Trial of Charles I – What were the real objectives?

Time Title Content
Trial of Charles I: Setting, Processes and Participants
[0.00] This talk will discuss the setting, processes and personnel of the trial of Charles I. While these elements may appear less important than the interchanges between the king and the President of the Court, John Bradshaw, they are critical to revealing the wider purpose of Charles’ trial. This was to establish the Commons as the supreme authority in England, as the representative of the sovereign people. Establishing its supremacy had been a demand of the radical Leveller movement which had called for the creation of a more democratic representative body, elected on the basis of manhood suffrage. As we will see, investigating the connections of trial participants to radical groupings in both the City of London and the army, strengthens the links between the proceedings and the Levellers’ manifesto.

The form of justice that the High Court of Justice pursued was not only radical but also public. The proceedings played out in front of thousands of spectators within Westminster Hall and in print were read by many more. The Rump Parliament – as the Long Parliament was known following the purge of its moderate members in December 1648 – therefore intended the trial to serve propaganda purposes. This aim, however, was subverted by the king’s surprisingly savvy and fluent defence. Recasting himself as a defender of the people’s liberty in the face of a new, arbitrary power, Charles successfully undermined the court’s authority by picking at its shaky legal foundations. Ultimately, the later history of trials before the High Court of Justice during the Interregnum would confirm the king’s presentation of the court as the weapon of a new Parliamentary tyranny. The radical figures whose ideas had once inspired the court’s creation were now more likely to be its victims.
The trial of King Charles I in the medieval splendour of Westminster Hall, was a defining moment in the early modern history of Britain.  And its consequences continue to be felt today. But the realities of the trial, in which the king was declared to be ‘a tyrant, traitor, a murderer and a public enemy to his people’, have been obscured by its popular portrayals in films, plays and TV dramas.

[0.39] In this programme, historian Edward Vallance, professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Roehampton, examines the critical and sometimes controversial questions about the conduct of the trial. The witnesses selected to give evidence supporting the prosecution, the commissioners who judged the king guilty, and the verdict,  which within days resulted in Regicide.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground 155
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murthered—for within the hollow crown 160
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks; 165
Infusing him with self and vain conceit
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores thorough his castle wall, and farewell king! 170
[2.03] This speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II provided poetic testimony to the many ways in which English kings had met their ends at the hands of their own subjects – overthrown, murdered or killed on the battlefield. This was King Richard’s fate, deposed and then allegedly left to starve to death in captivity in Pontefract Castle. The historian Cathleen Sarti has argued that Regicide (the killing of a king) was a relatively common cause of death for Western European monarchs. She estimates that in Britain and Sweden between 1500 and 1700, 1 in 4 reigns ended in this way.
[2.35] The act of putting a monarch to death, therefore, was not exceptional. What was unique about the events of January 1649 was that a reigning king was placed on public trial for his life. This was unprecedented. While Richard’s deposition had been authorised by an assembly of Lords and Commons, this was not a trial, the king was not present at the proceedings and there was no order that Richard should be put to death. (Indeed, the exact circumstances of his demise remain unclear). There was a more recent example of a royal person being placed on trial in the case of Charles I’s grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, however, was no longer a reigning monarch and her trial at Fotheringhay Castle in October 1586 was conducted in private as was her execution four months later.
[3.22] By December of 1648, it was clear to most observers that Charles I would be brought to trial. Yet, reflecting the uncharted legal territory in which the Rump Parliament was now travelling, the exact form that the proceedings would or should take were a subject of considerable public debate. A pamphlet produced by the ‘private soldiery’ of Thomas Sanders and Adrian Scroope’s regiments and received by the bookseller George Thomason on 15 December 1648 called for a mixed civilian-military tribunal which would serve to deal with all of the leading Royalists in the civil wars. The pamphlet also envisaged this court as a democratic institution, with commissioner-judges elected by the people. It urged.
[4.05] ‘That there be two men chosen, with respect to honesty and justice, in every County, and two in every regiment…and being chosen, they have power given them from the Electors to try and examine every person or persons, suspected to have any acting or engaging in the first or second war against us’
[4.29] The Leveller’s ‘house’ newsbook (an early form of newspaper) The Moderate,anticipated instead that the king would be tried by a court martial. The then Royalist propagandist Marchamount Nedham on the other hand, informed readers of his handwritten newsletters that the proceedings would be designed to terrify Charles in to submitting to Parliamentary authority: a scaffold, Nedham said, would be erected outside the king’s lodgings in Windsor Castle on which captured Royalist commanders would be dispatched in an explicit threat to the king’s life.
[4.59] Nedham was right that the possibility of trying the king at Windsor in private proceedings had been discussed. Ultimately, however, it was decided that the trial should take place at Westminster. The choice of site revealed that this trial was also about establishing the true locus of authority in England, affirming that it resided in House of Commons, not the king.
[5.20] The act establishing the High Court of Justice, the new legal institution that would try the king, rehearsed a version of English history in which monarchs had long been a threat to the people’s liberty. The opening of the act stated that Charles had not been content with the ‘many Encroachments which his Predecessors had made upon the People in their Rights and Freedoms’ but had pursued a ‘wicked design’ to establish an ‘Arbitrary and Tyrannical Government’. There was a nod in the act’s opening to the concept of the ‘Norman Yoke’, the idea that the Norman Conquest in 1066 had seen the ‘Ancient and Fundamental Laws and Liberties’ of Anglo-Saxon England subverted by a new, oppressive legal system.
[06.02] The bill was drafted by a small committee of five MPs, including the republicans Henry Marten and Thomas Scott. The majority of the text of the act was taken up with naming the court’s ‘commissioners’: members who would serve as both judge and jury. These commissioners had some legal precedent: Charles’ grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, had been tried by 36 noble ‘commissioners’. Historians have also seen here the influence of Martial Law proceedings on form of the trial. The list of commissioners appointed was lengthy, totalling 135 individuals. These commissioners consisted of a small number of Parliamentarian lords, a much larger number of Rump MPs, officers in Parliament’s army and radical members of the government of the City of London. Some had been consulted about their inclusion but many only received notice of their nomination when a summons was issued on 6 January, the same day the ordinance was passed by the Commons.
[7.58] As the historian Howard Nenner has noted, however, the Rump was seemingly pessimistic about how many of those named would actually participate in the trial, as the act also stipulated that only twenty commissioners would be required for the court to be constituted. This pessimism was seemingly well-placed given that more than a third of those named, forty-seven in all, never appeared at the trial. Moreover, this number does not include those individuals such as the Leveller John Lilburne and the lawyer Bulstrode Whitelocke who were reportedly approached before the list in the act was drawn up, but who also refused to serve on the court. Other commissioners, such as the commander-in-chief of Parliament’s army, Thomas Fairfax, barely participated in the trial and some historians have interpreted Fairfax’s attendance at only one private session of the court on 8 January, as an intentional show of his disapproval of proceedings.
[7.50] The lack of involvement of many commissioners and the very limited involvement of others, has often been read as indicative of the limited support for the king’s trial, even on the Parliamentarian side. Yet, the reasons why commissioners did not attend are undoubtedly more complex than this. Lilburne’s refusal to serve was grounded on his belief that first, the political settlement should have come before the task of bringing leading Royalists to justice, and second, that the High Court of Justice was an illegitimate legal body. For Lilburne, the creation of a new court to try the king was a fundamental subversion of Parliament’s claim from the outset of the civil war that it had legal justification for taking up arms. If Parliament’s war was legal, Lilburne argued, then it should be possible for the king to be tried by regular courts and in the established tradition of the jury trial, Lilburne said the erection of the High Court of Justice:
[8.42] ‘…to try men for siding with the King in the late wars against the Parliament is a mere and clear giving away, and surrendering up the legality of their cause into the Kings hands, telling the people in effect hereby, its true we have waged warre against the King, but if his sword had been as long as ours he might easily if he had pleased have hanged us all by the rules of Justice for transgressing a law in beinge.’
[9.10] Other commissioners, such as the republican Algernon Sidney, withdrew from participating in the proceedings because of similar concerns about the form of the trial rather than the principle of whether the king should be held accountable for his perceived crimes.
Other commissioners may have chosen not to participate because of anxieties regarding radical influence upon the trial. As we will see, although Lilburne refused to be named as a commissioner, other figures associated with the radical Leveller movement did participate within the trial. In broader terms, it was the Levellers who had triggered the petitioning campaign calling for the king and other leading Royalists to face justice. The Army’s Remonstrance of November 1648 seemed to indicate that the army leadership was now not only supportive of the king’s trial but also of the democratic plan for political settlement outlined in the Levellers’ ‘Agreement of the People’. For some commissioners, it may have been this linkage of the trial with a programme of radical constitutional reform, as much as the prospect of the king losing his life, which led them to disassociate themselves from proceedings.
[10.10] This may have been the case with the Rump MP Sir Thomas Wroth. Wroth’s antipathy to Charles was well known. On 3 January 1648, Wroth had delivered a speech supporting the Vote of No Addresses, halting any further negotiations with the king. Wroth’s speech outraged the house by demanding that Charles should be impeached by Parliament and deposed. Wroth was reported to have said ‘From devils and kings good Lord deliver us … I desire any government rather than that of kings’. Wroth would later support Pride’s Purge  – as the expulsion by Colonel Thomas Pride of members who supported treating with the king in December 1648 was known. Wroth would reject initiatives to attempt to re-open negotiations with the king. Yet, though he was named as one of the trial commissioners, Wroth only attended one session on 15 January and he did not sign the king’s death warrant. While this pattern of behaviour may indicate Wroth’s preference for deposition rather than execution, it may also have been driven by his hostility to the Leveller movement, exemplified by his activity in the spring of 1649 in suppressing Leveller risings in his local Somerset.
[11.20] One final and powerful reason for non-participation may simply have been self-preservation. As we will see, a striking feature of the trial was its very public nature. This extended to publicising through print the names of the trial commissioners and other court officers. Many may have feared violent reprisals if they were seen to be involved in the proceedings. Even some of those who did participate were likely extremely anxious about their own safety. There is a popular tradition that the President of the Court, John Bradshaw, wore a hat reinforced with metal plates to thwart assassination attempts. A hat reputed to be the one worn by Bradshaw at the trial is preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Whether this is a genuine artefact or not, Bradshaw’s own correspondence makes clear that he was very concerned about his personal safety. His fears were well-grounded. Other trial participants would meet a violent end. Isaac Dorislaus, a Dutch legal scholar who was appointed one of the prosecutors at the king’s trial, would be murdered by Royalists in May 1649 while on a diplomatic mission for the Rump to the Hague.
[12.26] If the reasons why commissioners did not attend or attended only in a limited fashion were complicated, so too were the motivations of those commissioners who were more fully involved in the proceedings. Nenner notes that over eighty commissioners attended the court regularly. Yet several – Sir Henry Mildmay, Robert Wallop and William Monson, first Viscount Monson – stated that their involvement was driven by a desire to use their influence to save the king. Undoubtedly, these commissioners may have had ulterior motives for making these claims.
[12.57] After the Restoration of monarchy, these arguments were a useful means of denying responsibility for Charles I’s death for those who had evidently participated in the trial. Yet, we have enough evidence of hesitancy and division among the trial commissioners to suggest that there may be an element of truth to these claims. Ultimately, though, far more than the minimum required of twenty commissioners would ensure that the trial proceeded to its bloody conclusion. On 27 January, sixty-seven commissioners stood to give their assent to the capital sentence. Of these, fifty-seven would go on to sign the king’s death warrant, joined by another two commissioners, Thomas Chaloner and Richard Ingoldsby, who were not present at the sentencing.
[13.38] The participation and behaviour of commissioners, therefore, was influenced by the fact that the Rump had opted for a very public trial. The venue for the open proceedings, Westminster Hall, was indicative of this choice. The vast medieval hall could accommodate thousands of spectators. Those who were unable to attend the proceedings in person could read accounts of both the court’s public and private sessions in printed newsbooks and handwritten newsletters. Rapid reporting of the trial was facilitated by recently developed shorthand systems that enabled transcribers to record quickly the spoken exchanges and then relay them to publishers. In some respects, the accounts of the trial that were reproduced in print were richer than those recorded in the manuscript journals of the proceedings. For example, the various manuscript versions of the trial journal only dryly recorded that the draft charge against the king was presented to the commissioners on 15 January, followed by the delivery of a revised version on 19 January before the final text was accepted on 20 January, the day that the public proceedings of the court began.
[14.43] Newsbook reports, on the other hand, actually provided their readers with some indication of why the first draft of the charge was rejected by the commissioners. All of the newsbook accounts reported that the initial charge was felt to be too long, with Perfect Occurrences offering the most detail, stating that the draft charge was ‘very large and high, concerning [La] Rochel[le], Ireland, Scotland, England, betraying, firing, murdering the people.’
[15.09] These accounts suggested, therefore, that the original charge was much broader than the final version, including charges relating to the early years of the king’s reign, and that it did not focus exclusively on the civil war in England. As this reporting also indicates, the private sittings of the court did not remain truly private and, aside from press reports, we know that spectators, such as the Royalist diarist John Evelyn, snuck in to eavesdrop on proceedings. Evelyn observed the meeting on 17 January, recording that he heard the Puritan minister Hugh Peter incite:
[15.41] ‘the Rebell powers met in the Painted Chamber, to destroy his Majestie, & saw that Arch Traytor Bradshaw, who not long after condemn’d him.’
There were symbolic as well as practical reasons for holding the public proceedings of the trial in Westminster Hall. The hall was normally the site of royal law courts, King’s Bench and Chancery. It had also been the venue for other celebrated ‘state trials’, notably the arraignment of the Gunpowder Plotters. Finally, Westminster Hall had been the site of the assembly of Lords and Commons which had authorised the deposition of Richard II. Holding the trial in this space therefore indicated that whatever the apparent novelty of these proceedings, they were connected to English legal traditions and precedents in the trials of traitors and tyrants. By holding the trial in open court, the Rump was also staying within the established English practice of public justice, whereby proceedings were partly validated by being witnessed.
[16.36] This setting ensured that the trial unfolded in a noisy, highly charged atmosphere. We know from accounts of the trials that took place in the same venue the following month that the crowd noise was sometimes so loud that defendants and witnesses were asked to repeat their words and speak up so that they could be heard above the din. Some crowd interventions entered into legend, notably the reputed outburst of Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wife, Anne. It was alleged that when the charges were read ‘in the name of all the people of England’, Lady Fairfax interjected ‘No, nor the hundredth part of them!’ It is highly likely that Anne Fairfax did attend the trial, but, as noted above, the level noise in the hall also makes it unlikely that an individual intervention of this kind would have been heard, or heard so clearly. Yet, historians have considered that it may have been comments from Lady Fairfax that triggered a reported ‘hubbub’ in the crowd on the final public session on 27th January when the king was sentenced. Unlike the account of Anne’s words, which all come from retrospective accounts, this disturbance was reported in a contemporary newsbook. It was soon silenced, however,  (some would later claim) with threats to shoot the woman responsible. While the atmosphere in the hall was undoubtedly rhetorically heated, it was literally frigid. What had been a wet and mild December had given way to a very cold January. The Thames had frozen over and blizzards seemed to presage the political tempest that was to follow.
[18.02] The court, however, as already noted, also sat in private and the choice of venue again was significant. The ‘Painted Chamber’, as it was known, had originally been built during the reign of Henry III to serve as a royal reception room. Its name came from the elaborate paintings that adorned its walls. By the seventeenth century, the chamber was being used for meetings of the Lords and Commons in conference and the State Opening of Parliament, the ceremonial event which still marks the start of a new session of Parliament. It was in this space, not Westminster Hall, that some of the most significant episodes in the trial unfolded, such as the hearing of witness evidence and the signing of the death warrant. The surroundings must surely have resonated with the commissioners as they deliberated the fate of the king. The medieval wall paintings which gave the chamber its name offered an elaborate visual representation of good and bad Biblical kings. If they needed any reminder, the venue for the court’s private sittings provided pictorial evidence of God’s punishment of tyrants such as Holofernes, Pharaoh and Saul.
[19.04] These venues were also chosen, of course, because they were parts of Parliament. (Besides being a site of law courts, by the mid-seventeenth century, Westminster Hall, for example, also played a significant role in the operation of Parliament as a place to receive petitions and as an informal lobby). The set-up of the trial was intended to affirm the supremacy of the Commons as the representative of England’s sovereign people. This had been publicly announced in the Commons declaration of 4 January 1649 which established the authority of the lower house to pass the legislation creating the court without the consent of the House of Lords. It was reiterated in the decoration of Westminster Hall, where the royal coat of arms was replaced with what would soon become the arms of the English Commonwealth, a shield bearing the St. George’s Cross and the Irish harp. Finally, the layout of the courtroom stressed the Commons’ authority over the king. Charles was placed facing the President of the Court, who sat on a chair on a raised dais with other commissioners behind him and to each side. In front of President Bradshaw sat the clerks of the court and on a table before them, the Commons’ mace, an ornament critical to the law-making process. (To this day, the House of Commons cannot meet or pass laws without the mace being present.)
[20.17] The court first met in private on 8th January 1649 and over the subsequent days appointed its officers, including the President John Bradshaw, the clerks of the court Andrew Broughton and John Phelps, and the counsel for the prosecution John Aske, John Cook, Isaac Dorislaus and William Steele (though Steele would end up being excused from duty due to illness). The choice of these lawyers reflected the various legal traditions that informed the court’s proceedings: Steele had served as parliamentary commissioner for the execution of Martial Law and Dorislaus too had experience in military courts, having served as judge advocate during the Bishop’s Wars and later as a judge on the court of Admiralty. John Cook was both a vociferous proponent of legal as well as social reform and a defender of English common law as ‘the best in the world’.
[21.06] Besides the witnesses who were summoned on 23 January and the king himself, it is the voices of Bradshaw, the clerks Broughton and Phelps, and the solicitor Cook, which dominate the records of the public proceedings. This was a consequence of both the court’s choices regarding its manner of operation and Charles’s refusal either to enter a plea or recognise the High Court’s authority. The court had determined that Bradshaw would effectively act on behalf of his fellow commissioners in terms of speaking to the defendant and asking questions of witnesses. As the king refused to plead, the witnesses’ evidence was not heard in open court, meaning there was no opportunity for them to be examined. Equally, Cook’s contribution to the proceedings was limited to reading his indictment against Charles. Shortly after Charles I’s execution, Cook would publish the prosecution case he was thwarted from delivering as a pamphlet, King Charls His Case.
[22.01] Historical assessments of the key personnel at the king’s trial have changed significantly. Bradshaw and Cook were once dismissed as obscure fanatics (the historian C.V. Wedgewood described Cook as a man of ‘rabid and sometimes eccentric opinions’.) The appointment of Bradshaw as President of the Court (an ‘undistinguished choice’ as Wedgewood put it) was once characterised as an act of desperation, forced on the Rump as a consequence of the general refusal of the English legal establishment to participate in the trial. The selection of Bradshaw, in fact, may have had more to do with radical politics than simply a lack of potential alternatives. Bradshaw, although a native of Cheshire, had built his legal reputation in London and was connected to the faction within London’s common council which had seized control of the city’s government in late 1648. Leading members of this grouping, such as Richard Tichbourne and Owen Roe, were also appointed as commissioners of the court. In the trials of leading Royalists before the High Court of Justice in February 1649 this faction would become an even more prominent component of the court, while Bradshaw would remain its President. Bradshaw was also, by this point, anything but an obscure country judge. He had already acted as counsel for Parliament in high-profile trials, of the Irish rebel Lord Maguire in 1644, and of the Royalist judge David Jenkins in 1647. Moreover, both he and Cook had worked together before, as lawyers for John Lilburne in Lilburne’s 1646 appeal before the House of Lords.
[23.29] We know less about John Cook’s life and work before 1646. He had done his legal training in England – like John Bradshaw at Gray’s Inn in the 1620s – but he then pursued a legal career in Ireland. Ironically, given his later work, an early patron in this period was Charles I’s Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth. Later in the decade, Cook had travelled through Europe. While staying in the Dutch republic, Cook met some English congregationalist exiles and his later publications indicate that Cook also become a supporter of Independency. His religious beliefs may also explain why he was appointed counsel to Lilburne along with Bradshaw, in 1646. In the same year, Cook embarked on his career as a writer, publishing a defence of the English common law but recommending proposals for reform. He issued a much more political work the following year, Redintegratio amoris, or A Union of Hearts, which justified tyrannicide and praised the army as the only body that could ensure a lasting and fair religious and political settlement. Absolute monarchy, Cook made clear, had no sanction from God:
[24.36] ‘no Government is divine, I mean, by Gods approbation, (for extraordinary callings I know none in these days) but that which is just and rational, for there can be no such conveyance of power as is destructive of humanity; therefore for millions to be at the Command of one man, to obey him universally in all things, is irrational; for wise men are but men, and the best men are but men at the best, subject to the faults of the irascible and concupiscible faculties.’
[25.12] Significantly, Cook would draw on arguments made in this tract in his later King Charls His Case. By the time of the king’s trial, Cook had therefore established himself as a lawyer whose political outlook, religious sympathies and support for Parliament’s army made him an ideal choice to join the prosecution team.
[25.29] Some of the witnesses summoned to give evidence against Charles I were also figures with well-established radical credentials, connected to radical networks in the city and in Parliament’s army. The depositions of thirty-three witnesses are recorded in the trial journals. The court had issued proclamations calling for those who had evidence against the king to submit their testimony. Contemporary reports suggest that this public call for information met with an underwhelming response, one Italian newsletter reporting that only ‘one miserable Independent soldier shoemaker’ had appeared to offer evidence at Westminster Hall. Many more witnesses were likely drawn from the regiments of Parliament’s army in and around London in the winter of 1649. Some of these witnesses would later claim that they had been ordered to give evidence against the King. Yet there were other witnesses whose political loyalties indicate they probably needed little encouragement to testify.
[26.21] The last witness whose testimony was recorded, the scrivener Richard Price, had longstanding connections with City radicals. He was a leading member of John Goodwin’s independent church and had promoted anti-episcopal petitions in December 1641. He had collaborated with the future Leveller William Walywn on a remonstrance in March 1643, which had affirmed popular sovereignty, called for exemplary punishment against those who subverted true religion and cast the king as a mere public officer. As his testimony made clear, Price had also served as a Parliamentarian agent provocateur, uncovering the so-called Ogle plot, in which Charles I promised religious toleration in return for the support of the Independents in the civil war. By December 1648, Price was one of the city Independents named to the committee considering proposals for a new Agreement of the People at the Nag’s Head Tavern. In the modified version of these proposals presented to Parliament on the same day that the public sessions of the trial opened, Price was named as one of the commissioners who would administer the Agreement to the country.
[27.24] Many of the witnesses were also serving officers in Parliament’s army. Some had expressed support for the Leveller movement. The witness Arthur Young had been named as the ‘Agitator’ (representative of the rank and file) for the trial commissioner John Barkstead’s regiment in a list dated October 1647. A month later, he would subscribe to a petition from the Agitators to the Commons, expressing support for the first ‘Agreement of the People’, urging the house not to enter into ‘unsafe and groundlesse Termes of Accommodation with perfidious Enemies’ and reminding them that their authority was drawn from the sovereign people.
[28.00] Thomas Rawlins was named on the same list of Agitators from October 1647, in his case, representing Matthew Thomlinson’s regiment along with a Captain Johnson. (Thomlinson, like Barkstead, served on the High Court of Justice but, unlike Barkstead, would not sign the death warrant.) Rawlins was at the General Council of the Army on 29 December 1648 when votes on the articles of the Agreement of the People were taken. The witness Thomas Reade was most likely Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Reade,  one of the presenters of a Vindication of April 1647 expressing concern at the Parliament’s treatment of the army. Other signatories included fellow witness Thomas Rawlins and William Arnop who was summoned to give testimony but whose deposition is not recorded. Reade has been identified as a leading figure in organising and managing rank and file opinion to resist Parliament’s attempts to reduce and split the army. At the Putney Debates of October and November 1647, Reade would express broad support for extending the Franchise, stating that he saw ‘noe reason why any man that is a native ought to bee excluded from that priviledge, unless from voluntarie servitude.’
[29.08] While the testimony of these witnesses may have persuaded some wavering commissioners concerning the king’s guilt, Charles’ refusal to enter a plea meant that this evidence was not heard by the large crowd in Westminster Hall, nor was it reported, except in very brief summaries, in the press. In fact, the witness evidence would not be printed in English until after the Restoration of monarchy in 1660, probably because the Rump was concerned that printing their testimony would reveal the connections between the witnesses, the army and the trial commissioners.
[29.36] This reflected a broader decision not to proceed with the publication of an official, authorised account of the trial. That decision was influenced by the failure of the Rump’s propaganda strategy. As we have noted, there were several reasons why the king’s trial was conducted in public but one factor was certainly the hope that it would serve to demonstrate to the nation the supremacy of the Commons over the king.
[29.58] In this respect, the reporting of the trial massively backfired. Charles was not known as a fluent public speaker, having been affected by a speech impediment. In the court, on trial for his life, the king’s stammer, however, suddenly disappeared. Instead, Charles gave not only a brave but also politically astute performance, turning the tables on his prosecutors and painting them as the actual tyrants. Charles argued he was not only defending himself from the threat posed by a ‘new, unlawful authority’ but defending his people too:
[30.30] ‘I do stand more for the liberty of my people’ he said ‘than any here that come to be my pretended judges’.
Charles also undermined the court’s claim to authority, grounded on a sovereign Parliament. The Rump was, he said, no Parliament:
‘I will stand as much for the privilege of the House of Commons, rightly understood, as any many here whatsoever. I see no House of Lords here that may constitute a Parliament..’
[30.59] The king borrowed a technique which the radical John Lilburne had used very effectively, converting his own courtroom struggles into a wider battle for the freedom of the English people: ‘…it is not my case alone, it is the freedom and 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.’
[31.34] The Rump’s reporting strategy meant that Charles’ words were widely covered in the press, allowing Royalist publications to cannibalise Parliamentarian works to produce their own propaganda. Rather than legitimising the new regime, these reports were serving to undermine it and help fashion the enduring image of the king as a martyr for his church and for his people.
[31.53] While the Rump was losing the battle in the court of public opinion, in the High Court of Justice it proceeded to judgment against the king. On 25th January, having heard the last of the witness testimony, the commissioners resolved that Charles should be condemned as a tyrant, traitor and murderer and that he should be sentenced to death. At the next and final public session, on 27th the sentence was delivered before the king. The enormity of the moment led to outbursts from the commissioners as well as from the crowd in attendance. Moved by Charles’ appeal for a final conference with the Lords and Commons before the sentence was given, the commissioner John Downes was reported to have asked his fellow judges whether they had ‘hearts of stone’ for refusing to listen to the king. Oliver Cromwell in turn asked Downes if he had gone mad and urged him to be quiet. The court had to be adjourned for half an hour while Cromwell and Downes continued their dispute.
[32.46] When the court resumed it was for Bradshaw to give his lengthy closing speech. Touching English and Classical history, it was a statement which recalled the charges made against Richard II, in accusing the king of breaking his coronation oath:
‘There is a contract and a bargain made between the King and his people, and your oath is taken: and certainly, Sir, the bond is reciprocal: for as you are the liege lord, so they liege subjects… This we know now, the one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due form the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty!’
[33.31] As Bradshaw finished his speech, Charles once again requested a hearing but this was curtly denied. Instead, the clerk read out the sentence against the kin
[33.41] ‘the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public enemy, shall be put to death, by the severing his head from his body.’
Charles was led away with, it was reported, the shouts and jeers of soldiers demanding justice ringing in his ears.
[33.59] On Monday, 29th the commissioners met again to sign and seal the death warrant, giving the order for the king’s execution and the instructions for the manner in which it should be carried out. Some of those who added their names to the warrant, notably John Downes and Richard Ingoldsby, later claimed that they had been forced to do so. Whether true or not, their claims enabled both Downes and Ingoldsby to escape a traitor’s death at the Restoration. It was reported that Cromwell and Henry Marten flicked ink at each other after signing the warrant, perhaps indicating the stress the commissioners had been under.
[34.33] The site chosen for the execution was in front of the Banqueting House, Whitehall. This had been the location of many of Charles I’s lavish court entertainments and its ceiling was adorned with the painting of his father James VI and I by the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens that Charles had commissioned. The placing of the scaffold, however, was determined more by security concerns than by symbolism. In the seventeenth-century, the Banqueting House looked out into a square which could be easily policed by Parliament’s army, leaving the troops well-placed to prevent any last-minute attempts to rescue the king. There were troops on the scaffold too, some of whom (Robert Lockyer, Richard Rumbold and John Harris) were also associated with the Leveller movement. At 2pm on 30th January, the king came out onto the scaffold through one of the windows of the Banqueting House. After Charles had delivered his final words, which re-emphasised that he was dying in defence of his people and their liberty, and prepared himself, the executioner struck his blow. The king was dead.
[35.33] The subsequent history of the High Court of Justice seemingly fulfilled Charles’ claims at his trial that it was a tool of arbitrary power. Over the course of the 1650s, it would be used to deal with a number of first the Commonwealth’s and then the Cromwellian Protectorate’s opponents. Historians have suggested that the High Court of Justice was preferred as the venue for these Interregnum ‘state trials’ as the institution avoided the unpredictability of a jury, which famously in the case of John Lilburne in October 1649, acquitted him of treason charges.
[36.05] For the critics of the Interregnum regimes, both Royalists and radicals, the High Court of Justice was now simply ‘Cromwell’s Slaughterhouse’, a device to give a legal veneer to murder by the state. It is hard to deny that this what the High Court of Justice eventually became but this was much less clear in January 1649. At this point, both the court’s procedure and its personnel suggested a more radical intent, that the court would affirm the sovereignty of the people in the House of Commons and pave the way for a more democratic political settlement grounded on an ‘Agreement of the People.’
[36.43] We hope you’ve enjoyed this programme, you can find more insights into the trial and subsequent Regicide in the accompanying notes and resources. These include a printable transcript of Professor Vallance’s talk, with an interactive glossary of terms and biographies. There is also a reading list. If you go to our website: or wherever you download your podcasts, you will find other programmes by Professor Vallance and Professor Andrew Hopper of Oxford University, discussing the fall of the monarchy in the series entitled ‘The road to the scaffold’.   While you are there, do register for our newsletter, ‘The world turned upside-down’, which will keep you up to date about all the new programmes and resources we are providing and the podcasts which are already available.