Monday, January 30, 2012

The Trial and Regicide of Charles I

Few events in the history of nations can be as traumatic as civil war. Yet, the English Civil War in particular was a conflict with an outcome unprecedented in the history of the world: the public trial and regicide of a reigning monarch by rebel forces. Unlike similar disturbances in France or Russia, the English rebels who executed HM King Charles I actually made at least a haphazard effort to look like they were showing fairness and providing a legal validation for the murder of their archenemy, who happened to be their anointed sovereign.

It seems like a theme that would appeal to Americans in particular; the idea of Parliament overthrowing and executing a powerful monarch. However, is the situation as simple as it seems? Not likely, and how fair was this trial and how accurate is the picture painted of the Stuart king? Certainly, few people if any could accuse King Charles of being a wicked or immoral man. Charles, son of King James I (of the Authorized Bible fame), never had a mistress, set an example of moral uprightness and required that his court follow the same high standards that he lived by.

The method with which Charles led the British government is a bit more complex, but still does not seem malicious by any leap of the imagination. Nevertheless, he inherited an attitude and mindset that was not always good for his image or government function. S.R. Gardiner wrote that King Charles “looked upon the whole world through a distorting lens” and refused “to subordinate that which was only desirable to that which was possible”.

King Charles believed (like his father) that the monarch was answerable to God alone, not the public and not both. He was afraid, not so much of rule by the people but rule by those who claimed to speak for the people. He felt that government was for kings and not meant for the public. There was no evil intent behind this, it was simply his sincere belief that republican rule would harm society. King Charles did not speak of himself as the divine personification of Britain, as Louis XIV of France might have been tempted to do, but instead spoke of himself as the guardian of his people and their place in society and status as free subjects.

In fact, it has been argued that if King Charles had shown as much ruthlessness in fighting the war as he was accused of showing in government the royalist cause might well have prevailed. The King himself wrote, “It is a hard and disputable choice for a king that loves his people and desires their love either to kill his own subjects or be killed by them”. His enemies were successful, especially in the Irish campaigns, because they were willing to be more cruel than the King was who seemed to only want to use his military force to persuade his enemies to surrender and frighten the rebels into submission. An impartial look shows that the philosophy of the forces of Parliament and the Puritans was even more terrifying than the principles of Divine Right Monarchy. Their warrior-hero, Oliver Cromwell, expressed the belief that Charles was wrong simply because he had lost and in effect stated the very dangerous belief that ‘might makes right’.

Also, as much as His Majesties’ Puritan opponents, Charles I was a man of great faith who was extremely devoted to the Anglican communion of the Christian religion. Part of this faith was his belief that it was his right and duty to rule England as best he could, not as Parliament saw best or advised him. He made it clear that he could never be king if he did not have the power to rule as he saw fit. Even after his defeat Charles remained convinced of the righteousness of his cause. He wrote, “If I must suffer a violent death with my Savior…it is but mortality crowned with Martyrdom”.

This prophetic statement undoubtedly rung in the ears of many when the event that seemed so unthinkable to most people, the regicide of the King of Britain, actually occurred. However, it was not a thing that happened by sheer accident. Before the second war had even started Cromwell was stating that Charles had to be destroyed and his people should not deal at all with the monarch as to negotiation a peaceful settlement. Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, was advocating that the army occupy London, remove all dissenters from the House of Commons, arrest the king and abolish the monarchy by sheer military force. Eventually this was taken to even greater extremes to propose that Parliament should be dissolved altogether and an entirely new voting system be established for entirely new elections and representations. This is important to remember since the rebels claimed to be on the side of popular opinion and called themselves the forces of Parliament. In fact, the Parliament had already declared that the king could not be legally deposed.

It would also be a mistake to claim that the rebellion against the King was the masses against the upper class. In the end all of the results of the war and the regicide were to the advantage of the merchants and gentry class. The forces of the rebellion were anything but popular or democratic. When rebel troops marched into London and seized Parliament they were acting to prevent the democratic process by turning away close to 200 members who tried to take their seats. When these men protested against this tyrannical, police-state action, many were arrested.

Even before the “legal” process began Cromwell told the remaining 150-man ‘Rump’ that was to judge Charles I, “I tell you, we will cut off the King’s head with the crown on it”. So much for a fair trial. This is not to say, however, that there was even a great deal of popular support for putting the king on trial at all. Had this been the case the rebel troops would not have feared a fair vote by the Parliament. The prosecution for “treason” (legally defined as encompassing ‘the death of the King or the overthrow of the King’s legitimate governments’ -which was exactly what the rebels were doing) of a reigning monarch was opposed by the Presbyterians and the Levellers, both of whom opposed Charles I, who believed that the trial was a trick to divert public attention away from the issues of what they regarded as much-needed social reform. Both Chief Justices and the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer all boycotted the proceedings; all of whom were opposed to the King’s policies! The House of Lords likewise was absent, not recognizing the act of putting a monarch on trial. However, had they wished to take part, it is unlikely they would have been allowed to. Even for his enemies, trying a reigning monarch was too much for most people.

Far from being an upright quest for justice, the trial of King Charles is seen by many as perhaps the greatest act of deceit in British history. Author C.V. Wedgwood wrote that,
“Cromwell’s faction was determined to kill the King mainly because this symbolic act of revolution would satisfy discontents that might otherwise be directed toward the more fundamental and more farsighted constitutional changes sought by Lilburne’s Levellers”.
Nevertheless, just or not, King Charles I was taken before what was left of Parliament to stand trial for his actions.

To say that such an act was unprecedented is a vast understatement. The King was accused of making war against Parliament, not the actual nation, and no effort was made to show how this “Rump” (which had been purged by military force) was a true representation of the English people. Realizing this, His Majesty protested that this left his accusers with no legal right to judge him saying, “you never asked the question of the tenth man in the kingdom, and in this way you manifestly wrong even the poorest ploughman, if you demand not his free consent”.

Because of this principle, King Charles refused to enter a plea and demanded to know by what authority was he, a reigning monarch, called to trial? The head “judge” John Bradshaw said he stood accused by “the people of England” at which time Lady Fairfax (wife of the Parliament’s military commander of all people) shouted from the audience, “Not a quarter of them! Oliver Cromwell is a traitor!” At this the officer of the guard actually ordered his troops to fire into the crowd, but relented when the lady’s identity was made known. She was, however, forced to quit the proceedings.

This is a good example of how unfairly this rebel trial was conducted. King Charles conducted himself superbly by all accounts. When told that the court operated in representation of the Commons Charles said, “Show me one precedent” in which it was the King who was answerable to the Commons rather than the reverse. In any case, this was a moot argument since the Commons had been purged by force of arms. Previous cries among the crowd calling Cromwell a traitor led to the court’s order to immediately arrest anyone who “caused a disturbance”.

On His Majesty’s charge that the court had no authority Chief Justice Bradshaw brazenly said that the court was convinced of its own authority and that the king and the country must submit to their judgment. When Charles began to refute this statement he was cut off by the judge. This seemed to be rather typical for this court. When making a speech that came out too logical for the court’s comfort, rebel troops promptly dragged him from the courtroom amid cries of “Justice!” but also of “God save the King!”.

Finally, Bradshaw pronounced the King guilty for refusing to plead. In response, Charles requested that a full Parliament, the Lords and Commons, be called to hear him. His Majesty said, “If I cannot get this liberty, I do here protest that so fair shows of liberty and peace, are pure shows and not otherwise, since you will not hear your King”.

The court recessed after Charles’ request, though not so much for a consideration but so that calm could be restored. For while Bradshaw was accusing the King of delaying tactics a man in the audience began to call out, “Have we hearts of stone? Are we men?”. It was becoming ever more clear to all that this court was not interested in justice at all but vengeance and the idea was a profoundly disturbing one. When the court did reconvene, the King’s request was denied on the basis that it was a ploy to delay his execution, or as they termed it, “justice”. Charles admitted it would cause delay,
“but a little delay of a day or two further may give peace, whereas a hasty judgment may bring on that trouble and perpetual inconvenience to the Kingdom, that the child that is unborn may repent it”.

In his closing Bradshaw referred to the ridiculous notion that the King was elected and even went so far as to compare him to the Roman Emperor Caligula (who was murdered by his guard). He cited the removal of Edward II and Richard II, neither of which was lawful, the Magna Carta, which was forced by and for the lords and not the common people and all in all his argument was high-sounding but full of holes, half-truths and blatant lies. In fact, when King Charles tried to reply to this Bradshaw silenced him and arrogantly declared, “And the truth is, all along, from the first time you were pleased to disavow and disown us, the Court needed not to have heard you one word”. In effect, he was saying that even if the King had not been given a fair trial, he deemed if undeserving of one anyway. His Majesty was sentenced to death by beheading. He was refused permission to respond and was taken out by troops while saying, “I am not suffered to speak; expect what justice other people may have”.

On January 30, 1649 King Charles I was taken to a scaffold outside the palace of Whitehall for his execution. He dressed warmly for fear that shivers of cold would be mistaken for a sign of fear. He addressed his enemies one last time saying,
“I must tell you that the liberty and freedom [of the people] consists in having of Government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in Government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the Power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here, and therefore I tell you…that I am the martyr of the people”
His final words were, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”. A boy in the crowd who witnessed the execution wrote,
“The blow I saw given, and can truly say with a sad heart, at the instant whereof, I remember well, there was such a groan by the thousands then present as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again”.

King Charles was buried in secret at Windsor Castle. In the end, Parliament itself was its own worst enemy. Rather than pointing out the merits of their case (dubious though they were in the best cases), they resorted to strong-arm tactics that only made them look all the more like the disloyal demagogues that they were. King Charles never looked better than when he was seen by all the world as the pious victim of treasonous force. Due to the forceful tyranny and the unjust murder of their anointed king, Parliament also provided the Royalist forces with a martyr in the person of King Charles I. The monarch’s gentle and passive conduct impressed his friends and infuriated his enemies. He was himself no less aware of the course history was taking, and showing both mercy and foresight; Charles told his son in Eikon Basilike, “Let then no passion betray you to any study of revenge on those, whose own sin and folly will sufficiently punish in due time”.


  1. A truely great man and example, who in this day and ae is not praised because he represents the opposite of the myth we are raised in. may God truly reward him.

  2. It's sad to know what happened to King Charles I.

    He was the second to last monarch to rule with the Divine Right of Kings in the British Isles. He cared deeply for his people and wanted to ensure rule of law in his country.

    Every time a king is disposed, culture, tradition and pride are eroded. In this vacuum, more degenerate ideologies take hold.

    God save King Charles I!

  3. King Charles is actually the man, too bad he was just misunderstood. RIP in peace xox

  4. Given that Oliver was succeeded by his son Richard, one wonders if the Cromwells could have instituted a dynasty, a de facto monarchy, had the Commonwealth lasted longer. In which case they would have resembled the Bonapartes, except without the crowning themselves in the presence of the Pope bit.


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