The Open Door Web Site
17th Century England Index
Introduction : Constitutional Government
BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE
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.
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.
A plate depicting the Trial of Charles I in January 1649
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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