Martyr King or tyrant?

Today we remember Charles I, executed this day in 1649.

At 2 o clock in the afternoon Charles went through the open middle window of the great Banqueting Hall on Whitehall, to stand on the scaffold that had been erected. He handed the jewel of the George and Garter to Bishop Juxon and laid his head on the block. At four minutes past 2 pm the executioner wielded the axe as the crowd watched in silence.

The decision to kill the King had not come easily or swiftly to the revolutionaries. Cromwell himself was a late convert to the cause. The purge of Parliament left only 26 MPs prepared to vote to put the King on trial, with a further 20 voting against. Many of the 135 Commissioners appointed by Parliament refused to serve. Lady Fairfax shouted down from the gallery during the trial that Cromwell was a traitor. Charles himself attended the court, set up in Westminster Hall, but rejected its jurisdiction. In an attempt to rally his supporters, he argued “ The King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my cause alone., it is the freedom and liberty of the people of England”. Some agreed with him, but not enough in the corridors of power, purged of royalist support.

Cromwell found it difficult to persuade many to sign the death warrant, as he tried to involve as many of the senior politicians as possible to spread the blame and create the impression of wide support for the deed.

It was a huge event in English history. In a strange way it may even have been an important part of the reason why monarchy survived. Soon after the death stories circulated that were far more favourable to the martyr King than anything that people had thought whilst he was still alive. Eikon Basilike, the ghosted account of his meditations in his last days, was a popular work that fanned the more favourable impressions of the dead monarch. As the English Revolution went on its middle class way, based on the alliance of Parliament with the much improved English army, the navy and the City, it suppressed the more radical and democratic ideas of the Levellers and ultra puritans. Cromwell assumed more and more the powers of a King, and followed a policy of conquest in Ireland and commercial expansion and anti Dutch activity overseas.

<a href=’’ title=’Charles I’><img src=’’ alt=’Charles I’ /></a>

The final Restoration of Charles II completed what some of the MPs had set out to achieve – a more limited monarchy that usually needed to govern in consultation with Parliament. The death of the King in 1649 was a step too far not just for royalists but for many moderates. The absence of a King for 11 years made it more likely the monarchy would be restored on terms acceptable to the people with power in society, the merchants, the landowners, the City and the military establishment. Charles had pushed the nation’s patience too far and had ignored Parliament for too long in the 1630s. The revolutionaries went too far by killing the King for the good of their own radical ideas. We should mourn the savage death of the man, and be grateful for the very English compromise that emerged in 1660.


  1. newmania
    January 30, 2008

    I think that is what they call the Whig view of history isn

  2. anoneumouse
    January 30, 2008

    And now we have parliament (a collective king) and they better beware. Passing the peoples liberties to a foreign power (EU) is the fuel for the next populace insurrection.

    Hemp rope and lamp posts are a plenty

  3. Neil Craig
    January 30, 2008

    Kings have shown little compunction about killing kings. Look at Richard II or Edward II (not good being 2nd). The difference is that when the middle classes took over they insisted on doing it legally. To be fair Elizabeth deserves some credit for killing Mary fairly legally.

    The establishment of the rule of law was far more important & far more enduring than what happened to Charles. All jobs have their downside & being killed is the main one the head that wears the crown has. Very many less deserving people died & indeed still die & we don't get excited about them.

  4. […] Redwood

  5. Tony Makara
    January 30, 2008

    A good piece John, you should pen more of these historical reflections. They are not only educational but remind us that where we stand today is conditioned by what went before. Just as the things our parliament does today will effect generations to come. Excellent analysis as ever.

  6. mikestallard
    January 31, 2008

    I totally agree with Tony Makara.
    If only this was taught in schools!

  7. Diablo
    February 1, 2008

    What a salutary reminder that we have had 11 years of the New Labour "revolution" and where it has taken us. Time for a modern-day "restoration"?

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