Wednesday 15 January 2014

London Then and Now: King Charles I's Execution

The statue of King Charles I - in memory of his execution.
           The end of this month marks the 365th  anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. He was put on trial on January 1st, 1640 and died on to 30th - charged with:
[being a] tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England.”
The statue is mounted above the entrance to
the Banqueting House, Whitehall

 Last summer I visited the Banqueting House, Whitehall and noticed a memorial statue to the dead king. It transpired that the scaffold on which he died was erected outside the Banqueting House and his final moments were spent inside that building. That gave me a real sense of being close to history and in this post I share some of the pictures I took – along with how things looked in Charles’ day.   
The Banqueting House in the modern day
 Cromwell was the victor in the English Civil War and his Parliamentarian army imprisoned the reigning monarch, accusing him of treason.
“Out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people of England.”
However, in English law there was nothing applicable to deal with the trial of a king and so Cromwell called in a Dutch lawyer Isaac Dorislaus. The later used a precedent in ancient Roman law which stated a tyrant (the king) could be legally overthrown by a military body (the government).
The Banqueting House - 30th January 1649
            The Chief Judge was John Bradshaw (it appears he feared assassination because he made a special hat lined with metal to protect his head from attack.) Charles refused to acknowledge the legality of the court and refused to remove his hat. To some people, this confirmed the king’s arrogance that even when on trial for his life, he thought himself superior.

            Charles was found guilty and sentenced to execution on Tuesday, 30th January, 1649. He had a last meal of bread and wine, and took a short walk around St James’ Park with his favorite dog. One story says that his black cat, Lucky, went missing on that day (not so lucky…)

            Neither an executioner nor the executioner’s block could be found, so a stranger had to be enlisted – he was paid £100 and allowed to wear a mask to protect his anonymity. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon Charles was led through the Banqueting House, through a window and onto a scaffold draped in black, in Whitehall. The king wore thick underclothes because he was worried if he shivered with cold, the crowd would think him frightened.
Inside the Banqueting House -
The last landing that Charles I saw before he died.
He conducted himself with composure and gave his cloak to Dr Juxon, the Bishop of London, saying.
“I go from to corruptible to an incorruptible crown where no disturbance can be.”
He lay full length, placed his head on a low block and with one strike the executioner severed his head from his body.
            When he died a great groan went through the crowd.
“Such a groan by thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again.”
Inside the Banqueting House -
Charles would have used these very stairs in his final journey on
his way to execution.
            The dignity with which the king conducted himself on the scaffold and the realization that God’s anointed sovereign had died by human hand, caused a great wave of sympathy for the dead monarch. He was later recognized as a martyr and 30 January remembered as  Charles the Martyr day.
[With thanks to the Historic Royal Palaces organisation - ]
A statue of Charles I in Whitehall
All photographs taken by the author.
Next week - Charles I's time imprisoned on the Isle of Wight.


  1. Though I know little about why Cromwell et al hated the king, I join in that groan.

    1. This isn't a period of history I'm especially familiar with but even reading just a little about Charles' trial gives me some sympathy for him. It was evidently one big fix - one bully wielding power over a different sort of bully.
      G x

  2. My new book is about the early part of the civil war, so I understand quite a bit about the politics. Seems to me the pot was calling the kettle black! Parliament was as much about murdering and tyrannical laws (look at how they dealt with England under the Protectorate!) as the King, if not more. My view is that the King did not act wisely in anything, particularly in trying to impose episcopacy to the Presbyterians in Scotland, and if he had made better military decisions he might have won the war. As for legality, Cromwell bent the rules left right and centre! But history is as it is. We cannot change it.

    1. I'm not on one side or the other (thank goodness I don't have to choose - both as bad as each other.) One of the fascinating things about history is having the distance of time and being able to see unfairness and unjust behaviour...If only mankind learnt from it!
      G x


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