The Occasioner, Author, and Continuer of the Said Unnatural, Cruel and Bloody Wars

The Trial and Execution of Charles I

Military victory was in political terms no more decisive now than it had been in 1646: what had been defeated, and what that defeat meant for the future, was in the eye of the beholder, and the certainties of the executions at Colchester were hardly the basis for political settlement. Failure to support armed royalism was an indication neither of support for those views, nor of any great love for matters as they stood. Some former parliamentarians had been prominent in their support for the risings, and for the Engagers, and there were significant divisions in the parliamentary alliance. The opinions voiced in print by the Levellers and by Goffe at the Windsor prayer meeting threatened the kind of settlement so strenuously opposed by Edwards and others towards the end of the first war.

Parliamentary attitudes towards the Engagers and the provincial risings in England had been surprisingly equivocal. On 28 April, with invasion plans well in hand, Parliament had voted to reopen negotiations with the King on the basis of the Hampton Court proposals, and on 6 May the Lords and Commons passed a resolution ‘for the speedy settlement of the peace of both kingdoms, and preservation of the union, according to the [Solemn League and] Covenant and treaties’.1 In one sense this was quite reasonable since a settlement was clearly going to have to involve the King and could not be dictated by either a Scottish Presbyterian or the New Model army, certainly not if it was going to be a settlement for all three kingdoms. Parliament was also responding to sympathy for the risings, not least in London. But it was equally easy to see why that would enrage the New Model. At the time these votes were made public, military preparations in Scotland were underway, mutineers in Wales and the navy were supporting provincial risings, and more risings threatened elsewhere. In July, with the battle in England largely won, but Hamilton’s invasion underway, there was a clash between Lords and Commons over whether or not Hamilton’s army were enemies to the kingdom and putting the Duke of Gloucester on the throne was almost certainly mooted as a way out of the impasse. On 31 July Charles helpfully declared himself not to be bound by the Engagers” manifesto, which declared against toleration of sects or those using the Prayer Book.2

Given these political ambiguities, it was reasonable for the soldiers of the New Model Army to feel that their risks and sacrifices had been made in the service of people who did not support them. The authorities in London, while committed enough to its defence, had certainly sent mixed messages in July and August; sufficiently mixed that they were regarded with suspicion by many of the firmer spirits in the army. Parliamentary moves during the summer to try to create the possibility for further negotiation involved political moves that were unacceptable to the army. The eleven members impeached at the command of the army the previous summer were readmitted, and quickly resumed their seats. Another breach was in the offing, between the New Model and a significant body of opinion in Parliament committed to keeping Charles and the Scots on board.3Military victory ruled out the possibility of forcing such a treaty using the Engagers” army, but did not settle much else.

The royalist cause had been severely handicapped during 1648. Charles had been forced to sit out the war, in close confinement on the Isle of Wight. It was the Queen and the Prince of Wales who had failed to provide the military co-ordination. But the royalist cause in 1648 had been at least equally an alliance of convenience. Personal loyalty to Charles, or at least a commitment to keeping him on the throne with some regal dignity intact, united people with very different aspirations – Engagers, English constitutionalists and Confederate Irishmen had all been courted by the King. In one view, of course, this was entirely appropriate – he was king to all these people, and had to find some way of reconciling all these people to a peaceful life under his rule. But in the conditions that now prevailed the practical future of such an alliance was far from clear – what kind of settlement could the Engagers, Poyer’s troops, the Confederates and the Kentish royalists all support? The Heads of Proposals probably came closest, but they were a product of the army that now confronted them. In this fundamental sense the war had settled none of the questions of 1642, and had been the more futile for being the second attempt to resolve them by arms. Calls for a deal with the King had tended to predominate in provincial petitions during the spring and summer, merging with violent resistance to the parliamentary regime. But once new talks about a settlement opened following the second civil war, it was petitions against a deal that predominated.4For his critics, Charles appeared not as a monarch acting for all his people, but as a man, Charles Stuart, willing to do deals with anyone, however mutually contradictory those deals might seem. What could a further attempt at treaty possibly produce from a man such as this?5

Parliamentary politics seemed to be moving towards a reopening of negotiations with the King. On 24 August, on news of the victory at Preston, the Vote of No Addresses was repealed: something that had been mooted earlier in the summer. There was an alliance here in favour of negotiation to avoid further conflict, a contrast with the view that only complete military dominance would secure a respectable peace. The best hope for this more moderate position was to get the King to agree to parliamentary control of the militia for twenty years and appointments of officers of state and the abolition of episcopacy in favour of Presbyterianism for at least three years.6 This was familiar territory, of course. Nothing had changed since the exasperated Vote of No Addresses except that Charles had started, and lost, another war. We can presume it was the losing rather than the starting that mattered; Charles was no more worth dealing with but was, perhaps, closer to being backed against a wall.

But perhaps not. Division and disarray continued to characterize his opponents (or potential allies). Defeat for the Engagers” army in England led to their political eclipse in Scotland, as kirk and Covenant risings in the west of Scotland, and the Whiggamore raid (a march on Edinburgh of several thousand supporters of the Covenant from south-west Scotland), drove them out of the centres of power.7 But these groups had little in common with the army and Independents in England beyond their mutual hostility to the Engagers. Scotland was not ripe for further military intervention in England, but it was not lined up behind the New Model, either. The decision to reopen negotiations with the King was contentious in army circles and there was more Leveller activity, calling for the long-delayed harvest of the fruits of the people’s sacrifice. The Humble Petition of Thousands of Well-Affected Persons was presented to Parliament on 11 September, urging settlement on the basis of the Agreement of the People, and an end to the Negative Voice of the King and the Lords. Two days of silence followed, prompting the presentation of another petition saying the same thing. Amidst the ensuing disturbance demonstrators were heard to say ‘that they knew no use of a King or Lords any longer; and that such distinctions were the devices of men, God having made all alike’. Some members commended the message: ‘the House must yield to them, or else it might be too hot to hold such as opposed it’. For others, like Sir Roger Burgoyne, this radicalism was a reason to persist in negotiation, demonstrating ‘what we are to look for from such a kind of men… if the Treaty should not proceed’.8

Belief in the guilt of those who had prompted another war also led militants to demand an end to negotiation. According to his later, and possibly self-serving, recollections, Edmund Ludlow had met Fairfax earlier in September, hoping to get him to halt negotiations. Frustrated he went on to see Ireton, who agreed that the only peace likely to emerge would be a betrayal of the cause, but did not agree that now was the moment to intervene.9 From mid-September onwards such militants were mobilizing petitions. On 10 October the Commons received petitions against the treaty from Oxfordshire (a Leveller petition), Newcastle, Yorkshire and Somerset. That from Somerset had, in the now customary manner, been organized at the assizes, courtesy of a packed Grand Jury: it argued that the treaty would be the ‘ruin of God’s people’. Those in favour of negotiation, although slower off the mark to get petitions going, were more influential in Parliament.10

Against the background of these divisions formal negotiations opened at Newport on 18 September. Charles had declared the impending negotiation a ‘mock-treaty’ on 2 August, and his only purpose in entertaining the proposals was to buy time. For example, on 9 October a breakthrough was apparently made – Charles agreed to hand control of the militia to Parliament for twenty years. He wrote the same day to a confidant: ‘The great concession I made this day, was merely in order to my escape,… for my only hope is, that now they believe I dare deny them nothing, and so be less careful of their guards’.11

These doomed discussions were initially limited to forty days, but the deadline was allowed to pass as a settlement was sought. Charles had insisted on a stipulation that no concession was valid until all points had been agreed, so the concession of control of the militia was even more worthless than our knowledge of his intentions suggests. There were divisions among the commissioners: Denzil Holles (who had only just had the threat of impeachment lifted from him by those on ‘his side’) and Harbottle Grimston wanted Presbyterianism but were relatively easy on political terms; Viscount Saye and Sele and Henry Vane wanted more constitutional safeguards but were willing to see a religious settlement along the lines of the Heads of Proposals. Negotiation on Presbyterianism was encouraged by Vane in particular, anxious for toleration. Locked into a familiar negotiation, with no clear new way out, Charles planned another escape on 7 October, aiming to spin out negotiations as long as possible to facilitate it. In the following days he accepted proposition after proposition until, on 17 October, they ran into the buffers on the treatment of delinquents. Proposals were batted backward and forward between the negotiators and Parliament throughout late October.12

All the while Henrietta Maria, with the knowledge of her husband, was making plans for a renewal of the war with continental and Irish help. Ormond had been in Kilkenny since early October, trying to secure a peace in Ireland, which might allow a third war in England. On 1 November, Charles gave an evasive answer to Parliament’s demand that he disavow Ormond and this confirmed the suspicions about Charles that he had some such plan up his sleeve (the negotiations were not at this point public knowledge).13Nonetheless, and although there was more than a little familiarity about all this, Charles did seem more willing to make concessions – not only on control of the armed forces and the government of Ireland for twenty years, but also his right to appoint his chief officials. By mid-November he had accepted much greater restrictions on his power than would have been necessary a year earlier, but the key sticking point remained – the fate of episcopacy.

Charles’s own view of his best hope, as he revealed in a letter to Ormond, was to bring peace to Ireland in the hope of renewing war in England.14 As the treaty negotiations progressed, but those in Kilkenny were not called off, and as the risks of a peace that gave too much away increased, radical opinion in the army hardened.15

A key figure in this was Ireton. He had probably given up on Charles as early as the autumn of 1647, at the time of his escape from Hampton Court. Regimental petitions echoing Leveller and county opposition to treaty gave Ireton support in his efforts to get the army to bring an end to the Newport negotiations. In October, Ireton’s regiment had been prominent in calling for justice irrespective of persons, a not very coded call to put the King on trial. With Cromwell at that time in Scotland, far away from the action, and Fairfax apparently indecisive, Ireton seized the initiative and drafted The Remonstrance of the Army. In its final form the Remonstrance called for an end to the treaty at Newport and for the King to be put on trial, promising ‘exemplary justice… in capital punishment upon the principal author and some prime instruments in our late wars’.16

The demand for justice on the King was of course dramatic: it figured prominently in a shorter digest of the Remonstrance, and was echoed in the charges against the King when he was put on trial. But did ‘justice’ in this case necessarily mean execution? In the many calls for justice in the autumn of 1648 unequivocal demands for the King’s death were rare, and this righteous desire for vengeance did not lead directly to the killing of the King. The Remonstrance, one of the most straight-talking texts, also left room for manoeuvre. For example, in the passages about the necessity of justice much is made of Charles’s failure to show any remorse for his sins. If he were remorseful ‘his offence being first judged according to righteousness, his person might be capable of pity, mercy and pardon, and an accommodation with him, with a full and free yielding on his part… might in charitable construction be just (possibly) safe and beneficial’.17 This was hard to sell to men who believed that Charles was a man of blood on whom God demanded judgement,18 but that was not the opinion of the whole army. Equally problematically, there was little in his character or record to encourage the hope that he would be contrite. Nonetheless, the possibility was raised: killing him was not the main point. The real problem the army was addressing was how to get a just, safe and beneficial settlement. As things stood – the King unrepentant and still bent on conflict when he could manage it – there was no possibility of such a settlement by personal treaty. If he repented, or submitted to judgement, that might become possible – in particular, if he pleaded guilty, he need not die.

Putting the King on trial was also a means of demonstrating that his interests were subject to the authority of the representative of the people. The army’s political intervention was justified, it was argued, because they were acting on behalf of the people: pursuit of their own rights had thus been transformed into a defence of English freedoms. The Remonstrance opens with an appeal to the principle of salus populi, acknowledging that the principle is easily abused, but asking whether that is best served by a personal treaty with the King. It goes on to argue that in order to avoid future wars the people’s good must be at the centre of government, and that there must be a permanent safeguard against the use of government to pursue personal or private interests. Only a true representative of the people, with power over all persons, could guarantee this. Constitutional reform and the submission of the King to the power of the people’s representative were the two crucial elements of this constitutional settlement. The authority of this representative lay in reason and the law of nations, not custom or tradition, so that ‘if they [the people’s representative] find the offence, though not particularly provided against by particular laws, yet against the general law of reason or nations and the vindication of the public interest to require justice;… in such case no person whatsoever may be exempt from such account or punishment’.19 Clearly this aims at the King, who was throughout the Remonstrance and at his trial accused of pursuing a personal interest in upholding and extending his prerogative power against the interest of the people. But it goes on to say that no-one should ‘have power to protect others from their judgment or (without [the people’s representative’s] consent) to pardon whom they have judged’. The authority of the representative of the people was asserted by making the King answerable, and unable to excuse his friends.20

The Remonstrance, though, sought to base the constitutional settlement not in custom, law or tradition, but in popular sovereignty: in that context the purpose of a trial would be to establish the ultimate source of authority by demonstrating that the King was answerable to the people. Another lengthy section lays out the need to limit the life of each parliament, since perpetual parliaments are open to manipulation and corruption, not least by the King. A regular succession of parliaments, with rules for election, is argued to be the only means to safeguard settlement, again suggesting that restoring him to his throne is one of the possible outcomes. Such a constitutional settlement, however, would not be safe so long as he was considered ‘above any human justice, and not accountable to, or not punishable by any power on earth, what ever he does’: the King must be admitted to trial and judgement as an example to his successors.21 Popular sovereignty restrained the will and interest of the King and was the guarantor of good government.22 An equal franchise would be introduced, but those who had engaged against Parliament would be excluded for a period of time, and those who did not subscribe to ‘a general contract or Agreement of the People’ would be excluded from its benefits.

The most immediate concern was not regicide but the danger of a settlement by personal treaty with Charles, which would be unjust, unsafe and not consistent with the salus populi. Regicide was countenanced as a means to avoid that, but was not the main business. History proved that the King was unreliable but, as they frankly acknowledged, ‘The king comes in with the reputation (among the people) of having long graciously sought peace’.23 The text is dominated by fears that an expedient settlement will be tempting but ultimately disastrous. The digested version appended petitions from Rainborough’s and Overton’s regiments in which fears about an unsafe treaty were more prominent than calls for execution of the King.24 The threat was clearly there, more clearly than in most other discussions from these weeks, but it is part of a complicated text, nearly seventy pages long. A trial, alongside the adoption of a written constitution for the people’s representative, would be the basis for a settlement. It would show who was boss, tie the hands of the monarch for ever and make expiation for the blood spilt. ‘That exemplary justice being done in capital punishment upon the principal author and some prime instruments of our late wars, and thereby the blood thereof expiated, and others deterred from future attempts of the like in either capacity’, the others can be pardoned, and fined, and excluded from public office, having shown proper ‘submission and rendering of themselves to justice’.25

In principle, this might mean that the King, if he was not the capital author, could be pardoned and readmitted to government on these new terms. His death was clearly compassed, but not necessarily demanded – there was a little distance between the demand for justice and the demand for his head. Shocked responses, while acknowledging the threat of regicide, tended to concentrate instead on the dangers of the power of the sword – a threat to all liberty and law, which made claims about the salus populi plainly hypocritical – and the army’s own record of inconsistency and betrayal.26 The life of the King was clearly at stake, but it was being transformed into a symbolic battle over the origins of political power; if that battle came out in a particular way, the man Charles Stuart need not die. His death might be desirable, but was not an inevitable outcome: having pleaded it did not matter so much if he was convicted, or pardoned.

This position had been thrashed out over a couple of weeks and, at the final moment, had involved active participation by Lilburne, Wildman and other London radicals. Fairfax called a meeting of the General Council – officers only – at St Albans on 7 November, and Ireton’s draft was considered on 10 November. Fairfax declared himself against it, which was effectively to block it since his soldiers could not confront King and Parliament without the support of their commander. The continuing flow of petitions from the army, however, and Charles’s refusal to abandon the negotiations at Kilkenny, told against more moderate views. So too did news of Rainborough’s ‘murder’ at Pontefract. The compromise was to agree to accept the outcome of the Treaty of Newport but also to put minimal demands before the King which, if he accepted them, would then be put to Parliament. This was, as Ireton surely knew, bound to ensure the failure of the negotiation. In fact, the increasingly obvious danger of a peace which fell short of a full reward for their service and sacrifices stiffened resolve in the army. The final draft of the Remonstrance was agreed as the manifesto of a coalition of army and London radicals, united by their desire to prevent Parliament making a hasty peace with the King. Part of the price for this unity was a committee to draft a new Agreement of the People as the basis of the new constitution – composed of representatives of the Levellers, army, ‘honest party’ in Parliament and London Independents.27

This was undoubtedly a dangerous conjunction for the King – a revolutionary constitution, the proposal for a court of justice and the backing of the Council of Officers – but he seemed intent on avoiding a settlement reached in these circumstances. By mid-November, Charles was considering escape and on 12 November he had been enquiring about the tides with that in mind. The newsbooks quite correctly guessed what Charles was up to – that if at liberty he would put himself at the head of Ormond’s army and reopen the conflict with foreign help, and Hammond was once again told of the importance of not allowing Charles out. The Remonstrance was presented to the Commons on 20 November, the day before the extension of the Treaty of Newport expired. It took four hours to read and was greeted in silence by members, who must have heard in it the death knell of this parliament. Consideration of the Remonstrance was postponed for a week while a final response was sought from Charles. During that week Charles had been stubborn about negotiation, in this case about the treatment of his supporters, on which issue he had been offered concessions, but not enough to tempt him. Parliament was reluctant to shut the door on him, and voted a final extension, but the key question was now clear: what would the army do to implement its Remonstrance?28

Through November the army had been gathering ominously: headquarters were moved from St Albans to Windsor on 22 November and representatives of each regiment were summoned to a General Council. In the meantime every unit was invited to declare its support for the Remonstrance. Intervention seemed increasingly likely, but there was disagreement over what was intended – whether to dissolve or purge Parliament, and what kind of constitution would be put in place afterwards. On 28 November it was agreed to move to quarters in or around London, and that a declaration justifying the imminent intervention should be prepared. When it was published, two days later, it protested against the refusal to discuss the Remonstrance, and appealed to ‘the common judgements of indifferent and uncorrupted men’.29 Meanwhile pressure was being applied to Hammond to agree to arrest the King. Eventually he was induced to go to Windsor with Ewer to talk things over with the army commanders personally. There developed a tussle between officers sent by Fairfax and those left in command by Hammond. It became fairly public knowledge that Charles was to be removed to Hurst Castle, across the Solent from the Isle of Wight, but he refused to escape and was duly moved on 1 December. There his room was so gloomy as to require candles at midday.30

Over the following days London was the scene of tense discussion. Parliament began debate on the King’s responses at Newport on 1 December and continued as the army established its headquarters in Whitehall on 2 December. Two days later news of the seizure of the King reached London; a week earlier there had been bonfires celebrating rumours that a deal had been reached at Newport. There followed a mammoth debate in the House of Commons, lasting until 8 a.m. the following morning. It is not well-recorded, but seems to have centred on whether the King’s answers could be trusted, and it was finally agreed that Charles’s position at Newport offered a viable basis for further negotiation. Prynne, recently elected for the first time, thought this reasonable and that the King would see further sense once he came to London.31 This can only have been, for most of those present, because it was a more palatable way forward than the Remonstrance. At a meeting of figures from Parliament and army later the same day Ireton had argued for a dissolution, but was out-voted. Instead a purge was agreed upon, using two criteria: those who found the King’s response to the Newport treaty a sound basis for further negotiation; and those who had resisted the declaration in August that the Scottish invaders were enemies, traitors and rebels. Between eighty and ninety MPs were listed for arrest on this basis.32

So it was that members arriving on the cold, dry, blustery morning of 6 December were met on the stairs of the palace by Colonel Pride. The City Trained Bands had been turned back from their duties defending the House and a regiment of foot and one of horse deployed in and around the palace. Two others patrolled the neighbouring streets. Pride, initially helped by a doorman in identifying those on his list, was joined by Lord Groby. Together they arrested forty-one MPs, and more the next day. Others were excluded but not arrested, while many stayed away from fear or disapproval. The best estimate is that the purge actively excluded no more than 110 members in all, but that because so many stayed away voluntarily, the House was reduced by about 270 of its 470 members. On the other hand, many others attended, in the full knowledge of what was going on outside – some with approval, many more apparently simply conforming. What was in the minds of those conducting the purge is not clear but what most of those included had in common was a record of hostility towards the army or, more recently, a favourable attitude towards the Newport treaty.33 The latter point, in particular, suggests that the purge had a relatively restricted rationale – to avoid settlement on the terms proposed at Newport. It was in favour of the Vote of No Addresses rather than regicide. The purge did not make the death of the King inevitable; there were some who wanted that, but others who supported the purge with other purposes in mind.

The first step of those who had escaped the purge, naturally enough, was to call for the liberation of the prisoners, something which had no effect (they were eventually freed on 7 December in return for undertakings not to try to resume their seats). Cromwell arrived on 6 December, claiming to have had no knowledge of proceedings, ‘yet since it was done, he was glad of it, and would endeavour to maintain it’. As was often the case, Cromwell had been absent at the crucial moment, and his attitudes hard to discern. He had a record of trying to preserve the possibility of a monarchical settlement which included Charles, but his absence in these crucial weeks was probably not the result of hesitation. He had serious military business in the north, and there is evidence that he kept in contact with radicals during this time. Once back in London he made several visits to the Duke of Hamilton, who following capture at Uttoxeter was being held prisoner in Windsor Castle. Cromwell was at pains to get from Hamilton an admission that he had invaded at the invitation of Charles I: this would have established who the ‘principal author’ of the late war had been, and provided damning evidence for any trial of the King. Cromwell, it seems, was quite willing to see a trial and condemnation.34

The purged House was weak – clearly a creature of the military, its meetings were thinly attended in the following days. This was an important part of the post-purge calculations – anything done by Parliament needed as much support as possible. Money was sought for army arrears, recent votes were repealed (including the revocation of the Vote of No Addresses and those authorizing the Treaty of Newport for example). Although the purged parliament had secured the release of the excluded members from prison, there was little hope of their readmission to Parliament. A request for a formal explanation of the grounds for their exclusion was made on 14 December with no effect, and on the following day the House actually branded as scandalous a protestation drawn up by Waller on behalf of the excluded members. There was little resistance in the City, and in the House dissent was expressed mainly in absence. The brute fact of the purge seems rapidly to have been accepted, but it left a real problem of legitimacy for those who had engineered it.35 In the counties it seems that it was now the ‘honest radicals’ who had the upper hand in mobilizing petitions.36

England was now in the hands of men willing to put Charles on trial for his life and to change the basis of the constitution, even if their views were hardly consensual. But it was another five weeks before legislation passed to enable the King’s trial, and another fortnight after that before public sessions began. Throughout that time the leaders of the coup were in negotiation, a key aim of which was to prevent another war. The King had slender hopes of raising an army in England, or Scotland. Following the defeat of Hamilton’s army Scotland was in the hands of the kirk party – not likely to co-operate with the English army, but not likely to take up arms for the King in the near future. That left Ormond. While the King pursued that option he could still hope, and his opponents could still feel that they did not quite have him completely over the barrel. It also emerged in December that the Confederates had concluded a commercial treaty with the Dutch which would have made their naval strength very formidable indeed. With their own fleet, that of the Prince of Wales and Dutch maritime strength behind them, they could mount an effective trade blockade.37 The King had been militarily defeated in England and Scotland, but not Ireland, and previous form suggested that he should be willing to engage in a third war – thus ran the charge, and it was correct.

Moves towards the trial of the King went in tandem with attempts at negotiation, which probably reflected the desire to avoid this third war as much as anything else. Those who promoted the purge had been united by a desire to prevent the progress of the Treaty of Newport, probably in the face of this menacing international situation, rather than to execute the King and abolish monarchy. In the face of the growing naval threat, the allegiance of the navy was crucial. The experience of 1648 had been that the navy was not four square behind the most radical army programmes, and the arrival of the Earl of Warwick back in London seems also to have had a restraining influence on the course of political action: it is plausible that he wanted prominent royalists tried, not the King, and it is unlikely that he supported regicide at this point. Those opposing the treaty at Newport feared that this treaty would give too much ground to the King, and that delay was simply offering him the opportunity to re-gather his strength. On the other hand, killing the King was not a particularly attractive alternative. With peace on the cards in Ireland, and Scotland divided but hardly supportive of the army programme, it could plausibly be said that the best way to start a third war would be for the English to execute Charles, who was after all the King of Ireland and Scotland too. With the legitimate claimant beyond the seas and out of reach, there was more than enough reason to think that regicide would precipitate further armed conflict. And this line of thinking was vindicated after the fact too – following the King’s execution the army was indeed forced into battle again, in both Scotland and Ireland, against armed supporters of the Prince of Wales.38

This is the context for another attempt to engage the King, the ‘Denbigh mission’ of late December. The details of the offer are unclear, but seem to have been that the King should accept the alienation of the bishops” lands (and hence, by implication, the perpetual abolition of episcopacy), abandon his Negative Voice and renounce any role for the Scots in the settlement of English affairs. Denbigh was also keen in these months to secure a disavowal of Ormond from the King. Such a deal would have allowed Charles to keep his life and throne.39 Charles met the approach with a rebuff – Denbigh was not admitted to the presence. Another approach made by the Earl of Richmond, on 11 January, is even more obscure in its details, but it too bears testimony to the continuing desire to negotiate a settlement. Even during the trial there were apparently attempts to get the King to abdicate in favour of the Duke of Gloucester.40

Purge, and even trial, did not lead directly to regicide. Throughout the period from the purge on 6 and 7 December 1648 until the eve of the King’s execution there were hesitations and delays. The best explanation for this is that at least some of those organizing the trial and passing judgement – those at the heart of the action – were seeking ways to achieve a settlement that included the King, or at least had his acquiescence. In fact, these initiatives probably show that important players were actually trying to avoid having to kill the King, not just trying to seem to want to avoid it. An acquiescent king was more useful than a definitely dead one, as the execution was to prove. That he knew this probably explains something of Charles’s attitude towards these proceedings – the almost unflinching confidence with which he resisted the political demands being made of him. On the other side, the trial seems to have been almost a threat, intended to demonstrate that they really meant business this time. In this sense Charles called that threat as a bluff, and only at that point realized that there were a sufficient number of his opponents, in sufficient authority, who were willing to have the bluff called.

Certainly, for a number of the key players the main purpose of the trial seems to have been settlement, not regicide. For over a year the army’s politics had been as much anti-parliamentarian as anti-monarchical – the intervention of the army had been against a corrupt representative, which was acting against the interests of the people. Regular elections and franchise reform had been designed to restrain Parliament, and secure the good of the people; implied in that was a new role for the crown, but there was nothing in these arguments to suggest that popular sovereignty was incompatible with monarchical rule. The army was the instrument by which popular sovereignty would be restored: this was not a position that required the execution of Charles, let alone the abolition of monarchy. If time had been on their side, then those like Ireton calling for dissolution, rather than purge, might have made the case more clearly. Central to post-purge politics was a need to define the nature of the new regime, and to secure the King’s recognition of its legitimacy. With these fundamentals in place a settlement might then have been achieved. It is for this reason that the central drama of the trial seems to have been to get the King to plead.

Crucial to the political claims of the putative new order being pursued by men of these views was a revised Agreement of the People. Responsibility for drafting this had been given to a committee of Levellers, and was quickly produced. But Lilburne was apparently disappointed to learn that it was not to be simply accepted – the Council of Officers not only looked it over, but also amended it, prior to publication. The initial draft seems to have presumed the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, dissolution of the current parliament and elections according to a new, equal, franchise. The electorate would include adult males who paid poor rates, were not royalists, servants or wage-earners, and had signed the Agreement. The demand that the representative of the people would have no power to command in matters of religion gave rise to extensive and fundamental discussion about freedom of conscience, the most extensive discussions of the whole series of debates. The issue they addressed had been thrashed out in polemics since 1641 – where was the boundary between freedom of conscience and religious anarchy, error and schism? These discussions took from 10 to 21 December at Whitehall, debates recorded in detail by William Clarke. This seems to have been a very serious attempt to thrash out the basis for a new political order, not simply a sop to radicals while the serious business of executing the King was transacted.41

There were, indeed, attempts to forestall the trial, which was strongly opposed by Lilburne and of course many others with less radical views. A plan seems to have emerged whereby the trial would be a means to pressure the King into making minimal but fundamental concessions. Proceedings against Hamilton might bring the King to see reason, or a trial of the King might lead him to accept deposition; excluded members might be readmitted in order to smooth the way to a compromise. Since the purge, thin attendances had meant that Parliament offered barely a fig leaf of respectability for army power – certainly dissolution would have been a more respectable policy for those acting in the name of popular sovereignty. But the argument against dissolution was tied up with an urgent desire to see justice done, and to forestall another war.42

Despite the importance of popular sovereignty in these arguments, these were days for the Saints, as much as the people. With Common Council elections due in London the purged parliament had passed legislation excluding all those who had sided with the King in the wars, or who had signed an engagement calling for a personal treaty the previous summer. This secured the City for the army – radical militia committees and financial support were quickly in place, and the chorus of opposition to the purge from City Presbyterians was robbed of institutional power. This might have been the effect of the exclusions from the franchise in the latest Agreement of the People: ‘a dictatorship of the godly [rather] than a golden age of democracy’.43 Such were the discomforts of the army’s position: an instrument of the people, but suspicious of the people’s attachment to monarchy, and to this particular king; committed to freedom of conscience, but forced to exclude from power those whose consciences dictated unpalatable policies.

Even the hand of providence was unclear. A desire for guidance led to the extraordinary spectacle of the Council of Officers listening solemnly to the visions of Elizabeth Poole, a woman of humble background from Abingdon, expelled from a Baptist congregation for her beliefs. Although many people thought miracles had ceased, it was quite common to accept the possibility of direct, personal revelation, and dreams were often interpreted in this light. But for women prophets this authority was ambiguous – it depended on their being empty vessels. There was an acute suspicion of female prophets and their motives.44

These were the resonances of Elizabeth Poole’s appearance before the General Council of the Army at Whitehall on 29 December, at the height of tense discussion about how to proceed. To be heard in such circumstances she had to act as a kind of spiritual consultant – answering questions put to her, but not affiliating herself with a partisan position.45 What she offered though was in a sense a reconciliation of the politics of Reformation and of Enlightenment, ‘declaring the presence of God with the army, and desiring that they would go forward and stand up for the liberty of the people as it was their liberty and God had opened the way to them’. Her vision had been of a man, representing the army, being a means to cure the weak and distressed land, personified of course as a woman. But she also warned that ‘the business was committed to their trust, but there was a great snare before them’. Colonel Rich was moved: ‘I cannot but give you that impression that is upon my spirit in conjunction with that testimony which God hath manifested here by an unexpected providence’. Poole was engaged in conversation by Harrison and Ireton, the latter declaring, ‘I see nothing in her but those things that are the fruits of the spirit of God’.46

So powerful was the impression that she was called back on 5 January. There she made a direct political intervention, in relation to the Agreement of the People. She warned the army that the kingly power had fallen into their hands, but only as ‘stewards, and so stewards of the gifts of God in and upon this nation’. As stewards their duty was to improve upon this gift, without fear of the great, but without overbearing their own position either: ‘I know it hath been the panges [?] of some of you that the King betrayed his trust and the parliament theirs; wherefore this is the great thing I must present to you: Betray not your trust’. She then handed over a paper against the King’s execution. This was very powerful, and very serious. But now she was closely questioned about the genuineness of her vision, and the preciseness with which she had been told to deliver a paper. Asked if she was told to speak against his trial or against his execution, she replied, ‘That he is to be judged I believe, and that you may bind his hands and hold him fast under’. The printed account is clearer: ‘Bring him to trial, that he may be convicted in his conscience, but touch not his person’.47 The seriousness of these encounters – they are carefully recorded – suggests a desire for guidance on the part of men unsure what God had called them to. Prophecy offered the means to resolve doubt, but was not easy to authenticate or interpret.

Providence, like the will of the people but for different reasons, was an unreliable guide for the detail of political life. In the aftermath of the second civil war there was undoubtedly a righteous anger about the King’s actions, a belief that he was a ‘man of blood’ who might now face Old Testament justice.48 This made a relatively easy bedfellow with ecstatic revelation, so that the trial of the King might reflect the culmination of a strand of millenarian speculation evident from early in the crisis. Trial and even regicide, in other words, might be a remote descendant of the Reformation politics of the Prayer Book rebellion. But the power of these views made contemporaries take them seriously, though they regarded them with caution too. Moreover, to modern eyes at least, they were not the natural partner of the more secular, contractarian thinking of the Agreement of the People, which underpinned the political legitimacy of the purge and trial. Those arguments seem to belong more to the world of the Enlightenment. Indeed the Agreement was to be literally a social contract, actually taken by members of the political community prior to their admission – a kind of secularized covenant.

Despite the certainty implied by the purge there had been subsequent indecision: the need for legitimacy was in tension with pressure, within the army and honest radical circles, for justice on the King, and a settlement which reflected the will of God. There were a variety of arguments in favour of trial, and for regicide, and a similar range of reasons for opposing, or failing to oppose, each of these things.49 By the end of December, however, a trial had been settled upon. Just before Christmas the army published an indictment of the King and called for his trial. This triggered a debate in Parliament about whether the King would stand trial for his life. Cromwell, a strong believer in providence, was not clear: ‘If any man whatsoever had carried on this design of deposing the King, and disinheriting his posterity or if any man had yet such a design, he should be the greatest traitor and rebel in the world. But since the Providence of God hath cast this upon us, I cannot but submit to Providence, though I am not yet provided to give you my advice’. In the meantime Charles was brought to Windsor under heavy guard. On 28 December the Commons approved charges against the King which more or less echoed those of the army a few days earlier.50

From the start, the trial was as much about political legitimacy as about the King’s crimes. On 4 January the Commons declared ‘That the people are, under God, the original of all just power: that the Commons of England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared for law by the Commons in Parliament assembled, hath the force of law, and all the people of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent and concurrence of King or House of Peers be not had thereunto’. Three days earlier an ordinance establishing a High Court of Justice had been sent to the Lords, which rejected it; this declaration of popular sovereignty, represented in the Commons, was to be the political basis of the trial of the King, and of the new political order.51

On 6 January the House of Commons passed an Act without the assent of the House of Lords or the King – that setting up the court to try the King. This was the first time that one House had legislated on its own, without the assent of the other and of the King, and referred to that as an Act. It was a practical assertion of Commons supremacy, based on the sovereignty of the people, which could not be overborne by the Negative Voice, or veto, of the Lords or the King. This was a practical, or functional, radicalization which overbore opposition to the policies now being pursued; but it was also an important principle that was being declared. Moreover, if Charles agreed to undergo trial on the basis of this legislation, or to participate in the trial, he would be assenting to the underlying constitutional claims. By the same token, of course, refusal to stand trial made an obvious and pretty mainstream repudiation of the army’s proceedings in a simple and effective way. The text of the Act, naturally enough, passed over these constitutional and legal difficulties, concentrating instead on the supposed crimes. A clause limiting the authority of the Act to one month gave some guarantee of an eventual return to constitutional government. Its effect, however, was to subordinate Parliament to the military – to drive a wedge, in fact, between the army and its remaining legal credibility. Even among the trial commissioners – 135 were appointed – there were significant divisions over this claim to popular sovereignty. Many of the tensions, ambiguities and hesitations of the following month derived from this particular contest about the origins of legitimate political power.52

Among those staging the trial were those who felt it was important that the proceedings should reflect their view that the regime was founded in popular sovereignty. For example, one possible site for the trial was Windsor, which would have protected the proceedings from the view of the world, and made it easier to deal with the King, and to protect his dignity. Others preferred to try the King publicly, as an open statement about the nature of the regime, and their views prevailed: the trial was held in the Great Hall at Westminster, home of the central courts of the English legal system. The publicity attending the trial was magnified by official and semi-official reporting. Daily accounts of proceedings by licensed journalists documented the trial – one royalist, one official parliamentarian account and several independent but broadly parliamentarian. It seems clear that those in the post-purge regime most committed to demonstrating the importance of popular sovereignty had a significant hand in these arrangements. At the same time, however, there was clearly a desire to demonstrate that this sovereignty could be expressed through established forms of government. Holding the trial in the Great Hall laid claim to legal authority, and for three days of the proceedings the royal arms appear to have hung over proceedings.53 Even at this stage the assertion of popular sovereignty did not necessarily imply the end of monarchy, or of Charles I.

The court met for the first time on 8 January, and consisted of commissioners who would be both judge and jury. Only 52 of the 135 named commissioners attended and the civilian members in particular seem to have stayed away. The Lords made a last-minute counter-proposal but the Commons were increasingly willing to do without the Lords – a new Great Seal was being made which disavowed any role in government for the Lords. The president was to be John Bradshaw, a Cheshire lawyer of gentry stock, who had built up a prosperous practice before the war and who had made his way in the legal service of the parliamentary cause thereafter with the backing of Independents. A second key decision about the trial was the nature of the charges. It took ten days to draw them up, starting on 9 January, and the controversy was essentially about whether to draw the charges narrowly or broadly. The chief prosecutor, John Cook, lost out in these discussions – he had drafted a very wide-ranging charge reminiscent of the Grand Remonstrance. Instead, what was charged was the shedding of his people’s blood since 1642, in England and Ireland but not in Scotland. As drawn up the charges were easy to beat and many amounted to little more than pointing out that he had been present at some of the battles of the first civil war. It was clearly difficult to prove, in court, that his presence on those occasions had been ‘carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation, by and from whom he was entrusted’. Still less did it clinch the argument that he was ‘the occasioner, author, and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel and bloody wars; and therein guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby’.54


The trial of Charles I

This latter phrase, which concludes the charge, is a more or less direct quotation from the army Remonstrance which preceded the purge, but its insistence on Charles as the sole author of the troubles made it unlikely to stick. It might in fact have been an invitation to get the King, having pleaded, to allow others to be executed instead of him. The army, in fact, had said as much: if this cannot be proved, ‘let him then be acquitted in judgement and the guilt and blame be laid where else it is due’.55 In any case, few people can have thought that this was the set of charges most likely to secure a conviction, and it may be that they were deliberately enfeebled – the obvious weakness of the charges might have served as a bait to get the King to plead. If this is right it suggests once more that the real point of the trial was to get the King to recognize the court, not to secure his conviction. If the King could be tempted to answer the charges he would, implicitly, have recognized the jurisdiction of the court, and the claims about the constitution that it implied. Once he had pleaded a number of outcomes were possible – restoration as a monarch fettered by the principle of popular sovereignty, or deposition in favour of the Duke of Gloucester among them. Just as importantly, a number of very unappealing outcomes would have been foreclosed.56 These were desperate calculations, made in dire political circumstances, and this is not a point that one would want to start from in constructing a settlement. But this was where things stood, and this was one way out, well short of regicide.

For Charles there was plenty of reason to believe that he could embarrass his prosecutors, by refusing to plead – he had good principled and practical reasons to deny the implied claims about popular sovereignty – and thereby confronting them with the divisive question of what to do next. Sure enough, when the King appeared, on 20 January, he demanded to hear proof of the jurisdiction of the court. On 22 January, Charles, ‘discoursing with those about him’, apparently ‘spoke very much against the court, as no true judicature, and that he did not believe the major part of the commissioners were of that opinion’.57 And there was the rub. This was to be Charles’s main contribution to the drama – his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal – and one significant source of encouragement to him in pursuing this line was that he did not believe his accusers were convinced about it either, and he was not completely wrong. He was certainly in a position to know that there were divisions even among those arranging the trial about what it was supposed to achieve, and he played on those divisions very successfully. He did not doff his hat to the officers of the court, and appeared in the garb of a Knight of the Garter, an expression of his respect for the aristocratic traditions of the English monarchy. He denied that this was a parliamentary court since he could not see any Lords, and he seemed willing to stand at the mention of the Lords but not in honour of the court as it was actually constituted. Charles apparently laughed at the charge of treason, and when he was told that his trial represented the will of the people, he replied that he was king by inheritance not election and so to answer would be in contravention of his coronation oath. As court room drama, the key issue was the nature of legitimate political authority, and both sides sought to make their case demonstratively.58

Before the formal proceedings began the use of the contempt clause was foreclosed – predicting that the King would refuse to plead, the trial organizers were anxious that this should not lead to an immediate condemnation. The first session of the court, on 20 January, had taken place on a Saturday. Bradshaw, apparently provoked by the King’s performance but unable to invoke the contempt clause, warned Charles to answer at his next appearance, on Monday, 22 January. A prayer meeting on the intervening Sunday was the occasion for further attempts to find a basis for compromise – Hugh Peter arguing for a distinction between salus populi (the good of the people) and vox populi (the voice of the people) as the governing principles of political legitimacy. Here, from a firebrand Independent preacher, was an olive branch to the King, who might in conscience subscribe to the first but not the second of these principles: indeed it is something he might himself have said in the late 1620s or during the Personal Rule. When proceedings resumed, the King refused once again to answer and was warned that the next time would be his last chance. In fact it was not. On the following day he refused again, and began to read a prepared statement about his grounds for refusing to answer. He now claimed, with some plausibility, to be the more credible defender of the people’s rights than this ‘court’, and stuck to his claim that he would answer for his conduct to a properly constituted parliament.59

After three formal sessions no progress had been made. The court took two days to consider the evidence that had been prepared to support the charges. This was hardly necessary since those who had prepared the charges and gathered the evidence were also those who were now hearing it. On 25 January it was resolved that the King was guilty and that his punishment might extend to death, but that this resolution was not binding on the court. After further debate the following day the court assembled again on 27 January and the King was given another chance to plead. He refused, and requested instead a conference with the two Houses. There was some concession here, however, since the terms in which he made this request did not presume the illegitimacy of the court before which he currently stood. This was in turn refused and he was offered two further chances to plead – these were the sixth and seventh opportunities since he was first offered his last chance. It is easy to see why the King might have remained confident that it was a bluff. Continued refusal to plead, and the ambiguity of the concession he had made to the authority of the court, had really backed the commissioners into a corner.60

At this dramatic moment, the will of the commissioners held – Charles was condemned. He seems to have been genuinely shocked by this – the patent hesitation and reluctance of his pretended judges had perhaps made it impossible for him to believe that they would actually go through with it. In any case, he now tried to speak to the charges. Now that he was no longer disputing jurisdiction, he evidently wanted to rebut these claims against him, but since the court had determined its judgement, and since he had not recognized its jurisdiction, there was little reason to let him. Bradshaw rather wearily silenced him.61

Judgement had come on 27 January, another Saturday, and over the rest of the weekend there were further delays in getting the death warrant signed. Here, too, there may have been attempts to pull back from the brink. Comparing the order of the signatures on the warrant with attendance records at the hearings reveals some anomalies – some of those present on 27 January did not sign, and some of those whose names appear high on the list of signatories were not, apparently, present for the condemnation on that day. There has been some technical discussion of this, and the anomalies may reflect the unreliability of the court’s attendance lists, but the simplest explanation may well be the correct one – that the death warrant was not drawn up until after the condemnation, and that signatures were collected on 29 January, the day before the King’s execution. If correct this gives plausibility to the story that the King was approached for a final time, between his condemnation and execution. The story goes that he was approached with a ‘paper book’ prepared by the army grandees, and that if he had been willing to sign it, he could have had his ‘life and some shadow of regality’. This story is usually discounted but it might be true – it was set down after the execution, when it was wistful rather than wishful thinking. It is certainly the case that the King had been approached between 27 and 29 January, since he was aware of the chosen place of execution.62

Whatever the truth of the claims about a last-minute attempt to negotiate, it is clear that some of those present for the condemnation did not sign the death warrant and that others agreed to sign the warrant only after being tracked down. Thirteen of those who signed were apparently present when the King was condemned, but not at the meeting in the Painted Chamber on 29 January when the warrant was presented. They must have been pursued for their signature subsequently. Condemnation was in all early modern proceedings a different thing from the execution of the sentence. It is reasonably likely that condemnation on 27 January, without naming the time and place of execution, had left room for a final attempt to avoid king-killing: to speak to the King with an axe to his neck, in the hope that some crucial concession might be secured in return for a pardon. When this failed too, a number of those who had been persuaded to go along with the condemnation became much less willing to see the sentence actually carried out: only fifty-nine of those present for the condemnation actually signed the death warrant.63

Much of this is guesswork, and it may be that there was more intent behind these proceedings than has been suggested here. But it is difficult to read all this as the proceedings of a military faction bent on a show-trial to be followed in short order by an execution. They seem more likely to have been elements of a negotiation, signs of a willingness to take drastic action in order to demonstrate that there was indeed a real threat to the King, despite the many reservations and hesitations among the parliamentarians, and that there was therefore some reason to try to reach a settlement.

But the pressure was certainly applied. It was later said that when the King heard that he was going to be moved from Hurst Castle to Windsor accompanied by Colonel Thomas Harrison, he feared that he would be killed at some lonely spot – it had not escaped his ears that Harrison had favoured assassination at an earlier point in negotiations. Harrison, the godly soldier who had experienced rapture at Langport, reassured the King that in fact all he had said was that justice should have no respect of persons, great or small. Harrison was a willing regicide, but not a murderer.64

At Windsor, Charles had touched for the King’s Evil, until his captors had stopped him doing so. From there he was taken to St James on the eve of formal proceedings and his conditions seem to have been much worse. Writing much later, Clarendon dwelt on the petty humiliations. No-one other than his guards had access to him, but he was never free from his guards, ‘some of whom sat up always in his bedchamber, and drank and took tobacco… nor was he suffered to go into any other room, either to say his prayers or to receive the ordinary benefits of nature, but was obliged to do both in their presence and before them’. Such ‘rudeness’ and ‘barbarity’ represented a kind of ‘monstrous duty’ and soldiers were apparently only asked to do it once. Charles’s refusal to plead in the formal proceedings, and his refusal to show the proper deference in his gestures and demeanour, was echoed by his prosecutors. In particular Bradshaw was castigated by posterity for his arrogance and insolence – he ‘insolently reprehended the King for not having stirred his hat’ and his manner was marked by ‘great sauciness and impudence of talk’. But this was political theatre of course. The court could not show deference to this man, Charles Stuart, who stood before it, denying its jurisdiction over him: Bradshaw’s point, even on a hostile reading, was that the King had not shown ‘more respect to that high tribunal’.65

Publicity was part of the trial, and it was political theatre for all parties, but it was not all choreographed. Here again there was a relatively even battle. For example, when proceedings opened and the roll of the names of the commissioners was called silence greeted Fairfax’s name. When it was called a second time his wife called out from the gallery that ‘he has more wit than to be here’. Her voice rang out again when the impeachment was read in the name of ‘the good people of England’: ‘It is a lie, not half, nor a quarter of the people of England. Oliver Cromwell is a traitor’. Exasperated, Daniel Axtell, who was commanding the guard in the court, ordered shot to be fired into the box, but wiser counsels prevailed.66 Although this rather intemperate order was not obeyed, Axtell remained sufficiently prominent in proceedings that he could incite the soldiers to chant ‘justice, justice’ as Charles was led away at the end of proceedings.67 Clarendon claimed that Axtell’s brutality was matched by others present: although in the course of the trial ‘there was in many persons present… a real duty and compassion for the King, so there was in others so barbarous and brutal a behaviour towards him, that they called him Tyrant and Murderer, and one spit in his face; which his majesty, without expressing any trouble, wiped off with a handkerchief’. Another reasonably well-attested story is that Charles tried to interrupt Cook as he read the charge by touching him on the sleeve with his cane. As he reached over the silver tip of the cane came off and there was a momentary pause as Charles waited for someone to retrieve it, before doing so himself.68

These stories of cruelties and indignities suffered silently and patiently in the name of larger ideas formed the bedrock of Charles’s martyrdom: by the time Clarendon wrote he felt that ‘the saint-like behaviour of that blessed martyr, and his Christian courage and patience at his death, are … so well known’ that there was no need to enlarge upon them.69 This martyrdom he willingly embraced on the scaffold, and in the subsequent propaganda battle both sides had reason to play down the ambiguities and tensions of the trial. Charles, in Clarendon’s and subsequent accounts, was the patiently suffering martyr in the trial who died a good death on the scaffold. His judges were later portrayed by their partisans as implacably pursuing justice on that man – both sides found a simpler version of the trial as a foregone conclusion, or an unavoidable act of justice, useful to their self-image.

All this is not to deny that Charles did indeed conduct himself bravely both during the trial – where he apparently shed a life-long stutter in delivering a commanding performance – and on the scaffold. In preparation for his execution, Charles burned his papers and was visited by his two youngest children, Henry and Mary, on 29 January. Sentence was carried out on 30 January in Whitehall, probably because it was more easily policed than Tyburn or the Tower. Again there is significance to this choice of site, and irony too. Charles was led to the scaffold through the Banqueting House, Inigo Jones’s masterpiece which he had once dreamed of turning into part of the frontage of a massive new palace on the Thames. The ceiling under which he passed was decorated with Rubens’s Apotheosis of James I – a giant portrait of his father and a powerful representation of Stuart aspirations for the English monarchy. There were fears that he would make a scene on the scaffold and his execution was delayed to allow the Houses to pass an ordinance forbidding the naming of a successor. In anticipation that he might not co-operate the scaffold had been prepared to allow for the King to be roped down, but they need not have worried. Charles gave, literally, the performance of his life. Dressed in an extra shirt in order to avoid shivering and thereby giving the appearance of fear, he finally delivered his answer to the charges laid against him in the high court. Predictably, given the weakness of the charges, his response was ringing and effective. Two days earlier it would have saved his neck, but not perhaps the monarchy in a form he could accept. Unusually, his executioners were disguised and, equally unusually, he did not forgive them for what they were about to do.70

The response of the crowd was horrified, and two troops of horse were set to patrol the streets in anticipation of trouble. The fatal blow was said to have been greeted with a groan: ‘such a groan as I never heard before, and desire I may never hear again’, remembered one witness who was seventeen on the day that the axe fell.71 But quite what the groan meant is not clear – regret at the cruel necessity which Cromwell was later said to bemoan? Shock at the rupture of the divine order or more prosaic fears for the future? A late outpouring of love and loyalty to the monarch? The most famous image of the execution, complete with swooning woman in the foreground, was produced in Holland two years after the fact and has to be distrusted – such images were clearly of political importance at that point, and may have been intended as political interventions. Nonetheless, shock at the execution clearly did resonate, and is easy to reconcile with the reservations of those who actually orchestrated these events.


The execution of Charles I

Royalists of course were clear what the groan had meant: ‘None of the Kings, no not one,… ever left the world with more sorrow: women miscarried, men fell into melancholy, some with consternations expired; men women and children then, and yet unborn, suffering in him and for him’. But a provincial Puritan who noted the shock at news of the execution – ‘There was such a consternation among the common people throughout the nation, that one neighbour durst scarcely speak to another when they met in the streets’ – thought it did not denote disapproval – ‘not from any abhorrence at the action, but in surprise at the rarity and infrequency of it’.72 William Simpson, drinking in the Dolphin at Bishopsgate, London, in March 1649, ‘drank a health to Charles II and confusion to the parliament’, but was denounced to a parliamentary committee a month later as ‘a malignant spirit’ who had ‘several times vented his malice against the parliament by evil speaking’. In Stratford-upon-Avon around the same time Thomas Sharpe, a parliamentary soldier with seven years” service behind him, was assaulted by William Greene, an ‘inveterate malignant who has several times raised the rabble people of the said town against the parliament soldiers’. Hearing that Sharpe had arrived in town he came out of his house ‘with a great club in his hand and unexpectedly… without any provocation’ attacked Sharpe. Opinion in the provinces was probably no less complex and divided about the regicide than about any of the other major political turning points of the decade.73

Ralph Josselin, an Essex Puritan who set much store by providence, had in August interpreted another impending harvest failure as a judgement on the divisions among the righteous: ‘the nations sins are many and sad, Lord let public ones be pardoned’, he wrote, noting as causes of the Lord’s anger ‘the war in the nation, the divisions among ourselves; our cryings out after peace on any terms to save our skins, and estates whatsoever become of others’. Here was a Puritan opposed to an easy settlement, and the Engagers” cause, but he was not reassured by the regicide a few months later: ‘I was much troubled with the black providence of putting the King to death, my tears were not restrained at the passages about his death, the lord in mercy lay it not as sin to the charge of the kingdom, but in mercy do us good by the same’. His diary is not clear, but his tears for Charles seem to have been personal sympathy as much as settled hostility to the act: ‘the death of the king talked much of, very many men of the weaker sort of Christians in divers places passionate concerning it, but so ungroundedly, that it would make any to bleed to observe it’. Even for those anxious about the Treaty of Newport and an easy settlement the regicide did not appear an easy answer; but neither did the immediate hostility of the ungodly to the act, either. In the face of these difficulties Josselin was in the hands of God: ‘the lord has some great thing to do, fear and tremble at it oh England’.74

Some at least clearly approved. When soldiers in Yorkshire mistook a relative of Fairfax for his wife, Lady Fairfax, the vociferous dissenter at the trial, they held a pistol at her breast in her coach.75 Samuel Pepys, then fifteen and at school at St Paul’s, remembered celebrating the execution – if invited to preach on that day his text would have been ‘And the memory of the wicked shall rot’.76 This transgressive thrill was also felt by others. The identity of the executioners was not known – later rumours suggested that it might have been Cromwell and Fairfax, William Walker or Hugh Peter – suggesting fear of reprisal. But after the Restoration, when a concerted effort was made to identify them, it emerged that pretending to have been an executioner had been a promising way for one Phineas Payne to impress countrymen in London shops on the day of the execution. A number of others got in trouble for such boasting eleven years later.77

Charles was buried on 8 February at Windsor, not Westminster, and the ceremony was conducted in silence because the military governor had refused permission to use the Book of Common Prayer.78

The purged parliamentary regime and its friends in the army had been unsure about regicide, and most reactions to the execution suggest that they were not political winners as a result of having carried it out. Charles, on the other hand, clearly did secure a political victory, for the day of his death was also the day of his rebirth, or at least reinvention. During the 1630s two dominant images of Charles had been projected – the austere and distant patriarch of the Van Dyck portraits and the dispeller of discord celebrated in court masques. From the mid-1640s these were increasingly abandoned in favour of the suffering king, protecting sacred monarchy from the passions of malicious spirits. An identity was created between the sufferings of the King and of his subjects. This transformation was epitomized in the Eikon Basilike, the supposedly autobiographical account of his travails and martyrdom. Charles had probably approved the text at Newport, during his close captivity. In any case the book, advance copies of which were available on the morning of the execution, was an instant publishing success, enjoying thirty-five editions in 1649 alone. Over the following decade it was translated into Latin, French, German, Dutch and Danish. It was also set in verse and to music. It created, in the words of one historian, ‘the King Charles experience’. It was by far the greatest propaganda success following the regicide, calling forth anxious, and ineffective, rival histories. Those facing execution, as we have seen, could accept their death but deny the justice of it by appealing to the ideal of martyrdom. This Charles did with tremendous, and immediate, effect. His opponents were irritated by this success and by the partiality of the account – after his cabinet was opened at Naseby, Charles can hardly have hoped to be so read, or so believed. As history the Eikon is clearly flawed, but the poetic meaning obviously spoke to many readers: this truth about Charles’s martyrdom was powerful, more powerful than the man when alive. Following his death a handkerchief stained with his blood was said to have in it the power to heal scrofula. Those of his supporters who had, in the months around the trial, seemed to favour his execution were vindicated by the power of this image of Anglican royalism. The resonance was with Christ, but in one sense it was a more remarkable event – Charles rose again, effectively, on the very same day.79


The frontispiece of Eikon Basilike portraying Charles I, the royal martyr

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