An Incorruptible Crown – The Execution of Charles I.

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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.

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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 [http://anglicanhistory.org/charles/charles1.html – accessed 30th January 2017]

 

The Latest Trip To London

It’s been a while since the other half and I had one of our historical trips out so last week we took off to London for the day. And what a jam packed day it was. Given the expense of train fares these days we decided to make the most of it and visit as many places as we possibly could.

The Banqueting House on Whitehall is somewhere I have wanted to visit for a very very long time. Many of you will know that I have a massive interest in Stuart history and in particular the reigns of both Charles I and Charles II. When we arrived at the Banqueting House and I saw the window in which Charles I was most likely to have stepped out of at his execution I may have gotten a little choked up. This building, one of the very last remaining parts of Whitehall Palace was where Charles I spent his last moments and it truly was a moving experience for me.

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The Banqueting House itself doesn’t take all that long to look around. But seeing the beautiful Ruben’s ceiling was one of the highlight’s of the trip for me. Painted and installed in 1636, it is an absolute masterpiece and depicts three main scenes – the union of the crowns, the Apotheosis of James I and the peaceful reign of James I. The absolutely sunning piece of art is also the only surviving in-situ piece of work by Ruben’s.

ImageAfter spending a bit of time at the Banqueting House and having a chat with the staff in the gift shop about the necklace of Charles II that I was wearing we took ourselves off to the National Portrait Gallery. There were many reasons that we wanted to visit this place and I have to say that we were not disappointed. The collection of Tudor and Stuart portraits is just utterly mindblowing and I found myself getting rather emotional here too. Seeing the famous portrait of Anne Boleyn was just…there are really no words to describe it, and then seeing the portraits of the Stuart individuals who I have long had an interest in. When we came across the portrait of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, I must have spent at least fifteen minutes standing there looking at it.

ImagePrince Rupert, the stereotypical cavalier, is a man I have a longstanding interest in. He was a genius when it came to military strategy, a brilliant scientist, privateer and one of the first mezzotint artist. In the room next to the civil war portraits were portraits from the reign of Charles II, including portraits of John Wilmot (I had a bit of a squeak seeing him), Barbara Villiers, Louise De Kerouelle and Charles II himself. I sat before the massive portrait of Charles II for a very long time – in this famous portrait, done just before his death in 1685, Charles looks like an old man because of course he was. And yet he is still incredibly regal with his long black periwig. He exudes power and regality, and it truly was amazing to sit in front of such an amazing man.

ImageJohn Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester is a man I am often in awe over. His works of satire are just brilliant and have often had me laughing so hard I’m in tears. I am also a massive fan of his poetry – particularly “A Ramble in Saint James’ Park”

ImageThis portrait of Charles II was painted in C. 1680, just five years before his death and is attributed to Thomas Hawker.

After a quick lunch in a rather quaint little pub just along Whitehall, we took ourselves off to 221B Baker Street. Both my partner and I are MASSIVE fans of the BBC drama and I’ve been a long standing fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels so actually being at the place these works are set in invoked a massive torrent of what we call “feels”. 221B Baker Street is a tiny museum set out over three floors with artifacts that tie in with Conan Doyles stories as well as some rather creepy wax images of the characters. It was really rather amazing to see the figures of how Moriarty and Irene Adler should have looked like. What I found particularly brilliant about the museum were the little quote placards from the books which provided an excellent explanation to the artifacts and figurines.

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Casually sitting in Sherlock’s chair. You can see his famous Stradivarius violin just behind me

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Bullet marks in the wall behind the couch reading “VR”

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Sherlock’s journal

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The little gift shop next door sold all sorts of awesome Sherlock related things including pipes and deerstalkers. I picked up a hardback copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes collection for a very reasonable £15. I have to say, the staff in both the museum and shop were absolutely brilliant and friendly, and I loved how they were all dressed in period costume.

Once done here we took ourselves off for a brief look around the British Museum, although given how much walking we’d done we didn’t spent long here. A brief look at the Egyptian gallery and we were ready to take ourselves home.

All in all a fantastic trip. Next port of call – The Tower of London.