1547: Not Thomas Howard, because Henry VIII died first 1606: Guy Fawkes and other Gunpowder Plot conspirators

1649: Charles I

January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, 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. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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34 Responses to “1649: Charles I”

  1. 1
    Fiz (UK) Says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m a history graduate and specialised in this period in UK and European history at this time (and the French Revolution). Have you heard of Sellars and Yeatman, Headsman? They wrote a famous “Brief Study” of UK history as people remembered it, so it was all jumbled up and quite crazy! They christened the Cavaliers “Wrong but Wromantic” and the Puritans “Right but Repulsive”, and I feel much the same. However, legalistically, Charles was a fool to think he could emulate Elizabeth and to proclaim “The divine Right of Kings” – if there was one, his brother Henry should have been king, not him. He drove a coach and horses through UK rights and privileges by ruling without Parliament and imposition of various illegal taxes (much like the American Revolution, really) . So the Wromantic side of me loves the Van Dyke “Happy Families” paintings of the Royal family at that time, and the hardheaded bit says he asked for what he got!

  2. 2
    Fiz (UK) Says:

    P.S Thanks for the fim clip. I went to see it was a equally history fanatic friend, and we wept throughout most of the film ! Alex Guiness was marvellous, but Cromwell wasn’t a quarter as handsome as Richard Harris!

  3. 3
    ExecutedToday.com » 1918: Tsar Nicholas II and his family Says:

    [...] monarch is the one who drove the bus over the cliff. But much is forgiven a martyr. Indeed, like Charles I of England, the last Romanov monarch has been posthumously saddled with divine sanction; he and all the family [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » 1660: Major-General Thomas Harrison, the first of the regicides Says:

    [...] Headsman On this date in 1660, the restored House of Stuart began a week of bloody justice against Charles I’s regicides by hanging, drawing and quartering Thomas Harrison at Charing [...]

  5. 5
    ExecutedToday.com » Nine Executed People Who Make Great Halloween Costumes Says:

    [...] Charles I [...]

  6. 6
    ExecutedToday.com » 1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth Says:

    [...] The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority. [...]

  7. 7
    ExecutedToday.com » 1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously Says:

    [...] 30th, 2009 Headsman On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn [...]

  8. 8
    The execution of Charles I - a mini blog carnival « Mercurius Politicus Says:

    [...] historians even today. Ann Hughes gives a good introduction on the BBC site about the execution. Executed Today also has a good range of material on this. For a range of different views, try the following texts [...]

  9. 9
    Damn you Cromwell! | Web News Directory Says:

    [...] January 30, 1649, King Charles I was beheaded on a scaffold at Whitehall. Historical reenactment. Some background. [...]

  10. 10
    gary Says:

    die charles

  11. 11
    ExecutedToday.com » 1649: John Poyer, the lucky winner Says:

    [...] Pembroke had earned his Round head by taking Carew Castle from King Charles‘ forces in the First English Civil [...]

  12. 12
    ExecutedToday.com » 1540: Thomas Cromwell Says:

    [...] If Cromwell’s dying sentiment concealed any lasting bitterness for the crown, maybe his spirit would take some satisfaction a century later when another of his name and family rose high enough to behead a king. [...]

  13. 13
    ExecutedToday.com » 1624: Marco Antonio de Dominis, posthumously Says:

    [...] vituperator had, too, become complicated by the progress of the proposed Spanish Match to wed Prince Charles to Europe’s leading Catholic monarchy — an ultimately abortive project, but nearing the [...]

  14. 14
    ExecutedToday.com » Daily Double: John Hothams Says:

    [...] of its sizable arsenal. And though the elder Hotham personally barred the gates of Hull against King Charles — Hotham had been appointed governor by Parliament in a test of authority against the [...]

  15. 15
    ExecutedToday.com » 1645: William Laud, given to the devil Says:

    [...] run as Archbishop of Canterbury also happened to coincide with Charles I’s 11-year personal rule, sans parliament. The overweening divine’s influence on secular [...]

  16. 16
    ExecutedToday.com » Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration Says:

    [...] Stuart line was (for now) restored to the throne, and the regicides of its late king horribly if not voluminously [...]

  17. 17
    ExecutedToday.com » 1661: Thomas Venner and the Fifth Monarchy Men Says:

    [...] Venner himself was born in New England, and there’s a zippy bio of him in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The North American colonies and Parliamentarian Britain helped to incubate political/religious heterodoxy for one another, and Venner was not the only budding religious zealot in the distant marches to emigrate to London after Charles I lost his head. [...]

  18. 18
    ExecutedToday.com » 1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen Says:

    [...] forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still [...]

  19. 19
    ExecutedToday.com » 1623: Amboyna Massacre Says:

    [...] against the perpetrators continued to complicate Dutch-English relations into the reign of Charles I and beyond. Even Oliver Cromwell required, as the price of peace for the First Anglo-Dutch War in [...]

  20. 20
    ExecutedToday.com » 1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford Says:

    [...] 12th, 2010 Headsman On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman. Thomas Wentworth and loyal [...]

  21. 21
    Dead Men Talking « Daly Stew Says:

    [...] but to put him to death, although they were very clear of the consequences of such actions (The story is recounted lucidly here). Charles strayed not a whit from his absolutist principles, refusing to acknowledge the court had [...]

  22. 22
    ExecutedToday.com » 1680: La Voisin, poisoner to the stars Says:

    [...] Duchasse d’Orleans, nee Princess Henrietta Anne Stuart the daughter of deposed and executed King Charles I of England, died suddenly. Some years before, the Duchasse, a great friend, and possibly lover, of her [...]

  23. 23
    ExecutedToday.com » 1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched Says:

    [...] named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct [...]

  24. 24
    ExecutedToday.com » 1677: William Drummond, for Bacon’s Rebellion Says:

    [...] Finally the new guy managed to get Drummond on a boat back to the mother country with an unflattering report of his conduct. The crotchety septuagenarian, who had been a spry mid-30’s courtier when first appointed Virginia governor by Charles I, was coldly received by Charles II. “The old fool,” remarked the sovereign, “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.” [...]

  25. 25
    ExecutedToday.com » 1649: Robert Lockyer, Leveller Says:

    [...] weeks following the epochal execution of the late king Charles I were also the climax of a pivotal intra-party conflict among the triumphant Parliamentarians [...]

  26. 26
    ExecutedToday.com » 1685: Dame Alice Lisle, first victim of the Bloody Assizes Says:

    [...] when they happened to show up at her door; despite her late husband’s part in the regicide of Charles I, Alice Lisle doesn’t seem to have been the political [...]

  27. 27
    ExecutedToday.com » 1655: Henry Manning, Protectorate spy Says:

    [...] Manning, the son of a royalist colonel who died fighting for Charles’s late beheaded father, had impeccable credentials for the Stuarts. The alleged English king was now parked on the [...]

  28. 28
    ExecutedToday.com » 1697: John Fenwick, bitter Says:

    [...] politics. Even kings themselves are in mortal peril around [...]

  29. 29
    ExecutedToday.com » Themed Set: The Medical Gaze Says:

    [...] II could not best Oliver Cromwell in life, but finally made Cromwell’s bones suffer for regicide. As an object lesson, what difference whether the bones came to the halter breathing or [...]

  30. 30
    ExecutedToday.com » 1662: John Barkstead, Miles Corbet, and John Okey, renditioned regicides Says:

    [...] John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey were all among the 59 judges who signed the death-warrant of King Charles I. [...]

  31. 31
    ExecutedToday.com » 1738: Katherine Garret, Pequot infanticide Says:

    [...] Servants and Parents over Children, may seem to have most power and authority (I say nothing now of Princes over Subjects, that being a curious Argument and which may need very Cautious handling) Yet even these may not be [...]

  32. 32
    ExecutedToday.com » 1756: Four members of the Swedish Hovpartiet Says:

    [...] Embarrassing to Louisa, that is. The royals got to keep their jobs — though Adolf Frederick had feared he might go the way of Charles Stuart. [...]

  33. 33
    ExecutedToday.com » 1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy Says:

    [...] The Prince in question was the future King Charles I, which might cause one to doubt the prayer’s efficacy. [...]

  34. 34
    ExecutedToday.com » 1655: Jane Hopkins, Bermuda’s last known witch execution Says:

    [...] It had been declared in rebellion by Cromwell‘s parliament for taking too-vigorous umbrage at King Charles‘s execution. Its official C of E ministers were being challenged by breakaway independents of [...]

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