Saturday, 30 January 2010

Execution of Charles I

360 years ago today, Charles I stepped out of the Banqueting House on a bitterly cold day onto a hastily constructed wooden scaffold erected between Whitehall Gate and the Gate leading into the gallery from St. James's.

Accompanied by Dr. Juxon, Col. Thomlinson and other officers appointed to attend him, plus a private armed guard of musketeers, Charles I faced a massive crowd of curious Londoners.

Legend says he put on two shirts – in case the frigid January air meant the crowd mistook his shivering for fear – He apparently asked for the block to be made higher, but the executior told him this was not possible.

His trial was held at Westminster Hall, established by a bill passed by the Long Parliament, after 'Pride's Purge' in December 1648. The bill nominated 3 judges and 150 commissioners who were empowered to try the King. John Bradshaw was president of the trial, with John Cooke as prosecutor. Charles refused to enter a plea, and refused to answer any of the charges, declaring:

'I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?'

Charles spent the morning of 30 January in prayer while Parliament hurriedly passed an ordinance making it treason to declare a successor. He was then led out to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House at about 2pm. In his final speech he called himself “the martyr of the people” and reminded the audience that “a subject and a sovereign are clear different things”. He then declared:

'I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.'

After forgiving his executioner, he placed his head on the block, and gave the signal for him to proceed. His head was severed in one blow and when held up for the crown to see, many women fainted, despite that public exections were considered a leisure activity in the 1600's.

The identity of the executioner was never revealed, because he wore a mask. However the following were put forward as candidates:

* Richard Brandon, the common Hangman of London: he reportedly refused, but is said by some to have confessed to the execution on his deathbed.
* William Hewlett, who was convicted for his part in signing the death warrant at Charles II’s restoration.
* Two men, “Dayborne and Bickerstaffe”, who were arrested but never charged.
* Henry Walker, a former ironmonger turned writer and journalist, who covered the trial in his newsbooks.

Even in death, Charles found no dignity. Spectators were allowed to go up to the scaffold and, after paying, dip handkerchiefs in his blood. It was felt that the blood of a king when wiped onto a wound, or held by a sick person would act as a cure.

On the 6th February, 1649, the monarchy was abolished. Parliament stated that:

'the office of the king in this nation is unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, society and public interest of the people.'


Gillian Bagwell said...

The Banqueting House is still there, though somewhat changed, and it still feels eerie to stand on roughly the spot where the scaffold stood and imagine Charles going to his death.

On a trip last summer I spent some time with a period map trying to match the locations of various parts of Whitehall Palace (which burned down in 1698, except the Banqueting Hall) to the modern landscape. I think the statue on the grounds of the Ministry of Defense is roughly the site of Charles II's bedroom! The Holbein Gate used to stretch across the street toward where Horse Guards is now.

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

Anita, this is one of the best posts I've ever read. It was fascinating from start to finish. What a courageous man.