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17th Century England Index

Introduction : Constitutional Government
James I and the Divine Right of Kings
Towards Civil War
The First English Civil War
Cromwell and the New Model Army
The Second English Civil War
The English Republic (1649 - 1660)
Life in Cromwell's England
Charles II : "The Merry Monarch"
Whigs and Tories
James II and the Monmouth Rebellion (1685)
The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688
The Bill of Rights
John Locke and the "Treatises on Government"

History Chapters Main Index

The Execution

On Tuesday 30th January 1649 Charles I was taken to Whitehall. Outside there was frost and snow. Soldiers beating drums walked with the king. In front of the building a black-draped scaffold had been built. Soldiers now surrounded it to keep the crowds back and stop any possible rescue attempt.

The execution of Charles I

A contempory print showing the 1649 execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House, Whitehall

At one o'clock in the afternoon the king was led from his prayers in a back room and taken out of a French window of the banqueting house to the wooden scaffold. The crowd pushed forward, stretching to see him and offer prayers and blessings. The executioners were disguised by cloaks, masks, false hair and beards. Ropes had been prepared to tie the king down, if necessary, but he smiled calmly and scornfully at these. He decided to speak, even though the crowd was too distant to hear.

He briefly summed up the principles for which he believed he was dying. As king, he said, he had desired freedom for his people as much as any man, but this was possible only if they were well governed. Freedom, he claimed, could not be achieved if people shared in their government. "A people and a Sovereign are clearly different things," he said. Of his faith he added, "I die a Christian according to the profession of the Church of England. I have a good Cause and I have a gracious God. I will say no more."
(Quoted in L.E. Snellgrove, "The Early Modern Age").

Charles took off his jewels and outer clothing. The execution block was only 25cm high, so he was forced to lie flat to place his head on it. After a few seconds, he signalled to the executioner. The axe swung down and severed his head in one blow.

A witness at this time wrote, " There was such a groan by the thousands present as I had never heard before and desire I may never hear again."
(Quoted in L.E. Snellgrove, "The Early Modern Age").

Cavalry pushed the crowd away but a few onlookers managed to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood that dripped from the scaffold.

 

 

BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE

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17th Century England

The Trial and Execution of Charles I

Charles was brought from Carisbrooke to Hurst Castle, a lonely fortress beside the River Solent in Hampshire. He spent days looking out to sea or wandering along the beach, reflecting on his fate. Curiously, a mysterious change came over him. From being shy and reserved, he became bold and determined. He even lost his stammer. Perhaps his life was easier then; he had no more decisions to make. All that was left to him was to die bravely, like a king.

Charles I

Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

Even some army leaders hesitated about executing Charles. Might not his execution make a martyr of him and replace a king who was safely a prisoner with a king who would desperately try to recover his throne? (Charles' son, later Charles II was in exile in Holland). A regicide would horrify moderate men and women and merely create sympathy for the royalist cause.

At Westminster Hall the courtroom was prepared. Here Thomas More had been tried for treason in 1535 and it was here that Guy Fawkes was found guilty in 1605. One hundred and thirty five commissioners were appointed to try the king but only about seventy agreed to take part. Their President was John Bradshaw who wore a special armoured hat in case anyone tried to assassinate him. Today there is a plate in the floor of the hall commemorating where Charles sat for his trial.

Trial of Charles I

A plate depicting the Trial of Charles I in January 1649
from John Nalson's "Record of the Trial of Charles I, 1688" in the British Museum

Charles was charged with treason and a "wicked design" to be a dictator and overthrow the "rights and liberties of the people". He was also blamed for the war and the deaths of innocent people. He listened contemptuously to his accusers, refused to take his hat off and laughed when called a "tyrant, traitor and murderer". He ignored the charges and demanded to know what right the Court had to try him. "The King," he said, " cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on Earth. If power without law can make law, I know not what subject in England can be sure of his life or anything he calls his own". Charles was able to pose as the defender of the people's liberties!

Cromwell, however, had decided that the king must die. After nearly a week of argument Bradshaw summed up: "A monarch," he told Charles, "must obey the law and protect, not make war on, his subjects". The clerk of the Court read out the sentence: "That the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and a public enemy, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body". Only then did the king decide to defend himself, but Bradshaw said that, as the king did not recognize the court's authority, he could not address it. Charles was led away through ranks of soldiers who were shouting "Execution!" and "Justice!".

 

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