King's fate was virtually decided. Whatever happened at Newport, the centre of decision was now at army headquarters. The moment when events on the Isle of Wight shaped the course of English history was the Christmas treaty with the Scots, for the eventual discovery of this marked the end of any thought of reconciliation with the King.

This extraordinary episode poses one obvious question: how was the King allowed to get away with it? The answer lies in the character of Colonel Hammond the Governor of the Isle of Wight. At that time he put his complete trust in Charles's willingness to hammer out an agreement with parliament. If Ireton or some of the other senior army officers had been on the scene at the time, it is highly unlikely that the King would have enjoyed his tete-a-tete with the Scots. Hammond however was the man on the spot, and he had almost complete discretion to act as he thought best. At that stage he was believing what he wanted to believe. His moment of truth came on Tuesday 28 December when the parliamentary delegation attended for the King's reply, and this turned out to be a rejection of the four bills.

The exhibition The Royal Prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle Museum this month illustrates the last year of Charles's reign —most of it spent at Carisbrooke — and the theme of the display is the King's attempt, having lost the military game, to win the diplomatic one. As such it is interesting that this exhibition is in the very room in which the secret treaty with the Scots was negotiated, and from which Charles later made his first unsuccessful attempt to escape. In spite of some Victorian rebuilding the room still has its large medieval fireplace.

Page of a Newsletter of April 1648 describing Charle's lif as a prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle

Photo: Carisbrooke Castle Museum
Page of a Newsletter of April 1648 describing Charle's lif as a prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle.

The material in the exhibition is of unusual interest because we believe this to be the first attempt to gather from so many sources a display illustrating this final phase of the reign. From the British Museum there is a letter from Charles I to the Prince of Wales, written on 1 August 1648 in the throes of the second civil war, commanding him 'to doe nothing, whether it concerns War or Peace, but with the advice of your Councell'; and the famous watch given by the King to Edward Worsley just before Charles left the Isle of Wight in November 1648. The National Portrait Gallery have lent a miniature of Charles I by Des Granges. From the royal collections at Windsor Her Majesty, the Queen has lent several items including the correspondence of Charles I with Sir William Hopkins during the Treaty of Newport, and the shirt worn by the King on the day of his execution. There is quite a character too about the various news-letters and pamphlets covering the events of 1648, like the gossipy report (see illustration) in April reporting Charles's conversation in which he simply remarked that 'it will be hot bowling in May'. These news-letters are drawn partly from the museum's own collections and partly from Southampton University Library.