How could a nation execute its King? Professor Ann Hughes uncovers the background to an extraordinary chapter in British history.
By Professor Ann Hughes
Last updated 2011-02-17
How could a nation execute its King? Professor Ann Hughes uncovers the background to an extraordinary chapter in British history.
Common wisdom has it that the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 was a desperate, aberrant act by a small and reluctant minority of English parliamentarians - opposed by the right-thinking bulk of the population. One seventeen year-old boy in the crowd at Whitehall recorded that the execution was met with 'such a groan as I have never heard before, and desire I may never hear again'. This lad grew up to become a nonconformist minister in the 1660s but his views echoed those of a Restoration Bishop who claimed no king 'ever left the world with more sorrow: women miscarried, men fell into melancholy'. Over half of those sitting in the House of Commons in December 1648 had to be purged by Colonel Pride and his soldiers before the trial of the king could be undertaken - and this was of course a parliament from which royalist sympathisers had long been dismissed. Barely half of the one hundred and thirty five men nominated to the High Court of Justice to try the king actually attended its proceedings; sixty-eight were there when sentence was handed down, but only fifty-nine actually signed the death warrant, some later claiming undue pressure, especially from Oliver Cromwell. One member of the Rump, Thomas Hoyle, committed suicide on the anniversary of Charles' execution in 1650, while the death the same year of another, Rowland Wilson, was attributed to melancholy and guilt.
...the execution was met with 'such a groan as I have never heard before, and desire I may never hear again'.
For many historians, the regicides were 'rogues and knaves', or self-righteous fanatics driven to an Old Testament-inspired vengeance against an ungodly king who wantonly reopened the civil war in 1648 and could never be trusted to make a settled peace. No one would claim that the trial and execution of Charles I was widely supported by political elites, or met with popular acclaim. In this article, however, I shall argue that it is misleading to present the regicide only as a monstrous aberration; it is part of the comforting, moderate mythology of English history that the English do not do this sort of thing, and when it somehow happens, it is an unnatural mistake, the product of extreme short-term crisis. Here I want to present a different version: my argument is that regicide was not simply a result of the impasse of 1648, but a solution made thinkable by longer-term aspects of English political culture and history.
To counterbalance the earlier remarks we can recall the pride with which one of the most unrepentant regicides, Major-General Thomas Harrison approached a horrible death at the Restoration. 'Next to the sufferings of Christ', he claimed, 'I go to suffer in the most glorious cause that ever was in the world. And one, as he passed by, asking him in derision where the good old cause was, he with a cheerful smile clapped his hand on his breast and said, Here it is, and I go to seal it with my blood.' Next to the sufferings of Christ: no higher claim for the radical parliamentarian cause could be made. The Puritans, 'the godly' or the 'Saints' as they called themselves, had long believed that the world was polarised between popery and true religion, and that the Scriptures provided a blueprint for politics as well as for further religious reformation. While there was plenty in the Bible to justify obedience to authority, there was also much Old Testament History showing unrighteous kings being overthrown by God's people. Psalm 149 encouraged the 'saints' 'To bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron'; as early as 1643 the troops of Lord Brooke were said to have attacked royalist Lichfield while singing this psalm. In Sandwich the preacher John Durant was accused in 1646 of praying, 'that the King might be brought up in chains to the Parliament'; members of his congregation were prominent signatories of a Kentish petition of 1648 which called for justice to be levied upon the king.
...there was also much Old Testament History showing unrighteous kings being overthrown by God's people.
Within this biblical framework there was much in Charles' reign before 1642 to alarm the godly. Thomas Dugard, a very moderate parliamentarian clergyman who kept his rich Warwickshire living from 1648 until his death in 1683, was briefly in trouble in 1663 for preaching that Charles I's issuing of the Book of Sports - a full thirty years before - `was the cause of all the blood that was shed in this nation'. The Book of Sports - which licensed `lawful recreations' on Sundays, seemed like idolatry to Puritans for whom the Sabbath should be devoted to god's service. As a whole, Charles' religious policies looked alarmingly like popery, while the Irish Catholic rising of 1641 raised in some staunch Puritans petrifying suspicions of the king's complicity. The notion that Charles had provoked God's wrath was thus of long-standing. By 1648 many in parliament's army had come to see him as a man of blood whose sacrifice was necessary to secure peace: shortly after Pride's Purge, one preacher quoted Numbers XXXV.33: `Blood it defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it'. Charles was compared to Ahab and Nebuchadnezzer, evil rulers who had been given their just deserts. But as early as 1642, Yorkshire parliamentarian preaching had presented Charles as Saul.
Charles could also be seen as Caligula, or other tyrannical Roman Emperors, for the classical learning English men acquired at grammar schools and universities familiarised them with a broadly republican understanding of political structures as mutable human contrivances, subject to corruption and decay, unless a system of checks and balances with regular public participation counteracted this. Political practice, also, encouraged a down-to-earth view of kingship. England, under Elizabeth I, has been described as a 'monarchical republic', with the Queen at the head of a polity where a wide range of male householders participated in legal and political affairs, as jurors, constables, electors, justices and members of parliament. This 'republican' element in English political culture and practice was not at all incompatible with a regulated monarchy, but, long before 1648-9, it was very much in tension with the type of monarchy Charles represented. Parliament's propaganda in 1642 presented a vision of monarchy as an accountable office working in co-operation with a broad political community. In refusing Charles' admission to Hull in May 1642, Parliament denied the king had 'the same right and title to his towns...that every particular man hath to his house, lands and goods, for his Majesty's towns are no more his own than his kingdom is his own, and his kingdom is no more his own than his people are his own...they are only entrusted with their kingdoms'. Such thinking helped make the end of monarchy acceptable in 1649.
He was still intriguing with the Irish in late 1648.and was never likely to retire quietly to the Isle of Wight.
The experience of civil war was of course crucial. Many lives had been lost and much treasure spent in a conflict that is now estimated to have cost proportionally more lives than the Great War of 1914-18. Taxation was at record levels, while troops, lacking pay, took plunder and free quarter from a helpless population. For most of the population suffering encouraged a yearning for peace, but for a significant minority the war was a profoundly radicalising process, prompting demands for some reward, some transformation in recompense for all the sacrifices made. The king's perfidy had been made all too clear in his private correspondence seized after the royalist defeat at Naseby, and published by parliament's authority. God had clearly testified against the king in his heavy defeat by 1646, yet Charles had wantonly renewed the war in late 1647 calling up a foreign (Scots) invasion. He was still intriguing with the Irish in late 1648 and was never likely to retire quietly to the Isle of Wight.
Most importantly service in parliament's army had brought a creative politicisation. As the soldiers declared in a famous declaration of June 1647: 'we were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured, by the several Declarations of Parliament, to the defence of our own and the people's just rights, and liberties'. Political and religious debate under 'praying and preaching Captains' had produced a citizens' army, dedicated to the Lord's cause. At an army prayer meeting in May 1648, the soldiers noted how the Lord had `led and prospered us in all our undertakings this year'. It was their duty to 'call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account, for that blood he had shed, and mischief he had done, to his utmost, against the Lord's cause and people in these poor nations'.
Charles had attacked the fundamental constitution of the kingdom...
Proceedings against the king thus had some real basis in English political culture and practice and in a radical vision of English history. The republican Edmund Ludlow rejoiced that as Charles `sinned openly, so he should be tried, sentenced and executed in the face of the world, and not secretly made away by poisonings and other private deaths'. Charles was tried for crimes against his people and the laws of England: `trusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land, and ... for the good and benefit of his people', he was accused of a `wicked design' to establish `an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will'. Charles had attacked the fundamental constitution of the kingdom, under which frequent parliaments were the remedy for misgovernment and had embroiled his people in `unnatural, cruel and bloody wars'.
On 4 January 1649, in ringing tones the purged House of Commons declared: 'That the people, are, under God, the original of all just power...That the Commons of England...representing the people have the supreme power in this nation...whatever is enacted, or declared for law, by the Commons...hath the force of law...although the consent and concurrence of King, or House of Peers, be not had thereunto'. In practical terms this was rather thinking as it is likely most people would have repudiated the Commons' actions, given the chance. As a political argument, however, it was not eccentric, but a plausible conclusion from English traditions.
In President John Bradshaw's address to the court when Charles was sentenced and in the act of parliament to abolish the 'kingly office' altogether, a radical view of history was used to present the end of monarchy as a renewal of fundamental values. Bradshaw argued that as the Barons had curbed the ambitions of medieval kings so it had now fallen to the Commons to preserve English liberties. The Nation was returning to its 'just and ancient right, of being governed by its own representatives or national meetings in council'. This was in itself a historical myth of legitimation. But the act also used history as evidence against monarchy:
It is and hath been found by experience, that the office of a king in this nation and Ireland, and to have the power thereof in any single person, is unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people, and that for the most part, use hath been made of the regal power and prerogative to oppress and impoverish and enslave the people.
Regicide remained an intimidating and, for many, unpalatable act. But those who refused to endorse it did not thereby regard it as a monstrous deed. Some lower-key reactions from aristocrats and artisan alike, are as striking as the groans we began with. As Charles went from St James Palace to his death at Whitehall two old associates watched impassively from their lodgings: the Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury, like other parliamentarian peers, had refused to support the trial and execution, but there is no sign they felt faint with horror. At the other end of the social scale, a London wood-turner called Nehemiah Wallington, recorded religious meditations and current events in voluminous notebooks throughout the civil war period. Wallington noted the reputed last words of his brother in law who had been murdered by Irish rebels in October 1641: if the rumour the rebels acted with the king's commission proved true, 'Then surely the Lord will not suffer the king, nor his posterity to reign'. Later Wallington added, 'January the 30, 1649...King Charles beheaded on a scaffold at Whitehall.' . Wallington was a timid and by 1649 disillusioned Parliamentarian, yet for him regicide was a judgement or a prophecy fulfilled. He clearly had no love for Charles or much regret for monarchy. In place then of the view of Charles' execution as the ultimate aberration, we offer a more prosaic conclusion, purging regicide of horror or glamour. It can as plausibly be seen as one predictable, if regrettable, product of English political traditions as well as an attempt to settle a bitter recent conflict.
The Trial of Charles I by CV Wedgwood (Penguin, 2001)
The Last days of Charles I by Graham Edwards (Alan Sutton, 1999)
'The English Revolution of 1649' by Ann Hughes, in Revolutions and the Revolutionary Tradition in the West by David Parker (Routledge, 2000)
The English Civil War and Revolution by Keith Lindley (Routledge, 1998)
Writing the English Republic by David Norbrook (Cambridge, 1999)
Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight was used during the Civil War as a prison for Charles I.
Professor Ann Hughes, University of Keele. Ann Hughes is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Keele. Most recently, she is author of The Causes of the English Civil War (second edition, Palgrave 1998).
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