Tuesday, January 30, 2024

This Day in British History (Charles I Execution: From Monarch to Martyr?)

Jan. 30, 1649—Irreconcilable differences on the prerogatives of the British crown and Parliament, worsened by century-old sectarian divisions, reached a bloody climax as King Charles I was beheaded, in a public ceremony that backfired on the Puritan Parliament contingent that pressed for his execution.

Over the last three decades in Great Britain, with the mystery that long protected the Windsor dynasty dissipating, sentiment has risen for an end to the monarchy. But with the execution of Charles and the subsequent inability to replace it with a truly democratic, republican alternative, that opportunity may well have been squandered for good.

One of Charles’ most significant military opponents, Oliver Cromwell, the third member of Parliament to sign the king’s arrest warrant, emerged from the post-execution turbulence as the leader of the government. Poor health limited the “Lord Protector” to a reign of only nine years.

With Cromwell’s son Richard unable to wield power effectively as his successor, adherents of the monarchy helped bring back the Stuarts. The subsequent “Restoration” with Charles’ son, Charles II, at its center, inaugurated an era far removed from the Puritan piety preached and enforced by Cromwell--until, that is, James II--with little of his brother's political nimbleness, and openly professing Catholicism--ran afoul of Parliament, just as his father had, and likewise lost his throne 40 years later.

The strategy pursued by Cromwell and his followers—end Charles I’s life publicly, for all to see—differed from how Charles’ grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been dispatched by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, for plotting her assassination.

That beheading occurred in Fotheringhay Castle, in Northamptonshire, with a limited number of eyewitnesses—and a good thing, too, because Mary’s death was regarded as unusually brutal even by the standards of her time.

Cromwell and his Puritan "New Model Army" convincingly defeated Charles on the battlefield, but the king's trial and execution were far less adroitly handled. 

Consider the following, all of which undermined the legitimacy of the case for many onlookers:

*The government had to be dissolved by force;

*The House of Lords would not sanction the trial, so that had to be dissolved;

*The House of Commons had been purged of opponents of the New Model Army, leaving only a "Rump Parliament":

*The House of Commons had never before served as a judicial body.

*New procedures had to be devised.

All of this provided Charles with grounds to argue that the proceedings were illegitimate. He even had unexpected support from a member of the packed gallery: Lady Fairfax, the wife of the commander-in-chief of the New Model Army, loudly explained the absence of her husband from the proceedings: "He has more wit than to be here!"

Following this unprecedented royal trial for treason, Charles—the second in the Stuart dynasty uniting the thrones of England and Scotland, deposed as ruler shortly before his death— stunned opponents used to his stammer with unexpected dignity and eloquence on the scaffold.

He had successfully prevailed upon his captors to allow him to wear a second shirt, lest onlookers misinterpret his shivering in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall as cowardice rather than the human body’s natural reaction to a bitterly cold afternoon.

With time running out for him, he made his case once again, this time in more concise form, for the divine right of kings. This was the notion that royalty derived their authority from God, not an earthly power--or, as he expressed more emphatically, “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.”

Above all, he claimed that he could not fulfill his duties as a sovereign by yielding to those who had defeated him in the English Civil War.

Were he “to have all laws changed according to the Power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here, and therefore I tell you ... that I am the martyr of the people,” he declared.

A single swing of the axe removed Charles’ head. But it could not so easily detach his hold on many onlookers, some of whom dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood spilled on the scaffold, a portent of the cult of martyrdom that began to build around him. Nor did it neatly eliminate class and religious differences that had roiled the kingdom, even after the so-called Glorious Revolution 40 years later—commonly hailed as the indispensable step toward a constitutional monarchy.

I titled this post “This Day in British History,” not “This Day in English History,” in recognition of the fact that Charles’ fate also affected Scotland and Ireland, two sources of unrest in the British Isles during the war and afterward.

Vacillating, equivocating, quibbling over nuances, telling successive audiences what they wanted to hear: Charles was all of this, and more (traits listed by the Victorian public intellectual Thomas Babington Macaulay, in my quote three years ago from his History of England from 1485 to 1685).

All the same, was he, as the charges against him stated, “a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England”?

That phrase might have applied, with far greater justice, to Henry VIII. To be sure, Charles irritated virtually every faction in the kingdom that could have allowed him to preserve his authority and his life. But Henry had done far more: increasingly as the years went on, he made his subjects, from the humblest to the mightiest, fear for their lives because of his capriciousness.

In an article first published in the Winter 1997 issue of Modern Age and republished 17 years later in The Imaginative Conservative, Jeffrey Hart regarded traditional conservative hero Edmund Burke with some asperity for his once-over-lightly treatment of the execution of Charles in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Unlike the myth that Burke constructed that Britain had proceeded carefully from precedent to precedent, Hart noted, the nation was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil not unlike what occurred across the English Channel late in the eighteenth century. Indeed, until the advent of Robert Walpole, “England had the politics of a banana republic.”

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