On January 30, 1649, Stuart King Charles I was convicted of high treason and executed following the Second Civil War of England.
The trial and execution of Charles I became a central episode in the history of Stuart England. Charles I (born in November 1600) became the monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland on March 27, 1625. His father, King James VI, was the monarch of Scotland but inherited the throne of England. In 1612, when his elder brother died Charles I became heir apparent. Following an unsuccessful attempt at marrying a Spanish Habsburg princess, Charles assumed the throne in 1625. Even as he embarked upon his kingship, Charles antagonized his Protestant subjects due to his unpopular marriage with the Catholic French princess, Henrietta Maria.
Charles was an ardent follower of the theory of divine origin of monarchy. He believed that the Parliament of England was ill-disposed towards the monarchy’s authority and was out to curb the powers of the royalty. In this belief and with complete faith in his own ability to govern the kingdoms without the support of the Members of Parliament, Charles built up a staunch antagonism with the Parliament. His failure to receive the assent of the Parliament in many important decisions including the taxation of his subjects and his pro-Catholic religious policies lent Charles the image of an absolute and tyrannical monarch. He dissolved the Parliament on many occasions.
Apart from his constant friction with the Parliament, the staunchly Protestant subjects of Charles did not take kindly to his failure to sponsor Protestant forces in the Thirty Years’ War. Charles’ support of the an episcopal system of church government for Scotland led to the Bellum Episcopale or the Bishops’ Wars that ultimately strengthened the parliaments of England and Scotland leading up to the English Civil War.
From 1642, the Royalist forces led by Charles fought the armies of the Parliamentarians which were led by Oliver Cromwell in a widespread Civil War. With a resounding defeat in 1645, Charles was held captive by the Scottish troops who later handed him to the English Parliament. Confident that regicide would still not be favored by the masses, Charles refused to acquiesce to any demands of a constitutional monarchy. In November 1947, Charles escaped his captives but was soon found and re-imprisoned on the Isle of Wight. In 1648 Charles was tried and convicted for high treason by a court controlled by Oliver Cromwell.
Even in December 1648, most of the Members of the British Parliament did not want to see the king put on trial.
Oliver Cromwell enlisted the support of Colonel Pride and some soldiers to prevent those who might oppose the trial from entering the parliament. Only those MPs who were sympathetic to Cromwell and supported a trial were allowed into the Parliament. This ‘Rump Parliament’ consisted of only 46 men and about 26 of these Cromwell-supporters cast their votes in favor of trying the king.
Charles was put on trial on January 1, 1649 in London. Since no law in England had been written detailing the trial of a king, and so Issac Dorislaus, a Dutch lawyer, was commissioned to draft the order that would set up a court and try Charles. Dorislaus referred to an ancient Roman law that sanctioned the overthrow of a tyrant by a legally authorized governmental body (in this case the Parliamentary forces). The trial was largely one sided. Of the 135 judges who were to try the king, only 68 turned up. A lawyer called John Bradshaw was chosen to be the Chief Judge because none of the judges wanted to be put in charge of a trial that may lead to a regicide. Charles refused to defend himself thereby recognizing the legality of the court. When the date of execution was set following the conviction, no executioners agreed to execute the king. At last an executioner and his assistant were commissioned on the condition that they would wear masks and their identities would not be revealed. According to eyewitness records when Charles was beheaded, the crowd let out a large groan. “Such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again.”
With the execution of Charles I, monarchy was abolished and the Council of State was set up with Oliver Cromwell as its first chairperson. Cromwell died in 1658. His son Richard became the next chairperson but did not last long.
Charles II, the son of Charles I, was crowned and monarchy restored in England in 1660 as the English Interregnum came to an end. Charles II tried and executed everyone associated with his father’s death. The executioners, whose identities were not known, escaped conviction.
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