The Trial and Execution of Charles I

The Trial and Execution of Charles I

The trial and execution of Charles took place in January 1649. His death ended Stuart rule in England until the restoration of the monarchy 11 years later. After Charles’ execution, Oliver Cromwell gradually established himself as supreme ruler of England. His signature can be seen on Charles I’s death warrant.

The trial was unprecedented and, because nothing like this had ever happened before, there were no existing laws at the time that could be used to within the trial. The Dutch lawyer Isaac Dorislaus therefore wrote an order which would provide the court with the framework it needed for Charles’ trial. His work was based on a law from the Roman Empire that empowered the military to overthrow a leader is they were deemed to be tyrannical.

And so, when Charles’ trial began in London on 20 January 1649. He was accused of being a "tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England".

Only 68 out of the intended 135 judges were present at the trial. Many had no wish to be involved in the trial of a king. Indeed, there were many MPs who were unhappy with the concept of a royal trial: however, these MPs had been purged from parliament by the army in December 1648 during ‘Pride’s Purge’. Those left, who would form the ‘Rump’ Parliament, were the 46 men who Cromwell counted as supporters. Even then, Cromwell only just scraped a majority: only 26 out of 46 voted to try the king. This indicates the revolutionary nature of the trial.

The execution of Charles I
The execution of Charles I

The Chief Judge, John Bradshaw, acted as head of the High Court of Justice. He knew that the trial was unpopular, so much so that he was reportedly worried that he might be killed for his role as the Chief Judge. Bradshaw made himself a hat lined with metal for protection in the event of an attack.

At the start of the trial Bradshaw read out the following charge against Charles: "Out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people of England."

The hall in which the trial took place was lined with soldiers, although it is not known whether this was to keep people out and therefore keep the MPs safe, or to prevent the king from escaping, as he had done before.

Charles made no attempt to defend himself at the trial. Due to his belief in the divine right of kings, Charles did not believe that any king could be put on trial by members of the public, and as such he did not respect or recognise the authority of the court. This is reflected in the fact that he did not remove his hat while in court - a show of disrespect to the judges.

Without a defence, the trial did not take long before Charles was found guilty and his punishment declared. On 27 January 1649 Bradshaw announced the judgment of the court: “He, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good of this nation, shall be put to death by severing of his head from his body."

It was only when this verdict was delivered that Charles began his defence, but it was in vain. He was told that it was now too late: a decision had been made. The execution date was set for 30 January 1649.

The day of the execution was a Tuesday. Reports say that it was cold, grey day - the king was given permission to go for a walk with his dog in St James’s park, before he was given his last meal which was bread and wine.

However, proceedings were delayed because several executioners refused to execute the former king. A man and his assistant were eventually paid £100 to carry out the act; importantly, the executioners also wore masks to protect their identities.

At around two o’clock, Charles was led to the scaffold. He was worried that any shivering would be perceived as fear, and therefore requested that he could wear thick underclothes to protect him froml the cold. On the scaffold Charles gave a last speech to the crowd. He said: "I have delivered to my conscience; I pray God you do take those courses that are best for the good of the kingdom and your own salvation."

It was reported at the time that a large groan travelled through the crowd when he was beheaded. One observer described the noise as "such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again".

Charles’ dead body was then subject to humiliating rituals. After paying, those in attendance were allowed to dip handkerchiefs in his blood as many people believed that royal blood could be used to heal wounds of cure illness.

On the 6 February, 1649, parliament abolished monarchy, stating: "The office of the king in this nation is unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, society and public interest of the people."

The Council of State replaced the monarchy; Oliver Cromwell was its first chairman.

During the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II came to throne, the new king hunted down all those who had signed his father’s death warrant and executed them as regicides. The executioners managed to evade the wrath of the new monarch as no one ever discovered who the two men were.

See also:

The Execution of Charles I

Who executed Charles?

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Trial and Execution of Charles I". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.