Why was Charles I executed?

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Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House, Whitehall. This talk will examine recent debates as to whether his condemnation and death was the pre-determined outcome of his trial. I will suggest that the king’s death was the result of demands for justice from the Parliamentarian army and its civilian supporters.

In his History of the Great Rebellion the Royalist statesman Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, said that, as early as 1647, while Charles was in the Parliamentarian army’s custody at Hampton Court, the army’s officers were holding secret discussions as to what to do with the king. Clarendon said the officers were agreed on one thing: ‘they should never be able settle their new form of government while he [meaning Charles] lived.’ While some officers argued that the king should simply be murdered, others argued that a public trial was necessary. It was this latter group, led by Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton and Colonel Thomas Harrison, which won these debates. For Clarendon, as for many other subsequent historians, the outcome of the trial was pre-determined. Ireton and Harrison’s group assumed that Charles would be found guilty and put to death. Recently, however, there has been much historical debate as to whether the taking away of the king’s life was the main objective of the trial. Instead, it has been suggested by the historian Sean Kelsey that trial was another form of ‘extended negotiation’, intended to make Charles recognize the authority of Parliament. The trial was therefore meant as a route to a political settlement not to Regicide. It was only the king’s refusal to recognize the court and respond to the multiple opportunities offered to him to enter a plea which forced the trial commissioners to find him guilty and condemn him to death. Other historians, such as Clive Holmes, however, have been unconvinced by this interpretation and argue that the king’s death was seen by those who orchestrated the trial as the necessary outcome of its proceedings. The concerns of those who condemned the king were not, according to Holmes, purely political: many believed that Charles’ death was required by God. In this talk, I will argue that Charles’ execution was about more than providing a resolution to the years of failed negotiations with the king. Instead, Charles’ death was the outcome of extensive demands for justice from the army and some of its civilian supporters. The form of justice demanded, however, meant that the trial was about more than punishing one king, it was about establishing the supremacy of the House of Commons as the representative of England’s sovereign people.

To understand why the king’s death was seen as necessary to achieve a political settlement, we need to appreciate the repeated failures of various parties to negotiate with Charles I. Although the Royalists had been comprehensively defeated in the First Civil War, the king correctly identified that his opponents were increasingly divided. By pitting them against each other, Charles hoped to recover his political authority. For nine months from May 1646, Charles I was a prisoner of the Scots. The peace terms offered by the Scots and their conservative allies in the English Parliament, known as the Newcastle Propositions, were harsh. Episcopacy was to be abolished and a Presbyterian Church established in its place. Parliament was to have control of the Militia for twenty years and to have powers of appointment to offices of state in perpetuity. Finally, the king’s supporters were exempted from pardon and from public office. Charles’ intention in entering into these negotiations was to stall for time while he attempted to secure foreign military aid to resume the war.

Frustrated at Charles’ unresponsiveness, the Scots handed their royal prisoner over to the English Parliament in February 1647. Now captive in Holdenby House, Northamptonshire, Charles continued to stonewall over the negotiating terms of the Newcastle Propositions. His strategy of exploiting splits between his opponents was seemingly starting to bear fruit. Parliament had attempted to disband much of its army in the summer of 1647, concerned both about the costs of maintaining the force but also about the growing political and religious assertiveness of the soldiers. These attempts in turn led the army to organize to resist its dissolution. They also prompted Cornet George Joyce to seize the king from Holdenby in June 1647 and bring him into the army’s custody. The negotiating terms offered to the king by the army leadership, the so-called Heads of Proposals, were more generous than those offered by Parliament. The Heads left the Church of England untouched, though its powers to enforce religious conformity would be removed. Former Royalists would also be treated much more leniently.

Once more, it appeared as if the king’s plan was working: not only was he being presented with better terms, the splits among his opponents were widening. In August, the army marched on London to suppress an attempted conservative coup led by Presbyterian MPs and their allies in the city. The army itself was increasingly divided as some junior officers and representatives of the rank and file complained that the peace terms offered in the ‘Heads’ were too soft.  Some figures within the army were already suggesting that rather than do deals with Charles, he should be held accountable for the bloodshed of the civil war. A mutiny led by these rank and file ‘agitators’, as they were known, had to be suppressed at Ware, Hertfordshire in November 1647. Meanwhile, alarmed by reports that some soldiers were calling for him to be put to death, Charles had escaped from army custody at Hampton Court and fled to the Isle of Wight, hoping from there to sail to the continent. Instead, the king was once more made a prisoner, held at Carisbrook Castle on the island. Even in much closer confinement, Charles continued his attempts to manipulate his opponents, resuming discussions with the Scots which led to the agreement of a new alliance known as ‘The Engagement’. In return for consenting to the establishment of a Presbyterian Church in England for a period of three years, the Scots agreed to support the king in negotiating these terms with the English Parliament. If they refused, the Engagement committed the Scots to sending an army to uphold the king’s authority. Parliament had broken off any further negotiations with the king, following Charles’ refusal to accept new peace terms. The deterioration of the relationship between king and Parliament was clearly indicated in the Declaration of the Vote of No Addresses issued in February 1648, a damning indictment of Charles’ actions going back to the beginning of his reign. The Declaration even included the lurid and baseless allegation that Charles had covered up the poisoning of his father James I by the king’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.

The army of the Engagement, led by the king’s cousin the Duke of Hamilton, eventually invaded England in July 1648. However, it was comprehensively defeated by Parliamentarian forces led by Oliver Cromwell at the battle of Preston in August 1648. English risings, which had been intended to be coordinated with the Scottish invasion, had also been suppressed and their leaders either summarily executed or imprisoned. Despite the king’s obvious complicity in what became known as the Second Civil War, Parliament chose to re-open negotiations with him in September 1648. These negotiations enraged the army and its supporters, not least because the fighting had not ended: the Royalist garrison in Pontefract would not surrender until March 1649. A significant petitioning campaign began, initiated by the radical Leveller movement, objecting to the continued negotiations. In November 1648, the Army presented a lengthy Remonstrance to Parliament, drafted by Ireton but influenced by Leveller ideas. It called for an end to the negotiations and demanded that the king be put on trial. Parliament rejected the Remonstrance and instead resumed negotiations, prompting the army to march on London and purge Parliament. By removing those MPs who still favoured a negotiated settlement, the path was now cleared to putting the king on trial.

This very brief overview of events between 1646 and 1648 shows the difficulty different parties experienced in attempting to reach a negotiated settlement with the king. Charles’ position, broadly speaking, was to play for time while continuing to seek means of resuming the military struggle. In practical terms, by the autumn of 1648, the king’s machinations had convinced the army leadership that negotiating with Charles was not only fruitless but also dangerous. This was a conclusion some representatives of the rank and file had already reached at the Putney Debates of October and November 1647. These debates are best known for their discussion of the Levellers’ radical plans for a new democratic political settlement, embodied in their ‘Agreement of the People’, in place of that outlined in the army leaderships ‘Heads of Proposals’. A significant element of rank and file objections to the ‘Heads’ was that they allowed the king to retain his power to veto legislation, threatening the security of any post-civil war settlement, especially as it related to the Indemnity of Parliamentarian soldiers for their actions during the wars. Some of the debate, however, also touched on what should be done with the king himself. During these discussions, some officers had called the king a ‘man of blood’ and urged that he be prosecuted for instigating the civil wars. Similar statements were allegedly made at a prayer meeting of army officers in April 1648. The term meant one who had shed innocent blood and referred to the notion of ‘blood guilt’. This was the idea that this blood defiled the land and that the sin of blood guilt could only be cleansed by the blood of the man responsible for its shedding. This ‘blood for blood’ idea was rooted in the Old Testament, notably Genesis 9:6 ( ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.’) and Numbers 35:33 (‘So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.’) To some within Parliament’s army, these Biblical texts suggested that God’s wrath could only be placated by putting the king to death.

As the historian Patricia Crawford showed, however, the idea of blood guilt was more complex than this ‘blood for blood’ reading and could be understood only to suggest guilt that required moral condemnation rather than capital punishment. In this way, when Thomas Harrison suggested at Putney that Charles was a ‘man of blood’, it was Cromwell who reminded him that the Bible contained many examples where murder was not punished by death. Specific references to ‘blood guilt’ were also strikingly scant in the petitions for justice issued in the autumn and winter of 1648. As the historian Norah Carlin has shown, only two of these texts referred to Genesis 9:6 and though eighteen petitions referred to the belief that a land polluted by bloodshed must be cleansed by the blood of those responsible, only half of those petitions identified the king as the guilty party concerned. The biblical texts from Genesis and Numbers were also cited in the President of the court John Bradshaw’s closing speech at Charles’ trial. Even in this context, however, we can see the language of ‘blood guilt’ being used to urge repentance, not to justify bloody retribution. Bradshaw used the biblical story of the death of Uriah the Hittite, orchestrated by King David who lusted after Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Though David was responsible for the shedding of Uriah’s blood, his repentance for his actions appeased God. Bradshaw counselled Charles likewise to reflect on his ‘bloodguiltiness’ and repent to enable him to ‘prepare for his eternal condition’. For Bradshaw, it was therefore the law which first and foremost condemned the king. Blood-guilt made Charles morally culpable but for that he was accountable only in the afterlife.  The Biblical notion of ‘blood guilt’, therefore, does not explain why Charles was executed, though it certainly may have led some figures such as Harrison to urge that the king be brought to justice.

The most important and controversial recent interpretation of the king’s trial by Sean Kelsey has suggested, that ‘it was never actually intended that the trial end in Regicide at all’. Instead, Kelsey has argued that these proceedings were a form of negotiation intended to achieve a lasting political settlement which would preserve the king’s life and also much of England’s ‘ancient constitution’. In Kelsey’s interpretation of the trial, the evidence prepared against the king was deliberately weak and intended to provide the opportunity for Charles to secure his acquittal. The trial commissioners had also rejected the idea of a longer charge, accusing the king of crimes across his whole reign and instead settled on an indictment focused on the years of civil war. Once public proceedings began in the vast setting of Westminster Hall on 20 January, Charles was given repeated opportunities (seven in all) to enter plea. Even when he spurned these offers, the court did not rush to judgment but instead spent two full days considering witness evidence, perhaps in the hope that the king would reconsider his position during this pause in public proceedings. The trial stuttered rather sped to its conclusion: Charles was condemned as a traitor on 25th January but only sentenced on 27th before being executed on 30th. This slow path to the scaffold is perhaps indicative again of his judges trying to provide the king with more time to change his mind.

According to Kelsey’s account, the king was executed as Charles’ behaviour at the trial had left his judges with no alternative. If they failed to condemn him and carry out the sentence this would have fundamentally undermined their authority. As the historian Phil Baker has noted, however, this interpretation of the trial presents us with a problem, given that it is, Baker argues, ‘difficult to imagine a scenario in which the king…formally acknowledged the authority of the court and entered a plea.’ In fact, both the court itself and contemporary news reports had anticipated Charles’s strategy of refusing to recognize the court’s authority. Indeed, some evidence suggests that the court had even considered forcibly removing the king’s hat if, as expected, he refused to take it off as a sign of his contempt for the court. (As it happened, no such attempt to enforce ‘hat honour’ was made and Charles was permitted to keep his hat on for the duration of the proceedings).

An alternative way of looking at the proceedings against the king is that the multiple attempts to get the king to plead, the hearing of evidence and the slow progress to sentencing were all intended to show that justice had been properly performed. Supporters of putting the king on trial such as the judge advocate for the army in the North, Thomas Margetts, were concerned that if the proceedings appeared rushed it would tend ‘to the presenting of malicious designs and less of Justice.’ This point was acknowledged in the prosecutor John Cook’s King Charls his Case (1649), published shortly after the trial. Here Cook vindicated the court not only on the basis of the evidence that it had heard but also for the manner in which it had heard it:

‘This high court did not only consult with Heaven for wisdom and direction…but examined witnesses for several days upon oath to inform their consciences and received abundant satisfaction in a judicial way…as judges, which before was most notorious and known to them as private persons.’

It was the demand for justice, rather than bloody retribution, which was most prominent in the petitions created by army regiments and civilian groups in autumn and winter 1648. These petitions also repeatedly called for justice that was ‘impartiall’. By this, however, was meant something more than justice that was unbiased or objective but rather justice that would apply equally to all persons. This form of justice was outlined in the Levellers’ ‘Large Petition’ of September 1648, a text that provided the inspiration for many of the later petitions for justice. The ‘Large Petition’ demanded that Parliament make

‘Kings, Queens, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Lords and all Persons, alike liable to every Law of the Land, made or to be made; that so all persons even the Highest might fear & stand in aw and neither violate the publick peace, nor private right of person or estate, (as hath been frequent) without being lyable to accompt as other men.’

These public demands for justice, mainly coming from the army, likely also explain the shape of the charge against the king which focused on his responsibility for initiating the conflict and by extension for the destruction and loss of life on all sides.

Kelsey’s argument that the evidence presented against the king was deliberately weak is challenged by the lengths the court went to secure witness testimony. Many witnesses were soldiers in the Parliamentarian army and probably drawn from units that were in or around the capital at the time of the king’s trial. Some of these military witnesses, such as Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Reade, were also supporters of the ideas of the Leveller movement. (Reade had spoken in support of giving all men the vote at the Putney Debates.) Other witnesses, however, were more obscure civilian figures. Research into the background of these figures indicates that the court brought these deponents in from further afield. Take for example, Robert Lacey, a witness described as a painter from Nottingham. Lacey’s witness statement concerned the raising of the king’s standard in the city on 22 August 1642. Several other witnesses at the trial claimed to have seen the raising of the king’s standard and their evidence was intended to demonstrate that it was Charles who had formally declared war against his people. Lacey, however, had more cause to remember this moment than others, having been tasked by the king to paint the pole on which the standard was fixed. Nottingham corporation records indicate Lacey was still working as a painter in the city when summoned to give evidence at the trial. Shortly after Charles’ death, the corporation of Nottingham would order Lacey to whitewash out the king’s arms and other royal insignia from across the city! The evidence gathered against the king was substantial: in total thirty-three witness statements were presented before the king’s judges, providing evidence to support each of the charges against him. This included the reference of multiple witnesses to loss of life on both sides, substantiating the charge of murder and several witness statements which accused Charles of tyrannical behaviour. A similar care to demonstrate that proper legal process was being followed was also shown in the later trial of other leading Royalists where defendants were even permitted defence counsel on points of law and allowed to summon and cross-examine witnesses.

This concern with justice and legal process also explains why the court’s proceedings were both held in Westminster Hall, the site of royal law courts (Chancery and King’s Bench), and why they were open to thousands of spectators. This placed the trial within an English tradition of ‘public justice’ in which the legitimacy of the court’s proceedings was confirmed by them notionally being open to all to scrutinise. This points us towards another critical purpose of the trial, which was to confirm the authority of Parliament as the representative of England’s sovereign people. On 4 January, the Commons had issued a resolution that ‘the People are, under God, the Original of all just Power: And … the Commons of England, In Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the People, have the Supreme Power in this Nation.’ This resolution underwrote the ordinance that followed two days later establishing the High Court of Justice to try the king, an ordinance that had been passed without the upper house’s approval following the opposition of the remaining Lords to the king’s trial. The staging of the trial also emphasised the supremacy of the Commons with the royal coat of arms replaced with a shield bearing the cross of St George and the Irish Harp (a device that would later become the arms of the English Republic). On a table in front of the President of the court were placed the mace and sword of the Commons. The charges too spoke to the re-ordering of political authority: Charles was indicted as a traitor as he had waged war against the sovereign English people. The summoning of lowly witnesses, from butchers to cobblers to painters, to give evidence against Charles, suggested a dramatic change in the political order. As Bradshaw urged in his closing arguments, there was no exception to the punishment for murder, either in the Bible or in English law:

‘truly Sir, if any man will ask us what punishment is due to a Murtherer, Let Gods Law, let mans Law speak. Sir, I will presume that you are so well read in Scripture as to know what God himself hath said concerning the shedding of mans blood; Gen. 9. Numb. 35. will tell you what the punishment is, and which this Court in behalf of the Kingdom are sensible of, of that innocent blood that has been shed, wherby indeed the Land stands stil defiled with that blood, & as the text hath it, It can no way be cleansed but with the shedding of the blood of him that shed this blood. Sir, we know no Dispensation from this blood in that Commandment, Thou shalt do no Murther; we do not know but that it extends to Kings, as well as to the meanest Peasants, the meanest of the People, the Command is universal. Sir, Gods Law forbids it, Mans Law forbids, nor do we know that there is any manner of exception, not even in mans Laws, for the punishment of Murther in you.’

English kings had died at the hands of their subject before – killed on the battlefield or murdered following their deposition. It was the decision to charge the king and put him on public trial that was extraordinary and unprecedented. As the Venetian ambassador, Alvise Contarini remarked ‘History affords no example of the like’. While Biblical ideas of blood guilt did lead some army officers to urge that Charles be prosecuted, it was not primarily fear of God’s wrath that led the king to the scaffold. Charles I was executed in order to show justice had been done according to law, and by and on behalf of the sovereign people of England. As Clarendon noted, the officers who had urged that the king should be tried rather than simply murdered did so because they argued that ‘the superiority of the people would be hereby vindicated and made manifest’. Such a demonstration would provide ‘the best foundation and security of the government they intended to establish’.