Is it ever right to depose a ruler who has a legitimate right to rule? That is a question which many people ask in the modern world where tyranny and democracy come face to face and conflict ensues. But this is not an exclusively modern problem.
Charles I was a monarch who believed in the divine right of kings, that God had placed him on the throne and so no mere mortal should be able to tell him what to do. This attitude meant that he was constantly at odds with Parliament who wanted a role in ruling the country, particularly when it came to setting taxes. Charles would not listen to them and constantly dismissed Parliament, only recalling it again when he wanted more money. To make matters worse, Charles was considered to be too close to the Catholics in his religious observances. Henry VIII had made himself Head of the Church of England, a position inherited by Charles, yet Charles married a Catholic princess and many people were afraid that he would take England back into the hands of the Pope. There was simmering tension throughout the country which eventually broke out into all-out war in 1642.
The English Civil War ebbed and flowed across the country. With The king losing ground in 1645 he surrendered to the Scots in the hope that this would help him, but instead his forces north of the border handed him over to the English Parliament and Charles was imprisoned. He refused to compromise and give up any of his powers, and escaped in November 1647. But his freedom was short lived; he was recaptured and imprisoned on the Isle of Wight. From his captivity Charles organised a Scottish invasion to coincide with uprisings of his supporters in England, but this attempt to regain power was unsuccessful and, by the end of 1648, the English Civil War was over.
Charles I was tried for treason in January 1649, still believing in his divine right of kingship and refusing to give up his powers to Parliament. He was found guilty and executed on 30th January 1649.
On 29th January Charles was able to say goodbye to two of his children who were under the control of Parliament. On the following morning he donned two shirts as the weather was cold and he did not want to shiver and make people think he was afraid. The execution took place in front of Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. The most complete record of the only execution of an English king is an anonymous account which is quoted by all the major historians. I have used this account as the basis for the scene of the execution of Charles I in my novel, The Cavalier Historian.
Excerpt from ‘The Cavalier Historian’.
Simon shivered and pulled his cloak closer around himself. It kept out the bitter cold of January, but failed to warm his heart, or to banish the chill of a dread which reached deep to his bones. From their position at the top of a flight of steps leading to a shop, he and his father looked out over the silent crowd. No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes were focussed in one direction. Simon did not want to look, but could not help himself. His eyes turned slowly towards the raised scaffold with its block. He turned to look at his father. Sir Thomas stood straight and still, outwardly calm, although Simon could see the tension in his clenched jaw and the nervous twitching of one eye. Turning back towards the scaffold, the young man thought back to the time the King had visited Marston Manor. They had felt so sure of victory back then. No one could have predicted that things would end in this way.
The crowds thronging Whitehall stood silent and still around the black draped scaffold, come to see the execution of their King. Simon was glad that they had got there early and were close to the block. Not that he wanted to see what happened in detail, but he knew that his father wanted to be able to offer comfort and strength to the King, if at all possible. They had tried so hard to get to see him after sentence had been passed, but had not been allowed. Sir Thomas had ranted about the unholy actions of the Rump, called down all kinds of curses upon the heads of Cromwell and Ireton, threatened revenge for the cruel way the King had been treated. But as the hours passed he had calmed, accepting that what was now ordained was inevitable, wishing only to say goodbye and take an oath to his sovereign that he would continue to support the Stuart cause. Such a meeting would have been an equal comfort to himself as to the King. The denial of access had wounded him deeply.
There was a low murmur of anguished voices as all heads turned towards the Banqueting House. The execution party had arrived.
The King, wrapped warmly against the bitter January morning, was flanked by a bishop and his executioner. He said something in a quiet voice to the bishop, who nodded. The King stepped forward. Simon was unable to hear the first words the King spoke, and leant forward to listen more intently. Due to the soldiers who stood between him and the crowds, Charles’s voice did not carry far, but Simon and Sir Thomas were able to make out what he said.
‘For the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever. But I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist 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, sirs; that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clear different things. And therefore until the people have the liberty of good government, as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves. Sirs, it was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I need not to have come here. Therefore I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people.’
Simon was impressed by the calm assurance of the King’s voice. As with his trial, there was no trace of the stammer which usually marked his speech. As he spoke in those final moments of life, he was truly a monarch to be proud of.
The condemned man turned to his executioner.
‘I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands…’ The executioner nodded, no further words were needed. Charles turned to the bishop and asked for his cap, which he placed on his head before turning back to the axeman. ‘Does my hair trouble you?’
‘It would be best, Sire, if you placed it all beneath the cap.’
The King nodded and proceeded to do so, aided by the bishop and executioner. Simon found it hard to believe that this was all real. The King behaved so calmly, spoke so calmly. The execution party was polite. The crowd restrained. It felt to him like play acting, as though the scene would soon be over to loud applause, and the actors leave the stage. But no. The reality continued as the King spoke again.
‘My Lord Bishop, I fear not. I have a good cause, and a gracious God on my side.’
‘There is but one stage more, Your Majesty, which, though turbulent and troublesome, yet is a very short one.’ Simon could hear the catch in the man’s voice, as though he struggled with the words. It was obvious that the man was not comfortable with his task and wanted to do all that he could to aid the King. ‘You may consider it will soon carry you a very great way; it will carry you from earth to heaven; and there you shall find to your great joy the prize you hasten to, a crown of glory.’
The King nodded. ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.’
‘Indeed, Your Majesty. You are exchanging a temporal for an eternal crown. A good exchange.’
Simon stole a look at his father. Sir Thomas stood calmly, his gaze sure as he kept his eyes on the King’s face. For a moment he caught the condemned man’s eye. There was recognition in Charles’s eyes, and gratitude for a faithful servant who had dared to come forward to offer his support. He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. Simon heard a deep intake of breath from his father as he fought to control his emotions, focussing on giving all of his strength to the King, who now turned back to his executioner.
‘Is my hair well?’ At a nod from the man he removed his cloak, which he handed to the bishop. His hand went to his neck, to the jewelled pendant of Saint George, symbol of the Order of the Garter. He held it in his fist for a moment, as though reliving in his mind past days of glory. Then he removed it and handed it to the bishop. Next came his doublet and waistcoat before he put the cloak back over the crisp white shirt, as though to lessen the impact of the bright flow of blood which must soon cover it. He breathed deeply and held his hands out in front of him.
‘When I put out my hands this way, then.’
The executioner nodded.
The King of England stood for a moment, his lips moving in silent supplication, his eyes lifted towards heaven. Then he knelt and laid his head on the block. After a moment in which he composed himself, the King held out his hands.
The heavily muscled executioner raised the axe above his head. It held for a moment at the apex before he brought it down with all his might. With one blow, the King’s head was severed from his shoulders.
Simon found himself trembling, his knees weak, his stomach wanting to disgorge his breakfast as the head fell to the wooden boards with a thud. Bright blood fountained from the neck and began to pool as the body slipped to the side, an arm still twitching. He looked at his father and took strength from the way he stood, unmoving, seemingly unaffected. Simon straightened and turned back to the block in time to see the executioner pick up the severed head and hold it for the crowds to see. There was no cheering. No sign that this execution was the will of the people. Instead a collective groan went up, like the sighing of the wind before a storm. Only the soldiers cheered, and this seemed to Simon to be more out of a sense of duty than from the heart.
Two soldiers stepped forward and lifted the King’s body, placing it in a coffin. The executioner placed the head with the body and the coffin was covered with black velvet. More soldiers stepped forward, lifted it to their shoulders and carried it solemnly back into Banqueting House.
Simon and his father stood unmoving. Unable to move. They watched as people came forward, soaking handkerchiefs and pieces of cloth in the King’s blood. No doubt some did so as tokens of their wish to see the King dead, but they were few. Simon could see by the reverent, tear-stained faces that most people took the blood to cherish it as the sacrifice of a martyr, as a blessing from a divinely appointed monarch who now wore his incorruptible crown.
England no longer had a king.