Death of a Tyrant

Execution of Charles I (1694)

Around this time of year, some of us remember the anniversary of the execution of Charles Stuart, erstwhile King of England. On 30th January, 1649, Charles stepped out onto the scaffold behind the Banqueting House, Whitehall, and after a few words, drowned out by the drummers, placed his head on the block. The spectators famously let out a collective groan at the sight, and then surged forward seeking a memento, namely a swab of his blood. Soldiers stormed in to clear the yard and disperse the crowd.

No one should mourn Charles’ bloody end. He had it coming. However, the measures taken against him, the extraordinary trial, which violated the established laws of the land and horrified the rest of Europe (the ruling classes, at any rate), did not auger well for the settlement of the nation. As John Lilburne and his fellow radicals recognised, with the King deposed and the Parliament a purged rump, all power had been gathered into the mailed fists of Cromwell and Ireton, with nothing left standing to oppose the arbitrary tyranny of England’s new military masters.

The execution of Charles sealed the fate, not of the monarchy, that would return 11 years later in the person of his son, but of the hopes to establish the liberties and sovereignty of the English people, as championed by the radicals within and without the army. Dissent was suppressed, resistance brutally crushed. The Commonwealth, conceived in the iniquity of Pride’s Purge, and born in the sin of Charles’ execution, would always lack legitimacy and popular support.