From the outset, Charles I’s reign as king of England was marked by tension and conflict. His tax policies and his belief in the divine right of kings set Parliament in opposition to him. His religious stance–not to mention his marriage to a Roman Catholic–served to alienate the support of most reformed religious groups in England. Tensions came to a head with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. Charles was eventually captured, escaped, and recaptured. By late 1648, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army had gained military supremacy in England, and the Rump Parliament had formed, effectuating what was, in reality, a military coup.
Trial of Charles I
In early January 1649, the trial of King Charles I began. The idea of trying a monarch for treason against the country was unheard of, so the trial got off to a tenuous start. The Rump House of Commons indicted Charles on a charge of treason but the House of Lords refused to assent to the trial. Furthermore, the Chief Justices of England’s common law courts also refused to assent to the indictment as being lawful. In the face of this opposition, the Rump Commons declared itself fit to legislate. It passed a bill for the creation of a unique court to try the king and then declared the bill to be law, no royal assent required.
When the trial of Charles I began on 20 January, only 68 of the 135 appointed commissioners appeared to sit on the ‘High Court of Justice.’ All 68 were considered to be firmly in the Parliamentarian camp, and those who refused to attend sought to disassociate themselves from the trial of a king. The formal charges against Charles I stated that,
for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented”, and that the “wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation.” Reflecting the modern concept of command responsibility, the indictment held him “guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.”
As the trial began, Charles was brought before the High Court of Justice. For the first three days the court asked Charles to enter a plea as to the charges. He refused, steadfastly. Charles maintained that he had been given the crown by God and that no court had jurisdiction over the monarch. The court denied both the divine right theory and the idea that the sovereign was immune, and after the third day Charles was removed from the court and witnesses against him were heard. On 26 January, Charles was condemned to death by the court. On the 27th, he was brought back into court, declared guilty, and sentenced to death. His death warrant was signed by 59 of the 68 commissioners that had sat on the court.
Execution of Charles I
Charles’ sentence was to be carried out on 30 January 1649, a Tuesday. The day was cold, and a famous story claims that Charles asked for a second shirt to wear. He is supposed to have said “the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.”
Charles was brought to the Palace of Whitehall where an execution scaffold was erected in front of the Banqueting Hall. The scaffold, draped in black, was surrounded by crowds who had come to witness the historic event. Around 2 pm, Charles mounted the scaffold to make his last speech. In it, he claimed that he had always desired the freedom and liberty of the people. He concluded with a prayer, and bowed, placing his head on the block. When he stretched out his hands as a signal, the executioner dropped the axe, beheading Charles I in one stroke.
An observer at the beheading described hearing “such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again.” As the king’s body lay in death, some of the crowd approached to dip their handkerchiefs in the king’s blood, thinking that a monarch’s blood would prove a cure for illness.
Some debate exists surrounding who actually swung the axe that beheaded Charles I. The common hangman of London, Richard Brandon, was the approached first but he refused to execute a king, even in the face of a £200 payment. Because the ultimate executioner of the king wore a mask and never spoke, his identity is unknown. It is possible that Brandon ended up carrying out the execution under threat of death, but that he was allowed to wear a mask to hide his identity. The fact that the execution was done by one clean strike of the axe suggests that an experienced headsman was responsible.
Charles’ body was not given the same public treatment that was normally given to a traitor. His head was sewn back to his body, so as not to upset his family. In the end, Charles was refused burial at Westminster and was instead buried at Windsor Castle, where his body still lies. His death marked the beginning of the Interregnum, a unique period in English history that culminated in Restoration of the English crown in 1660.