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 Witch’s Heart ~ Kings Lynn

As I was visiting family this past weekend and wandering the high street of King’s Lynn, I was reminded of a local legend. One of the main areas of interest in Kings Lynn is the Tuesday Market Place and the buildings that surround the square these days are Georgian, many of which house museums and places of interest. One of the houses is a particular talking point.

If you look up whilst walking past number 15-16 Tuesday Market Place, you will see a crude black diamond carved into red brick. Within the diamond is a black heart. There are two commonly told stories that explain just why this heart is carved above the window of this house both of which are equally as morbid as the other.

The Tuesday Market Place was used as Lynn’s place of execution for centuries, and was the site of hangings as well as a number of burnings, in particular the burning of witches. Both stories link to gruesome executions conducted in the market square.

The first involves the execution of Margaret Read in 1590. Margaret was found guilty of witchcraft and sentanced to burn within the market place, and as the flames engulfed her body it is said that her heart burst from her chest and smashed into the spot above the window where the diamond is now carved. The organ is then said to have fallen to the ground and rolled away where it sunk into the river Ouse. Gnarly eh?

The second tale involves treachery and is particularly heartbreaking. No pun intended. A housemaid let slip to her lover that her recently widowed mistress had agreed to leave her the entire family fortune. Said lover agreed to marry the young housemaid and she wrote her own will entirely in his favour. Shortly after the mistress was conveniently murdered and the housemaid was found guilty of treachery – the crime of petty treachery involved a woman murdering her husband or a female servant murdering her master or mistress, and the punishment for such a crime was being burned at the stake. The maidservant kept on insisting that she was innocent, right up until the moment the flames were lit and as she began to burn foretold that as a symbol of her innocence her heart would burst from her chest. As her body was consumed by the flames it did just that and smashed into the site of the heart in the diamond. The diamond was carved in the very spot where the heart hit and left it’s gory blood stains.

Quite a sordid tale is it not? There are various versions of the story, all using different methods of execution but all with the same end. A heart bursting from the chest of a condemned woman. I have no idea whether any of these legends are true, indeed the only information I could find online was regarding the legend, and the tales I had heard growing up. A brief search online for the “Witch’s Heart of Kings Lynn” should give you more information, or indeed a trip to Lynn if you ever get the chance. True or not, the story is particularly gruesome whichever way you look at it, and one that has stuck with me since I was a little girl.