An Incorruptible Crown – The Execution of Charles I.


The Execution of Charles I by an Unknown Artist – formerly attributed to John Weesop. C17 oil on canvas

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.


The Banqueting House, London. © ChrisO [Wikimedia Commons]

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 [ – accessed 30th January 2017]


The Coronation of Charles I – A Guest Post by Jennie Gillions

Today’s post comes courtesy of Jennie Gillions, author of the fabulous blog “Ink Under Skin” which is all about tattoos and skin art in history. Now, I adore tattoos; heck I’m even planning on getting one of Cesare Borgia’s motto but that’s a different story – so her blog is definitely a must read if you like fun stuff like that. Anyway, I’ll stop rambling and let Jennie take over with her post on Charles I’s Coronation!

Charles I by Van Dyke
2nd February 2013 is the 387th anniversary of the coronation of England’s arguably most rubbish king.
He has some stiff competition – Henry VI was pretty useless, and Edward II was deposed by his own wife – but Charles I, I think, wins out for managing to be the only British monarch to annoy his own people so much that they, state-sanctioned, murdered him.
And it wasn’t even as if it started well. Charles had been ruling since his father James I died in March 1625, but plague had postponed the coronation. In case that wasn’t sufficiently ominous, his wife refused to be crowned alongside him, and the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke too quietly for the congregation to hear when they were supposed to start applauding.
* * *
Charles, born a second son of James VI of Scotland in November 1600, was never meant to be king. He was, by all accounts, an unattractive child, weak and with a pronounced stammer that he retained throughout his life – his father kept him in Scotland until a year after his own accession to the English throne, in 1603. Charles’s older brother Henry was, in contrast, glorious, and Henry’s death from tuberculosis in 1612 was as tragic as it was unexpected.
Charles I in his Garter robes by Van Dyke
 Charles therefore started training for kingship late, and a combination of naivety and supreme arrogance meant he made some grave errors even before he was crowned. Charles, like his father, was an ardent believer in the concept of Divine Right, that a king was annointed by God and therefore no other man had the authority to challenge him. Unfortunately Parliament tried to challenge him in its first session of his reign, by trying to impeach Charles’s beloved best friend, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had risen to prominence under (if rumours are to be believed, quite literally under) James VI and I, becoming the preeminent figure at court, obscenely wealthy, and in charge of pretty much anything he wanted to be in charge of. This included, in 1625, an expedition to take the Spanish port of Cadiz, which ended in ignominious failure. Parliament blamed Buckingham for the men, the money and the dignity that had been lost but Charles, in an early display of the jaw-dropping inability to compromise that would eventually kill him, dissolved the session in a huff rather than risk Buckingham.
His early reign was also characterised by his disastrous marriage, to a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. Henrietta Maria was only 15 when she arrived in England, already married by proxy to a nervous 25-year-old virgin who was a strict Anglican in a country that outlawed Catholicism. Charles had agreed with her brother, Louis XIII, that she should be allowed to practise her faith openly, which didn’t go down well with her new Protestant subjects. She and Buckingham hated each other, and because Charles loved his friend far more than he loved his wife, Henrietta Maria’s first months in England were unhappy ones.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Mytens
 So there was no glorious victory at Cadiz to celebrate, no heir to the throne and no harmony between Protestants and Catholics at court. There was no huge parade, and the Queen, refusing to be crowned in an Anglican ceremony, watched proceedings from an upstairs window. In the embarrassing silence that followed the Archbishop’s largely unheard call for cheering, it fell to one of the Lords to whip up some enthusiasm by shouting: ‘God save King Charles!’
* * *
God didn’t. Eventually, on 30th January 1649, after an eleven year rule without a single session of Parliament, followed by two bitter, bloody civil wars, England sent its king to the scaffold.
Further Reading
David Starkey & Christopher Hibbert: Charles I: A Life of Religion, War and Treason