Since the beginning of recorded history, the chronicles written have not been purely historical. When Herodotus penned what is thought to be the world’s oldest historical account in 430 B.C., the writer did not seek to simply record what happened but instead often bent the tales he told to highlight his attitudes towards philosophy and politics. In much the same way, modern historians enjoy applying the past to modern issues, an arrangement which creates the added benefit of drawing increased public interest to their most recent published work.
Most topics from the past can be stretched to relate in some way to present day concerns. Far fewer and arguably more enjoyable are the events which match up cleanly to historical currents that neatly summarize broader societal trends at play. The California Gold Rush is a microcosm of the process of western expansion, much in the same way that the Ford assembly lines would characterize the industrial expansions of the future. The execution of Charles I in London on Jan. 30, 1649 is a great example of this history-as-summation, not only because of the way it perfectly foreshadows the historical era to come, but also because of the drama surrounding the event. Viewed with the benefit of historical hindsight, the dynamics behind the end of European monarchy and the ideals of democratic governance are clearly highlighted, both through the events surrounding Charles I’s death as well as the developments that occurred afterwards.
To discuss the execution of Charles I, one must first discuss the man. The story of Charles I’s reign—which featured numerous court intrigues, political battles over religious minutiae, multiple rebellions, and two lost civil wars against Parliament—are hard to describe succinctly. However, the nature of Charles himself is pithily put in a quote from one of his most trusted advisers, to whom the king was considered “a mild and a gracious prince, who knew not how to be, or be made great.”
Charles did possess many traits one would desire from a king, such as a knack for political coalition-building, a willingness to stand firm in the face of political pressure, and a commendable personal courage. In spite of these positive qualities, however, Charles also exhibited many tendencies that would hamstring his reign. Most consequentially, the king, like his father James I, rigorously asserted the principle of divine right. His championing of this tenet, which asserted that the king received his right to rule from God alone, often was to the drastic detriment of his relationship with Parliament. Speeches like his dismissive address to the Parliament of 1626 where he asserted that, “Parliaments are altogether in my power…therefore as I find the fruits of them either good or evil, they are to continue or not to be,” could not have won him support in a legislature already disposed to view him as a tyrant and willing to challenge his rule.
Charles often also seemed too smart for his own good, and the variety of plots he planned to bring Parliament to heel were either ill-conceived or undermined by a lack of decisive commitment. It would be one of these schemes, an attempt to stall surrender negotiations post-English Civil War, that would lead to a failed Royalist invasion and the complete loss of Charles’ credibility with the Parliamentary army.
Though Charles had encouraged an invasion behind the backs of his Parliamentary captors, neither the political nor legal environment of the nation were favorable towards enacting something as unheard-of as the criminal prosecution of a king. The sitting Parliament, already wary of the growing power of the army, actually moved to accept some concessions from Charles and reinstate him to the throne in what would have been a major rebuke to the trial-hungry military. In response, the army moved to prevent royal-friendly members from entering the House of Commons, creating a “Rump Parliament” which quickly moved to bring him to trial.
Even after the army successfully packed the jury, further difficulties remained. Members of the House of Lords refused to give their consent to the trial or preside over it. What is more, the charges of treason that were made against Charles definitionally did not apply to him—under the nearly three-century old definition of treason, the offense had to be committed against the king. To resolve these significant concerns, the Rump Parliament took an incredible step and declared themselves the supreme power over England. On Jan. 4, 1649, the House of Commons resolved, “That the people are, under God, the origin of all just power…And do also declare, That whatever is enacted, or declared for law, by the Commons, in Parliament assembled, hath the force of law…althrough the consent and concurrence of King, or House of Peers, be not had thereunto.” The trial, now legally passed, would convene soon after.
The pre-trial fiasco highlights the unprecedented nature of the proceedings and the tensions inherent in almost every country’s transition from monarchy to republic. Even though no executions had been carried out, the act of attempting to try the ruler inspired massive governmental resistance that could only be resolved through a coup and a legislative seizure of power. The relative institutional balance that survived Charles’ civil war was overturned to place him in a court docket, and the assertion of popular sovereignty as the basis for all power would be a revolutionary statement to be echoed in America and France a hundred years later.
The actual prosecution of Charles I was far less complicated than the pre-trial. Though historians disagree on exactly how determined the House of Commons was to put the king to death, the majority believe it was a forgone conclusion. This appears to be a sentiment which Charles shared based on a foreboding letter to his son where he remarked that, “we know not but this may be the last time we may speak to you or the world publicly.”
Regardless of the aims of his prosecutors, Charles’ steadfast refusal to plead guilty sealed his fate. Instead of acknowledging the court’s power, he chose to deny the legitimacy of the proceedings and needle his prosecutors with legal precedents, such as his right as king to proceed over his own trial. The king was only seen to lose his nerve on the trial’s last day when it was declared that he was found guilty of the crime of treason and would be put to death “by the severinge (sic) of his head from his body.” Perhaps now fully comprehending his situation, Charles implored the court to let him give a speech. Instead of being allowed this, Charles was put back into custody and transported to Whitehall in London. His execution was three days later.
Before 2:00 p.m. on Jan. 30, 1649, Charles was escorted out of his chambers in the Banqueting Hall to a scaffold set up outside. In his final speech, the king seemed to recover the courage that had briefly deserted him at the end of his trial. After forgiving his political enemies for his punishment, Charles would defend the divine right of kingship in a curiously nuanced way. Rather than the blustery, assertive tone that he had previously struck regarding the royal prerogatives, he appealed to the popular wellbeing, saying:
“For the people, and truly I desire their Liberty and Freedom as much as anybody whomsoever. But I must tell you that their Liberty and Freedom consist in having of Government; those Laws, by which their Life and their Goods may be most their own…A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean, that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.”
Charles would conclude his speech with an assertion that he was “the Martyr of the People,” a title that the Royalists would bestow upon him in the near future during their successful attempt to restore his son in 1660. The king then spoke with his companion, in perhaps the most memorable portion of the account:
JUXON: There is but one Stage more. This Stage is turbulent and troublesome; it is a short one: But You may consider it will soon carry You a very great way; it will carry You from Earth to Heaven; and there you shall finde a great deal of Cordial, Joy, and Comfort.
KING: I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.
A few more words would be exchanged between the two, and then Charles would lay his neck on the execution block. After a few brief moments, he would stretch out his hands, the predetermined signal for his headsman. With that, Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was beheaded with a single stroke of the axe.
Ultimately, though the execution of Charles I is a gripping story, its significance extends beyond the mere chronological sequence of events. Democratic institutions—or at least, institutions which asserted a claim to the popular will like the Rump Parliament—were able to seize power from the royals who relied on the outmoded difference between “subject and sovereign” to justify their rule. This transition between monarchy to at least nominal republicanism took various forms throughout Europe. Sometimes the tensions generated by the challenging of royal power were resolved in a legal cessation of power, as occurred in Sweden. Occasionally, as in France, they boiled over into bloody civil wars much like the English Civil Wars of Charles’ time. No matter the exact historical specifics, the general dynamics of Charles’ overthrow would replay over and over throughout the continent, and his story is the first and clearest example of the power struggles surrounding the end of royalty.
Even once the monarchy was restored in England, it never fully reattained its prior heights of absolute power. Although the concept of divine right was not yet wholly discredited in the country, it would only take another 40 years for Charles’ grandson, James II, to be ousted from power in the Glorious Revolution and the primacy of Parliament to be confirmed.Though its significance was not understood by his contemporaries, Charles I’s death marked the mortal wounding of absolute monarchy, and its sociopolitical implications would continue to reverberate through subsequent centuries. Through the simple story of the execution at Whitehall, the larger sweep of history and the transition between ages can be glimpsed in a compelling and comprehensible narrative.