Friday, 30 January 2015

30 January 1649: The Execution of Charles I

The execution of Charles I, king of England, Scotland and Ireland, on 30 January 1649 was unprecedented in its day. As historian Blair Worden explains, Charles' death 'left an indelible mark on the history of England and on the way that the English think about themselves', at what was the climatic moment of the Puritan Revolution. Occurring at a time when civil war had ruptured England's social, religious, and political life, Charles' beheading changed the subsequent nature of the conflict, and deepened the divisions.  

In the words of Sean Kelsey, Charles I's downfall 'stands out as probably one of the most remarkable, certainly one of the most dramatic events in the early modern history of the British Isles'. On 20 January, ten days before his death, the king was brought to Westminster Hall to hear the charges brought against him by his enemies. John Bradshaw acted as President of the Court, while the prosecution was led by John Cook, the Solicitor General. He was accused of governing by will and not by law (thus making him a tyrant) and had 'traitorously' levied war 'against the present parliament and the people there represented'. 

Historians have argued that the trial saw Charles' 'finest hour', castigating his accusers fearlessly and boldly: "I do stand more for the liberty of my subjects than any that come here to be my pretended judges". He mocked the judges, questioning them as to by what authority they sought to try their lawful sovereign, while scorning the Commons' claims to be a judicature or to have the authority to establish a judicature. For three days running, the king refused to enter a plea. Despite this, the trial continued and witnesses were heard, before a judgement was reached, attested to by 59 commissioners, and sentence passed. 

A contemporary engraving of Charles I's trial in Westminster Hall showing John Bradshaw presiding.
Above: Charles I's trial on 20 January 1649 in Westminster Hall.

The king's tribulations were compared to Christ's suffering at the hands of the Pharisees, which was indicative of the heated religious climate in which the king's trial took place. The trial had been carefully planned well in advance, with thought being given to the venue, the ceremony and the need to preserve a measure of dignity. As Kelsey notes, 'one might say that the trial of Charles I was merely the pretext for a spectacular exercise in managing political appearances. It demonstrated that the civilians had once again taken command of the wheel-house of state'. But the trial did not go as planned. Members of the public shouted hostile comments during the proceedings, while the trial was delayed because of doubt as to whether the king should be seated and whether he should bear his head before the gathered assembly of judges. Marchamont Needham wrote scathingly of John Bradshaw's 'pride, impudence and superciliousness'; he was a 'vulgar spirit'. 

Despite protesting vigorously that the trial was illegal, for 'no earthly power can justly call me (who am your King) in question as a delinquent... this day's proceeding cannot be warranted by God's laws', the king was condemned to death on 27 January. The judgement declared the king's guilt, having 'out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people, and to take away and make void the foundations thereof'. Charles was named as 'the occasioner, author, and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel, and bloody wars, and therein guilty of high treason, and of the murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolation, damage, and mischief to this nation acted and committed in the said war, and occasioned thereby'. 

An anonymous print showing Charles I on the scaffold.
Above: The execution of Charles I.

The disgraced king spent his final days writing letters to those he loved, including James, duke of York, and Henry, duke of Gloucester, begging them not to allow themselves to be used by their enemies to seize the throne from its rightful heir, their brother Charles. The king also wrote a last political will and testament to his son Charles, prince of Wales, beseeching him to stand by the Church and to provide justice. 

On 30 January, a bitterly cold day, the fallen king was brought to a scaffold erected in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall. Wearing two shirts, the king displayed self-control and dignity. In his speech to the crowd, he described himself as 'the martyr of the people', who had died to preserve the liberties of his people by upholding a God-given form of government. He remarked: 'I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be'. The poet Andrew Marvell, in 'An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell's Return to Ireland', described Charles thus: 'He nothing common did or mean upon that memorable scene... Nor called the gods with vulgar spite to vindicate his helpless right, But bowed his comely head down as upon a bed'. Kneeling before the block, Charles gave the signal to the executioner and he was decapitated with a single stroke. His head was later sewn back onto his body. Charles was buried at Windsor on 9 February. Several days later, the Eikon Basilike, a memoir purporting to have been written by the king, began to circulate. The book contained the king's alleged final thoughts and self-assessment, and was one of the biggest sellers of the century: 40 English language impressions and issues were published in 1649 alone, while twenty more appeared in Dutch, German, French, and Danish. Five more English impressions were issued in the following decade, and 24 more from the Restoration to the eighteenth-century.

Charles remains a controversial figure. He has suffered at the hands of historians: Barry Coward condemned him as 'the most incompetent monarch of England since Henry VI', while Ronald Hutton opined that Charles was 'the worst king we have had since the Middle Ages'. Whatever Charles was, there can be no doubt that his brutal end on a frosty day in January 1649 had severe political and religious repercussions that unsettled England evermore. 

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly enough, Charles I is venerated by the Anglo-Catholics associated with 'The Society of King Charles The Martyr':