30th January 1649 was a bitterly cold day. So cold, in fact, that the waters of the Thames froze solid. So cold that the breaths of the men, women and children in the pressing crowd formed a mist above their heads. So cold that the long-haired, bearded man being led to the axeman’s block had requested two shirts to wear.
“The season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.”
This man had once stood supreme above all others in the country that was now putting him to death for treason. Second of the Stuart monarchs, Charles I had come to the throne on the death of his father James VI/I (he was the sixth King of Scotland called James but the first of England) in 1625. His reign had seen ever-growing tensions between the king and his parliament, which (to cut an incredibly long and complex story short) culminated in 1642 with the outbreak of the English Civil War (1).
The English Civil War was, in truth, three wars, the second of which ended with Charles’s decapitation in London. All three conflicts, which also included the kingdoms of Scotland and Ireland (which both shared a monarch with England (2)), ended in a victory for the Parliamentarians. The First War ended with Charles’s capture near Newcastle in January 1647, and he spent the next two years a prisoner. In the weeks before his trial, Charles’s barber was dismissed and the king let his hair and beard grow long, as he refused to allow anybody else near his throat with a razor.
Charles’s trial was a parody of justice. It was a foregone conclusion, and I struggle to believe that anybody present would have been under any illusions to the contrary. Charles would be found guilty of treason and Charles would be sentenced to death. The problem facing the court, however, was that as monarch Charles was incapable of committing treason, defined until then as “acting against the monarch”. As monarch, Charles could hardly act against himself.
The solution was to change the definition of treason to be acting against the interests of the state. Charles, the court determined, had done precisely that. The king, however, protested throughout his trial that the proceedings were illegal, saying:
“No earthly power can justly call me in question as a delinquent. This day’s proceeding cannot be warranted by God’s laws; for, on the contrary, the authority of obedience unto Kings is clearly warranted, and strictly commanded in both the Old and New Testament. For the law of this land, I am no less confident, that no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King, they all going in his name: and one of their maxims is, that the King can do no wrong.”
Nonetheless, the court did decide against Charles, as evidenced by the text on the warrant for his execution:
At the High Court of Justice for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart, King of England January 29th Year of Our Lord 1648 (3).
Whereas Charles Stuart, King of England, is and stands convicted, attained and condemned of High Treason and other high crimes, and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Court to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body of which sentence execution yet remains to be done. These are therefore to will and require you to see the said sentence executed In the open Street before Whitehall tomorrow, being the thirtieth day of this instant month of January, between the hours of Ten in the morning and Five in the afternoon of the same day with full effect. And for so doing this shall be your sufficient warrant. And these are to require all officers and soldiers and other the good people of this nation of England to be assisting unto you in this service.
At 2pm on Tuesday 30th January, Charles put his head on the wooden block, prayed, and then opened his arms to signal to the axeman that he was ready to die. Unlike executions such as those of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1541) and Charles’s own grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots (1587), Charles’s execution was without incident, the axe removing his head from his body in a single, clean stroke. A great moan is recorded to have gone up from the crowd at the moment of the king’s death, and those nearest to the scaffold dipped their handkerchiefs into the king’s blood.
The executioner was hooded, and so his identity is unknown. It is known that the axeman himself wanted this to be the case; it was custom for the decapitated head of a traitor to be held aloft and for the executioner to speak the words “Behold, the head of a traitor.” While Charles’s head was lifted and displayed to the crowd, the executioner refused to speak the words in hopes of keeping his voice, and identity, a secret. We also know that he was a reluctant regicide. He had had to be bribed with the gigantic sum of £200 to take the job, and even then tried to back out and had to be threatened with his own death to comply.
The following day, Charles’s head was sewn back onto his body, and his remains were embalmed and placed inside a lead coffin. Parliament, now utterly dominated by Oliver Cromwell, refused to allow Charles to be buried in Westminster Abbey, as was and still is the tradition of English monarchs, and so Charles was instead interred in Saint James’s chapel, Windsor Castle, alongside the remains of Henry VIII and that king’s third wife, Jane Seymour.
After Charles’s death an eleven-year republic existed in England, run on Puritan principles. Theatre, sport, makeup and celebration were all criminalised by the new regime, and Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector – effectively military dictator. The republic persisted for two years after Cromwell’s death, with his son Richard as Lord Protector. Political chaos over the next two years eventually resulted in the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, with Charles’s son becoming King Charles II. Twelve years to the day after Charles’s execution, Charles II exhumed the body of Oliver Cromwell and had it decapitated as a form of revenge for the execution of his father. The head was displayed outside Westminster Hall for another twenty-four years, before finally being removed in 1685.
Note 1: There had in fact been at least three English civil wars before this one, but none of them are called as such.
Note 2: The modern territory of Wales was also ruled by Charles but was not recognised as separate from England
Note 3: Under the Julian Calendar, in use in 1649, the New Year did not begin until 25th March. Therefore, this date would have been in 1648 in that calendar, but according to the modern Gregorian Calendar falls in 1649
- Charles Carlton, Charles I: The Personal Monarch
- Graham Edwards, The Last Days of Charles I
- Samuel Rawson Gardener, The Constitutional Documents of the Purtian Revolution 1625-1660
- Pauline Gregg, King Charles I
- Christopher Hibbert, Charles I
- Geoffrey Robertson, The Tyrannicide Brief