Book Review – Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris
January 1, 2023

by Ian Langworthy

Published by Hutchinson Heinemann 2022

Fans of Robert Harris will know that most of his books are stories woven around a true historical event incorporating into the plot things that really happened. This latest novel is no exception but readers may be rather less familiar with the backdrop to this story.

The ‘Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity and Oblivion’ was passed in 1660 following the restoration of King Charles II and related to crimes committed during what is usually known as the English Civil War and subsequent period before the Restoration (known as the Commonwealth). There were exceptions of course, and the book is concerned with those relating to the killing of King Charles I and in particular the Regicides: those who had signed the King’s death warrant.

By the time of the Restoration a number of the Regicides were already dead, including Oliver Cromwell. Some of those who had signed the death warrant had remained in England, doubtless hoping for mercy from the new King and others had fled to Europe. The book focuses on two who had fled to the still relatively new colonies on the east coast of America. These were Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Lieutenant William Goffe. Both had signed the King’s death warrant and both were close to Cromwell and were appointed by him as Major Generals in the infamous period of military dictatorship which followed the dissolution of the ‘Barebones’ Parliament. They were both with Cromwell when he died and swore allegiance to his son Richard, nominated to succeed his father. They were very much wanted men.

Fearful of what awaited them on the Restoration and only the day before the House of Commons ordered their arrest the two sailed for America. Much is known about what happened to the two fugitives while in America from Goffes journal and contemporary accounts of those who supported, hid, and generally helped them over the ensuing years. Remember that the New England states in America were established by Quakers and other protestant sects who broadly supported the aims of the Commonwealth and a more austere form of worship and life generally.

As Harris acknowledges, it is not known who led the Hunt for Whalley and Goffe or indeed if it was one man but it is certain that hunted, they were. Harris invents the hunter, Richard Nayler and using the sources referred to above has Nayler obsessively pursuing his quarry relentlessly from town to town and settlement to settlement sometimes even house to house. Harris also captures something of the stresses and strains suffered by Whalley and Goffe being pursued moving from place to place trying to keep one step ahead of the hunter separated from their wives and children, only having limited contact with them. 

By the end of the book will your sympathies lie with the hunter or the hunted?

As with his other historical novels Harris’ research is meticulous and this is another very enjoyable and at the same time informative, read.