Following the outbreak of war in August 1642, with Charles I raising his standard in Nottingham, England was catapaulted into a civil war that split the country down the middle. In a nutshell, King Charles I believed that he held the Divine Right of Kings and that he should have absolute rule. He dissolved parliament no less than three times and imposed taxes that were highly unpopular. Parliament fought against the crown in an effort to gain control and, as is the way with civil war, friends fought against friends and family fought against family. The fighting was brutal and it was bloodthirsty although to start with the Royalist army held the upper hand.
But after 1644, everything changed. The advent of the New Model Army by Parliament meant that the Royalists were on the back foot. No longer would the cavalier army see victories as they had at Altwalton Moor in 1643 and Roundway Down, also in 1643. Instead the Parliamentary forces brushed the Royalists aside, leading to defeat for Charles I. In 1646, Charles I surrendered to the Scots which led to his imprisonment by Parliament – yet the King managed to escape the Isle of Wight in 1647. The Second Civil War began because of this plucky escape attempt, but was put down in less than a year. Again, Charles was imprisoned. But this time, Parliament were determined to put the King down for good.
Charles I was put on trial for treason, with the trial beginning on 20th January 1649. He refused to enter a plea – after all he was the King of England, so why should he have to do such a thing? Treason was, by definition at this point in time, a crime against the King. We know now that Oliver Cromwell and Parliament wanted Charles I out of the way – despite Charles’ hard headed belief that he had been given the right to rule by God and that no man had the power to overturn that right, the King’s insistence that his trial was illegal fell on deaf ears. Indeed, as is the case with every single kangaroo court, the outcome of the trial was already decided. Charles I, King of England, refused to enter a plea three times over the court of his week long trial and this was taken as a sure sign of his guilt – or perhaps a desperation for Parliament to get rid of a man they saw as a tyrant so they would twist anything in their own favour. On Saturday 27th January, the King was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading.
Charles I’s sentence was carried out on January 30th, 1649. A scaffold had been erected outside of Whitehall’s Banqueting House and the King’s last glimpse of the palace he had spent so much time in would have been the beautiful Ruben’s ceiling. Charles, who had decided to wear two shirts to stop himself from shivering from the cold in case the awaiting crowd thought him to be frightened, stepped out of the window to meet the axe man. During his final speech he spoke of how he had only wanted justice and liberty for his people. He also stated that he deserved his unjust punishment for what he had done to the Lord Stafford – he had condemned an innocent man to death, and as such should suffer for it. The King of England spoke to the crowd gathered before him, reminding them that he had never once tried to subvert the religion of England. He reminded them that he was innocent of what he had been accused of.
“Now for to shew you that I am a good Christian; I hope there is (pointing to D. Juxon) a good man that will bear me witness that I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causes of my death. Who they are, God knows, I do not desire to know, God forgive them. But this is not all, my charity must go further. I wish that they may repent, for indeed they have committed a great sin in that particular” (Cole, 1649)
As he knelt before the awaiting scaffold, Charles mentioned that he would pray a short while and then when he was ready he would spread out his arms as a signal. He worried also that his hair would get in the way of the axe – the executioner and the bishop helped him to tuck his long hair beneath a cap. He spoke then, just before praying, a series of words that have struck historians for centuries:
I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World. (Cole, 1649)
He worried about how high the block was, his words to those on the scaffold coming across as rather panic. And then, after praying as he said he would, he struck his arms out just as he said he would and the axe fell. As the executioner held up the severed head of the King, no words were spoken and the crowd remained in a hushed and stunned silence.
Sources and Further Reading
Braddick, M, 2008, Gods Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil War, The Penguin Group: London
Hunt, T, 2002, The English Civil War at First Hand, Penguin: London
Purkiss, D, 2006, The English Civil War: A People’s History, Harper Perennial: London
Wedgewood, C.V, 1964, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I, Tauris: London
Cole, P, 1649, King Charles: His Speech Made Upon The Scaffold at WhiteHall Gate. Project Canterbury [http://anglicanhistory.org/charles/charles1.html – accessed 30th January 2017]