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When Parliament Put the King on Trial
It was on this day, 373 years ago, 27 January 1649, that King Charles I (r. 1625-49) made his final appearance before the so-called High Court of Justice, an ad hoc tribunal of the MPs who remained after the radical Puritan officers of the New Model Army had purged the Royalists and more moderate elements. It was not technically one of the court sessions, merely the reading of the sentence, but it turned into perhaps the most dramatic set-piece of one of the most consequential sagas in English history.
Whatever hopes the Commissioners had that Charles would spare them the decision of putting him to death by offering some kind of deal—perhaps his abdication in favour of his son—that demonstrated to the country that the King had been properly beaten had been thoroughly demolished. Having never been a particularly strong public speaker, Charles had conducted himself with a dignity and authority in rejecting the Court’s legality across three sessions that was devastating. The King well understood—he said so expressly in the Commons on this day—that Parliament would exact its revenge by killing him; with its legitimacy in tatters, the only thing left was for Parliament to demonstrate its power. For Charles, this was an acceptable outcome: in his own mind, he had only ever fought to defend the laws of the Kingdom that guaranteed the people their ancient liberties against attempts to arbitrarily change the system by raw power, and now he would die for it. This is what Charles meant when he said he was “the martyr of the people”. Such language and presentation also played into the other aspect of what Charles was doing: replaying the story of Christ—accepting upon himself the sins of the many, being unjustly tried, going willingly to death, forgiving his tormentors, and so on. In practical terms, for Charles this was the best course, too: he believed he had lived well by the lights of the True (Protestant) Faith, so was bound for heaven, and his example would ensure the triumph of his cause, which it did, just as Christ on the Cross had defeated the earthly powers.
Three days after the sentence was read out, Charles I was “executed”. This was both the culmination and the transformation of the civil wars, setting in place a factional and ideological architecture that endured in British politics in a reasonably direct sense well into the nineteenth century, and which is, in important ways, with us still.
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PRELUDE TO THE CIVIL WARS
Charles succeeded his father, James I (r. 1603-25), in 1625, and immediately entered into testy relations with Parliament. The issue at hand was the solvency of the state, and Parliament wanting more power in exchange for handing over monies. Charles quickly withdrew from his dabbling on the Continent in support of the Huguenots in this early stages of what would become the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48); such foreign expeditions were expensive. After three attempts to open Parliaments in his first four years, Charles gave up and began a period of Personal Rule that lasted eleven years, using various workarounds to raise revenue.
While the issues of rights and representation came into play, the fundamental dispute was religious: the opposition to Charles’ Personal Rule was framed as a rejection of European-style Catholic absolutism. Unlike the Continental War that was simultaneous with the first two English Civil Wars, however, the issue was not sectarian; both sides in England were Protestant. The issue at hand was whether the Reformation had gone far enough. The Church of England was an odd creature, in structure more Lutheran (a top-down, “Magisterial” creation) and arguably Catholic, yet theologically basically Calvinist (despite retaining the Episcopacy that radical Reformed groups inspired by Calvin had abolished where they took power in Europe).1 For the Charles I and “Anglicans” (a term of abuse initially2), this settlement that Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) had arrived at was a perfect illustration of English pragmatism and perhaps exceptionalism that had spared the country the carnage seen on the Continent, where radical Protestant sects like the Munster Anabaptists had run amok and sectarian bloodshed had been underway for more than half-a-century as the Roman Church resisted the splintering of Latin Christendom. For the “Puritans” (another term of abuse that got taken on by its targets), the Church of England was an unholy compromise, festooned with popery and deviance, and in dire need of proper Reform.
When a program of reform within the Church arrived, courtesy of the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (r. 1633-45), it turned out to be of a homogenising, episcopal nature, which, like the political style of Charles’ Court, looked Catholic in nature, and there was a Puritan reaction. One form this took was a migration to the New World and in the 1630s there was a Puritan attempt to plant a godly community in the Caribbean, which succeeded for a time. The corporation that organised this project, the Providence Island Company, became a key node in the Puritan opposition network. Their aim was not just to get away from Laudianism; all Puritans were nurtured on the “Black Legend” about the Spanish-Habsburg exploration of the New World, a project of looting and repression of Native peoples so it was told, and contesting this Catholic hegemony through piracy and other means was a significant motivator.3 It is ironic that the network around the Company, set up to create a Puritan polity abroad, would ultimately fail at that but succeed in what had seemed impossible at the time: establishing one at home.
The reaction to Laudianism in Scotland, where the Reformation had gone further than in England, was explosive: the attempt to introduce a new Book of Common Prayer was the final straw and, in 1638, the “National Covenant” was proclaimed that rejected Laud’s program. Charles made a heavy-handed attempt to reassert authority and it spiralled into a war that went very badly for the King,4 who was forced to recall Parliament in 1640 to pay for the war—and the MPs picked up where they had left off eleven years earlier with demands for political concessions.
Dissolving the first Parliament after three weeks, the fiscal situation was so dire the King had to recall the Parliament, which passed a law so that Parliament could only be dissolved by its own hand—something that was to be important later—and then began impeaching the King’s officials, starting with his favourite, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the Earl of Strafford Thomas Wentworth, who could not be found guilty of any crime, so was “executed” under a bill of attainder in May 1641. (Laud was killed the same way in January 1645.)
With Strafford gone, a savage rebellion erupted in Ireland in October 1641, and a Catholic Confederation toppled English rule. With two of the three nations in the realm in revolt, the King looked to fund an expedition to restore order, but Parliament feared that if they granted the King the resources to fashion an effective army to deal with Ireland, it would give him an instrument to turn against them. The Parliamentarians—betraying a bad conscience—believed that after Ireland was pacified, the King would turn the troops against the Scots, who were still occupying large parts of northern England in line with the humiliating peace treaty Charles had been forced into, and since Parliament was in an all-but-open alliance with the Scots against the King, the Parliament would be caught up in the crackdown. This issue of control over the army would prove to be one of the proximate causes of the war.5
Charles had been in Scotland from August 1641 until late November, ostensibly to finalise the Treaty of London with the Scottish Parliament, though while he was there the King had looked for evidence of Parliament conspiring with the Scots and even tried to engineer a change of government. Returning to London, Charles was faced with the Grand Remonstrance on 1 December 1641, driven through Parliament by the de facto leader of the Puritan opposition John Pym. The Remonstrance was careful not to attack the King directly—the Parliamentarians would avoid doing that in a widespread way until the Second Civil War in 16486—while laying the blame for the Kingdom’s ills at the feet of factions around Charles who were strengthening of the “malicious designs of the Popish party”.7 More sinister for the King, the Puritans had the Queen, Henrietta Maria, a French Catholic, down as being at the centre of the Catholic schemes that had led the Sovereign astray.
THE FIRST CIVIL WAR
Not unlike the way the Revolution in France a century-and-a-half later would use the mob power of the sans culottes, an unruly crowd of Pym supporters were stationed outside Parliament by this stage, intimidating anti-Pym MPs. Meanwhile, there was an increasingly firm belief in the Palace that Parliament had conspired with the Scottish invasion of the north, and this sense that Parliament had crossed from dissent to sedition was compounded by credible reports that Parliament intended to impeach the Queen, probably accusing her of inciting the Irish Confederacy and the anti-Protestant massacres (which was a bit rich from the body preventing the suppression of the rebellion). It was understood that an attainder would likely follow, sentencing the Queen to death. This is what provoked Charles’ clumsy pre-emptive strike on 4 January 1642, entering Parliament with about eighty soldiers, attempting to arrest five MPs and one Lord.8 Within a week, the King had to leave his capital, first to York and then to Oxford in mid-August 1642.9
In the phony war period of propaganda from January to August 1642, heretofore complementary bodies of the state were now in contest, with Parliament effectively claiming that sovereignty resided with it and that it had supremacy. The Parliamentarians were very aware of the danger of appearing as rebels, so tried as best they could to argue this was not an innovation.10 Of course, this was an entirely novel understanding of the English Constitution; it did not stop the Parliamentarians acting on it. The Parliament passed the Militia Ordnance on 15 March 1642 claiming control of the army. This was the beginning of Parliament’s use of ordnances—laws without Royal assent—and it was a breach of custom and challenge to the settled system that made war inevitable. Still, as noted above, it is striking that Parliament maintained that its cause was to rescue the King from his evil advisers; on those occasions when criticisms was made of Charles I, they went after him as a person, not after his office, under the medieval doctrine of “the King’s two bodies”, and this was as true in this period before hostilities began as it was at the end, during the “trial”.11 Charles was put to death as a traitor to his office; there was no attack upon that office and no plan to proclaim a republic—truth be told, there was not much of a plan at all.12
The King raised his standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642 and war began in earnest. In the early phase of the war, the Royalists dominated in the north and the west, while the Parliamentarians had London and East Anglia. From late 1642, the Royalists, led by the King’s nephew, the dashing Prince Rupert, had things generally going their way. The tide began to turn in late 1643 and at the close-run Battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire in July 1644, the largest of the Civil Wars, the Royalist strength in the north was broken. The Parliamentarians failed to capitalise, however, and Royalism surged in the south in the months afterwards. Parliament reorganised its forces into the New Model Army in January 1645 and at its first major outing it won a crushing victory at Naseby, in Northamptonshire, in June 1645.13 The Royalists were shattered, but there was ten months of grinding attrition left until the King was forced to flee his temporary capital at Oxford in April 1646.
In the memoirs of the Civil War—which are few and far between, telling its own story—there are no claims of glory; the individuals are trying to vindicate themselves and their cause, but there is a saturating sense of unease about having been involved in a war in England at all. This sense was present while it was going on; there was on every side agreement that the war was a highly exceptional circumstance and in 1645 there was even the emergence of a movement, the Clubmen, who theoretically rejected both sides.14 There was a pervasive terror that England would go the way of the Thirty Years’ War, that there would be “a German devastation”. This never came to pass. Atrocities were rare in the English Civil Wars and when they did occur they were small in scale.15 Prince Rupert’s ruthless storming of cities like Bolton, Lostwithiel, and Leicester in the lead-up to Naseby, for example, were remembered precisely because they were so exceptional. Leicester killed three-hundred people, yet Parliamentary polemicists compared it to the Catholic League’s devastation of Magdeburg in 1631, where the city had been destroyed and 20,000 people killed.
BETWEEN THE TWO WARS
The King had given himself up to the Covenanter Scots, with whom Parliament had signed an anti-Royalist agreement in late 1643 that brought the Scots into the war in England in January 1644. There would follow nine months of haggling before the King was handed over to Parliament at the end of January 1647, held in Holdenby House in Northamptonshire until June 1647, when the New Model seized him and moved him to army headquarters at Newmarket.
What had happened by the summer of 1647 was that the Parliamentary coalition had not only frayed; it had nearly come to outright war. Parliament wanted to seriously shrink the army and assert civilian control over what was left; the New Model, fired with a sense of religious mission and a belief their victories showed God smiled on their cause, had emerged as a political actor in it own right. The Army now tried to arrive at terms with the King on their own, but Charles—seeing the divisions between Parliament and Army, and between the English and Scottish Parliaments—tried to play both ends against the middle; believing he was indispensable to any one of these factions being able to govern England, he intended to extract concessions from the Army, then use those terms to play off the others against one another in a bidding war for his alliance, until he could be restored as near as possible with his full pre-war powers.16
As ever, Charles’ schemes leaked out: amid the Leveller disturbances within the New Model in November 1647, Charles made an attempt to escape, which got him removed to the Isle of Wight, under guard of Col. Robert Hammond at Carisbrooke Castle, where he would stay until December 1648, and soon after that Charles’ conspiring with the Scots became public, reuniting Parliament and Army.17 The negotiations were halted and soon a second war was underway.
THE SECOND CIVIL WAR
Charles plotted to have the Scots invade England and link up with Royalist risings, notably in Kent and South Wales, around Pembrokeshire, to reinstall him in power. The timing was a shambles, with the Scottish invasion in July 1648 occurring after the rebellions that began in May had either been defeated or contained, and the whole thing was over by August, with Oliver Cromwell leading the New Model to victory in the decisive battle at Preston.
Surprisingly, Charles initially seemed as if he might come out of this situation rather well. The war had solved nothing and with the common enemy neutralised, the great divisions on the Parliamentary side re-opened almost immediately—only now it was worse.
The experience of 1648 had radicalised the New Model: enraged by being plunged into a second war, they had become convinced that peace was impossible with Charles, “that man of blood”, as Shimei had called King David in the Old Testament. Where the ostensible Parliamentary cause of the First Civil War was to rescue the Sovereign, the sacral figure of an anointed King, from his evil advisers, now the Army was convinced Charles Stuart was one the Lord disfavoured. The battlefield outcomes reinforced this sense, and the New Model’s belief in its divine mission.
The rest of the country, by contrast, had gone exactly the other way and Royalist sentiment was on the rise—not to do with anything related to Charles I himself, it should be noted. The war had induced a nostalgia for the beforetimes of peaceful Kingly rule, and this was reflected in Parliament, where the radical Independents had their wings clipped and the more moderate Presbyterian-led faction was back in the majority. It was these relative moderates who had repealed the Vote of No Addresses that had been passed in February 1648 declaring Charles too untrustworthy to be engaged in further negotiations and opened talks with Charles in September 1648.18
By November 1648, Charles had settled on terms with the Parliament for the Treaty of Newport that were rather close to those the Army offered in 1647 that would have seen him restored as King with limitations.19
There is no question that what led to the abrogation of the Newport negotiations: it was the New Model Army. Parliament announced on 15 November 1648 that the King was being brought back to London, to have his lands and revenues restored, in preparation for signing the Newport Treaty, and the General Council of the Army agreed on the Remonstrance of 18 November, which was presented to Parliament two days later. The Remonstrance had called for punishing the King as an enemy of the people and for broad democratic changes.20 When Parliament not only refused to accede to the Remonstrance, but voted in the early hours of 5 December to accept the King’s terms and extend the negotiations so there could be a final agreement, the New Model launched the first of its coups against Parliament.
On 6 December, Colonel Thomas Pride’s foot regiment and Colonel Nathaniel Rich’s cavalry regiment surrounded the Commons, refusing access to those they had designated as unsound and arresting about fifty “extremists”.21 The event, known as “Pride’s Purge”, left a Rump Parliament of about eighty MPs out of 470, which absurdly claimed to represent “the people”.22 The Rump, the most powerful and unfettered ruling authority England has ever had in theory and in practice, annulled the Newport Treaty on 13 December and stripped the House of Lords of powers on New Year’s Day 1649 after it tried to block their plans to put the King on trial. Thus, to reiterate, it is clear that it was the Parliamentary side—specifically the Army—that abrogated the Newport Treaty negotiations.
That said, there is a complication: the King was going to argue at “trial” that he had uncomplicatedly assented to the Newport Treaty and was waiting “hopefully, expecting the Houses agreement thereunto”, when he was “suddenly surprized” by being transferred from the Isle of Wight to London for the “trial”.23 This is not quite right; there was double-dealing on his part related to Ireland, though it did not leak at the time, as Charles’ duplicitous schemes usually did.24
Charles had arrived at a ceasefire with the Catholic Confederates in 1643 to allow the transfer of (Protestant, English) troops to the mainland. The letters Charles had sent to his man in Ireland, James Butler, the Marquis of Ormond, were captured at Naseby, as were other sensitive letters about Charles’ attempts to get support from Continental monarchs, some of them Catholic. Further letters were captured when the King’s effective deputy, the Earl of Bristol George Digby, was defeated at Sherburn, three months later, in October 1645. There was a terminal deviousness to Charles—born considerably of his aversion to intra-personal conflict, leading him to agree to things in face-to-face meetings he then tried to wriggle out of—and this personality quirk was lethal in combination with the fact he simply did not take intelligence matters seriously.25 These two intelligence disasters in 1645 were used very skilfully by Parliamentary propagandists to portray the King as in league with foreign papists, doing immense political damage during the war, and these captured letters relating to Ireland would have been a central part of the “prosecution” case had Charles accepted the legitimacy of the Parliamentary tribunal.26
Fast forward to 1648, Ormond, who had been a key intermediary to the Scots in orchestrating the Second Civil War, recommenced negotiations with the Confederates, this time to have them directly deploy troops in England that could help restore the King to power. At Newport, the King had explicitly promised to cease all intrigue with the Irish Confederates—then sent a secret note to Ormond telling him to continue the negotiations. “Do not startle at my great concessions concerning Ireland”, the King told Ormond, “for … they will come to nothing”.27 There can be no doubt that Charles agreed in public at Newport to terms he had no immediate choice but to accept after defeat in two wars, while he worked in private to find a way to break free of these commitments—and he was fully prepared to ignite a Third Civil War to accomplish this.28
THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
The Rump Parliament created the “High Court of Justice” on 6 January 1649, an ad hoc Parliamentary tribunal overseen by Judge John Bradshaw.
There is some debate about whether Charles I was subjected to a complete show trial, with the outcome decided in advance. The answer is that he probably was. Oliver Cromwell, who did not at this time have unchallenged supremacy on the Parliamentary side, was nonetheless the driving force behind the “trial” as the leader of the Army in Fairfax’s deliberate absence. An indication that the outcome of the trial was prearranged is given in a reported exchange between Cromwell and Algernon Sidney (d. 1683), an MP, Parliamentary soldier, and one of the great political theorists alongside John Locke and John Milton of the English Commonwealth (and, later, the American Republic). Sidney refused to be a Commissioner at the High Court of Justice, telling Cromwell that a King cannot be tried by any court and no man could be tried by this Court, since it was so blatantly illegal. Cromwell is supposed to have said, “I tell you, we will cut off his head with the crown upon it [if necessary]”.29
It is conceivable that some of the Commissioners—maybe even Cromwell himself—hoped that the King would throw himself on their mercy and offer terms, such as his abdication in favour of his nine-year-old son, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, which made Charles’ defeat so complete and so visible that his life could be spared. That was not what happened. Charles went into the “trial” knowing that the leadership of the Army that controlled the proceedings believed (a) he deserved to die; and (b) that peace was impossible while he lived; the King made no effort to pacify them. To the contrary, Charles sat before possibly the most powerful Army in Europe, betraying no hint of fear, and told them they had no right to do this—knowing full well it would ensure that they killed him.30
Cromwell was never one for constitutional niceties: his only commitment was to religious liberty—a toleration when put into practice that was capacious enough for Jews and even Catholics, venomously though he hated their religion31—and the means to that end were entirely incidental. But having decided (later than many) that the King needed to die to secure this religious freedom, and peace, Cromwell was in the ironic circumstance of needing to create the appearance of the legalism he scorned. The story goes—as told later at the trial of the Regicides—that even on the morning of 20 January, the first day of the “trial”, the Commissioners still had not come up with an answer what they knew would be Charles’ first question: By what right did they try their King? Cromwell had run to the window of the Painted Chamber and announced, “My masters, he is come”. With Charles on the steps outside, the Regicides had settled on the formula, “In the name of the Commons in Parliament assembled and all the good people of England”.32
FIRST DAY OF THE “TRIAL”
On the opening day of the “trial”, Saturday, 20 January 1649, the charge against the King was read in the chamber by John Cooke, the leader of the “prosecution” and the first Solicitor General of the Commonwealth. The charge was vague, consisting of war crimes and treason essentially. “[O]n the behalf of the said people of England, [I] impeach the said Charles Stuart as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth”, said Cooke.33 Charles was accused of “a wicked design totally to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this nation, and in their place to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government”. Charles was said to have “prosecuted [this design] with fire and sword”, waging “a cruel war in the land, against the Parliament and Kingdom”, killing thousands of people. Noting that Charles had been defeated once and negotiated with, rather than being put on trial, this “served only to encourage him and his accomplices in the continuance of their evil practices, and in raising of new commotions, rebellions, and invasions”, hence rectifying the mistake this time around.34
Even before he spoke, in his demeanour Charles had robbed the Court of gravitas: he refused to take his hat off after he entered Parliament, for example, a mark of disrespect for the Court, and then chuckled during the reading of the charge against him. The one moment where things went the other way was when Charles tried to speak before the charge was read and inclined toward Cooke with his cane, whereupon the silver top fell to the ground; waiting a moment in expectation that someone to pick it up, when they did not the King had to stoop to get it himself—a breach of protocol that was somewhat shocking for the audience.
Still, when Charles did speak, his opening statement in reply to the charges was devastating to the legitimacy of the Court:
“I would know by what power I am called hither. … We (Parliament and King) were [close] upon a conclusion of the Treaty [of Newport]. Now, I would know by what authority—I mean lawful [authority]; there are many unlawful authorities in the world [such as] thieves and robbers by the highways—but I would know by what authority I was brought from thence (the Isle of Wight) … Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the judgement of God upon this land. Think well upon it, I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater. … I have a Trust, committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent; I will not betray it to answer a new, unlawful authority. Therefore, resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.”35
When Bradshaw intervened to demand an answer “in the name of the people of England, of which you are elected King”, he was promptly rebuked by Charles:
“England was never an elective Kingdom, but an hereditary Kingdom for near these thousand years … I do stand more for the liberty of my people than any here that come to be my pretended judges … [L]et me know by what lawful authority I am seated here, and I will answer it, otherwise I will not answer it.”36
After Bradshaw once again demanded an answer, the King replied that he was brought by force to this place and demands to know exactly what this tribunal is. Since there was no House of Lords visible, it could not be a Parliament (the Rump, of course, was claiming that it alone held the sovereignty of England). “Let me see a legal authority warranted by the Word of God, the Scriptures, or warranted by the constitutions of the Kingdom, and I will answer”, Charles said. Bradshaw threw in the towel and demanded the guards remove the King.37
Charles had one last admonition:
“It is not a slight thing you are about. I am sworn to keep the peace, by that duty I owe to God and my country; and I will do it to the last breath of my body. … If you do it by an usurped authority, you cannot answer it; there is a God in Heaven, that will call you, and all that give you power, to account. Satisfy me in that, and I will answer; otherwise I betray my Trust, and the liberties of the people: … For I do avow, that it is as great a sin to withstand lawful authority, as it is to submit to a tyrannical or any other ways unlawful authority.”38
Bradshaw declares that Court will adjourn until 22 January, when it expects a final answer. “You have shown no lawful authority to satisfy any reasonable man”, said the King. “That’s in your apprehension; we are satisfied that are your judges”, said Bradshaw. The King responded, “‘Tis not my apprehension, nor yours neither, that ought to decide it”. As the guards began escorting Charles out, he pointed with his cane to the Great Sword of State on the table in front of him in the centre of the room, which had symbolised the Sovereignty of the monarch, and declared, “I do not fear that”.39 As the King went down the stairs, people in the hall called out, “God save the King”.40
The Commissioners arrived for the second day of the “trial” of King Charles I at Westminster Hall on Monday, 22 January 1649, determined that they would not allow a repeat of what had happened two days earlier; the King was to be informed that his objections to the High Court of Justice’s legitimacy had been considered and rejected, and he would not be permitted to contest their authority any further. Dealing with the other embarrassment—the open sympathy of the watching public with Charles—the solution adopted was equally blunt: a cry went out from the soldiers in the Chamber at the beginning of proceedings that spectators were to “keep silence, upon pain of imprisonment”.41
Cooke opened the session by noting that the King had refused to acknowledge the authority of the Court last time, and so his “humble motion” was that “the prisoner may be directed to make a positive answer, either by way of confession or negation” and if he refuses again “then the matter of charge may be taken pro confesso [as though he had confessed], and the Court may proceed according to justice.” Bradshaw added that the High Court was “fully satisfied with their own authority” and required a “positive and particular answer to this charge”.42
The King picked up where he had left off and laid claim to being the true representative of the people:
“[I]f it were only my own particular case, I would have satisfied myself with the protestation I made the last time I was here, against the legality of this Court, and that a King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on Earth. But it is not my case alone; it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England [that is at stake], and do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties. For if power, without law, may make laws—may alter the fundamental laws of the Kingdom—I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life, or anything that he calls his own.”43
Accepting that the Court would not disband, the King asked to be given time to “tell you my reasons as short as I can” for rejecting the legal footing the Court claimed.44 What Charles had proposed to do—he left his prepared remarks, which were published after his death—was to itemise the ways in which the Court was illegal.45 Charles did not get to say any of this because he was promptly cut off by Bradshaw. “You … appear as a prisoner, and are charged as an high delinquent … you are to submit unto [the Court], you are to give a punctual and direct answer”, Bradshaw angrily declared. The King replied that this was an impossible demand: “I do not know the forms of law [the Court is claiming]. I do know law and reason, though I am no lawyer professed, but I know as much law as any gentleman in England, and therefore … I do plead for the liberties of the people of England more than you do”.46
Bradshaw cut in again to say, “you may not be permitted” to continue in this vein, claiming that law and reason were with the High Court, which was constituted under the authority of the Commons, and the King would “stand in contempt of the Court” if this carried on. Undeterred, Charles replied, “I do not know how a King can be a delinquent”—this was a law unheard of in the history of man—but he should at least have time to make his case. “[I]f you deny that, you deny reason”, the King said. Bradshaw averred that the Court sat by “the authority of the Commons of England, and all your predecessors and you are responsible to them”, which Charles shot down by asking that one single precedent for this understanding of the English Constitution be cited, adding: “I say, sir, by your favour, that the Commons of England was never a court of judicature; I would know how they came to be so”.47
At this point, the clerk called out that the King was tried “on the behalf of the People of England” and reiterated the charge, saying the King should answer. Charles tersely replied: “I will answer … so soon as I know by what authority you do this”. Bradshaw then called for the King to be removed. Charles said, “I do require that I may give in my reasons why I do not answer, and give me time for that”, leading to one of the most dramatic exchanges during the trial. “‘Tis not for Prisoners to require”, was Bradshaw’s contemptuous response, but it was the King who prevailed with the simple declaration: “Sir, I am not an ordinary prisoner”.48 The King’s tone, and the murmur that went around the hall, were devastating to the High Court’s prestige; the King had, as he well knew, moved a step closer to death at the hands of his captors, and yet their power over the situation was visibly leaching away. Two rounds in, Parliament had barely landed a meaningful blow.49
There was a fierce final exchange around this impasse. In remarks clearly directed to the audience, Charles said, “Remember that the King is not suffered to give in his reasons for the liberty and freedom of all his subjects”, and contended—as he always did—that he had taken up arms for “the liberty, freedom, and laws of the subject … I never took up arms against the people, but for the laws”. Bradshaw was beside himself. “Sir, you are not to have liberty to use this language”, Bradshaw sputtered at one stage, before ordering that a default judgment, the King’s refusal to answer, and contempt of court be recorded. At noon, the King was led out of the Commons by armed guards.50
THIRD AND FINAL DAY
In the third of Charles’ “trial” appearances before the High Court of Justice on 23 January 1649, Cooke once again opened the session, this time with considerable invective, repeating the “charges”—“the highest treason that ever was wrought upon … England”, “a wicked design to subvert and destroy our laws”, introducing arbitrary and tyrannical government, warring against the people—and then saying that since the King refused to answer and it was “as clear as crystal” he was guilty (Cooke promised “several witnesses” if there were any doubt), “I do humbly pray … that speedy judgment be pronounced”. Bradshaw spoke next and though his tone was bullying and his words hectoring, there was something plaintive about them. Addressing the King, Bradshaw said: “You were pleased to propound some questions; you have had your resolution upon them. You were told over and over again that the Court did affirm their own jurisdiction; that it was not for you, nor any other man to dispute the jurisdiction of the supreme and highest authority of England, from which there is no appeal, and touching which there must be no dispute”. This was desperate, and the King seems to have sensed that he was in the driver’s seat. Bradshaw concluded his opening barrage, “Sir, in plain terms, for justice knows no respect of persons, you are to give your positive and final answer, in plain English, whether you be guilty or not guilty of these treasons laid to your charge”.51
Charles allowed a pregnant pause, then continued as if neither man had spoken, “When I was here yesterday, I did desire to speak for the liberties of the people of England. I was interrupted: I desire to know yet whether I may speak freely or not”. Bradshaw said the King was “not to be permitted to issue out into any other discourses” until he had answered the charge.52 There was then a brief, intense exchange before the King was led away. The most memorable phrase Charles used was, “For the charge, I value it not a rush. It is the liberty of the people of England that I stand for.” The rest of the exchange was a repetition of what had gone before, with the King insisting that “the ancient laws of the Kingdom” ran through him and to serve the people of England meant doing “nothing against that Trust that hath been committed to me”, which is to say it was impossible “to acknowledge a new court against their privileges” that “alter[s] the fundamental laws of the Kingdom”. Bradshaw, utterly exasperated, even tried to get the clerk, John Phelps, to read the charge again, but to no avail, and the guards led the King away.53
A curious part of the “trial” took place over two days, from 24 to 25 January 1649: a sub-committee of Commissioners from the High Court of Justice met in private in the Painted Chamber with thirty-three people who would have been “witnesses” at the “trial” of the King. The committee consisted of six civilian and eleven military Commissioners on the first day on the first day, and a slightly enlarged panel on the second day. Since the King had refused to plead, this was done “ex abundanti [cautela] [out of an abundance of caution], only for further satisfaction of themselves”, as the official journal reported.
These “witnesses” were, as Edward Vallance documents, mostly Royalist defectors who served in the Parliamentary regiments the Commissioners had fought in, and the accusations they brought—though basically worthless in any objective evidentiary sense, likely coached and scripted by the Commissioners—were intended to further the idea of Charles as a tyrant, an arbitrary ruler willing to shed blood to enslave the population to serve his private ends and lusts, and a murderer, not only in the sense of blaming the Civil Wars entirely on the King but claiming that Royalist units he personally commanded at Edgehill, Newbury, and Naseby had mistreated captured Parliamentary troops. The effort, Vallance argues, was to recast treason as warring against a sovereign people, rather than the King, and to further the biblical notion of “blood guilt”, since in the Tanakh that is one of the few circumstances where the Lord approves Regicide.
As can be seen from the account Cooke wrote of the “trial”, published only months later, the hearing of witnesses was thought important for religious reasons—to comply with, for example, Numbers 35:30: “Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die” [italics added]—and to go through legal due process. The testimony might well have had some impact in shoring-up the Commissioners to support to the death sentence.
Vallance argues persuasively that the lowly status of some witnesses showed the influence of radical ideas about popular sovereignty among the Commissioners. It is notable, too, that the Commissioners took this “evidence” in private, when they were able (and were about to) put the King to death with no pretence at presenting public evidence. There is also the notable fact that Parliament made no official use of the “testimony” for propaganda purposes to counter the martyr-image of the King—the witness transcripts were not published in English during the Interregnum—which might suggest there was something more sincere about this process than assuaging the Commissioners’ consciences. It might also suggest evasiveness: had the witness list been published, it risked “revealing the inner workings of the court and thereby the links between some witnesses and the military commissioners”, as Vallance explains.
Sixty-two Commissioners met on the morning of 26 January and made the decision to “execute” Charles I. Rather than condemn the King in his absence, it was decided he should be seated before the High Court of Justice one last time as the sentence was read.54
When Charles was brought to sit before the High Court of Justice for the final time on 27 January 1649, it was surely partly in the hope he would “repent of his contumacy”.55 The King would do no such thing, and concluded the “trial” with the same dignity and bearing he had exhibited throughout.
Charles began by trying to ascertain when he would be allowed to speak, and was assured by Bradshaw that such opportunity would be given in due course. Bradshaw then launched into a speech, “Gentlemen, it is well known to all or most of you here present, that the prisoner at the bar hath been several times convened and brought before this court, to make answer to a charge of treason and other high crimes exhibited against him in the name of the people of England”—at which point a woman rose from the gallery and shouted “not half the people”.56 She was soon silenced, but she was not wrong. Bradshaw said the King would be heard if he had “anything to say in defence … concerning the matter charged” but would not be allowed to “offer any debate concerning the jurisdiction” of the Court.57
Charles first words were to affirm that he knew they were going to kill him, but that this did not matter since he was in the dock not for his own person but for the fate of the entire population. Charles said he was answering a “call dearer to me than my life”; if he had been concerned for his life and not for “the peace of the Kingdom and the liberty of the subject” and his conscience—i.e. the honour of his office—he could have played along with the Court and “leastwise I might have delayed an ugly sentence”. Charles underlined that he was not naïve about why he had been called to the chamber on that day—he had “some knowledge of the world”—and thus understood that “zeal to my country” had “overborn the care that I have for my own preservation”; were it not so, “I should have gone another way”.58
In the most cryptic part of his testimony on the sentencing day, Charles said that he desired to “be heard in the Painted Chamber before the Lords and Commons. This delay cannot be prejudicial unto you … If it be … the welfare of the Kingdom and the liberty of the subject [that is the real concern of the court], … it is very well worth the hearing”.59 It has been speculated that Charles at this point “meant to propose his own abdication, and the admission of his son to the throne”.60 However, the evidence against this is simply overwhelming: had Charles been willing to barter over the powers of his office, it never would have come to this pass (he would have cut a deal with the Army in 1647), and at this moment, at the last, when he knew what they intended for him and had defiantly sat before them and dared them to do it, there is no conceivable reason he would have stood down and accepted a humiliating compromise. What the King seemed to have been doing was challenging the Court on an issue he had raised on the first day: Parliament consisted of both Houses, so any decisions had to be coordinated with the Lords. Charles concluded his opening statement: “Therefore I do conjure you, as you love that that you pretend, … the liberty of the subject, the peace of the Kingdom, that you will grant me this hearing before any sentence be passed. … [I]f I cannot get this liberty, I do protest, that … liberty and peace are pure shows, and that you will not hear your King.”61 Bradshaw’s answer was that the court had heard the King, and “patiently waited” to hear more from him—namely his reply to the charge, but for three sessions he refused.
Nonetheless, the court did adjourn for half-an-hour, partly to discuss whether Charles should be given an audience before both Houses, and partly to restore order to their own proceedings after Colonel John Downes’ dramatic interjection. Downes, seated as a Commissioner, stood after the King’s protest and cried out in the chamber: “Have we hearts of stone—are we men?” The two men either side of Downes—William Cawley and Downes’ friend Colonel Valentine Walton—pulled him back into his seat. “You will ruin us and yourself, too”, Cawley whispered, but Downes replied bluntly, “If I were to die for it, no matter”. Cromwell, sitting on the bench in front, turned around and asked: “Are you mad? Can’t you sit still?” Downes replied, “No, I cannot, and I will not sit still!” Rising to his feet once again, Downes declared, “I am not satisfied to give my consent to this sentence, but have reasons to offer to you against it”, adding, “I move that we adjourn to deliberate”. Bradshaw acceded to the demand. This was one of the moments where the King took the chance to mock the court subversively, asking, when Bradshaw declared that “the court will withdraw for a time”, “Shall I withdraw?” Bradshaw sharply retorted, “Sir, you shall know the pleasure of the court presently”, but the damage was done—the Commissioners had had to make an unintentional nod to the authority of their King.62
In the meeting in one of the parliamentary rooms, Downes was accosted by a furious Cromwell asking why he had “put this trouble and disturbance upon the court”. Downes told Cromwell: “I desire not [the King’s] death but his life, and that the nations may be settled in peace”. Edmund Harvey joined in supporting Downes’ case. “Your pretence of bringing [the King] to these proceedings was” to bring “concessions”, said Downes, and now, so Downes believed, the King “is pleased to offer” such. Cromwell accused Downes of wanting to “save his old master” and commanded “return to your duty” in the chamber and “make an end of it”. (After the Restoration, both Downes, who did put his name to the death warrant, and Harvey, who did not, were spared execution and sentenced to life imprisonment. Downes’ attempt to save the King was recognised and the court trying the Regicides accepted his claim that he had only signed under intimidation.)
Turning to the other matter that had caused the adjournment, the Commissioners obviously could not allow the Lords to be brought in: not only would the Lords obviously veto a death sentence; such an act would have surrendered the Rump’s claim to be the sole source of sovereignty in the land and collapsed the body.
In an exchange after Bradshaw returned, the lord president did complain that “they have been too much delayed by you already”, and the King, after warning that his judges “will answer it at the dreadful Day of Judgment”, said: “I have nothing more to say”. However, the King did have something to add. As Bradshaw prepared to pronounce the sentence, Charles said, “I would desire only one word before you give sentence”, to which Bradshaw coldly replied, “your time is now past”. Bradshaw then pronounced that the King had been given “too much liberty already” and that the court would “not admit of any further”: “[T]he scripture tells us: ‘For to acquit the guilty, is of equal abomination as to condemn the innocent’ … What sentence the law affirms to a traitor, tyrant, a murderer, and a public enemy to the country, that sentence you are now to hear read unto you”. At this point, Bradshaw turned things over to the clerk, Andrew Broughton.63
Broughton said that Charles had conspired in war against the “Parliament and people therein represented”, even with foreigners, and through Ormond had tried to induce “Irish rebels and revolters” to invade England. As such, Broughton went on, Charles was the “author and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel, and bloody wars, and therein guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damage, and mischief to this nation” [italics added]. It is interesting that after seven years of war—with two more to come—the English still thought civil strife “unnatural” in their country. Broughton’s statement laid the blame for the war—including the casualties for the entire conflict, from the Bishops’ War in Scotland through the two Civil Wars, amounting (as he had no way of knowing) to 85,000 military fatalities and 100,000 dead civilians (from war and disease) out of a population of five million (four percent)—at the feet of the King. Reiterating once more the devastation of the wars, Broughton concluded: “For all which treasons and crimes, this court doth adjudge, that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body”. Bradshaw added, “The sentence, now read and published, is the act, sentence, judgment, and resolution of the whole court”, and in a choreographed display to try to give the ad hoc tribunal some gravity, all sixty-seven of the Commissioners present—with Bradshaw at their head, clad in a scarlet gown—rose to their feet to signal their agreement with the death sentence.64
“Will you hear me a word, sir?” the King asked, to which Bradshaw responded, “Sir, you are not to be heard after the sentence”. Charles challenged this, and was shut down, as he clearly knew he would be. Bradshaw ordered the sergeant-at-arms to remove Charles from the Commons, and as the King departed, he looked to the gallery and said, “I am not suffered to speak; expect what justice other people will have”. As the King was led away, soldiers cried, “Justice! Justice!” and some spat tobacco in his face; replaying Jesus’ refusal to fight back, he did no more than to wipe it away with his handkerchief.65
THE DEATH WARRANT
The final version of the death warrant for King Charles I was made out on 29 January 1649. The document was signed by fifty-nine Commissioners, with Bradshaw first and Cromwell third. Ten of the Commissioners who had been present for the King’s sentencing on 27 January refused to sign the warrant, and two of those who signed the order for Regicide had not been present; in total, seventeen men who had attended as Commissioners refused to sign.66
After the Restoration in 1660, which brought Charles’ son, Charles II (r. 1660-85) to power, “only 38 of [the signatories were] still alive. Some had fled the country, but of the others nine were executed and 15 were imprisoned. Only one, Richard Ingoldsby, was pardoned and allowed to keep his lands. He claimed Cromwell had seized his hand and forced him to sign the warrant.” At the post-1660 trials, many of the Regicides would claim to have been coerced by the then-dead Cromwell; they had an obvious interest in portraying things that way and it cannot be doubted that Cromwell’s forceful personality was key in stiffening the resolve of those who wavered. That said, there is evidence that the atmosphere around the signing of the warrant was more jovial than terrifying. It is said, for example, that after the warrant was signed, Henry Marten, one of the most radical republicans, and Cromwell “proceeded to flick ink into each other’s faces with their pens, like schoolchildren”. Charles II clearly did not believe the Regicides were victims: in the early years of his reign, kidnap and assassination operations abroad—to hunt down the surviving Regicides—had a higher priority than at any other time in English history.67
At the same time the warrant was being finalised, on 29 January, the King had his final meeting with his two children who were still in the country, Lady Elizabeth and young Henry. Having informed them both that their eldest brother, Charles, was to be regarded as Sovereign, the King sat Henry on his knee and said: “‘Sweetheart, now they will cut off thy father’s head … and perhaps make thee a King: But mark what I say, you must not be a King so long as your brothers, Charles and James, do live; for they will cut off your brothers heads when they can catch them, and cut off thy head, too, at last; and therefore I charge you, do not be made a King by them’. At which, the child, sighing, said, ‘I will be torn in pieces first’. Which falling so unexpectedly from one so young, it made the King rejoice exceedingly”.68
KILLING A KING
King Charles I was “executed” by beheading in front of Banqueting House in Whitehall at 14:00 on Tuesday, 30 January 1649. Intent on seeing through the script he had written himself in retaining his regal dignity to the end, Charles famously wore an extra shirt to the Scaffold since “the season is so sharp [i.e. cold] as probably may make me shake [i.e. shiver], which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.”
There was a part of the process Charles could not control, however: having been moved from Saint James’ Palace to Whitehall Palace about 10:00, the King was then left for four hours in the company of his Parliament-appointed gentleman of the bedchamber, Sir Thomas Herbert, who seems to have been converted to Royalism by getting to know Charles, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Juxon. One reason for the delay was the Army’s need to get messages around the country that blocked the automatic procedure of local administrations and churches proclaiming a new monarch—in this case King Charles II—upon the death of the Sovereign.
Charles’ final speech on the scaffold was heard only by the soldiers around him and Archbishop Juxon. Preparing for possible troubles, there was a significant armed presence separating the King from the crowd. But the speech would later become well-known and part of the folklore of England that denounced the injustice done to Charles and led into the Restoration.
Charles was insistent: “I never did begin a War with the two Houses of Parliament”. Rather, the Parliament “began these unhappy troubles” by trying to wrest control of the Army, despite their having “confessed that the Militia was mine”. The King called for the new rulers to “give God his due by regulating rightly His church according to the Scripture, which is now out of order”, suggesting the calling of an open synod where “every opinion is freely and clearly heard”.
Charles said, and not only on this occasion, that the “unjust sentence on me” was the result of his having acceded to the injustice of signing the death warrant put to him by Parliament for Strafford in 1641.
Charles said he stood for the liberty and freedom of the people, “but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having government … It is not their having a share in the government … A subject and a sovereign are clean different things”. Had he simply wished to preserve his own life, the King could have “given way to an arbitrary way” and allowed “all laws [to be] changed according to the power of the sword”; instead, he had fought the rebellion and now he was “come here”.
Earlier in the speech, Charles had said, “I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causers of my death.” Completing the narrative of Christ’s crucifixion that Charles had begun playing out at the “trial”, the King concluded by saying again he forgave those who had done this and offered no resistance to their killing him: “I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people”.
Charles’ final words were: “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”. Juxon responded, “You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown. A good exchange.”
Eager to avoid the kind of undignified execution that had taken three blows to kill his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, Charles had spoken to the executioner on the Scaffold and carefully organised things. Charles had urged, “Hurt not the axe, that may hurt me”, and having put on a silk nightcap to move his hair out of the way—again, learning from Mary’s experience—asked, “Is my hair well?” With confirmation it was, Charles lay on the block, prayed, and then stretched out his arm to give the signal he had arranged with the executioner. The axe fell. Unlike the baying mob in France rejoicing at the killing of their King a century-and-a-half later, the people gathered to watch the “execution” had been silent until this point, when, as one witness recalled, “a groan such as I have never heard before” went through the crowd.
It is said that after the King was killed, Cromwell came to visit the body at night and muttered, “cruel necessity”.69 Whether this is true, and how we would know if it was, Cromwell did, unusually, allow Charles’ head to be stitched back on to his body during embalming so his family—and, indeed, everyone else: the body was left on public display at St. James’ Palace—could view his body whole. The King was then buried a little over a week later, on 8 February, at night, without a ceremony, at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.
The next day, a book appeared, Eikon Basilike (Royal Portrait), that would haunt the republican regime throughout the entire Interregnum. It is not clear exactly who wrote the book, though they clearly had access to Charles I’s private writings. The sympathetic portrayal of the King’s personality is fused with an Anglican understanding of the Civil Wars, and its criticisms of Charles mirror those he made of himself—specifically allowing Strafford’s execution, a dereliction of Royal duty to defend the liberty of all subjects for which God punished him with overthrow and his own execution. The portrayal of Charles as going meekly to death, martyred for the sins of others and the correct understanding of the faith, was a continuation of the effort to draw a comparison between Charles and Christ—and many English people found the parallel compelling.
The Puritan regime put its most potent polemical weapon, John Milton (d. 1674), to work on a book, Eikonoklastes (Icon Breaker), released in October 1649, to counter Eikon Basilike, and it failed dismally, as most republican propaganda did.
Since Charles was King of Scotland and Ireland, too, his execution left Cromwell the task not only of managing an English polity where sentiment was overwhelmingly against Regicide, but of bringing the other Kingdoms back into the fold, which he did through now-infamous and costly campaigns. Cromwell was able to assert control over the Three Kingdoms, creating a United Kingdom for the first time, though it required permanent English occupation of the other two.70 A similar issue over Scotland and Ireland would arise after the Glorious Revolution put to flight the last Stuart monarch, James II (r. 1685-88), but at that time a monarch with a good claim to legitimacy was able to fill the vacuum quite quickly.71 The Scots had turned sharply against their former Parliamentary allies after Charles’ death, and it was in Scotland that the French-backed Jacobite cause—the effort after James II’s fall to restore the Stuarts, who were by then Catholics—had its base of support into the mid-eighteenth century.
That Charles II was a secret Catholic paid a covert subsidy by France’s “Sun King” Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) to run England as a client state, and James II was an overt Catholic, as vindictively sectarian as he was politically clumsy, deposed by Whigish Protestants,72 has led to an association of the Royalist cause in the English Civil Wars with Roman Catholicism, an association reinforced by the deeply Catholic nature of the Jacobite cause right up until its defeat at Culloden in 1746. This is a kind of retrospective adoption of the Puritan propaganda against the Cavaliers, and it is entirely false. Charles I sincerely believed himself to have fought and died for Protestantism, and would have been appalled at any suggestion to the contrary.
The King told his daughter, Elizabeth, at their last meeting: “it would be a glorious death …, it being for the laws and liberties of this land, and for maintaining the true Protestant religion”. As she noted, Charles “had forgiven all his enemies, and hoped God would forgive them also, and commanded us and all the rest of my brothers and sisters to forgive them”.73
Charles mention to Elizabeth of forgiving those about to kill him demonstrates that in private as much as in public Charles was playing out the Biblical Passion narrative: it is why Charles only seemed to gain strength as he got nearer the scaffold. The crucifixion of Christ and his resurrection is the foundational story of Christian civilisation: an innocent man condemned to death by an unjust tribunal, who accepts his fate willingly, for it is a sacrifice on behalf of his people that expiates their sins, while openly forgiving his tormenters, thereby turning their exertion of power on its head, emerging victorious out of a situation of apparent defeat for the cause of God. All through the “trial”, the King had sat alone and unarmed before one of the mightiest states in Europe, insisting that he suffered for the many—to defend the people’s liberties—when he could have saved himself by surrendering to the logic of power.
“In his demeanour at the trial, Charles achieved a kind of greatness”, as Blair Worden puts it.74 Even Charles’ enemies understood this, hence turning to Milton—and finding it was already too late. Outside of the committed Regicides and republicans (an extremely small number), public sentiment was habituated to viewing the monarchy as sacred and was moved by the misery of their King in the face of a clearly unjust tribunal; not only its foundational illegality, but its high-handed treatment of Charles. Never an especially good speaker, a lifelong stutterer, Charles rose to the occasion: he spoke clearly and fluently at all points, and, again, managed it so that even the moments of apparent weakness—when he was shut down by Bradshaw and refused his right to speak—only empowered him further. Charles’ conduct at the “trial” and the memory of it is a significant reason England retained the monarchy. Until well into the Victorian era, there was a consensus at elite and popular levels among the English that the killing of Charles I had been an evil thing; politics remained shaped by the lines drawn in the 1640s and the boundaries were patrolled by associating anything too radical with leading back to chaos and Regicide. That consensus began to break down in the later nineteenth century with the nonconformist revival and the advent of socialism.75
England escaped relatively unscathed from what can be called a Revolution; even with the long tail, the deposition of James II and the foreign meddling through the Jacobites, England was stable by the mid-eighteenth century and well on its way to global pre-eminence in the nineteenth. The successor states that went the same path, France and Russia, would not be so lucky, and the difference was the leader, Cromwell, a conservative who had arrived at revolution by default. This paradox is what makes Cromwell such a fascinating figure and one that all sides can and do claim. Domestically, Cromwell wanted his version of religious freedom and reform to make the polity pleasing to God, but wanted to preserve, rather than demolish, England’s institutions and social structures.76 And since Cromwell was a patriot, not a transnational idealist, his foreign policy was to defend and empower England, rather than to create sister republics. At this Cromwell succeeded, and in an ever-more overtly monarchical style as Lord Protector. Cromwell had, indeed, in Milton’s famous phrase, “made all the neighbour Princes fear him”, and the contrast with his dissolute and disloyal—one might well say delinquent—successor Charles II was one even Royalists couldn’t avoid.
By the time Revolution arrived in France, it was infected with the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment. Even so, one-hundred-and-forty-four years to the month later, in January 1793, when the Revolution guillotined King Louis XVI (r. 1774-92), the French could not escape the template of what had happened to Charles I. The Revolution felt the need to hold a simulacrum of a trial and Louis ensured that he displayed dignity and bravery throughout. The process was coarsened between 1649 and 1793—the “trial” for King Louis was, if anything, even more blatantly unjust than what had happened to Charles, and the French Revolution staged a disgusting show trial before killing Queen Marie Antoinette—but the decline by 1918 was so steep as to really defy comparison.
The Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, specifically cited 1649 and 1793 as justification for the Red Terror in Russia, and Bolsheviks did borrow some of the aesthetic of the English Parliamentarians—for example, calling the fallen Tsar “Nicholas Romanov”, just as the Commissioners had referred to “Charles Stuart”, intending to symbolise the monarch’s loss of Majesty. The massacre of the Russian Imperial Family, however, was something different. “We did not assassinate, nor do it in a corner”, said Thomas Scot, one of the signatories on Charles I’s death warrant. “We did it in the face of God, and of all men”.77 Whatever the deficiencies of the processes, both the English and the French had made public accusations against the monarchs and put them to death in broad daylight, publishing the records and taking responsibility. By contrast, “Nicholas II was neither charged nor tried. The Soviet Government … never published the relevant documents …, [and] the victims were not only the deposed monarch but also his wife, children, and staff. The deed, perpetrated in the dead of night, resembled more a gangster-type massacre than a formal execution.”78 It might also be noted that Nicholas, unlike Charles, cannot conceivably be claimed to have posed an ongoing threat to the revolutionary state: the Russian Emperor gave up his office for what he believed was the good of his country, and never engaged in any conspiracy to try to recover power.
Post has been updated
Blair Worden (2009), The English Civil Wars: 1640 – 1660, p. 8.
Diarmaid MacCulloch (2009), A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, p. 649.
Paul Lay (2020), Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, pp. 26-9.
MacCulloch, p. 651.
Worden, pp. 36-7.
From 1643 onwards, there were some pamphlets that directly blamed the King for the wars. David Como (2018), Radical Parliamentarians and the English Civil War, pp. 172-73.
The Grand Remonstrance identified three factions—“the Jesuited papists”, the bishops and their designs for “ecclesiastical tyranny”, and the “councilors and courtiers” around the monarch who were in service to foreign powers—as the evil-doers. The Parliament was dissatisfied with Charles’ peaceable policy toward Spain—for Puritans, Spain more than France was the target of their ire—and there was resentment, extending beyond the Puritans, that the Protestant standard-bearer in the great religious war on the Continent had been the Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus, and not the English monarch.
The five MPs were: Pym, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrigg, Denzel Hollis, William Strode. The Lord was the Earl of Manchester, Edward Montagu, much better known as Lord Mandeville. Addressing the Speaker of the Commons, William Lenthall, the King demanded to know where the five were and Lenthall replied that he could not say “except as this house directed him”. The King famously observed that he could see “the birds had flown” and left the chamber.
Rebecca Fraser (2006), The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History, p. 338.
Worden, pp. 40-1.
The classic explanation of the doctrine is given in: Ernst Kantorowicz (1957), The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology.
Worden, p. 104.
Worden, pp. 59-61.
The Clubmen did indeed mostly just want to protect their own areas and be left alone, but for structural reasons they were destined to end up in the Parliamentary camp—not that there were not clashes on all fronts.
Worden, pp. 70-4.
Worden, pp. 87-92.
Worden, pp. 94-5.
Worden, pp. 95-9.
Newport would have put the Army under Parliamentary control for twenty years, Parliament would have been able to appoint state officials for ten years, and Presbyterianism was to be the official state religion for three years—with all these things being reviewed during these periods to find a more durable settlement. Charles had remained steadfast in refusing to take the Covenant that the Scots had proclaimed in opposition to Archbishop Laud’s Church reforms back in 1638, and was adamant, too, that no such thing could be imposed on the country as a whole. The King had also refused to countenance prosecutions of Royalists for actions during the wars.
The Army Remonstrance was mostly the work of Henry Ireton, one of the outstanding Parliamentary military commanders of the Civil Wars and a leading member of Oliver Cromwell’s inner circle, the administrative architect of the King’s “trial” and the terror of the Levellers.
Ireton, Colonel Thomas Harrison (a Fifth Monarchy Man), and other Army radicals, initially planned to disband Parliament altogether, but were persuaded by their Independent MP allies that it was politically safer to purge it, expelling the King’s supporters and the others who favoured negotiations.
The Rump was slightly expanded after the King’s execution, when some of those purged were allowed to return, so long as they repudiated their vote in favour of the Newport negotiations. Most of these returnees were driven by a desire to try to moderate the course of the Commonwealth. Worden, p. 103.
John Nalson (1683), A True copy of the journal of the High Court of Justice for the tryal of K. Charles I as it was read in the House of Commons and attested under the hand of Phelps, clerk to that infamous court, p. 48. Available here.
Worden, p. 7.
Christopher Andrew (2018), The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, p. 214.
Andrew, pp. 216-18.
Christopher Durston (1995), Charles I, p. 445.
By January 1649, Ormond actually had concluded a deal with the Confederates and thousands of troops were ready to be shipped to England to help the King try to restore himself to office; the execution of the King at the end of that month swelled the number to nearly 20,000, and the Royalists and Catholic Confederates were now joined by a faction of Protestants who objected to killing the King. It was this coalition—by then moving aggressively against Dublin—that Cromwell confronted when he invaded in the summer of 1649.
Sidney is said to have told Cromwell as he walked away, “You may take your own course; I cannot stop you. But I will keep myself clean from having any hand in this business.” Antonia Fraser (1973), Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, chapter eleven.
Worden, pp. 100-01.
Tom Holland (2019), Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, pp. 382-383.
The exact phrasing was the brainchild of Henry Marten, a lawyer and stern republican close to the Levellers, one of the most enthusiastic of the Regicides. Marten allegedly personally considered assassinating Cromwell during the 1647 tensions between the Grandees and the Levellers in the army. Marten had no part in the Protectorate—not solely for ideological reasons: he was in prison for part of the time for non-payment of debts. Such money as Marten did have went on rather extravagant living—alcohol and women above all. Charles I condemned Marten as “an ugly rascal and whore-master”, which seems fair. Marten was spared after the Restoration, living for twenty years in internal exile, dying aged about 78 at Chepstow Castle in south Wales on 9 September 1680, choking to death on his supper. C.H. Firth (2015), Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England, pp. 144-45.
Nalson, p. 32.
Nalson, pp. 1-4.
Nalson, pp. 34-5.
Nalson, p. 35.
Nalson, p. 36.
Nalson, p. 35.
It is sometimes wrongly reported the King inclined at an axe.
Nalson, pp. 34-7.
Nalson, pp. 37-40.
Nalson, pp. 41-3.
Nalson, p. 43.
Nalson, p. 43.
Charles would have reiterated that if the proceedings against him were solely about him personally, he would have made his protest about the “the illegality of this Pretended Court” and the fact “no earthly power can justly call me, who am your King, in question, as a delinquent”, then kept his silence: “But the duty I owe to God in the preservation of the true liberty of my people, will not suffer me at this time to be silent”. Charles would manage to make some of the points he intended—such as about the changes to fundamental laws by arbitrary power, the danger this posed to everyone in the country, the inexplicable transformation of Parliament into a court of judicature. What he never got to do was list the ways the Court defied the English Constitution. First, religiously. Claiming, “I will not (like you) without shewing a reason, seek to impose a belief upon my subjects”, the King had intended to say: “This day’s proceeding cannot be warranted by God’s Law; for, on the contrary, the authority of obedience unto Kings is clearly warranted, and strictly commanded both in the Old and New Testament … [F]or the Question now in hand, there it is said that ‘where the word of a King is, there is power: and who may say unto him, what dost thou? [Ecclesiastes 8:4]”. Second, tradition. The laws of England are “all going in [the King’s] name … [that is] the law upon which you ground your proceedings”, making the impeachment of the King an impossibility. If Parliament was now breaking from the old laws and erecting new ones, it had a duty to explain by what right it did this, since only the King can assent to laws; it would be “strange” not only for the English but “to any that have heard speak of the laws of England” that this could mean “laws without King or [the] Lords House”. Third, consent. Charles noted that the Parliament had never asked even ten percent of the country if they wanted this new regime, whereas he stood “for the true liberty of all my subjects, which consists not in [having a share of] the power of government, but in living under such laws [made under the ancient constitution] … as may give themselves the best assurance of their lives, and property of their goods.” What the Parliament had done was “the greatest breach of their public faith that (I believe) ever was heard of”. Charles was to have concluded by saying peace was impossible in a situation where “power reigns without … law” and soon the population would see this and resent the changes imposed upon them. “By this time”, the King concluded, “it will be too sensibly evident, that the arms I took up, were only to defend the fundamental laws of this Kingdom, against those who have supposed my power hath totally changed the Ancient Government.” Nalson, pp. 47-50.
Nalson, pp. 43-4.
Nalson, pp. 44-5.
Nalson, pp. 45.
Durston, p. 346.
Nalson, pp. 45-6.
Nalson, pp. 55-7.
Nalson, p. 57.
Nalson, pp. 57-9.
Firth, pp. 146.
Firth, pp. 147.
It seems that the woman who heckled Bradshaw was Anne Vere, by this time Anne Fairfax or Anne, Lady Fairfax, the wife of Sir Thomas Fairfax, the commander of the New Model Army. See: Andrew Hopper and Philip Major [eds.] (2014), England’s Fortress: New Perspectives on Thomas, 3rd Lord Fairfax, p. 164. Another of Anne’s purported interjections before she was removed from the chamber was when the register was being taken of Commissioners and it came to Thomas Fairfax’s name, she shouted out: “He hath more wit than to be here”.
Nalson, pp. 94-5.
Nalson, pp. 95-6.
Nalson, pp. 94-6.
Firth, p. 147.
Nalson, p. 96.
Nalson, pp. 97-8
Nalson, pp. 98-102.
Nalson, pp. 90-2.
Nalson, pp. 97-103.
The warrant itself has been the subject of historical controversy because it is quite clear that the parchment was partly scraped and re-written. Nineteenth century historiography ascribed this to the fact that twenty-eight signatures had been put on the document in the immediate aftermath of the sentence being read on 27 January, but, due to the wariness of some Commissioners, there was a delay in the execution being carried out, meaning the text had to be changed, and this same wariness meant there was an unwillingness to redo the whole thing since some of the twenty-eight might refuse to sign a second time. This narrative has many flaws, most obviously in the fact that the “evidence” for it comes from the trials of the Regicides after the Restoration, where there was every incentive to claim coercion from Cromwell or other military officers. There is actually little evidence for the idea that the Commissioners faltered, and this is not surprising: they knew the job they had signed on for. The explanation for the decision not to simply re-write the death warrant is likely to be much simpler: the practice of erasing and amending a parchment was well-established.
Andrew, pp. 231-35.
Nalson, pp. 105-6.
Firth, p. 152
MacCulloch, p. 652.
William of Orange—William III of England—was the son of one of Charles I’s daughters and was married to a daughter of James II’s.
MacCulloch, pp. 731-32.
Firth, pp. 149.
Worden, p. 101.
Worden, pp. 163-64.
Worden, pp. 115-16.
Firth, p. 152.
Richard Pipes (1990), The Russian Revolution, p. 746.