The execution of Charles I – a mini blog carnival

by mercuriuspoliticus


360 years ago today, Charles I stepped out of the Banqueting House onto a wooden scaffold to be faced with a crowd of Londoners, and a waiting executioner.

11 years previously, Charles had commissioned the Banqueting House’s architect, Inigo Jones, to incorporate it into a much grander palace. This elegant replacement for the rabbit warren of medieval and Tudor buildings that made up the palace of Whitehall would have been a fitting end to Charles’s ambitious programme of political and religious reform. Once finished, it would set him amongst the most important absolute monarchies of Europe.

But it was never built. Instead, a decade later, the neo-classical facade of the Banqueting House would be the last building Charles would see. Reputedly putting on two shirts – in case the cold January air meant the crowd mistook his shivering for fear – he stepped outside and was executed in front of the people of his capital.

This post is a mini blog carnival – inspired by Ted Vallance’s post on the 350th anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death – to mark the 360th anniversary of the regicide. What follows is a selection of links, images and texts about events before, during and after Charles’s execution from bloggers, historians and other commentators.

Charles’s trial

380px-court-charles-i-smThe High Court for Charles’s trial was established by a bill passed by the remains of the Long Parliament, after its purge in December 1648 by Colonel Pride. The bill nominated 3 judges and 150 commissioners who were empowered to try the King. John Bradshaw was president of the trial, with John Cooke as prosecutor. Charles refused to enter a plea, declaring:

I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?

Extracts from Charles I’s speeches at the trial are available via the website [PDF].

The names of the 59 commissioners who were willing to sign the death warrant can be seen at this image on the National Archives site.

The execution


Charles spent the morning of 30 January in prayer while Parliament hurriedly passed an ordinance making it treason to declare a successor. He was then led out to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House at about 2pm.

In his final speech he called himself  “the martyr of the people” and reminded the audience that “a subject and a sovereign are clear different things”. He declared that:

I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.

After forgiving his executioner, he placed his head on the block, and gave the signal to the executioner.

One of the many mysteries surrounding the execution is who carried out: the man who wielded the axe wore a mask. Here are some of the candidates:

  • Richard Brandon, the common Hangman of London: he reportedly refused, but is said by some to have confessed to the execution on his deathbed.
  • William Hewlett, who was convicted for his part in signing the death warrant after Charles II’s restoration.
  • Two people called “Dayborne and Bickerstaffe”, who were arrested but never charged.
  • Henry Walker, a former ironmonger turned writer and journalist, who covered the trial in his newsbooks.

The aftermath

eikonCharles’s trial and execution quickly became a major issue for writers and readers in England’s developing public sphere. Shorthand writers transcribed what happened, and many tracts and newsbooks covered the trial and the execution: the Folger Shakespeare Library has got some good examples as part of its online exhibition on Breaking News. These provided an astonishingly detailed, blow by blow coverage of the trial that was a far cry from the elevated, withdrawn image that Charles had cultivated in the 1630s: for example, this extraordinary account of the sentencing (presented as a script) from The Moderate‘s issue for 30 Jan – 6 Feb:

Here the Clerk read the Charge.

Which Charge being read unto him, as aforesaid, he the said Charls Stuart, was required to give his Answer, but he refused so to do: and so exprest the several passages at his Tryal in refusing to answer.

For all which Treasons and Crimes, this Court doth adjudge that the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murtherer, and a public enemy, shall be put to death by the severing of his Head from his Body.

After the sentence was read, the Lord President said, “This sentence now read and published, it is the Act, Sentence, Judgment, and resolution of the whole Court”. Here the Court stood up, as assenting to what the President said.

KING: “Will you hear me a word, Sir?”

PRESIDENT: “Sir, you are not to be heard after sentence.”

KING: “No, Sir?”

PRESIDENT: “No, Sir; by your favour, Sir. Guard, withdraw your prisoner.”

KING: “I may speak after the Sentence. By your favour, Sir, I may speak after the Sentence ever. By your favour (hold) the Sentence Sir… I say Sir I do… I am not suffered to speak, expect what justice other people will have.”

Ten days after the execution, the Eikon Basilike: The Pourtrature of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings was published. Written in the form of a diary, it would set the seal on Charles’s reputation as a sacred martyr. The book went through 35 editions in that year alone. Wikipedia has a good summary of the document, including an analysis of the symbolism of its engraved frontispiece. The full text is available online at Project Canterbury.

The legacy of the regicide

The image of Charles the martyr persisted for many years after the Restoration of Charles I. The Society of King Charles the Martyr still exists today. More on Charles as martyr can be found in Andrew Lacey’s article on ‘Charles the First, and Christ the Second’ [Google Books]. This image of Charles persisted well into the nineteenth century and beyond: see a recent post of mine for some examples.

Meanwhile a gruesome fate awaited many of those who had signed Charles’s death warrant. The Fifth Monarchist Thomas Harrison was the first of the regicides to be killed: he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 13 October 1660. Samuel Pepys famously described the scene:

To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major- general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again.

Executed Today reminds us that on this day in 1661, Oliver Cromwell’s body was disinterred, hung in chains at Tyburn, then posthumously beheaded.

Why was Charles executed?

To quote Sellar and Yeatman, from 1066 and All That, the civil war was an:

utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive)

Charles I was a Cavalier king and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat and gay attire. The roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.

This subject divides historians even today. Ann Hughes gives a good introduction on the BBC site about the execution. Executed Today also has a good range of material on this. For a range of different views, try the following texts on Google Books:

Mark Kishlansky and John Morrill discuss the endgame of the civil wars, and the events that led up to Charles’s execution, as part of their Dictionary of National Biography entry for him. It’s available free for the next week as part of the DNB’s Lives of the Week.

And finally…

The most interesting fact about Charles I is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it. More on Monty Python’s take on Charles and Cromwell can be found at YouTube:

Not surprisingly, some of the more weird and wonderful reactions to Charles’s execution today can also be found on YouTube: