king-charles-i-execution

The 1649 Execution of King Charles I of England

On January 30, 1649, King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland was beheaded and executed. It was an unprecedented trial and killing of a sovereign. It was a regicide.

Perhaps the word “regicide” would never have found its way into English history if the act had not been demonstrated through the execution of Charles. Before then, it had been heard of kings being dethroned and then killed, but never was there a king who was tried and executed while still bearing the title of his kingship. Not until the regicide of King Charles I of England in 1649.

Early Life

The story of Charles began when James I of England (also, James VI of Scotland), welcomed a child with his Danish wife, Anne, on November 19, 1600. After the death of King James I of England in 1625, he was crowned King Charles I of England. However, his journey into political leadership started long before, and like most rulers, his rise to power was not without struggles.

King Charles I
The three faces of King Charles I/Wikimedia Commons.

Born as the third child and second male heir, Charles was less considered for kingship until the death of his brother and heir to the throne – Prince Henry. In 1612, Prince Henry died, transforming the 12-year-old Charles to become the sole male heir to the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland. The events that occurred between the years 1612 and 1625 significantly changed Charles and fostered his development into kingship. Eventually, the combined effects of his acts, decisions and judgments during his reign as King, led to his trial – and ultimately, his execution in 1649. Thus, it is impossible to fully narrate the regicide and execution of King Charles I without putting these events into account.

Divine Rights

Every reign has its troubles, and so did Charles’. One of the major troubles in his reign was the internal discord in the parliament due to conflicting religious and political views. In inheriting the Crown, Charles also inherited some of the parliamentary problems his father encountered. In fact, they were much of his father’s problems as they were his. Because like his father, he strictly held on to the belief of Divine Rights.

The belief in the Divine Rights of kings is a concept that claims kings are God’s intended rulers and, thus, can only be overruled by God. Perhaps, if Charles considered the era of his reign, and his subjects’ growing repulsion towards the idea, he would have lessened his devotion to the belief. Such rigid adherence to a belief would seem unlikely of a man viewed to be shy and reserved as Charles. However, it would be one expected from him who was, without a doubt, also stubborn and strong-willed.

Among other issues with the parliament, King Charles I showed little interest in the inner tensions within the parliament as evident in his actions. It would seem that this was an indication of the ignorance of his parliament.

During his own reign, King James I, Charles’ father, had tried to ease the growing tension by arranging a marriage between Charles and the daughter of a Spanish King, Philip III. The marriage negotiations which had initially been brought up in 1614 finally failed in 1624 resulting from issues both political and religious in nature.

The Infanta Maria – Charles I’s proposed bride was Catholic which required a concession for an interfaith marriage. Also, Spain demanded freedom from England for the princess to continue living as a Catholic and an oath that persons practising the Catholic faith, enjoy full tolerance in England.

King James I agreed to the former at the expense of the parliament and delivered a request for the concession to Spain in 1622. However, King Charles I, unable to concede to Spain’s theological impositions, disagreed with the latter.

king-charles-i
King Charles I (1600-1649) was England’s last absolute monarch who ruled without the rights of parliament.

After the failed negotiation with Spain, a war threatened to break out between England and Spain as an emotional Charles and the ambitious duke of Buckingham, George Villiers swayed the parliament. Perhaps, it was the parliament that swayed Charles. The decision to support the war against Spain might be the most unified act of the parliament ever, before the civil war. As a result, King Charles I, who only focused on the parliament’s common disdain for Spain, let the suspicions he should have had regarding the selfish interests that motivated the parliament slip by.

But, how could he? People are often less concerned about reasons as long as the decision made works to serve their own purpose. Even Charles had wanted the war for a good but, undeniably, selfish reason by reclaiming the lost palatinate of his brother-in-law. This might be regarded as King Charles I’s first notable act of neglect or ignorance in relation to the affairs of the parliament.

Why the Duke of Buckingham—Charles’s knighted friend—did not consider the failed Spanish proposal before arranging a marriage in 1625, between Charles and Henrietta Maria, the French Catholic princess, is not certain. Nevertheless, the political and religious issues which ended the Spanish negotiations resurfaced years after the marriage of Charles and Henrietta. The teachings of the Church of England were considered immiscible with Catholic doctrines, hence, all attempts to reconcile both were not tolerated by the parliament and England.

The Years of Personal Rule (1629-1640)

It must be admitted that King Charles I demonstrated ignorance or feigned ignorance about the parliament, much to his own detriment. This, plus the fact that the parliament distrusted him, led to hostility between the two which extended into his reign, and even after. However, the distrust between the king and his parliament was mutual. Charles constantly ignored their proposals and they often disregarded his decrees not made in their favour. This was notably evident in the parliament’s impeachment of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.

This ignorance later led Charles to make the conceited decision of dissolving the parliament in 1629. The period between the years 1629 and 1640 is described as the years of Personal Rule, with King Charles I reserving all rights and ruling solely by decree. Unknown to him, the stage was being set for the series of wars that would change the historical course of the Three Kingdoms—England, Scotland and Ireland. Charles had proved incapable of managing the parliament and his mismanagement would result in the Civil War and his personal undoing.

During the 11 years of his “personal rule”, King Charles I found it surprisingly difficult to raise funds, and, thus, resorted to imposing heavy taxes and fines on the English people. The king’s unconventional means of raising funds, though lawful to him, was interpreted as extortion by the masses. This only made the king less popular among his people.

The Parliament Reinstated

At this point, King Charles I was confronted with a truth – the power of his policies was invariably tied to the financial state of the kingdom. This, and the outcome of the Bishop’s War in Scotland, made the King reinstate the parliament in 1640. Although succumbing to the threats made by Scotland, Charles reinstated the parliament in England after 11 years. Denying these parliamentarians their rights and positions for all these years, was enough to fan the flickering flames of rebellion in them.

Quite naturally, parliament would not want to experience a lack of power and rights, hence, with its reinstatement, came radical policies that would provide safety for parliamentarians and their rights in the future. The message being passed across was clear; subsequent dissolutions of the parliament will only happen by the consent of the members of the parliament. However, the king would not submit to any policy that kept him subject to parliamentary rights. At any rate, the power tussle between the monarchy and parliament continued.

Outwardly, the conflict would appear the same as before, but a difference now existed in its nature. What was a political conflict was fast transitioning into a military one. On many occasions, King Charles I and parliament failed to negotiate an agreement, and as a result, the first civil war emerged two years later and no negotiation could stop it.

The English Civil War and the New Model Army

When the first civil war started in 1642, people at different societal levels were in a dilemma. They had caught the point and knew they had two options, either to side with the Royalists –those on the side of monarchy, or to align with the Parliamentarians in support of the rights of parliament. For many, it was a hard test of personal loyalty. Indeed, they may have tried to avoid picking a side, but all fences had been burned and there were no seats on the sidelines.

Most of the fights in the war involved many sieges and few all-out battles. This may account for the longevity of the war as many of the fights were indecisive, but not without casualties. The first major battle fought in 1643 ended in victory for King Charles I and the Royalists. While Charles ceased warring in Ireland, the parliament brokered an uncanny alliance between the English parliamentarian Army and the Covenanters – a political and religious Scottish group, most likely in retaliation.

trial-of-charles-i-in-westminster-hall-1649-print-by-charles-edward-wagstaff-after-original-painting-by-william-henry-fisk-published-1846-702x336
The trial of King Charles I in Westminster Hall, January 1649. Print by Charles Edward Wagstaff after original painting by William Henry Fisk published in 1846.

By July 1644, the allied army defeated the Royalists in the major battle at Maston moor. Following this victory, the parliament formed a new army of soldiers named the “New Model Army”. In 1645, the war was at its climax. The deciding battle between the Royalists and the new model army was fought at Naseby and ended in the favour of the parliament.

Admittedly, this summary of the war does no justice in describing the full extent of the casualties procured during the civil wars. The war which extended into 1651 involved hundreds of battles and sieges which claimed the lives of about 4% of the population. The only redeemable part of the tragic war was, perhaps, the formation of the New Model Army, whose structure was adopted by subsequent rulers in England and influenced the template used by the modern British army.

King Charles I’s Defeat, Captivity and Trial

In 1646, King Charles I surrendered to the Scottish army who, in turn, delivered him to the English parliament for a ransom. Following his return, some officials intended to reappoint Charles I as king, with a compromise of reformation. One would presume a King who had just been defeated would cling to any opportunity to make a comeback into power. However, the contrary was the case, as Charles refused their terms and conditions. Again, it would seem the idea of sharing rights with the parliament was one inconceivable to him, regardless of the stakes attached.

The period between 1647 and 1648 saw King Charles I in house arrest at Carisbrooke castle, the home of Robert Hammond whose royalist view he had overestimated. Colonel Hammond, caught between personal sympathy and public responsibility responded to the latter and, turned Charles to the parliament who decided to hold the King captive at the castle. Even with considerable freedom of movement to meet and negotiate with political leaders of the kingdoms, the house arrest was in no way short of a prison. During this period, the King made two unsuccessful attempts to escape.

The Regicides

The resulting army from the uncanny alliance between the English parliament and the Scots had been disbanded. Unsurprisingly, at the promise of religious reform in England by Charles I, Scotland invaded England. Outside the high walls of Carisbrooke, another war began between the Scottish force and the new model army. The king, held captive behind the defensive walls, was unaware of the effects of the second Civil war his decision had caused. But the people, particularly, the parliamentarians saw and would not forget.

At the front of the war was the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, who fought on the side of the parliament as General of the new model army, defeating the Scottish army in 1648, and eventually leading the parliamentarians to victory. The instinctive General later became one of the leading regicides of King Charles. It was at this point that the parliament began to buzz. Now that the war was over, something had to be done about the defeated yet, uncooperative king.

Image of King Charles II
King Charles II of United Kingdom (1630-1685)/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result, the king was charged to court. From January 20 to 27, 1649, the trial of King Charles I was held at Westminster Hall, during which he constantly held to his belief in the Divine Rights of Kings and refused to plea. On January 27, the Justice President of the High Court, John Bradshaw ruled Charles guilty on the charges of tyranny and treason, describing him as a tyrant who unleashed a war on his kingdoms. The court, therefore, sentenced King Charles I to death by beheading.

Many contended the legitimacy of the court but a few others agreed with the trial and judgement. Some officials were determined to make King Charles I take responsibility with his life for the blood spilt during the civil war and sustain the newly regained peace. These officials then signed a death warrant in support of the court’s decision. These men became known in history as The Regicides.

On January 29, 1649, the regicides, which comprised 59 men, including Justice President Bradshaw and Oliver Cromwell, signed the death warrant of King Charles I and sealed his fate. Years later, King Charles II would avenge his father’s execution where he made sure a majority of the regicides were tried and executed in the same manner. Most peculiar was Oliver Cromwell, who, though already dead, was dug from the grave and had his head severed from the body.

The Execution of King Charles I

King Charles I spent his last days at St. James palace as a doting father, with the youngest two of his six children, Elizabeth and Henry who were permitted to visit him. Shortly after, the fated morning of January 30, 1649, when the King was to be publicly executed, dawned.

People marched down the streets to the banqueting house in Whitehall, London, to witness the execution of the King of England. Perhaps, not all who came did so with all willingness. The executioner stood with the axe in his hands, while King Charles was laid, prostrated on the scaffold. With a single blow of the axe, fell the head of the King who ruled over the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland.

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The Execution of Charles I of England, January 30, 1649/Wikimedia Commons.

The king was then buried at St. George’s chapel on February 8, 1649.

Though King Charles I was dead and the commoners were now on the throne, the expected peace was not as immediate as the parliament had hoped. A year later, certain other matters did emerge which led to the third civil war that ended in the parliament’s victory in 1651. However, it seemed it accomplished its second, and perhaps, most important goal – governance by means of monarchy and the rights of parliament. The Divine Rights had been crushed.

King Charles I was England’s last absolute monarch, for, after him, the country never had a King or Queen who ruled without the rights of parliament.

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Sources

Historic Royal Palaces. (n.d.). The execution of Charles I. Historic Royal Palaces. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house/history-and-stories/the-execution-of-charles-i

Royal Museums Greenwich. (n.d.). Why was king Charles I executed? Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/why-was-king-charles-i-executed

The British Library. (n.d.). Execution of Charles I. The British Library. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item103698.html

UK Parliament. (n.d.). The trial of Charles I. UK Parliament. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/westminsterhall/government-and-administration/trial-of-charlesi/

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