410 Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer


Once the decision was taken to put Charles on trial, the Commissioners agonised about the detail at Westminster; the trial must be seen to be fair. But few can have doubted its outcome. The theatre of the trial was almost a gladatorial contest between representatives of the two sides, in the form of President Bradshaw, and King Charles

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Trial of the King

From John Nalson’s “Record of the Trial of Charles I, 1688” in the British Museum.


Last time we had what I consider to be an action packed episode. Though fair do’s we started in December 1648 and we didn’t get out so I guess there’s that. But look, what a month! We had Pride’s Purge – a revolutionary and military coup which put the radicals in charge. We have heard about the Whitehall debates which created a new constitution for parliament to presumably implement in the few months that remained to them – after all there must be new elections by April 1649. And as regards the king, parliament have looked at all the options – an unfortunate accident, court martial, forced abdication – and decided on the most demanding of all, a path never before walked; to put their head of state, their divinely appointed monarch, on trial. In public. For all the world to see. For his life.

So today we had better see how that goes for everyone. Just a word about the shape of things. The most important thing about this is not that one man gets killed. It is that this is where the English Revolution happens. Of course it’s important that a monarch is held to account by legal process for the first time ever; but the constitutional changes they needed to make along the way are more so.

The revolutionary House of Commons had a strategy which contained almost unbearable tensions, which Charles will exploit with enormous skill and dignity.

They chose an open and legal approach to help everyone see that justice had been done so that as many people as possible could come to accept the new regime if not happily, at least in good conscience. That meant the trial had to be seen to be done as far as possible according to existing custom, practice and law. The trouble was that if you are in a revolution, you are going to have to be revolutionary; won’t there be some bloke in the French Revolution who accuses the 1792 convention of wanting to have a revolution without a revolution? You see history never repeats itself, but it does sometimes rhyme.

And almost nobody realized, or wanted to realise, that they were in a revolution, because no one knew what that was. Not like all those later revolutions, where the principle had been established. We will see constantly people walking away because they say ooh hang on you can’t do that, that’s not lawful – as we’ll see, Algernon Sydney is the ultimate expression of this essential fragility of mind, and one of the greatest achievements of Ireton, Bradshaw, Marten, Cromwell and others was that these people, often deeply socially conservative who loved the old ways of their country,  and had gone to war to defend them, finally realized it, accepted the consequences.

The greatest put down in the entire historiography of the English Revolution was the title of Clarendon great work. He called it the History of the Rebellion. Look, he was saying this is just a bunch of rebels, like we have always had, just worthless malignants, there is nothing noble, nothing new here, no great new principles. How wrong he was.

But this desire to show the world that they were doing the right things for the right reasons in the right way – was simply impossible to achieve. Because the monarch had never been held to law. And in trying to pretend otherwise, the revolutionaries say some very silly things which Charles will brilliantly ridicule with all the contempt he can muster, contempt which came from the violation of his deeply held beliefs.

C V Wedgewood may have had the right of it in her thoroughly brilliant and readable book, the Trial of Charles I. Wouldn’t everything have been easier, she said, if from the start the Revolutionaries had stopped pretending they were acting in the name of ancient precedence? And simply said we are going to change everything here build a new world done in new ways? Because after all that’s what happens. However, maybe on the other hands they knew exactly what they were doing; they had a better felling than we do maybe, on what their own contemporaries could accept. The price they had to pay of tying themselves in knots was just a price that must be paid.

It’s also interesting that while the Scots took a very different attitude to their king, and never contemplated the thought of putting him on trial, yet I think I am right in saying there was a legal approach there that separated the person of the king, who could be potentially charged with treason against the state, and the office of king. Like Elizabeth made a distinction between her office and her person. Exactly like the way Edward II was dealt with in England – establishing for the first time the idea of the office of the monarch and the person.

Anyway, the revolution starts with 1st January 1649 – pop it in your diaries. It starts with the Ordnance for a Court of High Justice. It was Henry Marten who came to the House to talk about the arrangements.

Whereas it is notorious that Charles Stuart…hath a wicked design to totally subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this nation and introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government…he hath prosecuted it by fire and sword…

There’s more; explaining why Charles was to be tried, the basis of the charge the prosecutor John Cook would work up into an indictment. It also made a statement which was entirely innovatory, with which James I for example had specifically disagreed. Here it goes:

It is treason for the King of England…to levy war against the Parliament and Kingdom of England

Charles and his Dad would have amended that to read

It is unfortunate but no less than his right for the king of England to levy war against anyone he jolly well choose to

James had specifically made that point, if you remember, way back; if the king did happen to be a tyrant well, there was nothing for the people to do but bow their pretty little heads, grin, bear it and wait for better times. But don’t worry – the king would after all be judged by God.

The ordinance for the court of High Justice went to the lords. The royalist newsbooks and our Marchmont Nedham had a lot of ball with the house of lords. There were only 12 of them left, max, poor lambs, and Nedham painted a lovely picture of their proceedings; he visualized them all grouped round the winter fire, feet up, hanging out, having a nice chin wag about the future of the nation.

The lords demonstrated that they too had not realized they were in a revolution. Manchester led the charge, as they unanimously declared that it was not lawful to accuse the king of treason against his own parliament. I can hear Cromwell thumping the table and demanding ‘then why did we take up arms at all’? The lords refused to pass the Ordinance and therefore signed themselves into irrelevance. I think no aristocrat except Grey of Groby was in favour of the trial. It does make sense; take away the scaffold of a king, why would you keep peers?

The Commons picked up this challenge. They simply turned the ordinance into a full blown Act on 6th January 1649. It did this with a ringing declaration which has been described as the first enunciation of key democratic principles by the legislative body which claimed to be its servant:

The Commons of England assembled in parliament declare that the people under God are the origin of all power…the Commons of England assembled in parliament, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme authority of this nation

Which is a principle which, through various wiggles and meanderings, has survived as a fundamental principle of the British constitution.

So, the Levellers had their wish; the king and the Lords no longer held a negative voice, no veto. All sovereignty derived from the people. Which was not true of either monarch or lords. The weakest point of the whole process was, of course, as Anne Fairfax would tell the world, that this particular parliament did not represent one quarter of the people. But sometimes revolutionaries need to be ahead of the curve.

The format of the trial gave pause for thought. Common law prohibited a jury, because a king has no peers. So, the solution was a special High Court of Justice. Judgement would be made by a commission of 135 judges that would represent the people. They were selected without asking them, to make it as hard as possible for them to so no. There would be a President of the High Court, the Solicitor General would prepare the charges with the Attorney General as the Trial prosecutor.

The announcements were made in grand style by the public champion in the streets of London – oh yeah yeah – and the message given to Charles at Windsor.  ‘Dear Charles. I hope you are well…’ And meanwhile, Henry Marten had created a new Great Seal – a symbol of authority which for the first time held no image of a monarch, just the House of Commons. Around it was the legend

In the first year of Freedom, by God’s Blessing restored, 1648

But, if you listen very carefully, you might hear a creaking, rumbling splashing noise.  What you are hearing is the sound of anyone whose common sense and desire for a long life loomed larger than their duty, leaving town in a long traffic jam of carts. That’s harsh actually – many of these folks left because they were opposed on principle to putting the king on trial. Warwick was such a man – we used to speak constantly of Warwick, and since he’s been a navy man he’s been a bit absent. He is one of those who approved of Pride’s Purge, but like Saye and Sele would have nothing to do with putting the king on trial, they had both reached their limit – rebels not revolutuionaries.

As we’ve heard the Solicitor General Oliver St John left town; the Attorney General did not, but took to his bed and never came out from under the sheets. So that’s awkward. And all the High Court judges, Seldon, Whitlocke, Widdrington left so fast their horses hooves left little skid marks. And so on January 10th John Bradshaw, Chief Justice for Chester was appointed President of the High Court of Justice.

He gets a bad, bad rap does John Bradshaw; most narratives laugh behind their hands that parliament were forced to choose the most lowly of high Court Judges because no one else would do it. There ae two things about that. Firstly, that is entirely to John Bradshaw’s eternal credit. He did not run, he stood up; his family begged him not to, he begged not to, but since called he did his duty. He also wore a lead lined hat throughout.  The other thing is that John Bradshaw was a fine man; conscientious, hard working, honest and dedicated. He was not the unknown as he is often presented; he had established his credentials in defending the likes of John Lilburne in court, and his probity in the courts of Compounding; because of that work he was well known around Westminster. He would manage the most extraordinarily difficult case in the face of a really rather inspired defence by a man born to command. And do it calmly and with great credit.

Oliver St John threw a sickie too, leaving us without a prosecutor. And so it was that John Cooke was chosen, a relatively young lawyer who we’ve heard of before, with a passion for legal and penal reform, and indeed free medical support for the poor. He was a convinced republican, and took up the task of prosecuting the king with conviction and energy

I readily harkened to their call to this service, as it if had been immediately from heaven

For Cooke this was more than just about Charles Stuart, this was a struggle

Not only against one tyrant, but against tyranny itself

He would have the support of a couple of people, including a legal expert from the Netherlands, Isaac Dorislaus. Which was good, because Cook was set the terrifying objective of creating the charges and evidence in just six days.

The sessions of the High Court of Justice took place in the fabulous Painted Chamber in the palace of Westminster, decorated with biblical scenes, and hung with tapestries. It was just a couple of rooms away from where Charles himself would be brought to stay. In fact, if he’d held a glass against the wall maybe he would have been able to hear them all planning the trial.

That first meeting was a bit like throwing your first party. Standing around wondering if anyone would turn up, especially the cool kids. To everyone’s relief, the main cool kid Thomas Fairfax did put in an appearance, and his presence lent incalculable legitimacy to the enterprise; it was generally accepted that if anyone could stop this, Fairfax was that man. The experience at the meeting made him very uncomfortable, so much so that he wouldn’t even sit down. It’s thought that the session convinced him that this was not, in fact, just a bargaining maneuver as part of a negotiation. This was in earnest. He left. And would not come back. It is an another contested question of the trial – the most popular view is that Fairfax was agin it. But he was committed; and furthermore realized that if he did try to stop it, the result in the army would be bloody and violent division. So he sat on his hands; the royalist press furiously drew parallels with Pontius Pilate. And there is an air of disapproval from many modern historians I think.

The royalist press mocked the Commissioners as dregs of the earth, lowly mechaniks as they called them, with barely a blue blood among them. Of course we know now that is entirely to the Commonwealth’s credit; the accusation that they were unrepresentative of the nation is more important. But also not really as true as you might think; as far as possible the choice of commissioners represented a far broader sample of society than most would have expected; soldiers, artisans, mayors and the recorders of 11 major towns, gentry, and even, in Grey and Lisle, a couple of blue bloods. The quorum was set at 20 which is pretty low. There was good cause for pessimism; 47 would never appear, but the number of commissioners at the trial at Westminster Hall was never lower than 67.

There was an interesting exchange in these discussions with Algernon Sydney, the son of the earl of Leicester, and one of the commissioners. He proved he was not yet ready to accept what a revolution entails, and sneered

First, the King could be tried by no court; secondly, that no man could be tried by that court

It’s a neatly delivered bon mot. Geoffrey Robertson, in his excellent biography of John Cooke, The Tyrannicide Brief, refers to the American Jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and his famous bon mot, in this war of bon bons in far far away,  ‘the Constitution Is Not a Suicide Pact’. When the common good demands it, rules are there to be broken. Cromwell understood this. He turned on Sydney and snarled

I tell you, we will cut off his head with the crown upon it

Fascinating, one of the great exchanges of the whole shebang. Does it reflect that Cromwell was determined the king should die no matter what happened at court ? Or just a flash of irritation at Sydney’s frail refusal to do what was required?

Syndey left, never to return; but he would come to accept Cromwell’s wisdom and describe the trial as

“the justest and bravest act … that ever was done in England, or anywhere

By 19th January Cooke was ready with the charges; the preparations were all over and it was time for the trial, in the word of John Cooke, of

Charles Stuart whom God in his wrath gave to be a king to this nation[1]

England and the world was agog. Royalists were paralysed with horror and incapable of breath let alone action; the trial unthinkable. It offended the basic immunity of the king from prosecution, the people carrying out this indignity were the scum of the earth. They agreed with Clarendon’s lament that this court outraged the proper social order and

Swept away the distinction of quality, making the greatest lord and the meanest peasant undergo the same judicatory and trial [2]

Equality before the law, eh? Tut. Presbyterians ministers continued their angry crusade against this crime, and instead laid the blame with the king’s evil counsellors for Charles previous actions; the independent minister John Goodwin replied that this fiction had allowed kings to get away with murder for centuries – now was the time to end it. The newsbooks from all sides and all shades of opinion were devoured and shared by everyone, sent around the country and read in every town and village. Yet despite their horror, no one even organized protests to try prevent the trial going ahead.

The Scots meanwhile were appalled; Charles was after all also their king, and this could not be done. They were ignored; but interestingly Parliament were careful to try Charles only as an English king; even to the extent of not including the most obvious of Charles’ acts of war against his English subjects – the recruitment of a foreign Scottish army.

The Kings of France issued a furious manifesto denouncing the murderous rebels of England. But they had their own rebellion on their hands, and the French Queen Regent had be forced to lift up her skirts and leg it from the capital, so she had other fish in the pan. HM wrote an anguished letter from a deserted Louvre begging in the humblest terms to be allowed to be at Charles’ side; the Speaker received it, but was not allowed to read it out.  Charles the Prince of Wale was in the Hague when news reached him, and they went into overdrive. Charles signed letters commanding parliament to stop what they were doing immediately – Wha! Stop It! DON’T YOU MOVE A MUSCLE! Don’t make me come over there…Sort of thing. He wrote personally to Cromwell and Fairfax to urge then to restore Charles to his just rights. He almost =certainly didn’t send the legendary sheet of signed blank paper.  On 13th January he went to the Dutch States general, and the Dutch agreed to send a special ambassador to London.

On 20th January, then, the time had finally come, the preparations all made as best they could. Whatever the result, the objective for parliament was that Charles and the world should recognise the authority and right of the people of England to hold a king to account. The High Court was well aware Charles planned to deny the authority of parliament that right, by refusing to plead.

Countless monarchs had sent countless defendants to the scaffold with no second chances. Bradshaw’s plan was to allow as much leeway as possible, both because he was king, but also to build as much pressure on Charles to plead, and therefore accept the authority of the people to try him. Not only would this endorse their legitimacy, but also give tacit acceptance that power derived from the people. Thart was the bigger game behind the issue of Charles’ life.

Charle had been brought to London to St James. On 20th, he was brought with the Earl of Pembroke in a closed Sedan chair and then a barge to the House of Robert Cotton in Whitehall.  Charles had been reported as saying that if asked to plead

I would not give my answer. If they put me on trial I will die patiently. Like a martyr[3]

So, that’s clear then. He was then taken, surrounded by musketeers, to Westminster Hall, and the stage was set, all the men and women were players, their exits and their entrances prepared as far as they could be.

Oliver Cromwell was standing at a window in the Painted Chamber with other commissioners. One of whom later described him watching Charles arrive, looking  ‘white as a wall’.

He is come, he is come, and now we are doing that great work that the whole nation will be full of[4]

He is recorded as saying. Hhm. Well maybe. Sound like the sort of thing you’d only say if the cameras were rolling but maybe I am being unduly cynical.

They went down and at 2 o’clock the court convened. Westminster Hall was rammed, like the fifth day in a cliff hanger at Lords. Galleries towered above the judges, some clever folks had climbed into the embrasures of the windows and there clung on. Every day, folks with the new role of journalist rushed back to their presses and a stream of daily accounts and pamphlets poured out, including of course, The Moderate newsbook from the press of the Levellers. Royalists weren’t allowed in; so they contented themselves with daily impotent screams of invective. This was most definitely not a thing done in a corner. England, the Three kingdoms, Europe, were watching.

Bradshaw was on a raised chair among the commissioners, and all were dressed in sober black – there’s a wood cut by the way, which I have put on the website. The roll call was made and as Lord Fairfax’s name was called there was disturbance in the galleries and a voice called out

He has more wit than to be here.

It was Anne Fairfax. Thomas was not there, and would never appear.

The king came in dressed in black with the blue ribbon and great silver star of the Order of the Garter. He looked old, not quite as well kempt as normal, his beard notably silver; he’s 49 years old now. There are soldiers lining the hall bearing halberds. Charles was in the dock facing Bradshaw and the commissioners. Prisoners normally stood at the dock, but the commissioners has specifically decided not to humiliate the king but treat him with respect. So Charles was given a seat and a small table with ink and pen. He pointedly refused to remove his hat, as a sign of his contempt for this court – and was not challenged on it. To his right, within arm’s length were the three prosecutors, John Cooke, Isaac Dorislaus and a man called Aske.  Alone in this hostile sea, Charles was magnificently in control, clothed in all the majesty to which he had been bred. Impassive, not a flicker of recognition or curiosity.

Nonetheless, it took him a moment to come to terms with the rules of the game, that he was not a king in command anymore. Bradshaw started things off and asked Cooke to read the charges; this was Cooke’s moment, and he intended to wallow in it like a hippo in a mud pit. He stood, dripping with the mud of outrage

On behalf of the Commons of England, I do accuse

And here he swung to glare at the prisoner like someone looking at last night’s homework

Charles Stuart here present, of high treason and high misdemeanours…

He brought out a scroll of the charges, but Charles leant forward

Hold a little

He said. Cooke took no notice. So Charles took the silver headed cane and tapped him on the shoulder to attract his attention. The head of the cane dropped off. It fell to the floor. And rolled a little. There was silence. Charles of course waited for some lackey to pick it up for him. But for maybe the first time ever, there was no lackey and sure as God made little green apples Cooke wasn’t going to pick it up for him. The court watched as God’s anointed bent and picked it up himself. There must surely have been a choreographer for all of this. Pure Theatre, symbolism turned up to 10.

Cooke had worked hard on the charge; it wasn’t overcooked, but took maybe 19 minutes. Charles scanned the galleries as he read, with impressive self-possession given his dodgy start, and he heard Cooke describe how he had been

‘trusted with limited power to govern by the laws of the land

He had upheld a ‘tyrannical power’, to ‘overthrow the rights and liberties of the people’. There followed detail of names and places, including trying to procure ‘invasions from foreign parts’, and all the deaths and violence were laid at his feet and at end – in a succinct summary for those that don’t like detail –

The said Charles Stuart is a tyrant, Traitor and murderer

Charles laughed.

Bradshaw then asked him to plead

I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful authority

Charles’ control was superb. His stammer had gone, he was fluent, clear, strong. Throughout the trial. Charles’ strategy was not only to refuse to recognize the court, but to establish himself as a constitutional monarch who was the surest bulwark against a tyrannical and unconstitutional parliament. It was a brilliant strategy and he delivered it, with the odd slip up, with assurance and conviction. And with an ultimate destination in sight which would be revealed only at the end.

There are many unlawful authorities in the world, thieves and robbers by the highways…

Bradshaw also, with a few slips, never relinquished his authority and that of the court, nor did he slip into bluster or ranting; he behaved always with the authority of a judge. It was a worthy contest, the pressure on both was monumental, an unprecedented trial in the glare of publicity. Bradshaw then gave him the answer to the question, provided by Henry Marten, that he was charged by authority

Of the people of England of which you were elected king

Of the people of England – here then is again the explicit basis of the new Commonwealth, the new constitution, the source of all power. The second bit, elective monarchy, is a long shot and Charles pounced on it

England was never an elective kingdom, but an hereditary kingdom…I do stand more for the liberty of my people than any here that come to be my pretended judges

Well here’s one that will come back. It was indeed a dodgy claim, though Bradshaw has some precedence – James I had been effectively invited to reign in the face of other possible choices, but this one won’t be resolved until the Act of Settlement in 1701.

This first session went on for about an hour, with Charles continuing to deny the court’s authority, and lace his defiance with a few threats

There is a God in heaven will call you…to account

He said

We are upon God’s and the kingdom’s errand

Replied Bradshaw, and pulled rank

…take down the prisoner

The king you mean

Objected Charles. But he was a prisoner. He was led away by the super unsympathetic Colonel Axtel and his carefully handpicked and primed guard.

As Charles was lead from the court, he passed the written indictment. He pointed at it and said


I do not fear that bill

As he left there were cries from the gallery;

God Save the king!

As he left there were cries from the gallery:

Justice! Justice!

The first day was done. Now of course in normal circumstances, it would all be over; the prisoner would either be pressed or declared guilty, bish bash bosh job done. But as Charles himself would say indignantly on the second day, ‘I am no ordinary prisoner!’, and so Charles was to be given leeway – in all he may have 12 chances to plead. This was not just consideration; as I say, parliament were desperate for the king to plead, to confirm their authority, and would give themselves as much time as possible to browbeat Charles into submission.

As the commissioners slowly went their own ways, the army preacher Hugh Peters, who had been everywhere over the last few weeks praising the army and the proceedings against the king, rushed over like an enthusiastic bunny rabbit to John Cooke, who was gathering up his papers, and congratulated him in a rush

This is a most glorious beginning of the work!

I have to say it’s quite an optimistic assessment of a day. That evening as Cooke walked home through dark streets to Gray’s Inn he was approached by an acquaintance

I hear you are up to the ears in this business

I am serving the people replied Cooke

There’s a thousand to one will not give you thanks said his neighbour

John Cooke loved his work, just loved it, a real go-getter, just the sort of chap you want in the office on your team

He must die, and monarchy must die with him.

Charles meanwhile had refused to live in Robert Cotton’s house. Cotton’s father had been a famous collector of manuscripts, collecting many of the founding documents of English history, Bede, the Lindisfarne gospels and on; he’d also been imprisoned by Charles which maybe made the king uncomfortable. So it was in St James’ Palace that Charles carried out the post match analysis with his closest confidente for the rest of his life – William Juxon, whom Charles had trusted and liked, and carried on the Anglican rites undisturbed at home. He also had a passion for hounds and hunting with hounds, so he was the very model of an Anglican bishop, the 18th squirson in embryo. Apparently Cromwell will save him from prosecution. Anyway, Charles was livid with himself for the cane thing. Oh Bill, how could I have been such a booby.

Anyway, the next day was a Sunday so a day for copntemplation. Hugh Peters preached on the text from psalms ‘to bind their kings with chains’, Joshua Sprigge went with ‘Whoso shedeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’, while one of the away team chose the text ‘judge not, that ye not be judged’. So, essentially the trial as a competitive event carried on at home.

So on Monday 22nd the second session opened, and we start with a bit of fun. As things were getting going, Cooke was looking at his papers, so missed he cue, and Charles leant over, with his repaired cane and poked his adversary sharply in the shoulder. Cooke went satisfyingly puce, but Bradshaw gave him a ‘get on with it’ glare. And so he got on; his job was to up the pressure. Which he did, reminding Charles that according to Common Law, if he did not plead that would be taken as a confession of guilt. These days of course it’s taken as a Not Guilty plea. No one seems to have contemplated pressing the king.

Asked again to plead, Charles again challenged the authority of the court; Bradshaw held his line and there’s a back and forth, Bradshaw’s ding to Charles’ dong. Charles also adding his claim to represent the liberties of the English better than this court appointed by a truncated parliament. Bradshaw insisting that he’s in a court of law, and that the process is that he is just like anyone else, and can’t put his case until he pleads. At one stage he tries to have Charles removed, but the king keeps on, refusing to leave. And we get a fascinating exchange. Charles turned to the galleries and declaimed

Remember that the king is not suffered to give his reasons for the liberty and freedom of all his subjects

That got a few shouts of God save the King. But also an absolute crushing zinger from Bradshaw

Sir…how great a friend you have been to the laws and liberties of the people may all England and the world judge

Charles was stung and almost boobed

It was for the liberty, freedom and laws of the subject that ever I took…

..up arms was what he was going to say. But he caught himself

…I defended myself with arms.

Good catch king. Otherwise condemned out of his own mouth.

That was it; end of the second day’s play. Charles again had held his own, and maintained the claim Edward Hyde had crafted for him back in 1642 – that he, the king, was the genuine upholder of the ancient rights and liberties of the people. But Bradshaw had got under his skin. As the soldiers removed him, he muttered to them angrily that he was untroubled by any deaths that had been laid to his charge, except for that of one man – the earl of Stafford.[5]

The following day, Tuesday 23rd went pretty much the same way; Cooke tried a new way to place pressure by now demanding that the court proceed to immediate judgement. Bradshaw took up the cue and told Charles for the 11ty billoneth time that he must respond to the charge or be condemned

For the charge, I value it not a rush. It is the liberty of the people of England that I stand for

Persisted Charles. Bradshaw was relentless, and after making his point a few more times and being defied again and again, he concluded

Notwithstanding your refusal to understand it, you will now find you are before a court of justice

Well sir, I find I am before a power

Charles responded and was removed

Now his was a pain for Cooke and parliament. They had been desperate for a chance to show the world the evidence of Charles’ guilt. As it happens of course, if this had happened after 1827, then Charles’ refusal to plead would have been taken as it is now, as a plea of not guilty, and so the evidence would have been heard.

So they decide to have a special session. The Commissioners all met in the Painted Chamber to hear the 33 witnesses, the evidence, to show what everyone knew; that Charles had gone to war with his people. But there were important wrinkles; evidence for example that Charles had stood by and seen while atrocities were  committed by his soldiers; the two examples were in Leicester and Fowey in Cornwall, and therefore that he bore command responsibilities. Historians have asked why they did all this; some like Wedgewod claim it was to push reluctant commissioners into a conviction; others that no no, this was to give more time to patch up a deal with the king in the background. Robertson’s view is why complicate it? All through parliament had wanted to show the world they were doing the right thing, for the right reasons in as right a way as possible in exceptional circumstances. Seeing the evidence was just part of that. It would also allow them to publish the evidence to the world – as was done later.

On Thursday and Friday there were various meetings of the Commissioners to decide what to do, and to plan on how to do it. They agreed that it was time to end this – and proceed to judgement, and that the sentence would be death; but that if the king made any kind of plea or suggestion, they should hear it.

And so on Saturday 27th January, 68 commissioners assembled for the big day. Charles was brought in. He had a plan, and he tried to seize the initiative by speaking first

I desire a word to be heard a little

Bradshaw asserted his authority and took over, announcing that the king had been called to answer charges

…in the name of the people of England…

Once more a shout from the galleries

Not half the people of England!

Anne Fairfax again.

Bradshaw presses on. He reminds everyone why they are here which is to pronounce sentence, since the king has refused to plead. But in line with the agreement of the following day, he allows the prisoner to make his pitch

I have something to say before sentence be given, that I may be heard in the Painted Chamber before the lords and Commons

Oooh Ok, here it is then. So – what Charles is effectively asking is to re-start the negotiations again. Here is the same tactic once more – delay, delay, delay, divide, promise, withdraw, delay. Was this the intention from the start? Bradshaw has his instructions – and so adjourns to all the Commissioners to consider, and off they went to the Court of Wards to decide if they will take to the dance floor again and spin the same waltz they have been dancing for the last 9 years.

We don’t know what the debate was in the court of Wards. There is a cock and bull tale by John Downes which he related at his trial at the restoration, so therefore dicey, but part of it may ring true, that Cromwell argued powerfully for no more delay and for sentence to be passed, and described Charles as

The hardest-hearted man on earth

Lucy Hutchinson later wrote that for her husband, who was one of them, the issue was decided by Charles’ contemptuous reaction to the charges of the blood spilled on both sides

He heard it with disdainful smiles

Either way, the commissioners were not to be diverted by yet another gambit. There was a heated debate, and some dissenters; and it is said that Cromwell was particularly forceful, insisting they must not be turned from their purpose. After only 30 minutes they returned to Westminster Hall. Bradshaw announced the decision to hear no more but proceed to judgement. Even now Charles could have pleaded not guilty. But he knew that he could not do so without violating two principles he held of higher value than his life. The authority of the king not to be tried by any court. And his honour in not submitting to rebels.

Bradshaw spent about 40 minutes in delivering his judgement. He put some flesh round the bones of his assertion that the monarchy was elective – by claiming it in the sense that it required the continuing consent of the people. And gave an emphatic denial that the king was above the law. He anticipated the writings of Locke and Rousseau with the exposition of a social contract

There is a contract and a bargain made between the king and his people…sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty!

Having to sit and listen to all of this was offending every bone in Charles’ regal body – and I must admit it must be annoying to be lectured for 40 minutes about exactly why you are about to be killed. When Bradshaw returned to the ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer’ line Charles again laughed, angrily. When Bradshaw got a bit patronising and hoped God would deliver Charles from his blood guilt, and sensing the end was near, Charles could bear it no longer

I would desire only one word before you give sentence. And that is that you would hear me concerning thee great imputations that you have laid to my charge

Bradshaw held his nerve

Sir, you must give me now leave to go on, for I am not far from your sentence and your time is now passed.

All the extra chances, and all the ‘one more goes’ and extra miles, and special considerations Charles had been given, all the negotiations – were now done. There were no more. ‘Your time is now passed’.

Bradshaw rose to give sentence. There was a rustling and bustling, as beside and behind him all the commissioner gravely and with a sense of the history of this moment, rose with him to indicate their silent agreement of what was done in their name

The court does adjudge that the said Charles Stuart, as tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body

Will you not hear me a word sir?

Sir you are not to be heard after sentence

I may speak after the sentence – by your favour, Sir. I may speak after the sentence is over. By your favour – hold- the sentence, sir – I say sir, I do

Guard take away the prisoner

I am not suffered to speak. Expect what justice other people will have

I mean in point of fact he was getting exactly the same justice as every other convict in his kingdom in not being able to speak after sentence, but it was galling to have the same rules applied to him, I can see that.

The guards were all around now, and the commissioners were filing out of the stunned Westminster Hall as the crowds of people held their breath. As he was bundled away, some soldiers in the hall let rip – Justice, Execution

Poor creatures, said Charles, for sixpence they will say anything

For royalists, this was indeed it – Colonel Axtell had bribed the soldiers. For Parliamentarians this was just one more example of Charles’ contempt for the ordinary man, mocking the very idea they could possess convictions. You pays yer money and all that.

Well, the English Revolution is so full of bits of classic theatre. There are many versions of this story, and despite the detail of record remaining to us of who said what, the story can be told many different ways. So as Charles goes to prepare for the final performance of his life, I have three recommendations to make for alternatives.

Andrew Hopper did a very good podcast for the National Archives which centres a lot on historiography, particularly on the debate about whether or not Charles’ death was pre-decided, decided through the trial, or always just one more negotiation which foundered yet again on Charles’ intransigence. Then C V Wedgwood’s account, the book the Trial of Charles I, is a thing of beauty, because her writing is so compelling. She’s reasonably impartial but probably slightly royalist. Geoffrey Robinson’s section on the trial in the Tyrannicide Brief is very good, detailed on the legalise as a former QC. But he’s definitely a regicide.

For my part, I have a few reflections if you have time to hear them before you pass sentence.

I am interested at the lack of Cromwell. Once you jettison all the completely unreliable stories from people trying to save their lives by blaming Cromwell, he seems one of the crowd, or at most first among equals. It utterly clear that Cromwell supported the trial and execution in a way that Fairfax never did.

I definitively think Bradshaw gets a bad rap in most histories – he should be a hero, the one person to stand up and make himself a target when so many around were ducking for cover. I am very glad Charles II doesn’t get his vengeful little hands on him. Cooke is very Godly to be an attractive hero, Wedgewood doesn’t like him I suspect, but Robertson is his best advocate, and if I wanted a prosecutor I’d choose him. Charles II does get his vengeful little hands on him.

I’m not a great Charles fan; but he surely plays a blinder. Despite that little wobble at the end. My feeling is that he went into this hoping that at the close he could get out of jail by promising yet another false hope of a deal, and that a Dutch-Irish treaty would save him. But he was quite prepared to accept this might not happen, and that he would never beg before these people, never mortgage his son’s royal rights and his high concept of personal honour, and recognized death was a likely outcome. Charles I was a zealot. But he played his part with great skill, dignity and enormous resilience. Zealots do that sort of thing after all, as we’ll see at the Restoration.

There is generally speaking a sense that this was an illegal show trial. Antiona Fraser describes it as ‘not particularly edifying’ and ‘an unlawful trial’. Andrew Hopper in that podcast says look, there’s this trial done without a new legal framework and constitution. Well – Constitutions don’t exist back then, they are not a thing. I think Sweden may have had a sort of one, but the world’s first written constitution was John Lambert’s Instrument of Government in 1653. There was no way of making this legal in the old sense of the world – because the king has no peer and was supposed to be immune from prosecution. The world was being remade.

I do wonder if C.V Wedgewod was right when she suggested the rebels might have done better to assert and take pride in the novelty of the new procedure as part of a new world. But 17th century England wasn’t ready for revolution, they’d rather fallen into it and it just kept growing on them. The use of procedures as familiar as possible was probably the right track.

The worst charge was nailed beautifully by Anne Fairfax, when she bravely spoke out in front of all the world, and said not half not a quarter of the people of England were behind this. There’ll always be that objection. Robertson makes a legal argument in favour of a de facto power, which might make legal sense, I am not one to judge, but would not pass muster at the court of public opinion I suspect – it’s bit too obscure. And then most of the English still didn’t understand what they were dealing with, so someone had to make the right decision on their behalf. And it was, surely, surely the right decision. Wasn’t it? And something to be proud of. I disagree fundamentally with Antonia. It’s very edifying. It was not done in a corner. It was brave and principled. But let me know what you think; maybe you do indeed hold like many, that this was a grubby affair.

[1] Wedgewood: The Trial of Charles I’, p108

[2] Healey, J: ‘The Blazing World’, p253

[3] Robertson, G: ‘The Tyrannicide Brief’, p141

[4] Fraser, A: ‘Cromwell’, p280

[5] Robertson, Op cit, p168


11 thoughts on “410 Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer

  1. Funny that we Americans (through the Supreme Court) are just now deciding whether or not the head of state may be tried for official actions and the duality of that role. I guess we came to a different conclusion than the House of Commons did in 1648.

    I agree with you that Charles was buying time, hoping to get the best possible terms in a settlement. However, I don’t think he believed they would ever convict him. In his mind, these were rebels, not revolutionaries.

    Also, you mentioned another sports bucket-list item for me: day 3 of a test match at Lords. Alas, another thing my wife would have no interest in attending, so I’ll ring you for that as well!!

    1. I did see that in the morning pappy. And did think of Charles’ neck. Very interesting paralells. Apparently Charle III is immuine from some kimnds of prosecution also…

      Lety me know when to turn up at Lords. I’ll bring a blazer and a good book.

  2. I must admit that I did think of Charles I when I head of the Supreme Court decision on immunity for the President…I’m sure he (& Richard Nixon) would have been very appreciative of similar courts during their time! I agree that the trial of Charles was no grubby affair and I think those prosecuting were quite certain of their righteous position, as was Charles, which is why they ended up as they did. I also dont blame those who stayed away…I think to move forward, the conviction and sentence had to play out. Charles would never have admitted defeat, that was clear. I just wonder what we can learn from this about the nature of compromise and governing…I think its a tragic thing that the word compromise has taken on such a negative connotation. Charles seems to have decided quite some time before the trial that martyrdom was preferred to any other outcome…leading to this almost foregone conclusion of the trial…but that doesn’t mean that the prosecutors were not fair or legitimate in their actions. Is it lame that I feel sympathy for many of the various factionss? Though an exasperated sympathy for Charles for sure.

    1. I think that’s the story of the entire civil war; it’s a tragedy, a war no body wanted and for which there were few fundamental drivers; that with a little compromise, just a little, it could all have been avoided. I also feel sympathy for all the parties; less for Charles I have to confess; I have no doubt he was principled, but he was also largely responsible for the whole thing.

  3. Brilliant episode, thanks.
    Interesting that Charles threatens the court with the vengeance of God; i doubt anyone ever mistook Charles II for the deity.
    How brave Bradshaw, Cooke, etc. were to do what they thought was right. Again, your insight about the lack of a common ideological framework seems key. Without that, all anyone had was their individual evaluations of, “OK, this is where I get off the train.” Very damaging to attempts to build a sustainable revolution.

    1. It will kill the whole thing I think; they never manage to build a narrative that everyone can get behind, despite the efforts of Milton and Nedham

  4. David, I have to confess that as an American, I’ve loved (and continue to love) the years of insight you’ve offered into the world before 1776, which is when our American educations suggest that the world started. This was my favorite episode of the 410. Picking up on the comment theme offered above, it’s strangely relevant, given our Supreme Court’s very recent decision about immunity from prosecution. Charles’ expectation of immunity from prosecution rings so true in the US at this very moment.

    I have to disagree with you and say that “grubby affair” fits for me. Certainly, Charles’ intransigence appears grubby (although in my mind today, I also feel that exasperated sympathy that Katherine R cites). Charles’ prosecutors may feel great righteousness about their cause. But, I can’t ignore Anne Fairfax’s “not half not a quarter of the people of England were behind this” when I think of the prosecutors’ presumption to speak for “the people.” Charles may have had no interest in “the people.” But, to me, those who prosecuted him carry carry their own causes and interests first, as well.

    1. Hi Dwight and thank you, I am very glad you enjoyed it. I would be interested to have a poll about the trial of King Charles, and I suspect you might be in the majority with Anne Fairfax. I’ll keep fighting the corner though. I don’t think the majority of the people fully understood the intransigence and unreliability of their king. I accept the rebels had their own perspective; but I aso think, rightly or wrong, the men of the new model fervently believed they were the representatives of the people. What I mean at least was that it was not cyncial, not motivated by a desire for power

  5. I really enjoyed all the details of this complicated episode. 10 extra points for the use of “The Away Team” in the middle of it all. I love the little pop culture bits that you throw into narratives.

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