King Charles I

King Charles I

Charles, the third child and second son of James I and Anne of Denmark, was born in Dunfermline Palace on 19th November, 1600. His brother, Henry, was six years old when he was born. He was created Duke of Albany at his baptism and Duke of York five years later. (1)

Charles was a weak and backward child and remained in Scotland while the rest of the family moved to London. Charles went to live with Alexander Seton, Lord Fyvie, who had nine surviving daughters and a son. In April 1604, Fyvie wrote to the king pointing out that his son was "weak in body" and was having difficulty talking . (2)

It was believed that Charles suffered from rickets and he had difficulty walking without assistance. His doctor stated "he was so weak in his joints and especially ankles, insomuch as many feared they were out of joint". (3) Even so It was now decided that he was strong enough to make the journey to England to be reunited with his family. (4)

After the death of his older brother, Henry, in 1612, Charles was given the title of Prince of Wales and became the heir to the throne. He was educated by a Scottish Presbyterian tutor, and mastered Latin and Greek and showed an aptitude for modern languages. Charles was a shy and reserved boy who never overcame a stammer. (5)

King James came under the influence of Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Charles Howard, Lord of Effingham, who were all sympathetic to the Roman Catholic church. He suggested that Charles should marry Maria Anna, the youngest daughter of King Philip III of Spain. According to John Philipps Kenyon, the author of The Stuarts (1958): "They urged James to marry his son to the daughter of Philip III of Spain and use her huge dowry to pay off his debts, with the ultimate aim of reconciling the English church with Rome." (6)

Marriage Contract

The English Parliament was actively hostile towards Spain and Catholicism, and when called by James in 1621, the members hoped for an enforcement of recusancy laws, a naval campaign against Spain, and a Protestant marriage for the Prince of Wales. (7) Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor, led the campaign against the proposed marriage and along with other MPs suggested that Charles should be married to a Protestant princess. James insisted that the House of Commons be concerned exclusively with domestic affairs and should not be involved in making decisions about foreign policy. (8)

The king's supporters responded by accusing Bacon of bribery and corruption and he was impeached before the House of Lords. Not since the fifteenth century had a great officer of the crown been overthrown in Parliament. (9) Bacon was fined £40,000 and "imprisonment at the king's pleasure". He was also barred from any office or employment in the state and forbidden to sit in parliament or come within the verge (12 miles) of the court. The fine was never collected and his imprisonment in the Tower of London lasted only three days. (10)

James refused to accept defeat and he arranged for Charles to be tutored in Spanish and the latest continental dance steps. In February 1623, he travelled incognito with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, to Madrid, to meet members of the Spanish royal family. He was described as having "grown into a fine gentleman" but it was also observed that he looked undistinguished and was only five feet four inches tall. (11) During this period Charles was strongly influenced by Buckingham's political ideas. (12)

John Morrill has pointed out: "Charles's decision to undertake a personal courtship as a way of breaking through the diplomatic deadlock was an indication of his growing self-confidence. He was now commonly acting as a political agent, meeting with privy councillors, foreign ambassadors, and the duke of Buckingham, sometimes under his father's instructions, sometimes independently. The decision to travel to Spain and conduct face-to-face negotiations to conclude his marriage was a further step in his maturation." (13)

The Spanish negotiators demanded that Charles convert to Roman Catholicism as a condition of the match. They also insisted on toleration of Catholics in England and the repeal of the penal laws. After the marriage Maria Anna would have to stay in Spain until England complied with all the terms of the treaty. Charles knew that Parliament would never accept this deal and he returned to England without a bride. (14)

It was now decided to change foreign policy and James now opened up talks about the possibility of an alliance with Louis XIII of France that involved the marriage of Charles to Henrietta Maria, the king's sister. It was unprecedented for a Catholic princess to be married to a Protestant. Pope Urban VIII only gave his permission when he was assured that the treaty signed in November 1624 included "commitments about religious rights of the queen, her children, and her household; while in a separate secret document Charles promised to suspend operation of the penal laws against Catholics". (15)

In February 1624, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, managed to persuade most members of Parliament to the new anti-Spanish policy and to negotiate a treaty with France. However, it was not explained to Parliament that the proposed marriage would involve increased toleration for Roman Catholics. (16)

These negotiations resulted in Parliament losing confidence in King James. They no longer trusted him and he was forced into making several concessions. This included a Monopoly Act, which forbade royal grants of monopolies to individuals. James also agreed to work closely with Parliament to deal with the economic crisis that the country was experiencing at the time. (17)

Members of the Puritan gentry, John Pym, Denzil Holles and Arthur Haselrig, became the king's main opponents in the House of Commons. Pym eventually emerged as the group's leader. (18) "What made Pym a successful parliamentary politician was his total inner certainty, and the emotional force this gave to his performances. He benefited from a curious incongruity which combined the meticulous attention to unemotional detail of a skilled accountant with the driving passion of a religious enthusiast.... He also enjoyed a considerable intelligence, and an exceptional personal force. All this was backed up by a prodigious capacity for hard work." (19)

King Charles

James I died on 27th March 1625. Charles married fifteen-year-old Henrietta Maria by proxy at the church door of Notre Dame on 1st May. Charles met her at Dover on 13th June and was described as being small-boned and petite and "being for her age somewhat little". (20) Another source said she was "a gawky adolescent, enormous eyes, bony wrists, projecting teeth and a minimal figure". (21) Caroline M. Hibbard provides a more positive image arguing that she had "brown hair and black eyes and a combination of sweetness and wit remarked on by almost every observer." (22)

Many members of the House of Commons were opposed to the king's marriage to a Roman Catholic, fearing that it would undermine the official establishment of the reformed Church of England. The Puritans were particularly unhappy when they heard that the king had promised that Henrietta Maria would be allowed to practise her religion freely and would have the responsibility for the upbringing of their children until they reached the age of 13. When the king was crowned on 2nd February 1626 at Westminster Abbey, his wife was not at his side as she refused to participate in a Protestant religious ceremony. (23)

At this time King Louis XIII was involved in a civil war against the Protestants (Huguenots) in France. Parliament wanted to help the Huguenots but Charles refused as he did not want to upset his wife or brother-in-law. Eventually it was agreed to send a fleet of eight ships to France. However, at the last moment Charles sent orders that the men should fight for, rather than against, Louis XIII. The captains and crews refused to accept these orders and fought against the French. (24)

Charles was willing to declare war on Spain. Rather than direct involvement in the European land war, the English Parliament preferred a relatively inexpensive naval attack on Spanish colonies in the New World, hoping for the capture of the Spanish treasure fleets and only granted a subsidy of £140,000, which was an insufficient sum for Charles's war plans. (25)

Duke of Buckingham

Charles was disappointed by this decision and so he called another Parliament. This time, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, made a long speech where "he defended his policies, assured them of his commitment to the war, including a naval assault upon Spain, and gave them details of the King's financial obligations". However, they pointed out that the country could not afford more taxes at a time of economic recession. Charles responded by dissolving Parliament. (26)

In the summer of 1627, Buckingham attempted to aid his new Huguenot allies besieged at La Rochelle in France. On 12th July, an English force of 100 ships and 6,000 soldiers arrived at Sablanceau. A French force of 1,200 infantry and 200 horsemen under the Marquis de Toiras, the island's Governor, resisted the landing from behind the dunes, but the English beachhead was maintained. The siege continued until October, during which he lost more than 4,000 of a force of 7,000 men. (27)

Sir John Eliot, Buckingham's main critic in the House of Commons, instigated impeachment proceedings against the king's main adviser. In May 1626, Charles nominated Buckingham as Chancellor of Cambridge University in a show of support, and had Eliot arrested at the door of the House. His imprisonment resulted in a great deal of protest and the the king was forced to order the release of Eliot. However, Charles refused to dismiss Buckingham and instead dissolved Parliament. (28)

Although the king continued to protect Buckingham he was hated by the public and on 23rd August 1628, he was stabbed to death at the Greyhound Pub in Portsmouth. The assassin was John Felton, an army officer who had been wounded in the earlier military adventure and believed he had been passed over for promotion by Buckingham. However, he made it clear that his act was based on his belief in the House of Commons and that by "killing the Duke he should do his country great service". (29)

Dispute with the House of Commons

Charles's third parliament was held in 1628. After the failure of the campaigns against Spain, the leading members of the Commons were extremely critical of the Government. They complained about the mismanagement of the war against the Spaniards and on behalf of the French Protestants, and also objected to the King's attitude towards the Church of England. He was accused of promoting "churchmen who believed in free will rather than predestination to achieve salvation and of appointing clergy who preferred the retention of Catholic ritual and rites in services to long sermons and extempore prayer". (30)

Barry Coward, the author of The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) has argued that his problems with Parliament was partly caused by his poor communication skills: "Charles was a shy man of few words, possibly as a result of a speech defect... Consequently, his contemporaries found that he was unapproachable and, what was worst, uncommunicative, especially in parliament, where his intentions and his actions often went unexplained, leaving others free to interpret them to his disadvantage. Charles also showed that he possessed none of his father's political shrewdness or flexibility." (31)

Charles I by Gerrit van Honthorst (1628)
Charles I by Gerrit van Honthorst (1628)

Charles closed Parliament down in March 1629 and governed alone for the next eleven years. Charles now had a problem. He was very short of money, but under the terms of the Magna Carta taxes could not be imposed without the agreement of Parliament. Charles now began raising money by exacting forced loans from his wealthier subjects. He also attempted to make money from selling knighthoods. In the 16th century, all men with land worth £40 a year were required to pay for a knighthood. However, rapid inflation pushed many into this category "who were below the social level of knights and had no relish for an honour which might well oblige them to perform functions in the local communities for which they had neither the leisure, the qualifications, nor the necessary status." (32)

Oliver Cromwell and other Puritans refused to buy what had once been an honour. Charles reacted to this by fining those who were unwilling to pay this money. In April 1631 Cromwell and six others from his neighbourhood appeared before the royal commissioners for repeatedly refusing to buy a knighthood. He was found guilty and fined £10. It was reported that Cromwell was so unhappy about this that he considered the idea of going to live in North America. (33)

Charles found other ways of raising money. Another scheme involved selling monopoly rights to businessmen. This meant that only one person had the right to distribute certain goods such as bricks, salt and soap. This policy was unpopular as it tended to increase the price of these goods.

In 1633 Charles appointed William Laud, as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud argued that the king ruled by Divine Right. He claimed that the king had been appointed by God and people who disagreed with him were bad Christians. Laud believed that Church reforms had gone too far. Anglicans tended to support the policies of Laud but the Puritans strongly disagreed with him. When Laud gave instructions that the wooden communion tables in churches should be replaced by stone altars. Puritans accused Laud of trying to reintroduce Catholicism. (34)

Ship Money

In 1635 King Charles faced a financial crisis. Unwilling to summon another Parliament, he had to find other ways of raising money. He decided to resort to the ancient custom of demanding Ship Money. In the past, whenever there were fears of a foreign invasion, kings were able to order coastal towns to provide ships or the money to build ships. This time he extended the levy to inland counties as well, on the grounds that "the charge of defence which concerneth all men ought to be supported by all." (35)

Charles sent out letters to sheriffs reminding them about the possibility of an invasion and instructing them to collect Ship Money. Encouraged by the large contributions he received, Charles demanded more the following year. Whereas in the past Ship Money had been raised only when the kingdom had been threatened by war, it now became clear that Charles intended to ask for it every year. Several sheriffs wrote to the king complaining that their counties were being asked to pay too much. Their appeals were rejected and the sheriff's now faced the difficult task of collecting money from a population overburdened by taxation. (36)

Charles I by Anthony van Dyck (1636)
Charles I by Anthony van Dyck (1636)

Gerald E. Aylmer has argued that ship money was in fact a more reasonable tax than the traditional forms of collecting money from the population. Most king's had relied on taxes on movable property (a subsidy). "Ship money had in fact been a more equitable as well as a more efficient tax than the subsidy because it was based on a far more accurate assessment of people's wealth and property holdings." (37)

John Hampden was a strong critic of the king and in the House of Commons he had said that his actions was undermining the Protestant religion. "The alteration of government... goes no less than the subversion of the whole state? Hemmed in with enemies; it is now a time to be silent, and not to show his Majesty that a man that has so much power uses none of it to help us? If he be no papist, papists are friends and kindred to him." (38)

At the beginning of 1637, twelve senior judges had declared that, in the face of danger to the nation, the king had a perfect right to order his subjects to finance the preparation of a fleet. John Hampden decided to use the Ship Tax as a means of challenging the king's power by failing to pay just one pound of what he owed. (39)

Hampden's biographer, Conrad Russell, has pointed out: "Hampden's motive was not to set out on a disruptive campaign of tax refusal: it was to secure a court judgment on the legality of the demand being made upon him. Once he had that judgment, however narrow and however pyrrhic, there is no suggestion of any further refusal to pay on his part. Hampden was campaigning for the principles of rule of law and taxation by consent, not for an arbitrary right to refuse any tax he did not like." (40)

In November, Hampden was prosecuted for refusing to pay the Ship Money on his lands in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The court case was a test of power between sovereign and subject. The judges voted seven against five in favour of conviction but the publicity surrounding the case made Hampton one of the most popular men in England. (41) More importantly, if "ship money was legal, non-parliamentary government had come to stay". (42)

Oliver Cromwell, who was Hampden's cousin, was also a strong opponent of the Ship Tax. He argued that such a tax was "a prejudice to the liberties of the kingdom" and that there should be no taxation without the consent of Parliament. One of the critics of the tax said "he knew no law besides Parliament to persuade men to give away their own goods". Cromwell agreed and said he was "a great stickler" against the tax. During this period Cromwell developed a local reputation among those opposed to Charles's government. (43)

Diane Purkiss, the author of The English Civil War: A People's History (2007), has argued that by his actions, Hampden had successfully portrayed Charles as "a tyrant" and after the court case many people refused to pay the tax. "For the sheriffs and constables forced to collect small sums such as a penny from the poorest people, life became nearly unbearable." (44)

The struggle against the Ship Tax continued in the House of Commons. This was led by John Pym, a Puritan, who was a large landowner in Somerset. He was known for his anti-Catholic views and saw Parliament's role as safeguarding England against the influence of the Pope: "The high court of Parliament is the great eye of the kingdom, to find out offences and punish them". However, he believed that the king, who had married Henrietta Maria, a Catholic, was an obstacle to this process: "we are not secure enough at home in respect of the enemy at home which grows by the suspending of the laws at home".

Pym was a believer in a vast Catholic plot. Some historians agree with Pym's theory: "Like all successful statesmen, Pym was up to a point an opportunist but he was not a cynic; and self-delusion seems the likeliest explanation of this and his supporters' obsession. That there was a real international Catholic campaign against Protestantism, a continuing determination to see heresy destroyed, is beyond dispute." (45)

Long Parliament

William Laud upset the Presbyterians in Scotland when he insisted they had to use the English Prayer Book. Scottish Presbyterians were furious and made it clear they were willing to fight to protect their religion. In 1639 the Scottish army marched on England. Charles, unable to raise a strong army, was forced to agree not to interfere with religion in Scotland. The Scots demanded £40,000 a month in compensation. If this was not paid they would leave their army in England. After lengthy negotiations, this was reduced to £850 a day. (46)

Charles did not have the money to pay the Scots and so he had to ask Parliament for help. The Parliament summoned in 1640 lasted for twenty years and is therefore usually known as The Long Parliament. This time Parliament was determined to restrict the powers of the king. The king's two senior advisers, William Laud and Thomas Wentworth were arrested and sent to the Tower of London.

Charged with treason, Wentworth's trial opened on 22nd March, 1641. The case could not be proved and so his enemies in the House of Commons, led by John Pym, Arthur Haselrig and Henry Vane, resorted to a Bill of Attainder. Charles gave his consent to the Bill of Attainder and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was executed on 12th May 1641. "Nothing left so deep a scar on Charles's character, and his subsequent reputation, as the death of Stafford." (47)

Archbishop Laud was also taken into custody. One member of parliament, Harbottle Grimstone, described Laud as "the root and ground of all our miseries and calamities". Other bishops, including Matthew Wren of Ely, and John Williams of York, were also sent to the Tower. In December, 1641, Pym, introduced the Grand Remonstrance, that summarised all of Parliament's opposition to the king's foreign, financial, legal and religious policies. It also called for the expulsion of all bishops from the House of Lords. (48)

During this period Oliver Cromwell emerged as one of the king's main critics. "In those opening months he served on eighteen high-profile committees, especially those concerned with investigating religious innovation and abuse of ecclesiastical power. His faith and trust in God made him fearless. And more than once he spoke his mind too forcefully and was reproved by the house. Sir Philip Warwick, a supporter of the monarchy, described Cromwell as someone who "wore... a plain cloth-suit, which seemed to have been made by a poor tailor; his shirt was plain, and not very clean; and I remember a speck or two of blood upon his collar... his face was swollen and red, his voice sharp and untunable, and his speech full of passion." (49)

English Civil War

King Charles realised he could not allow the situation to continue. He decided to remove the leaders of the rebels in Parliament. On 4th January 1642, the king sent his soldiers to arrest John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, John Hampden, Denzil Holles and William Strode. The five men managed to escape before the soldiers arrived. Members of Parliament no longer felt safe from Charles and decided to form their own army. After failing to arrest the Five Members, Charles fled from London and formed a Royalist Army (Cavaliers) whereas his opponents established a Parliamentary Army (Roundheads). (50)

Religion was an important factor in deciding which side people supported. The king's persecution of Puritans meant that most members of this religious group supported Parliament, whereas most Anglicans and Catholics tended to favour the royalists. Large landowners often persuaded their workers to join their army. Landowners living in the north and south-west of England and Wales tended to side with the king, whereas people living in London and the counties in the south-east of England mainly supported Parliament. (51)

Attempts were made to negotiate an end to the conflict. On 25th July the king wrote to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University inviting the colleges to assist him in his struggle. When they heard the news, the House of Commons sent Cromwell with 200 lightly armed countrymen to blocked the exit road from Cambridge.

On 22nd August, the king "raised his standard" at Nottingham, and in doing so marked the beginning of the English Civil War. At a time when most Englishmen were dithering and waiting upon events, Cromwell decided to take action and captured Cambridge Castle and seized its store of weapons. Soon afterwards he was given the rank of Captain and assigned to the cavalry commanded by Sir Philip Stapleton. (52)

The king marched around the Midlands enlisting support before marching on London. It is estimated he had about 14,000 followers by the time he encountered the Parliamentary Army at Edgehill on 22nd October, 1642. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, only had 3,000 cavalry against the 4,000, serving the king. He therefore decided to wait until the rest of his troops, who were a day's march behind, arrived.

The battle began at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the 23rd October. Prince Rupert and his Cavaliers made the first attack and easily defeated the left-wing of the Parliamentary forces. Henry Wilmot also had success on the right-wing but Stapleton and Cromwell were eventually able to repel the attack. Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes, later recalled that Cromwell "never stirred from his troops" and fought until the Cavaliers retreated. (53)

Prince Rupert's cavalrymen lacked discipline and continued to follow those who ran from the battlefield. John Byron and his regiment also joined the chase. The royalist calvary did not return to the battlefield until over an hour after the initial charge. By this time the horses were so tired they were unable to mount another attack against the Roundheads. The fighting ended at nightfall. Neither side had one a decisive advantage. (54) A pamphlet published at the time commented: "The field was covered with the dead, yet no one could tell to what party they belonged... Some on both sides did extremely well, and others did ill and deserved to be hanged." (55)

In August 1643, the Royalist army surrounded Gloucester but withdrew to avoid a confrontation when Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, arrived the relieve the city. Royalist forces now moved to block the Parliamentary army's return to London. Charles with 8,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 cavalrymen, set up defensive positions to the west of Newbury. Prince Rupert was in command of the cavalry and Jacob Astley the infantry.

Essex had 10,000 foot soldiers and 4,000 cavalrymen. Although he arrived after the Royalists he managed to secure the best ground at Round Hill. An attack led by John Byron and his Cavaliers at Newbury failed to capture the position from the Roundheads. The Royalists ran short of ammunition and that night, despite the protests of Prince Rupert and John Byron, the king decided to withdraw to Oxford. This enabled Essex and his Parliamentary army to return to London in triumph. (56)

On 2nd July 1644, the battle at Marston Moor lasted two hours. Over 3,000 Royalists were killed and around 4,500 were taken prisoner. The Parliamentary forces lost only 300 men. Oliver Cromwell spoke of it as "an absolute victory obtained by the Lord's blessing upon the godly party principally… God made them as stubble to our swords". (57) John Philipps Kenyon has argued that "Rupert's high military reputation suffered a blow from which it never recovered." (58)

In February 1645, the House of Commons decided to form a new army of professional soldiers. This became known as the New Model Army. It was made up of ten cavalry regiments of 600 men each, twelve foot regiments of 1,200 men, and one regiment of 1,000 dragoons. General Thomas Fairfax, was appointed as its commander-in-chief. The new army contained a larger number of ideologically-committed soldiers and officers than any other army that had taken the field so far. Cromwell was quoted as saying: "I would rather have a plain russett-coated captain that know what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and nothing else." (59)

Members of the New Model Army received proper military training and by the time they went into battle they were very well-disciplined. In the past, people became officers because they came from powerful and wealthy families. In the New Model Army men were promoted when they showed themselves to be good soldiers. For the first time it became possible for working-class men to become army officers. Oliver Cromwell thought it was very important that soldiers believed strongly in what they were fighting for. Where possible he recruited men who, like him, held strong Puritan views and the New Model Army went into battle singing psalms, convinced that God was on their side. (60)

England during the Civil War
England during the Civil War

The New Model Army took part in its first major battle just outside the village of Naseby in Northamptonshire on 14 June 1645. The battle began when Prince Rupert led a charge against the left wing of the parliamentary cavalry which scattered and Rupert's men then gave chase. While this was going on Cromwell launched an attack on the left wing of the royalist cavalry. This was also successful and the royalists that survived the initial charge fled from the battlefield. While some of Cromwell's cavalry gave chase, the majority were ordered to attack the now unprotected flanks of the infantry. Charles was waiting with 1,200 men in reserve. Instead of ordering them forward to help his infantry he decided to retreat. Without support from the cavalry, the royalist infantry realised their task was impossible and surrendered. (61)

The battle was a disaster for the king. His infantry had been destroyed and 5,000 of his men, together with 500 officers, had been captured. The Parliamentary forces were also able to capture the Royalist baggage train that contained his complete stock of guns and ammunition. The women of the royalist camp were treated with great cruelty; those from Ireland were killed, while those from England had their faces slashed with daggers. Cromwell said after the battle that "this is none other than the hand of God, and to Him alone belongs the glory". (62)

Followed a series of defeats for the royalists, Charles I surrendered to the Scottish Presbyterian army besieging Newark, and was taken northwards to Newcastle upon Tyne. After nine months of negotiations, the Scots finally arrived at an agreement with Parliament and in exchange for £400,000, Charles was delivered to the parliamentary commissioners in January 1647. (63)

Execution of Charles I

Parliament initially held Charles under house arrest at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire. Members of the House of Commons had different opinions about what to do with Charles. Some like Denzil Holles were willing to accept the return of the king to power on minimal terms, whereas Puritans like Oliver Cromwell demanded that Charles agree to firm limitations on his power before the army was disbanded. They also were committed to the idea that each congregation should be able to decide its own form of worship. (64)

The New Model Army, frustrated by this lack of agreement, took Charles prisoner, and he was taken to Hampton Court Palace. Cromwell visited the king and proposed a deal. He would be willing to restore him as King and the Church of England as the official Church, if Charles and the Anglicans would agree to grant religious toleration. Charles rejected Cromwell's proposals and instead entered into a secret agreement with forces in Scotland who wanted to impose Presbyterianism. (65)

Charles escaped from captivity on 11th November, 1647, and made contact with Colonel Robert Hammond, Parliamentary Governor of the Isle of Wight, whom he apparently believed to be sympathetic. Hammond, however, arrested Charles in Carisbrooke Castle. In the early months of 1648 rebellions broke out in several parts of the country. Oliver Cromwell put down the Welsh rising and Thomas Fairfax dealt with the rebels in Kent and Surrey. (66)

In August 1648 Cromwell's parliamentary army defeated the Scots and once again Charles was taken prisoner. Parliament resumed negotiations with the King. The Presbyterians, the majority in the House of Commons, still hoped that Charles would save them from those advocating religious toleration and an extension of democracy. On 5th December, the House of Commons voted by 129 to 83 votes, to continue negotiations. The following day the New Model Army occupied London and Colonel Thomas Pride purged Parliament of MPs who favoured a negotiated settlement with the King . (67)

General Henry Ireton demanded that Charles was put on trial. Cromwell had doubts about this and it was not until several weeks later that he told the House of Commons that "the providence of God hath cast this upon us". Once the decision had been made Cromwell "threw himself into it with the vigour he always showed when his mind was made up, when God had spoken". (68)

In January 1649, Charles was charged with "waging war on Parliament." It was claimed that he was responsible for "all the murders, burnings, damages and mischiefs to the nation" in the English Civil War. The jury included members of Parliament, army officers and large landowners. Some of the 135 people chosen as jurors did not turn up for the trial. For example. General Thomas Fairfax, the leader of the Parliamentary Army, did not appear. When his name was called, a masked lady believed to be his wife, shouted out, "He has more wit than to be here." (69)

This was the first time in English history that a king had been put on trial. Charles believed that he was God's representative on earth and therefore no court of law had any right to pass judgement on him. Charles therefore refused to defend himself against the charges put forward by Parliament. Charles pointed out that on 6th December 1648, the army had expelled several members of' Parliament. Therefore, Charles argued, Parliament had no legal authority to arrange his trial. The arguments about the courts legal authority to try Charles went on for several days. Eventually, on 27th January, Charles was given his last opportunity to defend himself against the charges. When he refused he was sentenced to death. His death warrant was signed by the fifty-nine jurors who were in attendance. (70)

(Source 1) The Execution of Charles I of England (c. 1649)
The Execution of Charles I of England (c. 1649)

On the 30th January, 1649, Charles was taken to a scaffold built outside Whitehall Palace. Charles wore two shirts as he was worried that if he shivered in the cold people would think he was afraid of dying. He told his servant "were I to shake through cold, my enemies would attribute it to fear." Charles told the audience: "It is not my case alone, it is the freedom and liberty of the people of England; and do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties. For, if power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life, or anything that he calls his own." (71)

Troopers on horseback kept the crowds some distance from the scaffold and it is unlikely that many people heard the speech that he made just before his head was cut off with an axe. The executioner then took up the head and announced, in traditional fashion, "Behold the head of a traitor!" At that moment, according to an eyewitness, "there was such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again." (72)

Primary Sources

(1) Statement sent by Charles I to Parliament (1626)

I must let you know that I will not let any of my ministers be questioned by you... hasten my supply (taxes) or it will be worse for yourselves; for if any ill happen, I think I shall be the last to feel it.

(2) Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution (1961)

The soap monopoly, which promised the King £20,000 a year in the 1630s, was attacked not only because it doubled the price and its inferior product blistered the hands of the washerwomen, but because the monopolists were Catholics.

(3) Pamphlet published in 1640.

People are forced to purchase goods from a monopoly, at a dear rate... Witness the soap business.

(4) Petition signed by twelve members of the House of Lords (1640)

That your majesty's sacred person is exposed to hazard and danger in the present expedition against the Scottish army, and by occasion of this war your revenue is much wasted, your subjects burdened with coat-and-conduct money, billeting of soldiers, and other military charges, and divers rapines and disorders committed in several parts in this your realm, by the soldiers raised for that service, and your whole kingdom become full of fear and discontents.

The sundry innovations in matters of religion, the oath and canons lately imposed upon the clergy and other your majesty's subjects.

The great increase of popery, and employing of popish recusants, and others ill-affected to the religion by law established in places of power and trust, especially in commanding of men and arms both in the field and in sundry counties of this your realm, whereas by the laws they are not permitted to have arms in their own houses.

The great mischiefs which may fall upon this kingdom if the intentions which have been credibly reported, of bringing in Irish and foreign forces, shall take effect.

The urging of ship-money, and the prosecution of some sheriffs in the star chamber for not levying of it.

The heavy charges of merchandise to the discouragement of trade, the multitude of monopolies, and other patents, whereby the commodities and manufactures of the kingdom are much burdened, to the great and universal grievance of your people.

The great grief of your subjects by the long intermission of parliaments, in the late and former dissolving of such as have been called, without the hoped effects which otherwise they might have procured.

For remedy whereof, and prevention of the dangers that may ensue to your royal person and to the whole state, they do in all humility and faithfulness beseech your most excellent majesty that you would be pleased to summon a parliament within some short and convenient time, whereby the causes of these and other great grievances which your people lie under may be taken away.

(5) Diary entry of Henry Slingsby, a MP from Yorkshire (1642).

We have lived a long time.... without war... We have had peace when all the world has been in arms... It is I say a thing most horrible that we should engage ourself in war with another.... with our own venom... we will destroy ourself.

(6) H. Arnold-Forster, History of England (1898)

At the beginning of King Charles' reign it would never have crossed the mind of any Englishman that England could be governed in any other way than by a king... It is well to remember these things, because they prove to us how many and great must have been the faults which Charles committed to have driven the English people into open war against him.

(7) Thomas Macaulay, The History of England (1848)

Charles I was an intelligent and well educated gentleman... His taste in literature and art was excellent, his manner dignified... his domestic life without blemish.

(8) V. Renouf, British History (1926)

Charles managed to govern for eleven years without assembling Parliament. During this time he raised his revenues by illegal taxes, and imprisoned, without proper trial, the members of the House of Commons who had opposed him.

(9) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Charles I was a handsome man with cultivated tastes... but he was unfit for the position of king... He was too stupid and cold-hearted to understand or sympathise with the feelings of the people, and events were to prove that he was hopelessly obstinate, self-centred, and untrustworthy.

(10) G. Warner, British History (1923)

Charles was an Anglican and because of his wife was inclined to tolerate the Roman Catholics; Parliament was Puritan and anti-Catholic... Parliament wanted, rightly or wrongly, a greater control of the government; Charles, rightly or wrongly, was unwilling to concede it.

(11) Lucy Hutchinson wrote an account of Charles I's trial. Her husband John Hutchinson was one of those who signed the king's death warrant.

In January 1648, the king was brought to his trial... When he was charged with the blood spilt in the war... he smiled...

His looks and gestures suggested that his only sorrow was that all the people that opposed him had not been killed... Mr. Hutchinson... addressed himself to God by prayer... God did not signal his favour towards the King...... it was therefore his duty to act as he did.

(12) Charles I made a short speech before he was executed. Later, the speech was printed in a news-sheet and distributed all over England.

I never did begin the war with the two Houses of Parliament... They began war upon me... if anybody will look at the dates of what happened... they will see clearly that they began these unhappy troubles, not I... therefore I tell you I am the martyr of the people.

(13) John Lilburne, who was one of the leaders of the Levellers, wrote a pamphlet attacking the execution of Charles I (1649)

I refused to be one of his (Charles I) judges... they were no better than murders in taking away the King's life even though he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with... it is murder because it was done by a hand that had no authority to do it.

(14) Extract from a pamphlet on the execution of Charles I that was published soon after his execution.

The King... looking upon the block, said to the executioner... "It might have been a little higher"... The executioner replied, "It can be no higher Sir"... When the King's head was cut off, the executioner held it up and showed it to the spectators.

(15) John Rushworth was one of the fifteen men on the scaffold when Charles I was executed. Later he wrote an account of what happened.

The scaffold was hung round in black... the axe and block was in the middle of the scaffold... "I shall be very little heard by anybody here," began the King, speaking from notes on a small piece of paper he had taken from his pocket... He protested his innocence of beginning the war... Then turning to Colonel Hacker, he asked, "Take care that they do not put me to any pain"... Then the King took off his cloak... the King, stooping down, laid his neck upon the block; and after a little pause, stretching forth his hands, the executioner at one blow cut his head from his body.

Student Activities

The Gunpowder Plot (Answer Commentary)

Military Tactics in the English Civil War (Answer Commentary)

Women in the English Civil War (Answer Commentary)

Portraits of Oliver Cromwell (Answer Commentary)

Execution of King Charles I (Answer Commentary)



(1) John Morrill, King Charles I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 10

(3) Dr Henry Atkins, report sent to Robert Cecil (12th May 1604)

(4) Charles Carlton, Charles I: The Personal Monarch (1995) page 3

(5) Maurice Ashley, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 187

(6) John Philipps Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958) page 47

(7) Christopher Hibbert, Charles I (1968) pages 49-50

(8) Richard Cust, Charles I: A Political Life (2005) page 8

(9) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 225

(10) Markku Peltonen, Francis Bacon : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Maurice Ashley, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 187

(12) Richard Ollard, Clarendon and His Friends (1988) page 24

(13) John Morrill, King Charles I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Pauline Gregg, King Charles I (1981) pages 85-87

(15) Caroline M. Hibbard, Henrietta Maria : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) John Philipps Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958) page 60

(17) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) page 158

(18) Winston Churchill, The Island Race (1964) page 152

(19) Conrad Russell, John Pym : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(20) John Morrill, King Charles I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) John Philipps Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958) page 63

(22) Caroline M. Hibbard, Henrietta Maria : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(23) Charles Carlton, Charles I: The Personal Monarch (1995) page 76

(24) Gerald Howat, Stuart and Cromwellian Foreign Policy (1974) page 35

(25) Pauline Gregg, King Charles I (1981) page 129

(26) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 233

(27) Mark Charles Fissel, War and Government in Britain, 1598-1650 (1991) pages 123-125

(28) Charles Carlton, Charles I: The Personal Monarch (1995) pages 149-151

(29) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 238

(30) Maurice Ashley, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 188

(31) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) page 158

(32) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 247

(33) Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970) page 43

(34) Winston Churchill, The Island Race (1964) page 155

(35) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 48

(36) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) page 167

(37) Gerald E. Aylmer, Rebellion or Revolution: England from Civil War to Restoration (1986) page 20

(38) John Hampden, speech in the House of Commons (5th June, 1628)

(39) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 24

(40) Conrad Russell, John Hampden : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(41) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) pages 175-176

(42) Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970) page 32

(43) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988) page 47

(44) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 25

(45) Gerald E. Aylmer, Rebellion or Revolution: England from Civil War to Restoration (1986) page 30

(46) Winston Churchill, The Island Race (1964) page 157

(47) John Philipps Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958) page 85

(48) Jasper Ridley, The Roundheads (1976) page 27

(49) John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(50) G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 256

(51) Winston Churchill, The Island Race (1964) page 160

(52) John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(53) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988) page 77

(54) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 272

(55) An Exact and True Relation of a Dangerous and Bloody Fight near Kineton (October, 1642)

(56) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 276

(57) Oliver Cromwell, letter to a friend (5th July 1644)

(58) John Philipps Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958) page 91

(59) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) pages 200-221

(60) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) pages 420-422

(61) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988) pages 111-112

(62) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) page 277

(63) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988) pages 120

(64) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) page 225

(65) Jasper Ridley, The Roundheads (1976) page 64

(66) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 286

(67) Ian J. Gentles, Thomas Pride : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(68) Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970) page 98

(69) Ian J. Gentles, Thomas Fairfax : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(70) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) page 237

(71) John Philipps Kenyon, The Stuarts (1958) page 97

(72) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) pages 309-310