Today in London’s rebel past: king Charles sentenced to death, 1649

“This court is in judgment and conscience satisfied that he (the said Charles Stuart) is guilty of levying war against the said Parliament and people… he hath been and is guilty of the wicked designs and endeavors… unnatural, cruel, and bloody wars, and therein guilty of High Treason and of the murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damage, and mischief to this nation acted and committed in the said war and occasioned thereby…

“For all which treasons and crimes this court doth adjudge that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.”

On January 1st 1649, the Rump Parliament passed an ordinance for the trial of king Charles I, on charges of subverting the fundamental laws and liberties of the nation and with maliciously making war on the parliament and people of England, by instigating the English Civil War.

Parliament reversed the previously accepted definition of treason, by declaring that it was treason for a king to wage war upon his subjects. The House of Lords refused to pass this ordinance, but the House of Commons declared itself to be the supreme authority in the land with powers to pass laws without the consent of the King or the Lords. (Two months later the House of Commons would abolish the House of Lords completely, along with the monarchy.)

The trial began on January 20th 1649, before a specially convened High Court of Justice, in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster. 135 commissioners were nominated to sit in judgement on the King, but fifty refused to take part, and others dropped out once the proceedings had begun. (In the end only 58 signed the death warrant.) Although the court hearings were open and public, strict security measures had to be enforced: soldiers were stationed to control the crowds, guards posted on the roofs, and cellars were searched. President of the court, John Bradshaw wore a steel-lined bullet-proof hat in case anyone attempted to assassinate him.

The king refused to answer the charges, and refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Court. He considered his authority to come from God, which put him above the law, not answerable to parliament, or any worldly judge. Parliament however posed an opposite view of the basis of kingship, founded in the nation as a commonwealth of the people. If there was a sacred reciprocal bond between king and subject, it was a contract, binding both in responsibility, which Charles Stuart had broken.

On January 25th, the depositions of thirty-three witnesses against the King were read out in a public session, giving evidence of the King’s personal participation in the wars, his approval of various atrocities, including the torture of prisoners, and demonstrated his intention of stirring up and continuing the conflict. The next day, the commissioners drafted the sentence, condemning Charles Stuart as a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the Commonwealth of England”.

On 27th January, the court held its final session. Bradshaw gave a 40-minute address to the prisoner, asserting the parliamentary position that even a king was subject to the law, and that the law proceeded from Parliament. By making war on his own people, he had forfeit his right to their allegiance. Declaring Charles guilty of the charges against him, Bradshaw ordered the sentence of death to be read out. Charles was not allowed to speak and was led away from the court to await his execution, which took place on the 30th of January.

It’s easy now to not recognise the revolutionary nature of this event… It was the first time a head of state had been put on trial. Asserting that kings were not ordained by God, but were only made by, and were accountable to, their subjects; putting the king on trial for betraying that trust – these were truly ground-breaking ideas and acts. Parliament was at this time attempting to hold the English Revolution to what it saw as a more moderate course than pressure from many of the radical movements which had grown up during the civil wars; to some extent it was pushed into the execution of the king by the widespread anger against him in the country. It was also true that the army had become a powerful force in its own right in the preceding years, and the constant presence of soldiers in the court served to remind everyone of this. Interestingly, some of the radicals opposed putting the king to death. Leveller leader John Lilburne, for instance, held it to be a mistake; the institution of monarchy should be held to account, but the parliament as it then stood was not representative of the people, as the leveller agitations for an increase in the franchise had been defeated by Cromwell and the army grandees. Lilburne felt the king’s trial should be postponed until after a new parliament had been elected under a widened democracy. Lilburne, despite fighting in the civil war, feared that the power of the army was now paramount and threatened the liberties for which he and others had fought.

Of the ‘regicides’ who signed the king’s death warrant, those that survived the Commonwealth were arrested, faced rigged trials and nine (plus four other leading republicans) were themselves put to death at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The bodies of Oliver Cromwell and others already dead, plus some of their relatives, were dug up and hung in chains at Tyburn. Nineteen other signatories were imprisoned for life. Seven escaped Charles II’s revenge, fleeing to Europe; three ending up in the American colonies, where they lived in hiding or under assumed names, and were never arrested, despite being searched for by the king’s agents.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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