XI. FINIS: 1648–49

Cromwell’s energy made short work of the Second Civil War. While Fairfax put down Royalist revolts in Kent, Oliver turned west and captured a Royalist stronghold in Wales. The Scots crossed the Tweed on July 8 and moved with alarming speed to within forty miles of Liverpool. At Preston, in Lancashire, Cromwell’s nine thousand men met twice that number of Scots and Cavaliers and overwhelmed them (August 17).

While Cromwell and his army were saving Parliament, it plotted to protect itself from them by reopening negotiations for the restoration of the King. But it insisted that he should sign and enforce the Covenant; he would not. The returning army offered to support his restoration with severe limitations on the royal prerogative; he refused (November 17). To prevent his being restored by Parliament, the army captured him again and lodged him in Hurst Castle, opposite the Isle of Wight. Parliament condemned the action and voted to accept the King’s latest terms as a basis for settlement. The army leaders, anticipating death if Charles were restored, declared that none might be permitted to pass into the House but such as had continued “faithful to the public interest.” Early on December 6 Colonel Thomas Pride and a troop of soldiers surrounded and invaded the House of Commons and barred or expelled 140 Royalist and Presbyterian members; forty who resisted were jailed.98 Cromwell approved the action, and joined in voting for the speedy trial and execution of the King.

Of the five hundred members who in 1640 had composed the House of Commons only fifty-six now remained. This “Rump Parliament,” by a majority of six, passed an ordinance declaring it treason for a king to make war upon Parliament. The Lords rejected the ordinance as beyond the authority of the Commons; the Commons thereupon (January 4, 1649) resolved that the people were, “under God, the original of all just power”; that the Commons, as representing the people, had “the supreme power in this nation”; and that therefore its enactments, without the consent of the Lords or the king, had the force of law. On January 6 they named 135 commissioners to try the King. One commissioner, Algernon Sidney, told Cromwell they had no legal authority to try a king. Cromwell lost his temper. “I tell you,” he cried, “we will cut off his head with the crown upon it.”99 The army leaders made a last attempt to avoid regicide; they offered to acquit Charles if he would agree to the sale of the bishops’ lands and resign the power to veto the ordinances of Parliament. He said he could not, for he had sworn to be faithful to the Church of England. There was no question of his courage.

The trial began on January 19, 1649. The sixty or seventy impromptu judges who consented to act sat on a raised dais at one end of Westminster Hall, soldiers stood at the other, spectators thronged the galleries; Charles was seated in the center, alone. The presiding officer, John Bradshaw, stated the charge and asked the King to answer. Charles denied the authority of the court to try him, or that it represented the people of England, and claimed that government by a Rump Parliament dominated by the army was a worse tyranny than any he had ever shown. The galleries cried, “God save the King!” The pulpits condemned the trial; Bradshaw feared for his life in the streets. Prince Charles dispatched from Holland a sheet bearing only his signature, and promised the judges to abide by any terms they would write over his name if they would spare his father’s life.100 Four nobles offered to die in Charles’s stead; they were refused.101 Fifty-nine judges, including Cromwell, signed the death sentence. On January 30, before a vast and horror-stricken crowd, the King went quietly to his death. His head was severed with one blow of the executioner’s ax. “There was such a groan by the thousands then present,” wrote an eyewitness, “as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again.”102

Was the execution legal? Of course not. On the basis of existing law, the Parliament progressively and rudely appropriated royal rights sanctioned by the precedents of a hundred years. By definition a revolution is illegal; it can advance to the new only by violating the old. Charles was sincere in defending the powers he had inherited from Elizabeth and James; he was sinned against as well as sinning; his fatal error lay in not recognizing that the new distribution of wealth required, for social stability, a new distribution of political power.

Was the execution just? Yes, so far as war is just. Once law is set aside by trial at arms, the defeated may ask for mercy, but the victor may exact the ultimate penalty if he judges it necessary as a preventive of renewed resistance, or as a deterrent to others, or as protection for the lives of himself and his followers. Presumably a triumphant King would have hanged Cromwell, Ireton, Fairfax, and many more, perhaps with the tortures regularly allotted to persons convicted of treason.

Was the execution wise? Probably not. Cromwell apparently believed that a live king, no matter how securely imprisoned, would be a stimulus to repeated Royalist revolts. But so would the King’s son, unreachable in France or Holland, as yet unblemished with his father’s faults, and soon to be glorified with romance. The execution of Charles I led to a foreseeable revulsion of national feeling, which in eleven years restored his line. Subsequent history suggests that mercy would have been wisdom. When Charles’s son James II gave equally great offense, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, managed with aristocratic finesse, deliberately allowed him to escape to France; and the results of that deposition were permanent. However, it was the earlier Rebellion that made the later Revolution possible in all its swift effectiveness.

The Great Rebellion corresponded both to the Huguenot uprisings in sixteenth-century France and, despite many differences, to the French Revolution of 1789—in the first case the insurrection of a stern and simple Calvinism, sinewed by mercantile wealth, against a ritualistic Church and an absolutist government; in the second case the revolt of a national assembly, expressing the power of the purse and the middle class, against a landed aristocracy led by a well-meaning but blundering ruler. By 1789 the English had digested their two rebellions, and could look with horror and eloquence upon a revolution that, like its own, incarnadined a country and killed a king because the past had tried to stand still.


I.In 1631, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams advocated unlimited toleration for Catholics, Jews, and infidels.

II.Excerpts from the Westminster Confession, ch. III: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death…. Those of mankind that are predestined unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them … and all to the praise of His glorious grace … The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious iustice.”86

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