At around 2pm on 30 January, 1649 one of the most extraordinary things to ever happen in Britain happened. The reigning king was executed and, more than this, the British monarchy ended as a Bill had been hastily pushed through Parliament such that no one else could succeed Charles I to the throne.
As I indicated in my review on Banqueting House, James I (Charles I’s father) had made it very public his view that the King had a divine right to rule – James saw himself as God’s Lieutenant on Earth. When Charles I came to the throne in 1625 one of his first acts was to engage the Flemish artist John Paul Rubens to paint a series of pictures for the ceiling of the Banqueting House essentially celebrating James I and the divine status of the monarchy. It is rather ironic that Charles’ last 120 feet walk on earth, to the scaffold on which he would be beheaded, would be down the length of the great hall in Banqueting House, under Rubens’ painted ceiling.
During his reign Charles I displayed an arrogance, self-righteousness, aloofness and deviousness that no king or queen had hitherto shown and which none has exhibited since. He managed to upset everyone and made no attempts to make amends. Had he ‘played the game’ he need not have died when he did.
Within a year of being crowned Charles offended his Protestant subjects, especially the Puritans, by marrying Henrietta Maria, a Catholic French princess and by favouring a High Anglican form of worship. When Parliament disagreed with him, mainly over his demands for money, he dissolved it. He did this on three occasions before he ‘got rid of it’ in 1629 and resolved to rule his Kingdom without it. His attempts to raise revenue outside of Parliament made him even more unpopular as did his attempts to force an Anglican prayer book on Scottish Presbyterians. Tensions increased further with disagreements as to who should command an army to suppress revolts in Ireland in late 1641. This and the ongoing struggle between King and Parliament for supremacy brought things to a climax with the outbreak of the first English Civil War in 1642.
After some initial success the Royalists soon lost out and in 1646 (during the second Civil War) Charles surrendered to the Parliamentarian forces led by Oliver Cromwell (depicted alongside). The King was held in custody at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight were a number of attempts were made to negotiate a new constitutional settlement with him. Charles refused to co-operate and wasn’t having a bar of watering down the power of the monarchy. While in custody Charles secretly negotiated for the Scots to invade the North of England and made various attempts to escape. Cromwell finally lost his patience with Charles and resolved to put the King on trial for treason.
Once the decision was taken that Charles must be held to account, no law could be found that dealt with the trial of a monarch. Eventually a Dutch lawyer, Issac Dorislaus, found an ancient Roman law which stated that a military body (in this case the government) could legally overthrow a tyrant. While a legitimate procedure and court were sorted out Cromwell left naysayers in no doubt that he had only one outcome in mind, ‘I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown on it’.
Charles was put on trial in Westminster Hall on 20 January 1649. The King was charged with subverting the fundamental laws and liberties of the nation and with maliciously making war on the parliament and people of England.
Charles refused to recognise the court or enter a plea:
‘….. I would know by what authority I was brought from thence [the Isle of Wight], and carried from place to place, and I know not what: and when I know what lawful authority, I should answer. Remember, I am your King, your lawful King… I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent; I will not betray it, to answer you a new unlawful authority…..’
After the Royalist members had been excluded from Parliament and the opinion of the House of Lords ignored it was decreed on 27 January 1649, by what became known as the Rump Parliament, that the King was guilty as charged and that
‘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 thus established that a monarch should be accountable for there actions to their subjects – at the cost of a king and around 185,000 lives in two civil wars. Oliver Cromwell, and 58 others signed the King’s death warrant.
As indicated earlier, Charles was executed on 30 January 1649 outside the Banqueting House. A special balcony was constructed for the occasion opening out from where a large picture of Charles can be seen today, on the stairway up to the main hall. A bust of the former king marks the approximate position of the balcony on the exterior of the building – where visitors enter it to-day.
The 30 January 1649 was a bitterly cold day. Not wishing his shivering to be mistaken for fear, Charles’ request to wear an additional shirt was granted.
Defiant to the end and still convinced that his Kingship was divinely anointed his last utterance was
‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.’
With that he took off his cloak and Garter insignia, and laid his neck on the executioner’s block. With one clean strike his head was severed, to a low audible groan from the crowd assembled below. Charles I was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
If you look across the road from Banqueting House you can see the Horse Guards clock tower. Look carefully and you will notice a black mark at 2pm – supposedly marking the time of Charles’ execution, back in 1649.
On the 6th February, 1649, the monarchy was abolished. Parliament decreed that
‘the office of the king in this nation is unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, society and public interest of the people.’
The monarchy was replaced by an English Commonwealth (Republic) lead by Oliver Cromwell. This lasted until 1660 when Cromwell’s son, Richard, who succeeded him, was forced to flee to France and the monarchy was restored with the crowning in Charles II, Charles Is son. In 1661 Oliver Cromwell was posthumously convicted of treason, and his body was disinterred from its tomb in Westminster Abbey and hanged from the gallows at Tyburn. Cromwell’s severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685.
Location of Execution : Banqueting House, Whitehall