Tag Archives: Cromwell

30th January: The Executions of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell

On Tuesday 30th January 1649, Charles Stuart, 11th monarch of the House of Stuart, 2nd incumbent of the unified throne was marched from St James’ Palace to Whitehall to be publicly beheaded. His forbears had sat on the throne of Scotland for 261 years and now it was to end. In the snow, in a foreign land, in front of a silent mob.

Charles I heads for his execution

Charles I heads for his execution

Twelve years later, on Wednesday 30th January 1661, the disinterred body of Oliver Cromwell, which had lain in its grave for over two years, was taken from the Red Lion Inn in Holborn along with that of Henry Ireton, another of the regicides, to Tyburn where it was publicly hanged in chains. No public pronouncement of death being deemed necessary as the corpse had been such for some time.

After hanging there for some hours his body was taken down and the head struck unceremoniously from the rest of it whence it was placed high on a wooden stake for all to see.

Cromwell's corpse is hanged (with his fellow regicides Bradshaw and Ireton)

Cromwell’s corpse is hanged (with his fellow regicides Bradshaw and Ireton)

Cromwell: a man who had come close to being crowned himself and who was deemed then and since to represent the quintessentialness of British values to have his body treated in a manner so contemptuous that even now, three and a half centuries later we have no idea, and less concern, as to the location of said head.

Cromwell's severed head, as pictured in 1700. It's present whereabouts are unknown

Cromwell’s severed head, as pictured in 1700. It’s present whereabouts are unknown

As Cromwell’s corpse swung in the winter breeze, there was to be no dwelling on the manner in which events had unfolded. When he had died, the first time, he was at the height of his powers as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of the Three Kingdoms. His position backed up by his New Model Army, an extremely effective military force of his own creation. Nonetheless, it was remarkable the extent to which the fortunes of his interests had deteriorated so much in such a short space of time.

For Charles Stuart, however, there was plenty of time for him to consider the vicissitudes of his life. By January 1649 he had been held prisoner for nearly three years. First by the Scots Covenanting Army in Newcastle, upon whose mercy he had thrown himself when he had exhausted all other options following the defeat of his army in the Civil War. And then when the Scots handed him over to the vengeful Parliamentarians he was held under house arrest in a number of different locations whilst said Parliamentarians made up their mind as to what to do with him.

During this time his prospects were not entirely grim with the Scots rising in arms once more, this time to seek his freedom. But these hopes were to be dashed as Cromwell and his New Model destroyed this army at the Battle of Preston. And as negotiations wound tediously on over the months it was only near the end when Parliament sought to indict him for treason that he would have had some idea that matters might end with his death.

Charles I at his trial. Parliament had sacked his barber and he would let no-one near him with a razor.

Charles I at his trial. Parliament had sacked his barber and he would let no-one near him with a razor.

Like the citizenry of England, the Scots were not averse to brutally assassinating their anointed monarch when the need arose. As when James I was done to death in the basement of Blackfriars Monastery in 1437. Or when James III died at the hands of a mysterious assassin in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488.

Edward II of England’s grizzly end by means of a hot poker testifies to the enthusiasm with which such matters were conducted south of the border, albeit this happened after his abdication. However, we have the cases of Henry VI and the Princes in the Tower as eloquent evidence of due process in that part of the world.

However, in the long and colourful history of the Kingdom of Scotland there had never been efforts made to prosecute then execute a monarch. In England, however, not only was there a proud tradition of executing reigning monarchs, such as Lady Jane Grey in 1554. They had also taken it upon themselves to execute other peoples’ monarchs. The utterly reprehensible fashion in which Her Grace, Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner for some nineteen years before a shameless show trial found her guilty of treason against a monarch of whom she was not a subject and condemned her to death, stands in clear testimony to the barbaric manner in which such matters have been conducted there over the centuries.

Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution in 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution in 1587.

In January 1649, the first effort of the Rump Commons to raise the treason indictment against King Charles was immediately thrown out as unlawful by the three Chief Justices of the Common Law Courts of England. And so, in the high-handed manner in which this august body conducts its business, the Rump Commons unconstitutionally declared itself capable of legislating alone.

It then created a bill for the King’s trial and passed it as an act without royal assent. By this stage even the incorrigible optimism of Charles Stuart would have begun to give way to a more realistic assessment of the way the wind was blowing.

Charles had a firm and unaltered view of his God-anointed position. It was largely this firmness of purpose expressed as a wholesale refusal to compromise with any and all which had brought him into conflict with his Parliaments and his citizenry and which, arguably, had brought about the ruinous collapse in the fortunes of himself and those of the noble House of whom he was but the latest progeny.

So we can be reasonably sure that he did not entertain himself in his final hours with thoughts of what might have been done, by himself or by others, in the years gone by, to avoid this disastrous outcome.

Perhaps he might have handled his dealings regarding religious worship less high-handedly. The manner in which the he imposed his chosen form of worship on the people of Scotland led directly to the Signing of the National Covenant and thus to years of needless bloodshed which would continue long after his death.

The National Covenant is signed in 1638. The bloodshed of the Covenant Wars would soon follow.

The National Covenant is signed in 1638. The bloodshed of the Covenant Wars would soon follow.

Perhaps, he might have recognized the fundamental split that had occurred with his English Parliament and returned to the land of his fathers to re-establish the separate Kingdom of Scotland. Perhaps, in 1603, his father before him, James VI/I, might have given more thoughtful consideration to the offer of the joint crown in the first place. And instead of haring across the border at the first opportunity never once to return on the twenty-two years of his remaining life, he might have considered the possible downside of the arrangement. He might have pondered how a political arrangement with a single monarch presiding over two nations with separate sovereign Parliaments and with clear and historically proven diverse interests could ever possibly work.

No such thoughts occurred to either man. Nor indeed to those who came after. Charles’ son, Charles II, restored to the throne when the whole Cromwellian nonsense crumbled to dust after the man’s death, had too many other distractions to entertain him than taking action to provide long-term political stability.

And his brother, James II, had little enough time during his reckless reign to consider what could be done before jumping into the boat and heading for France, despite the entreaties of those who had the interests of him, his Ancient House and the people of Scotland at heart.

It was James’ reckless abandonment of his responsibilities that directly gave rise to another 57 years of bloodshed and sacrifice in the Jacobite Risings.

So perhaps there was a clear inevitability about the manner of his death. The mistakes, however, were not all his.

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The Regicide of Charles I

On this day in 1649 the king was executed by order of the English Parliament, having been handed over to them by the Army of the Scottish Parliament, in return for some £100, 000.

Chas I 2                                                   Charles I of Scotland and England

This was the third time in Scotland’s long and illustrious history that the anointed monarch had met their death under an English blade. At least in the case of James IV it was on the battlefield. Whereas with Mary, as with Charles now, it was done on the executioner’s block. An outcome disguised, however thinly, as the lawful conclusion of the just implementation of due legal process.

Execution of Chas 1 on his way

  Charles is led to his execution

In May 1646 Charles had surrendered himself to the Scots’ Army which was besieging Newark. Since the destruction of the Royalist army at the Battle of Naseby the previous year, which had tipped the military balance decisively in Parliament’s favour, Charles had been holed up in the besieged city Of Oxford. He had escaped from there in April, with no real idea of what course of action to take. Eventually he had thrown himself on the tender mercies of the Covenanting Army, in the absence of any real alternative as the remaining military options in Scotland and in Ireland were without any prospect of success. The memorable Year of Victories campaign led by Bonnie Dundee’s kinsman, the Marquis of Montrose, having finally run out of steam at Philiphaugh the previous November.

montrose                            The Marquis of Montrose. Charles’ Captain General in Scotland

Charles Stuart’s belief was probably that the Scots would see him first and foremost as King of Scots and succour him. And that their religious convictions would be subservient to this greater loyalty. The Covenanters, for their part, assumed that he had come to them in recognition that taking the Covenant was the only option now open to him and so he was prepared to sign up. In this both parties were deeply mistaken. The Covenanting leadership nevertheless bent with a will to the task of persuading their king of the merits of their beliefs and he was solemnly preached at many times a day for the next few months by such fine examples of tolerance and broad outlook as Alexander Henderson.

Alexander Henderson                                                         Alexander Henderson

But Charles Stuart had not come to the ruin of; his dynasty, the prospects of his native land or the hopes of his loyal subjects by even considering the possibility of compromise of his divine right to rule or the abandonment of his pursuit of what he felt was in his own interests. And so the months of his captivity passed with no progress on either side.

The English Parliament worked steadily towards their own clearly understood goals which were to see the king handed over to them and the Scottish Army return whence it came, so that it might pose no further threat to their security and cease to be a continuing drain on their finances in supporting it in position.

If his nine months of captivity by the Scots had seemed a tortured and unending period of non progress, the next two years would better that. Once in the hands of the English Parliament he was held in various locations as the relationship between Parliament and the New Model Army dissolved in rancorous recrimination and sectarian disagreement.

Charles sought to capitalise on these differences, unsuccessfully. There was an abortive escape attempt and he managed to sign a secret treaty with those Covenanted Scots who were prepared to see him restored to the throne of Scotland as long as Presbyterianism was then imposed on his English subjects for the next three years.

This treaty, the Engagement of ill-renown, led to a full scale invasion of England by another Scottish Army under the Duke of Hamilton., which was crushed at Preston by Cromwell’s notable cross Pennine flank attack.

Battle of Preston

The First Battle of Preston (1648). The Scottish Army is crushed by Cromwell.

By December 1648 the English Parliament was happy to continue negotiations with the king probably for ever. Cromwell, however, strengthened by his recent military success against the Scots, organised the arrest of those members of Parliament who were unsupportive of the New Model Army. The Rump Parliament was formed by the remainder and thus an effective military coup d’état was carried out.

Charles was duly tried for treason against his English Parliament. Subjecting the monarch to a criminal trial had never been attempted before, neither in England nor in Scotland. The Chief Justices of the three common law courts of England each considered such an indictment as unlawful. The Rump Parliament declared itself capable of legislating alone on the issue and promptly passed the necessary act declaring royal assent unnecessary. After three days the process was concluded and the guilty verdict handed down.

trial of Charles I

The Trial of Charles I

And so at 2 pm on 30th January the king was publicly beheaded in Whitehall. In a departure from the established custom of the times where the severed head (and limbs) of executed traitors were publicly displayed for many years, pour encourager les autres, Charles head was sewn back onto his body and the corpse promptly embalmed.

Cromwell_before_the_Coffin_of_Charles_I                                      Oliver Cromwell inspects the corpse of Charles I

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