Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

Trial and Death of Charles I

Meanwhile the king was removed from Carisbrooke to Hurst Castle, and on December 23rd was brought to Windsor. During the next week his fate was discussed. Cromwell tried hard to find a way by which the king's life could be spared. When he found that Charles would rather part with his life than give up his kingly power, and that the leading officers were equally determined to accept no terms proposed by the king, Cromwell took the firm resolution that the king must die. When someone objected that the king could not be tried by the court set up by the Rump Parliament, "I tell you," said Cromwell, "we will cut off his head with the crown upon it."

The trial of the king was a strange and terrible scene. Before he could be tried at all, several revolutionary measures were necessary, even though the House of Commons had been made a mere shadow of the army when Colonel Pride "purged" it. First the Commons passed an Ordinance to form a special court for the king's trial. The House of Lords, also reduced to a shadow—there were now only seven members—rejected the Ordinance. The Commons then passed resolutions that the people are, under God, the origin of all just power, and that the Commons, in Parliament assembled, have the supreme power. Their acts were to have the force of law, even without the agreement of the Lords and the king.

Charles I of England


On January 6th, 1649, the Act was passed, creating a High Court of Justice for the trial. The Act stated all the king's crimes; these were—that he had tried to ruin the ancient laws and liberties of this nation, and had carried out his design with fire and sword, and had levied and maintained a cruel war in the land against the Parliament and kingdom.

Of the 138 Commissioners named to act as the judges at the trial, only sixty-eight appeared on the day of the trial, January 20th. At one o'clock the Court assembled in Westminster Hall. At the south end a wooden platform was erected on which sat the whole body of the king's judges, with Bradshaw as President of the Court.

A chair covered with crimson velvet was placed directly in front of the President, and in it sat the king guarded by Colonel Hacker. Colonel Axtell with a large body of soldiers kept back the crowd of spectators. John Cook, the Solicitor of the Commonwealth, read the charges against Charles Stuart and impeached him as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public and implacable enemy of the Commonwealth of England. Whilst this was read, Charles attempted to interrupt by touching the solicitor with his silver-headed staff. But the head fell off, and no one offering to pick it up for him, he stooped down for it himself. Hearing himself styled a traitor, he burst into a laugh.

Charles demanded of his judges by what authority he had been brought to the bar. Bradshaw replied, "By the authority of the people of England."

Charles refused to plead, except before a lawful authority. "It is not my case alone," he said; "it is the freedom and liberty of the people of England; and do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties. For if power without law may make laws, and may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life, or anything that he calls his own."

banqueting House


On the 27th, after nearly a week of private discussion, the Court delivered sentence, that the king was guilty and must be beheaded as a traitor. He had refused to plead before the Court, but he asked that he might address the Lords and Commons instead. After the sentence he attempted to speak. "Your time is now past," replied Bradshaw. He struggled to be heard. "Guard, withdraw your prisoner," ordered Bradshaw. "I am not suffered to speak," cried Charles. "Expect what justice other people will have."

Even yet there was a faint hope for the king's life. The night after the trial he slept at Whitehall for the last time. On Sunday the 28th he listened to the prayers of the Church read to him by Bishop Juxon. At five o'clock he was led to St. James's Palace, perhaps to be out of earshot whilst his scaffold was prepared. Meanwhile the regicides (or king-killers), as the king's judges came to be called, were almost overwhelmed by appeals and protests and petitions to spare the king's life.

The Prince of Wales sent a blank sheet of paper signed and sealed by himself, on which the Parliament might inscribe any terms they pleased. The death-warrant had not yet been signed by nearly all the judges, and many repented having signed it. It was Cromwell's stern unbending will that forced the judges to carry out their own sentence.

The king bore himself with great dignity. He spent much time in prayer, burnt his papers, distributed various gifts, and Execution of took leave of his children. His wife he had not seen for nearly five years. On Monday night he slept at St. James's, and on the last day, Tuesday, he rose before daylight. "Let me have a shirt, more than ordinary," he said to his servant Thomas Herbert. "The season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some will imagine proceeds from fear. Death is not terrible to me. I bless my God I am prepared."

Bishop Juxon read the morning service, and Charles continued in prayer until Colonel Hacker knocked at the door to summon him to Whitehall. Accompanied by the bishop, Colonel Tomlinson, and Herbert, he walked across St. James's Park between a double row of soldiers. At Whitehall he had to wait some hours, for the scaffold had to be prepared, so as to make any attempt at resistance impossible.

Charles I of England


About two o'clock the king stepped forth, probably from the central window of the Banqueting House. Juxon was still with him. The others on the scaffold were Colonels Hacker and Tomlinson and the two masked executioners. Around the scaffold were troops of horse and foot, and behind them surged the crowd.

Charles could not be heard below, but addressing himself to Juxon and Tomlinson, he declared that "Not he but the Parliament had originated the Civil War." He prayed that his enemies might be forgiven. "For the people . . . I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having government, those laws by which their lives and their goods may be most their own. It is not their having a share in the government: that is nothing appertaining unto them."

He then knelt down, placed his neck on the block, and in a moment all was over. "Behold the head of a traitor," cried the executioner. A groan of horror arose, and the troops began to patrol the street and to disperse the angry crowd.

A poet living at that time—Andrew Marvell, whose sympathies were with the Parliament—wrote these lines on the king's death:—

He nothing common did or mean

Upon that memorable scene,

But with his keener eye

The axe's edge did try;

Nor called the gods, with vulgar spite,

To vindicate his hopeless right;

But bowed his comely head

Down as upon a bed.