William Christian, known in Manx as Illiam Dhone (Brown William), famously led an uprising that seized control of the Isle of Man in 1651, towards the end of fourteen years of almost continuous war, at the centre of which was a struggle between Royalists supporting King Charles I and Parliamentarians who sought to curb royal power.
Sometimes referred to as the English Civil War, these conflicts had wracked the neighbouring islands and resulted in brutal fighting in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as England. Christian’s uprising removed the need for Parliament’s intended conquest of the Isle of Man and is credited with preserving the island’s unique laws and system of government.
In 1651, the Isle of Man was ruled by James Stanley, Lord of Man, Baron Strange and 7th Earl of Derby. The Manx called him “Yn Stanlagh Mooar,” or “the Great Stanley.” Stanley first supported Charles I, and then after the latter’s execution in 1649, his son, Charles II, and between 1643 and 1651 lived on the island and oversaw an extensive programme of modernisation and improvement of its defences. In 1648 he made William Christian receiver-general, or treasurer, of the island, and in 1651 added command of its militia to his duties, shortly before leaving to join Charles II in England.
When Stanley was captured after the Battle of Worcester, his wife, the Countess Charlotte, hoped to negotiate with Parliament for his release. The Manx people were already angered by changes in land tenure introduced by Stanley, which affected their ability as tenants to bequeath land and homes to their children, and others resented having to provide food and accommodation to Royalist troops. Christian and other Manx leaders, fearing the Countess would sell the country “into the hands of Parliament,” made plans to seize the island’s forts, and with the invasion fleet in sight, the Manx took all of their targets except for Peel Castle and Castle Rushen.
Christian’s supporters negotiated directly with the Parliamentary forces, who were allowed to enter the island unopposed in return for recognising Manx “laws and liberties.” Countess Charlotte surrendered in November of 1651, less than a month after her husband had been executed.
And so the Isle of Man’s brief direct involvement in one of the bloodiest wars fought in Britain and Ireland came to an end. Manx institutions such as Tynwald were left in place, the ancient land tenure customs were restored and Christian remained receiver-general, becoming governor in 1656.
But Christian’s luck turned in 1658 when he was accused by a new English governor of misappropriating funds related to church lands. The charges were not proved, but he left the island for England.
In 1658 Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II returned from exile. After his coronation in 1661, an Act of General Pardon and Indemnity was passed to protect Cromwell’s supporters from prosecution. Believing he was thus safe, Christian returned to the Isle of Man, but was arrested on the direct orders of Charles Stanley, the 8th Earl of Derby, and charged with treason – not against the king, but against the Earl’s late father, Yn Stanlagh Mooar.
Christian refused to plead in court, perhaps believing it to be a cynical show-trial, and instead wrote to the King seeking protection under the Act of Indemnity. His petition reached the King too late to affect the outcome and he was executed by firing squad on 2 January 1663. Charles later confirmed that the Act of Indemnity — and his rule — did extend to the Isle of Man and restored confiscated property, including the estate of Ronaldsway, to the Christian family.