As we announced on Twitter (& Facebook) on Wednesday, we have come up with a brilliant one-off event for the next few days. We will be picking 5 defining events in the history of the British Monarchy and writing a new article about them each over the next 5 days. This is the third one. Wednesday’s was on King John and the Magna Carta (c. 1215) (click here to see that) and yesterday was on Henry VIII’s reshaping of the Church Of England (click here to see that) – today, we’re looking at the abolition of the Monarchy in the 1600s and the execution of King Charles I.
To start, I’m going to take you back… back to September 1648. Negotiations between the Long Parliament and King Charles I were in full swing. Parliament wanted to restore Charles I to the throne after the Second English Civil War but to limit his power. Charles I agreed but later admitted this was only to avoid being detained.
In November of that year, Charles I started to cause havoc again and the New Model Army (Parliament’s forces) seized power and took Charles I in the custody. On what charge? – Treason!
However, Charles did have supporters. Parliament still contained many supporters of the Newport Treaty, which itself supported the reinstating of Charles I. In order to proceed to the next stage of Thomas Fairfax’s [leader of the anti-royalist force] plan. Fairfax then ordered Colonel Thomas Pride to stop the signing of the Treaty of Newport. Pride prevented 231 known supporters of the treaty from entering the House and imprisoned 45 of them. The remaining free members then became the Rump Parliament.
On 13 December 1648, Parliament broke off negotiations with the King and on 4 January 1649, the Commons passed an ordinance to set up a High Court of Justice to try Charles I for high treason in the name of the people of England. The House Of Lords rejected it, and as it did not receive Royal Assent (as every bill in Parliament, even to this day, requires the reigning Monarch to sign it to become law). Though this didn’t stop proceedings whatsoever.
Charles asked at the start of his trial on 20 January in Westminster Hall “I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful authority”, knowing that there was no legal answer under the constitutional arrangements of the time. He was convicted with fifty-nine Commissioners (judges) signing the death warrant.
The execution of Charles I was delayed to 30 January, so that the House of Commons could pass an emergency act, the “Act prohibiting the proclaiming any person to be King of England or Ireland, or the Dominions thereof”, that made it an offence to proclaim a new King, and to declare the representatives of the people, the House of Commons, as the source of all just power.
Picture: Charles I’s execution in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall.
The Commons voted to abolish the House of Lords on 6 February and to abolish the monarchy on 7 February; an act abolishing the kingship was formally passed by the Rump Parliament on 17 March, followed by an act to abolish the House of Lords on 19 March. The establishment of a Council of State was approved on 14 February and on 19 May an Act Declaring England a Commonwealth was passed. The Treasons Act made it an offense to say that the House of Commons (without the Lords or the King) was not the supreme authority of the land.
At Charles I’s execution, he was so worried that people would mistake his shivering in the cold for shaking with fear that he wore two shirts. The execution took place at Whitehall on a scaffold in front of the Banqueting House. Charles was separated from the people by large ranks of soldiers, and his last speech reached only those with him on the scaffold. He declared that he had desired the liberty and freedom of the people as much as any, “but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having government…. It is not their having a share in the government; that is nothing appertaining unto them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.”
Charles put his head on the block after saying a prayer and signalled the executioner when he was ready; he was then beheaded with one clean stroke. His last words were, “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”
After his execution, England became a republic for the first and only time in its entire history. Under Oliver Cromwell, England established a new order. After Oliver Cromwell’s death, his son Richard took lead of the country, however he couldn’t maintain confidence with the Armed Forces and before long, he himself was under question.
After a Royalist uprising not long after, the movement began to restore Charles II as Monarch. He entered London on 29 May, his birthday. To celebrate His Majesty’s Return to his Parliament, 29 May was made a public holiday, popularly known as Oak Apple Day. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661.
This interregnum period made England realise just how much it needed a Monarchy. For stability, leadership and a clear sense of command felt throughout the country. There is no doubt that the fall of Charles I and the rise of Charles II changed the way Monarchy was forevermore.