After nearly seven years at war, his kingdom divided, Charles I was put on trial for attempting to ‘uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people’.
He was found guilty of this treason and on this day in 1649, the King was executed outside of Banqueting House.
Background to Charles I’s arrest:
A loving and faithful husband, a fond father, and an intelligent, art-loving Monarch, Charles had a strong sense of duty. However, he was stubborn, and sensitive to criticism and disagreement. His personality, set against the context of the kingdom he inherited, ended up being a lethal cocktail…
The English Civil War, which began in 1642, was fought after a series of political battles between the King and Parliament determining how the kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland) should be ruled. Charles had quite the ego, believing in the Divine Right of Kings: he was God’s representative on earth, and was answerable only to Him. Such ideas can be seen in the symbolism of the orb and sceptre.
Having imposed a number of laws without the support of Parliament, preference for High Church religious practices (which smacked of thinly-veiled Catholicism to many) and attempting to arrest a handful of MPs whilst Parliament was sitting, Charles continued to rub Parliament up the wrong way. He ruled without reference to them, ignoring requests for change or consideration until he needed something from them.
Did you know…? It is thought that the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty, comes from the English Civil War. A canon with the same name was used by the Royalists.
Relations deteriorated, until in August 1642, the King rallied troops and raised his standard at Nottingham Castle, beginning the conflict.
Initially the north and west of England, together with much of Ireland, supported Charles I, while the southeast, including London, the Royal Navy, and Scotland, chose Parliament’s side. The Presbyterian Scots were most annoyed at the religious practices the King supported, while the Navy
The Royalists made a strong start, and their cavalry remained undefeated until 1644. Gradually, the Parliamentarians, under military-genius Oliver Cromwell, began to gain the upper hand in what became the bloodiest war ever fought on English soil.
The Battle of Naseby in June 1645, and the defeat of the Royalist army, probably marked the turning point in the war, although fighting dragged on until 1649, and Charles’ heir, future Charles II, continued attempting to regain his kingdom until 1651.
The King continually refused to negotiate, believing the Parliamentarians to be firmly in the wrong, and unable to negotiate with a Monarch.
In 1646, Charles was imprisoned and put under house arrest in the old Tudor royal apartments at Hampton Court Palace, from where he famously escaped. He was soon recaptured and kept prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. His imprisonment was, however, comfortable.
But despite many opportunities, Charles refused to repent and seek a negotiated peace. He stubbornly refused to accept defeat or submit to the republican authority.
The trial of Charles I:
The 46 MPs who remained after Pride’s Purge – an act which removed those who were not loyal to the Parliamentary cause – became known as the Rump. A petition from the New Model Army, known as the Remonstrance, came in November 1648, and called for the King to be put on trial as ‘the capital and grand author of all our troubles’.
The army at that time was led by Thomas Fairfax, but has fast become a force to be reckoned with, dictating the direction of Parliament’s cause.
The Rump agreed, and indicted the King on a charge of treason, which was rejected by the House of Lords. The three Chief Justices of the common law courts of England all opposed the indictment as unlawful, since the justice system – and all arms of government – functioned in the Sovereign’s name, and Parliament had no judicial function.
Despite the supposed committed status of its members, only 26 MPs agreed to put the King on trial.
The Rump, having declared itself capable of legislating alone, passed a bill to create a separate court for the King’s trial, and declared the bill an act without the need for traditional royal assent.
The trial began on 20 January 1649 in Westminster Hall, and this version of the High Court of Justice was comprised of 135 commissioners, but many either refused to serve or chose to stay away, not wanting to be affiliated with it.
Fewer than 70 showed, and Fairfax fled, resigning his position. He was replaced as commander-in-chief by Cromwell.
John Bradshaw acted as President of the Court (the MP with the highest judicial position that could be persuaded to preside over such unprecedented proceedings) and the prosecution was led by the Solicitor General, John Cook.
The indictment stated that Charles I was guilty of the ‘accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented’.
These ‘wicked designs, wars, and evil practices […] have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation.”
The charge additionally held him ‘guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.’
The King refused to submit a plea, repeatedly questioning the authority of the court; he mocked its judges and scorning the MPs who presumed to be in control. The trial continued and witnesses were heard.
A judgment was reached and a sentence passed. On Saturday 27 January 1649, the High Court of Justice – which had been called in Parliament’s name – declared Charles guilty of treason.
They said the King was ‘guilty of levying war against the Parliament and people . . . and that he hath been and is the occasioner, author and continuer of . . . unnatural, cruel and bloody wars, and therein guilty of high treason . . . for which the court doth adjudge that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.’
59 of the 65 commissioners signed the death warrant, possibly being coerced by Cromwell. Charles’ fate was sealed: the King was to be executed.
The Rump and army had wanted a trial to vindicate their actions, showing the man Charles was and laying bare his mistakes. But Bradshaw had refused to allow Charles to speak after his conviction; in conjunction with guards stationed at the entrance to Parliament, turning away those who disagreed with it or would not support the Rump, added to the impression of it being a mere show trial with a predetermined outcome.
Historians John Morrill and Philip Baker explain that Oliver Cromwell had certainly made up his mind that the King needed to be removed as early as 1647, at the time of the Putney Debates, however, there was no suggestion that abolition of Monarchy or the regicide was on the table at that time. But just over a year dealing with a stubborn King had changed all that…
Charles I was given three days to put his affairs in order and say goodbye to his family. After the trial he was taken to the Palace of Whitehall, where he refused to see anyone but his children and his chaplain, Bishop Juxon.
The next day the King was moved to St James’s Palace, where much of his vast collection of art remained, but was awaiting sale, the Parliamentarians determined to raise money and erase the Monarchy.
He was due to go to Whitehall again for the night of his execution, but the Rump had been kind enough to consider that the noise of the erection of the scaffold outside Banqueting House would have been disconcerting for the condemned King; and so they had him stay at St James’s instead. Charles would be escorted to Whitehall on the morning of his death.
Charles spent his time writing to those he loved and praying. In particular he wrote imploring letters to James, Duke of York (his second son) begging him not to allow himself to be used by his enemies: the King suspected Parliament might try to make one of his younger sons agree to take the throne ahead of the Prince of Wales in order to shape a post-regicide world to their liking.
To his heir, Charles, he wrote a last will and testament. The passionate 5000-word plea asked the young Royal to stand by the church, and to withstand that ‘devil of Reformation [that] doth commonly turn himself into an angel of reformation‘, telling him there was no need for many of these changes requested.
“Above all I would have you, as I hope you are already, well-grounded and settled in your religion, the best profession of which I have ever esteemed that of the Church of England … as coming nearest to God’s word for doctrine and to the primitive examples for government.”
He also asked his son for justice, after preserving the church, knowing his fate had been sealed: “When you have done justice by God, your own soul and His Church in the profession and preservation of truth and unity in religion, the next main hinge on which your prosperity will depend and move, is civil justice.‘
Charles asked the Prince to uphold the ‘settled laws‘; he talked of his downfall being caused by his weakness in failing to protect the church and the rule of law from ‘the rough hours of men’s covetous and ambitious designs,’ having not spotted ‘the wolves in sheeps’ clothing‘.
“At worst, I trust I shall go before you to a better kingdom, which God hath prepared for me, and me for it, through my Saviour Jesus Christ, to whose mercy I commend you, and all mine. Farewell, till we meet, if not on earth, yet in Heaven.”
He also said sad farewells to his two youngest children, Henry Duke of Gloucester, aged 9 and Princess Elizabeth, who was 11. The pair were still in the country, unlike the remainder of the royal group.
His wife, Henrietta Maria had fled abroad earlier in the war, and James, Duke of York had recently joined her in Paris. The Queen had written to Fairfax and the army in early January, pleading to see her husband, but her letters remained unopened and unanswered. Charles, Prince of Wales, was at The Hague with his sister, Mary, who was married to the leader of the Dutch, the Prince of Orange.
Charles told them not to grieve, and that they should obey their elder brother Charles, who would be the lawful sovereign. Henry promised he would be torn limb from limb before he accepted the crown ahead of the Prince of Wales.
Elizabeth cried hysterically when she realised she would not see her father again, and it is thought Charles tried hard to hide his own tears. “Sweetheart, you will forget this,” came the consoling words to his daughter. The young Royal recorded every detail in her diary that evening.
Charles was delivered a blank sheet of paper, signed by the Prince of Wales. This was so that the King’s enemies could fill in the paper with any conditions they wished, in return for Charles I’s life. “The King, who, with an appreciative smile at his son’s efforts on his behalf, burnt it, determined to make no further concessions to his enemies, even to save his own life,” writes Graham Edwards.
Charles I on the scaffold – the execution:
The following morning, Tuesday 30th January, had been set for the execution date. The time was originally planned for early morning, but it had to be delayed as an ordinance was rushed through to make it treason for anyone to proclaim a successor to King Charles I.
The Scots, for whom Charles was also King, shared their shock at the trial and sentence, and the Dutch sent two respected ambassadors to protest the trial and sentence, but to no avail. Parliament deliberately held off meeting with them until it was too late.
Historian Richard Bonney suggests that the French, Spanish and Dutch monarchies were largely non-reactive to the events, it being more politically expedient to allow the Rump to continue its activities. Indeed, after the regicide, most European countries officially recognised the Protectorate – Spain was the first to do so – and few gave any true support to Charles II to help restore his line.
The Dutch people did, however, make the life of the Commonwealth’s representative, Walter Strickland, very difficult, but no countries were keen to break off relations with the new republic. It is likely they were concerned at how best to play the situation to their advantage. The Portuguese, who had been close allies to Charles I during the Civil War, even delivering messages to Europe on the King’s behalf, were cautious in proceeding, but did have the whole royal house go into official mourning after Charles’ death. The Danes also offered the young new King money for his cause, but the revenue soon dried up.
The 10-year-old French King, Louis XIV, wrote to Parliament at the time of the trial, offering rich reward if they restored Charles I to the throne, but this too was ignored.
Embed from Getty Images
Charles I’s blue silk vest worn on the day of his execution
The King dressed for the bitter winter weather, that had seen the Thames freeze: two shirts, so that he wouldn’t shiver, and have people think he was fearful. His waistcoat featured red, silver and gold brocade, while the cap he was to wear had a turned back edge, decorated with embroidered scrolls of fruit and flowers. The remainder of his outfit was black, but not to mark mourning.
Charles also wore his Order of the Garter St George, on its vivid blue ribbon, the diamond-heavy Garter star, and his usual pearl earrings surmounted with a crown.
Charles and Bishop Juxon prayed, with the Bishop reading Matthew:27 to the King, recounting Jesus’ own trial and execution. This was not chosen because of the circumstances, but as the appropriate reading for the calendar.
He had gifted his heir his own Bible, with many personal annotations from the King, while Herbert, Charles’ attendant, was given the silver clock that had accompanied him throughout his imprisonment.
Having spent the night at St James’s Palace, Charles was joined by Juxon and Herbert on the walk across St James’s Park at 10am. The King was wrapped in a black cloak, guarded on all sides. Loud drum beats rang out as the journey continued.
He was taken to his bedchamber in Whitehall Palace, to await summons to the scaffold, which had been erected outside the hall, the floor and railings covered in a black cloth, marking the sombre occasion but also preventing true witnesses to the event.
The location was complete with manacles and restraints, should the King resist.
In the final moments before the execution, the Rump were still looking for a willing executioner. Men from various senior New Model Army regiments had been offered £100 and an immediate promotion should they volunteer for the office, but none were forthcoming.
They then turned to the local executioner, Richard Brandon, who refused but was taken to Whitehall nonetheless. Brandon only seems to have complied after he was arrested, with various threats being made against his life, Edwards claims. An assistant was conjured up for the job.
The final call came at 10am. Charles walked through the great hall of Banqueting House, beneath the Rubens ceiling painting, ironic, considering it celebrated the divine principle of the Divine Right of Kings which got him into this situation.
He exited the building from a tall window (the second from the north side, according to Muddiman) onto the scaffold at the same level, wearing a nightcap over his hair.
Charles managed to speak, but the crowds were kept away from the scaffold by swathes of soldiers, meaning many wouldn’t have heard him, something he acknowledged: “I shall be very little heard of anybody here. I shall therefore speak a word unto you here.”
He read from notes on a piece of paper, calling himself ‘the martyr of the people‘ – a King who was to die in preserving their liberties, by upholding a God-given form of government, and protecting it from self-interested men (the Parliamentarians) who had forgotten that ‘a subject and a sovereign are clear different things‘.
You can read his full speech here.
The King removed his cloak, and informed the executioners, wearing false masks to hide their identities, that he would lie down and say a prayer. He would then give the signal that he was ready for the axe by putting out both his arms.
“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.”
King Charles I on the scaffold to Bishop Juxon
He queried with the executioner: “Does my hair trouble you?” He was asked to put all the hair under his cap, revealing his neck; the executioner and Bishop Juxon helped the King with the task.
Turning to Juxon, Charles said: “I have a good cause, and a gracious God on my side.”
After a pause, the King lay down with his head on the block; he stretched out his hand, and the axe fell, the executioner severing his head in one clean blow. Richard Brandon was skilled, apparently never needing to strike more than once.
Charles was killed just before 2pm, and his head showed to the crowds, who groaned at the sight. London, who had taken Parliament’s side in the war sympathised with the Monarch, upon hearing the death penalty had been chosen.
Some reports have the executioner dropping Charles’ head into the crowd, which allowed observers – mainly soldiers – to dip handkerchiefs in the King’s blood, and cut off locks of his hair as mementoes of the historic occasion.
The blood-soaked scaffold was also torn apart for pieces to sell.
I will be bold to say (which I hope God guides my hand to write) This High Court hath cut off the head of a Tyrant, and they have done well; undoubtedly it is the best action that they ever did in all their lives, a matter of pure envy, not hatred, for never shall or can any men in this Nation, promerit so much Honor as these have done, by any execution of Justice comparable to this; and in so doing, they have pronounced sentence not onely against one Tyrant, but Tyranny it self;
Prosecutor John Cook on the execution of Charles I
Prosecutor Cook declared the act a ‘sentence not only against one tyrant but against tyranny it self’.
The execution of Charles I is remembered every year on 30 January with a service in the Banqueting House and a bust of the King can be seen on the exterior of the building. The inscription reads: ‘His majesty King Charles I passed through this hall and out of a window nearly over this tablet to the scaffold in Whitehall where he was beheaded on 30th January 1649’.
The cult of Charles the Martyr:
Those responsible for Charles’ execution recognised the hazard of creating a martyr, and so forbade his burial in Westminster, and – having arranged for the head to be sewn back onto the body – sent the royal corpse to Windsor, where it was buried in early February in St George’s Chapel. While a traditional royal venue, its location within the confines of Windsor Castle (now controlled by Parliament) meant it could not become a shrine.
However, for decades after his death, in loyalist circles, Charles I was viewed as a martyr. He has been seen as a God-like figure being executed by his enemies, as Jesus had been.
The creation of this cult was a means by which royalists could console themselves and come to terms with the events.
The Eikon Basilike, a pamphlet of the King’s thoughts on religion and government, was published shortly after Charles’ death and was a huge success. It was printed 40 times in 1649 alone, and a further 20 editions were published on the continent in foreign languages.
Upon his Restoration in 1660, Charles II utilised the image of his father as a martyr to help reestablish his authority after the Protectorate: if Charles I had been the crucified Jesus, then Charles II was the resurrected Christ, returned to save his people.
- Cook, John (1649) King Charls, his case, or, An appeal to all rational men concerning his tryal at the High Court of Justice : being for the most part that which was intended to have been delivered at the bar, if the king had pleaded to the charge, and put himself upon a fair tryal : with an additional opinion concerning the death of King James, the loss of Rochel, and the blood of Ireland. London: Printed by Peter Cole for Giles Calvert 1649
- Edwards, Graham (1999), The Last Days of Charles I, Stroud: Sutton Publishing
- Kishlansky, Mark A., and John Morrill. “Charles I (1600–1649), king of England, Scotland, and Ireland.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004
- Morgan, Basil. “Brandon, Richard (d. 1649), common hangman and probable executioner of Charles I.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004
- Peacey, Jason (ed) (2001), The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I,
- Wedgwood, C. V. “European Reaction to the Death of Charles I.” The American Scholar 34, no. 3 (1965): 431-46