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Friday, January 30, 2015

Were you there? A First Hand Account of the Execution of Charles I

The 30th January marks the 366th anniversary of the execution of Charles the First.


Charles I farewells his children
In an earlier blog post (Click HERE), I wrote about the commission set up to try Charles. The trial of a King for treason was unprecedented and the public execution of a monarch unthinkable. Yet it happened and was to repeat in France 150 years later.

Despite his challenge to the authority of the Commission that was set up to try him, Charles was found  guilty of the crimes levelled against him and sentenced to die by the axe. (For an account on the gruesome revenge exacted on the regicides by Charles II, see my post HERE)

The execution was scheduled for the morning of January 30 and a scaffold was set up outside the Inigo Jones designed dining chamber of Whitehall Palace (the only part of the old palace that still survives today - see my blog post on HISTORICAL HEARTS).

On the day of his execution, Charles was allowed one final meeting with his children Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth who were the only members of his family still in England. Both children continued to be held hostage by the victors. Princess Elizabeth did not live to see the restoration of their brother and Prince Henry died at the age of 20 from smallpox shortly after the Restoration.

As a historian though, it is best to go to the primary sources and the following account of the execution comes from an eye witness (the spelling is original). The full text is at http://jesus-is-lord.com/kjcharl2.htm
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“About ten in the morning the King was brought from St. James's, walking on foot throughthe park, with a regiment of foot, part before and part behind him, with colours flying, drums beating, his private guard of partizans with some of his gentlemen before and some behind bareheaded, Dr. Juxon next behind him and Col. Thomlinson (who had the charge of him) talking with the King bareheaded, from the Park up the stairs into the gallery and so into the cabinet chamber where he used to lie.

... Where he continued at his devotion, refusing to dine, (having before taken the Sacrament) only about an hour before he came forth, he drank a glass of claret wine and eat a piece of bread about twelve at noon. From thence he was accompanied by Dr. Juxon, Col. Thomlinson and other officers formerly appointed to attend him and the private guard of partizans, with musketeers on each side, through the Banqueting house adjoining to which the scaffold was erected between Whitehall Gate and the Gate leading into the gallery from St. James's. The scaffold was hung round with black and the floor covered with black and the Ax and block laid in the middle of the scaffold. There were divers companies of food, and troops of horse placed on the one side of the scaffold towards Kings Street and on the other side towards Charing Cross, and the multitudes of people that came to be spectators, very great. The King being come upon the scaffold, look'd very earnestly upon the block and ask'd Col. Hacker if there were no higher. And then spake thus, directing his speech chiefly to Col. Thomlinson...(Full text of speech omitted)

...Then turning to the officers, said, "Sirs, excuse me for this same, I have a good cause and I have a gracious God. I will say no more."
Then turning to Colonel Hacker, he said, "take care that they do not put me to pain. And Sir, this, an it please you---" But then a gentleman coming near the Ax, the King said "Take heed of the Ax. Pray take heed of the Ax."

Then the King, speaking to the Executioner said "I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands—"

Then the King called to Dr. Juxon for his night-cap, and having put it on said to the executioner "Does my hair trouble you?" Who desired him to put it all under his cap. Which the King did accordingly, by the help of the executioner and the bishop.

Then the King turning to Dr. Juxom said, "I have a good cause, and a gracious GOD on my side." Dr. Juxon: There is but one stage more. This stage is turbulent and troublesome; it is a short one. But you may consider, it will soon carry you a very great way. It will carry you from Earth to Heaven. And there you shall find a great deal of cordial joy and comfort.

King: I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.

Doctor Juxon: You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown, a good exchange.
The King then said to the Executioner, "Is my hair well?"

Then the King took off his cloak and his George, giving his George to Dr. Juxon, saying, "Remember—." (It is thought for to give it to the Prince)


Then the King put off his dublet and being in his wastcoat, put his cloak on again. Then looking upon the block, said to the Executioner "You must set it fast." Executioner: It is fast, Sir. King: It might have been a little higher. Executioner: It can be no higher, Sir. King: When I put out my hands this way (Stretching them out) then— After having said two or three words, as he stood, to himself with hands and eyes lift up.

Immediately stooping down laid his neck on the block And then the executioner again putting his hair under his cap, the King said, "Stay for the sign." (Thinking he had been going to strike)

Executioner: Yes, I will, an it please your Majesty.

And after a very little pause, the King stretching forth his hands, the executioner at one blow severed his head from his body. When the Kings head was cut off, the executioner held it up and shewed it to the spectators. And his body was put in a coffin covered with black velvet for that purpose. The Kings body now lies in his lodging chamber at Whitehall.




This image is said to be a contemporary portrayal of the execution (from a decidedly royalist point of view...the King is pictured on the left and his executioner on the right. The executioner bears a strong resemblance to Thomas Fairfax - who took no part in the trial and execution of the King. A woman faints and others run forward to dip cloth in the 'martyred' king's blood.

Another eye witness recounts that at the moment of the stroke "Such a groan as I never heard before, and desire I may never hear again".

The scene was quickly cleared but not before many of the spectators had rushed forward to dip handkerchiefs in the blood. "King Charles the Martyr" had been created and in old books of Common Prayer you find a service dedicated to King Charles the Martyr to be said on January 30th.

The funeral procession of Charles I

The King's head was reattached to his body, the body embalmed and conveyed to Windsor where he was laid to rest in the vault containing Henry VIII and his wife Jane Seymour. Space had been left for the body of Katherine Parr but as she had remarried and was interred at Sudeley, it left room for King Charles.

News of his father's death did not reach his son, now Charles II,  until February 5. His advisors debated how to tell the young King and in the end his chaplain, Stephen Goffe, was given the task. He entered Charles' room, hesitated, went down on one knee and addressed him as "Your Majesty." Fully understanding the import of those two words, Charles  left the room in tears.

Several books have been devoted to the trial and execution of Charles I and I recommend in particular: CV Wedgwood THE TRIAL OF CHARLES I and the more recent book about the prosecution of the trial by Geoffrey Robertson THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF. Another interesting book is Jordan and Walsh's book on the fate of the regicides and those who prosecuted him - THE KING'S REVENGE.



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