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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.