The Execution of Charles I

John Buchan wrote that “what is called the Second Civil War was, in England, strictly a royalist revolt”. It is perfectly true that what made the war so relentless was that many Royalist officers, who had laid own their arms on terms two years earlier, broke their oaths to fight for the King again. But the broader historical significance of the second civil war was that – twelve full years before the Restoration- this campaign foreshadowed that alliance of royalists and Presbyterians which was to put an end to the Puritan Revolution. It also, as in 1660, brought down an army from Scotland with the aim of overawing London. Oliver Cromwell, always antagonistic to Scottish interference with English affairs, said afterwards that the Royalists committed a “prodigious treason” because the former quarrel on their part was that Englishmen might rule over one another; this “to vassalize us to a foreign nation”.

The revolt, in fact, began in Wales, where a Presbyterian colonel, in command of the garrison of Pembroke, supported by other officers and soldiers who had fought for the Parliamentarians in the civil war, took up arms for Charles I. Similarly in the navy, which had been Parliamentarian almost to a man, a Presbyterian vice-admiral declared for the King and threatened the peace of London by persuading about half the fleet to join the Royalist revolt. In many other parts of the country the Cavaliers received assistance or, at any rate, encouragement from Presbyterians who had formerly been against them. All of them hoped that an immediate invasion of the Scottish Engagers would result in the restoration of the King, the forcing of the Covenant on all and sundry, and the setting up of their religion exclusively.

In the spring of 1648 it looked, indeed, as if the cause of Cromwell and the New Model Army, and all the expectations of religious freedom and constitutional reform for which they had contended, were in deadly peril. Not only was South Wales aflame; the Royalists rose in Essex and Kent; to the north of England the towns that guarded the main roads from Scotland, Carlisle, and Berwick-on-Tweed were seized in the name of the King; two Yorkshire towns, Scarborough and Pontefract, also came under control of the resurgent Cavaliers. Even London was menaced by the revolted warships. How far this was a genuine national reaction in favour of the King is not easy to gauge: one historian tells us that the rising was entirely popular in origin; another that “Englishmen in the mass remained neutral”. It does seem probable that many ordinary people were disappointed because during the three years since the battle of Naseby no settlement had been attained between parliament and the King, while cracks had opened among the victorious Parliamentarians themselves, chiefly over questions of religion, but partly over political ideals. But, equally, divisions existed among the King’s supporters in Scotland, and that was why the alliance with the Presbyterians failed to achieve its purpose now, as it finally did in 1660.

On the face of it, the position of the New Model Army was extremely precarious. For, while Fairfax had to turn to the south-east in order to suppress the Royalist risings there and Oliver Cromwell was ordered into South Wales where the war first began, only Major-General John Lambert, with a small cavalry force, was available in the north of England to protect the wide area where the Scottish assault was expected. Nevertheless, the English Puritan army had several advantages. The Royalist plans were ill-concerted and mistimed. In Scotland many of the Covenanters repudiated the engagements of their Commissioners; while the first Duke of Hamilton gathered an army together, the Marquis of Argyll, the most powerful single leader in Scotland, stood aside. Thus the experienced soldiers who had fought under the Earl of Leven at Marston Moor and elsewhere did not serve in the campaign, while the army which eventually invaded England consisted largely of raw recruits, inadequately armed. Secondly, the risings in England broke out before the Scots were ready, and as it happened, owing to the vigorous moves of Fairfax and Cromwell, the fires that burned in Wales and the south-east of England were largely quenched before the Scots even crossed the border. Finally, the New Model Army consisted of highly qualified and well-equipped men, who were smarting with a sense of grievance against both the Royalists, whom they regarded as having betrayed their word, and the Presbyterians, who had dubbed them “public enemies” for refusing to disband upon derisory terms. Cromwell himself was conscious of this depth of feeling, though he was chiefly incensed against the Scots, whom he had never trusted, and therefore accused the Royalists of a double crime in renewing the civil war as well as bringing in the Scots against the English Puritans.

It took Cromwell six weeks to obtain the surrender of Pembroke, partly because he had difficulty in collecting siege guns, some of them being wrecked at sea. As soon as the siege was over on 11th July, he led his men north to the assistance of General Lambert. This was one of the historic military marches: Cromwell and his men moved at the rate of ten miles a day in bad weather through partly hostile territory, and by the middle of August he was conferring with Lambert near Leeds.

Hamilton and the Scots had finally crossed the border on 8th July 1648, but, as he was awaiting reinforcements from Ireland and also lacked artillery and sufficient ammunition, his advance had been extremely leisurely. Lambert had originally taken up his position at Barnard Castle (where he had been joined by some of Cromwell’s cavalry), on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire, as a precaution lest the Scots chose to switch east after moving through Cumberland in order to link up with their allies in Yorkshire. after some argument, however, the  Scottish command had decided to come on through Lancashire, although it was not until after Cromwell and Lambert met that this important fact was understood. both sides were enveloped in a fog of war and neither appreciated what the other was doing or how big their relative forces were. In reality, the Scots and Royalists together outnumbered Cromwell and Lambert by at least two to one.

But Cromwell was not much worried about numbers. He had a fine army which he could trust, and he knew that speed was the essence of victory. His forced march north gave him the initiative. Screened from the enemy by the Pennine chain, he decided to effect a surprise by leaving much of his artillery behind him and pressing through the Craven district of Yorkshire (where Lambert had been born), and along the valley of the Ribble towards Preston where the Scottish camp was thought to be. The Duke of Hamilton himself was at Preston, but though warned about Cromwell’s approach – a report which he discounted – he sent his infantry on towards southern Lancashire, leaving only Sir Marmaduke Langdale with a small force of northern Royalists, supported by a few Scottish horse, to take the shock of Cromwell’s assault upon a moor outside the town. Preston was a soldier’s battle, but weight of numbers and experience told.

After an heroic struggle the greater part of Langdale’s infantry surrendered, while the bulk of the Scots and the contingent from Ireland stood almost within gunshot, doing nothing to help their afflicted comrades. The Scottish command, confused, surprised, and outmanoeuvred, then moved on through the night, first to Warrington and then to Wigan, where they intended to make a stand before joining their friends in Wales. Cromwell’s army, though tired after its long marches and servere fighting, soon resumed the chase. At Winwick pass, near Warrington, a second battle was fought with the Scots, and thousands more prisoners were taken. The Duke of Hamilton himself, after vainly trying to reach Pontefract, laid down his sword on 25th August. The Scots from Ireland, a capable veteran force of some four or five thousand men under the command of Sir George Monro, having taken no part whatever in all these battles, eventually escaped over the border and on to Stirling.

Cromwell wasted no time in concluding what was perhaps the most striking of all his campaigns. He was at first concerned lest Monro should attempt to rescue the prisoners in Preston. but Monro had no such intention, and Cromwell marched unmolested to the Scottish frontier. His first task was to exact the surrender of Scottish garrisons left in Berwick and Carlisle. To enforce his demands he crossed the Tweed, and on 4th October entered Edinburgh. The Marquis of Argyll was only too pleased to come to terms with him in order to secure the support of the Ironside cavalry against his foes the Engagers, now concentrated in Stirling. So Argyll and his friends gladly promised Cromwell to ban the Engagers from all positions of trust, to disband Monro’s army, and to surrender Berwick and Carlisle. Thus speedily were Charles I’s hopes of rescue by his Scottish subjects dissipated. Cromwell left behind him three regiments to lend countenance to the new government of Scotland, and promptly returned to England. Sufficient problems awaited him there.

While the second civil war was being waged, the House of Commons, relieved of the presence of many Independent members like Cromwell, who were away fighting, still aspired, quite unprovoked by the Royalist revolt, to come to an agreement with the King. The day before the Duke of Hamilton surrendered, it repealed the “vote of no addresses” and a commission of fifteen members was sent to the Isle of Wight to reopen negotiations with Charles I. Included in this delegation was not only Denzil Holles, the principal Presbyterian leader in parliament, who had earlier fled from Westminster at the approach of the army, but also Cromwell’s old friend and colleague, Sir Henry Vane, On his knees Holles begged the King to capitulate to the English Presbyterians’ demands before the New Model Army should again bear down on London. Vane, on the other hand, pressed the King to concede the scheme for toleration envisaged in “The Heads of the Proposals”. In these circumstances, the King, although he was already aware that the Engagers had been beaten by Cromwell, continued to hope that he could regain his throne by inciting his opponents to quarrel among themselves.

What the King failed to realize was that the parliamentary commissioners had little effective support behind them, apart from that of the Common Council of the City of London which was again clamouring for a Presbyterian settlement snd the disbanding of the army. The Levellers, also influential in London, though not desiring power to fall into the hands of the “Grandees” of the army, stood for religious toleration and were antagonistic to the London Presbyterians, while John Lilburne had a scheme for balancing King and parliament against the army. Both the so-called Grandees and the Agitators in the army were growing increasingly restless. There is reason to suppose (though our knowledge about this is inadequate) that at this stage the influence of Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, was decisive. Early in September, his regiment had protested against the repeal of “the vote of no address”, and at the end of that month he himself sent a letter of resignation to General Fairfax. He offered to resign because he was strongly opposed to the reopening of negotiations with the King and had vainly urged upon the commander-in-chief the need again to purge the Commons of its Presbyterian leaders. Meanwhile the House of Commons had defiantly passed an ordinance imposing the Presbyterian system of Church government upon the whole of England, without any concessions whatsoever to toleration. Evidently, Fairfax soothed Ireton and promised that some action should be taken, for Ireton withdrew his resignation. Ireton’s next move was to draw up a “remonstrance of the army” in which he demanded that no further negotiations should be conducted with the King but that he should be brought to public trial for renewing the civil war. Finally, Ireton entered into detailed discussions with the Levellers with a view to reaching a compromise between their schemes for constitutional reform and his own. Before Ireton determined to throw over the monarchy. however, he sent a message to Charles I giving him one last chance to make peace on the basis of the army’s proposals. But the King still counted upon his enemies destroyed each other, and plotted to escape from them.

Parliament, as well as the King, rejected the new scheme for a political settlement put forward by Ireton and fashioned by him out of the “Heads of the Proposals” and the Levellers’ “Agreement of the People”. This scheme for an extremely limited monarchy, one-chamber legislature, a more or less democratic electorate, and religious toleration represented the apogee of revolutionary political idealism.

As it was being evolved , Cromwell himself remained in the north of England, laying siege to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire, which was still in Royalist hands. It is by no means easy to guess from the evidence that survives exactly how his mind was working while his son-in-law was pickling his rod for the monarchy in London. What would the historian not give for a sight of the correspondance between him and Ireton that must surely have been carried on! Cromwell was clearly hesitating. “How easy”, he wrote, “to find arguments for what we would have; how easy to take offence at things called Levellers, and run into an extremity on the other hand, meddling with an accursed thing” (i.e. further negotiations with an intractable King). Had they really to choose, he asked, between yielding to the King and accepting an all-embracing Presbyterianism? Was not the toleration of all godly people their proper aim? Thus he expressed himself early in November, showing that religious freedom was still his foremost concern. Gradually, however, he was converted to the view that the army itself was an instrument chosen by God to overcome the King and ensure that the fruits of war were not wasted. Yet, ever doubtful of the sanctification of force, he showed uncertainty. “Truly,” he added as late as 25th November, even in putting forward this very suggestion, “this kind of reasonings may be but fleshly.”

While Cromwell was searching his conscience in Yorkshire, Ireton was acting in the south. He, and not Cromwell, was then the resolute man, pressing forward Fairfax, rallying the New Model Army, trying to conciliate the Levellers, steeling his mind to desperate deeds. He had his way. The King was removed from the Isle of Wight; the army marched upon London; the Presbyterians were finally expelled from the Commons by the sword in what was known as “Pride’s Purge”; and only a “rump” of some fifty members was allowed to remain. It was not until the night after “Pride’s Purge” that Cromwell came back to London.

“Pride Purge” had been carried out after the majority of the House of Commons had protested against the King’s removal from the Isle of wight, and had averred that it was still possible at this eleventh hour to negotiate with disapproval and even horror the proposal that the House should be purged, yet allowed himself to be overruled in the Council of Officers by Henry Ireton supported by Colonel Thomas Harrison. Cromwell, for his part, was  presumably consulted about the decision to march upon London, but not about the purge, which had to be rapidly determined. However, upon his arrival in the capital he said that he approved of it, and next day took his seat in the attenuated House.

During the next three weeks critical decisions about the future had to be taken by the small and resolute knot of men, of whom Cromwell and Ireton were the chief and who now had their hands upon the levers of power. They were under tremendous pressure, especially from the Levellers and from the rank-and-file of the army. Should the King be brought to trial and, if so, be sentenced to death? Or should other prisoners, who were also held responsible for bringing about the second civil war, such as the Duke of Hamilton, be tried first? We know that on 14th December Cromwell went to see Hamilton at Winsdor, but, apart from that, the evidence upon those fateful days is sparse and contradictory. It is said, for example, that both on 21st and 25th December Cromwell appealed to his fellow officers for the King’s life to be spared. But how could Cromwell foretell the verdict of a court? It has also been suggested that Cromwell imagined – being misled about the real character of Charles I – that the King would be willing to barter his life for the surrender of all but his formal powers as a monarch. Such chaffering with a man’s life is hard to square with Cromwell’s later defence of the King’s execution as fundamentally an act of justice. It may be so, for the human mind is complex and in politics bargaining is the order of the day. Imaginative biographers seek, where the evidence tails away, to guess the answer, speculating on speculations. But only one thing is reasonably sure. Cromwell must have known that the trial and execution of the King would solve none of the immediate political difficulties. Its value was as an act of retribution and a terrible warning to the King’s posterity. But it would not crush Royalism, for there was always another king.

The purged House of Commons passed an ordinance for bringing the King to trial on 1st January 1649. The ordinance in its final form provided for the appointment of 135 commissioners to act both as judges and jurors. When the court gathered in the Painted Chamber on 20th January, only sixty-eight of those nominated were present; John Bradshaw was the president. The King had been conducted from Windsor Castle to St. James Palace on the previous day. Then he was taken by sedan-chair to Whitehall, moved by barge from Whitehall to the house of Sir Robert Cotton near the court, and afterwards escorted into Westminster Hall, whence the commissioners from the Painted Chamber assembled. These elaborate precautions were plainly designed to prevent a demonstration on the King’s behalf. Bradshaw provided himself with a shotproof hat.

Bradshaw told the King that they were resolved to “make inquisition” for the innocent blood shed in the nation. When John Cook, as prosecuting counsel, stood up, the King raised his cane, telling him to “hold”. The silver head of the cane fell off; after the King had vainly looked around for someone to pick it up, he did so himself and put it in his pocket. It was a sad and ominous beginning to the trial. The King asked by what power he was called upon to give answer to the charges of “high treason and other high crimes” preferred against him. “Remember,” he said, “I am your lawful King.” Bradshaw answered that they acted by the authority of the Commons of England, assembled in parliament, on behalf of the people of England who had elected him King. Charles I retorted that “England was never an elective kingdom” and that he himself was entrusted with the liberties of the people. Throughout the entire trial he refused to acknowledge the authority of the court or to plead to the charges.

On 23rd, 24th and 25th January, Cromwell and the other commissioners adjourned to the Painted Chamber and met in private session to examine witnesses. All that these could prove was that the King had led an army against parliament, which the commissioners present had startling fallen to thirty-one. But the case against Charles Stuart having been proved to their satisfaction and the prisoner having been adjudged contumacious, since he refused to plead, a committee was appointed to draw up a sentence of death; next day this was accepted by the court; and on 27th January, sixty-eight commissioners went from the Painted Chamber to Westminster Hall where the King was brought to hear the sentence read. Fifty-nine commissioners – fewer than half those originally nominated – finally signed the death warrant. Cromwell, his mind made up, hesitated no more.

No delay was allowed in carrying out the verdict. On 29th January the King saw his thirteen-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and his ten-year-old son, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in St. Jame’s Palace. His eldest son, Prince Charles, had sent a blank piece of paper to parliament offering to underwrite any terms that would save his father’s life. The King asked for his dogs to be sent to the Queen, and refused all religious ministrations except that of a bishop, William Juxon of London. A scaffold was erected on the west side of the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace. On 30th January, Charles I told one who attended him: “This is my second marriage day: I would be as trim today as may be; for before night I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” The public executioner beheaded the King just before two o’clock. His body was buried a week later at Windsor in the falling snow.

In the end, King Charles I had, after all, been true to himself, obstinately defending the powers of the Stuart monarchy and the rights of the Church of England. He had been put to death by a ruthless oligarchy of some fifty or sixty men who honestly believed that they were performing an act of justice in the name of the English people. It is hard not to sympathize with the royal martyr (?), the central figure in that tragic scene. Three hundred years afterwards the German National socialist leaders and generals were put to trial at Nuremburg for waging war,  not, as King Charles had done, against their own people, but against other nations, and were condemned in the name of a newly fashioned international law. Those men were far greater villains than King Charles, though they, too, had struggled to uphold their own power in the name of the German people. King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were, however, not modern demagogues but Christian gentlemen who both fought for what they conceived to be justice, liberty, and God’s will. plainly neither of them in any definable sense represented “the people of England” Yet other English kings, as John Bradshaw reminded Charles I – King John, King Henry III, King Edward II, King Richard II, and King Richard III – had been resisted, deposed, or killed because the great magnates of the realm had deemed them guilty of misgovernment. now a wider class had used their swords and subjugated their King. That was the historic fact. The puritan revolutionaries by their desperate act ultimately paved the way to constitutional government on a broader basis and, as will be argued, to wider religious liberties.

Oliver Cromwell had long hestitated about putting the King to death or even bringing him to trial. He was pushed on by Ireton, on the one hand, and by the Levellers on the other. But in Yorkshire he must have made up his own mind, after considering all the arguments and possibilities. What he learned on his return to London merely confirmed his decision. Testimony given after the Restoration, which must be suspect, nevertheless was unanimous in affirming that Cromwell was the man who in the end thrust through the execution of Charles I. But he did it in no spirit of anger or crude revenge. He saw himself as the instrument of justice, as did the judges at Nuremburg. Such terrible decisions are not often asked of men. To assess them in retrospect is easier than to make them at the time. Statesmen have to make them; historians to record them. Cromwell believed that only God could judge them.

(With the attitude and behaviour of the Stuart Kings who clung to the past of ‘Divine Right’ of the monarchy it brought about the ‘Glorious Revolution of 1688 it is liken to an earthquake where things move on and where we have today a ‘Constitutional Monarch’ who is neutral so you swear allegiance to uphold the constitution not a political party and the country is governed by parliament this is thanks to Protestant thought and then action and why there is a statue of Oliver Cromwell in the grounds of parliament as he represents this and this went on to create the Constitutional Federal Republic of the United States of America which was formed at the end of the eighteenth century all thanks to Protestant thought and action the last action of the English Civil War, but in turn led to the French Revolution the irony on this it was French forces which primarily won the War of Independence and later it happened to them, what goes around comes around as the saying goes)