Tag Archives: James VI

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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27 March 1625 James VI/I Dies, Charles Succeeds, Disaster Ensues.

James died after a protracted period of illness and the crown was handed on, without demur, to his and heir Charles, his fourth child and only surviving son.

James has been much criticized as a monarch and as a person but the facts remain that his 57 year reign as monarch of Scotland was the longest of any of his 42 odd predecessors and also the most peaceful, on a per year basis.

From the Battle of Langside in 1568 when his mother’s final attempt to hold onto the Scottish throne was decisively defeated, to the opening salvo of the First Bishops War in 1639, when his son’s cack-handed attempts to enforce contentious forms of religious worship upon his unwilling subjects led to open civil war in his homeland, there were no major military engagements fought anywhere Scotland, beyond long-standing, local disputes.

So in 1639 when disenchanted Scotsmen felt compelled to pick up weapons to oppose King Charles in there were none alive who had previously wielded such, other than those who had gained experience in distant foreign wars.

When you consider the turmoil of previous reigns and the turbulent bloodshed that the next seventy years would see throughout the three kingdoms, this is an achievement of some note.

And it is the comparison between the smooth handling of his reign, both north and south of the border versus the many and manifest failings of Charles that James’ abilities as a monarch stand most markedly.

The widely held historical view of James is not complimentary. Infamously described as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, as having a tongue too big for his mouth and ‘preferring the company of men’ he stands pilloried as ugly, homosexual and unable to competently discharge his responsibilities as head of state.

It makes you wonder to what extent each of us has our view of a particular period of history shaped by the images available. There are many portraits of James throughout his reign and he is represented in an attractive manner in none of them. From his earliest portrayal with his mother, dressed in apparel strangely matching hers, through the many depictions during his reign where undue emphasis might seem to put on his less appealing physical features.

A not untypical, less than heroic portrait of James VI/I

A not untypical, less than heroic portrait of James VI/I

It all compares poorly to the extensive glamorous and heroic portraiture of Charles I generated throughout his reign by his court painter, Anthony van Dyck. Perhaps this was simply Charles’ good fortune.

A typical Van Dyck heroic  portrait of Charles I

A typical Van Dyck heroic portrait of Charles I

 

Similarly who is not familiar, even subconsciously, with Alec Guiness’ depiction of the troubled Charles in the 1970 film Cromwell. Whereas James’ only depiction in cinematic drama is limited to the occasional TV mini series.

Alec Guiness as the troubled monarch, Charles I

Alec Guiness as the troubled monarch, Charles I

Whatever James’ shortcomings as a monarch it is unarguable that he presided over predominantly peaceful times. This is testified to by the cultural flourishings seen during his reign; the development of drama with Shakespeare and Bacon and their like and the publishing of the eponymous King James Bible to name but two.

Shakespeare flourished under the peaceful reign of James

Shakespeare flourished under the peaceful reign of James

Whereas under Charles we see turmoil, political schism, civil war waged separately and together throughout the three kingdoms under his charge. In Scotland his unshakeable belief in the rectitude of his view regarding divine worship led to the drafting and the signing of the National Covenant, its subsequent supercession by the Solemn League and Covenant, the then inevitable Covenant Wars and thence to that infamous period in Scottish history still referred to as the Killing Time. A gross misrepresentation of the facts which is so widely held to be true even to this day that men are driven to blog about it!

James was the first incumbent of the unified throne: the first head of state of two kingdoms which had been at war for a great deal of the previous millennium to one degree or another. A daunting prospect for even the most gifted of his forebears yet he managed to run the thing calmly and peacefully. When Charles succeeded in 1625 the whole operation had been up and running smoothly for 22 years but before he was done he had lost wars with both his Parliaments and met his end on the executioners block with his charge in ruins around him.

If Charles was to prove a less capable monarch how did they compare as men? To what extent did the value the efforts and service of those around them? Perhaps in James’ case the peaceful nature of the times meant there were no challenges to him in this area. Men rose and fell in his favour, such as the Earl of Carr and his replacement by the Duke of Buckingham. However, to lose the King’s favour in these times resulted only in loss of status and financial opportunities.

With Charles the opportunities to behave weakly in the treatment of those who served him led to such unfortunates being flung under the proverbial bus: with bothThomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud beheaded as a direct result of their service to their king. Montrose’s remarkable efforts in Scotland during the 1644-45 campaign to defeat the forces of the Scottish Parliament and restore Charles to his throne met with little acknowledgement and he too met his end through execution.

 

The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud: flung under the bus by Charles their king.

The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud: flung under the bus by Charles their king.

On balance then, however you judge the wisdom of James taking up the position of the first monarch on the unified throne, he made a far better job of it than his generally higher-rated offspring.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you have a view you would like to share.

 

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