Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Execution of King Charles I: From King to Martyr

By Donna Scott

It was a cold, icy London morning.  King Charles I awakened to a sharp knock on his bedchamber door at 10am for what would be the final hours of his life.  He shrugged another shirt over the one he already wore so that his subjects would not think he was shivering from cowardice when he walked across St. James’s Park to Banqueting House in Whitehall.  At 2 that afternoon, the king—dressed in black velvet, the white lace of his collar blowing in the frigid wind—climbed out the window of Banqueting House onto the scaffold that had been draped in black, sawdust carpeting the wooden planks.  The executioner’s block lay on the ground, a clear slight to the king, requiring him to lay prostrate for his own beheading.  He handed over his outer clothing and the blue ribboned Order of the Garter he wore around his neck, then tucked his dark tresses into a white nightcap to make the executioner’s job easier.

The waistcoat worn by King Charles I at his execution.
The stains have been verified as bodily fluids, perhaps his blood

The New Model Army was brought in to control the huge crowd gathered in Whitehall for the king’s execution.  King Charles reiterated his innocence to a crowd that could not hear him through the wind and commotion.  The heavily disguised executioner, who wore a fishnet over his wig and false beard, spoke kindly to the king.  Charles finished saying his prayers, and then stretched out his arms to signal he was ready.  In one clean swipe, the executioner sliced off his head, then held it up for the crowd to see.  A throng of onlookers edged its way to the scaffold to dip handkerchiefs in the royal blood that now stained the planks. 

It was Tuesday, January 30, 1649, and nothing like this had ever happened before in England.  So what went wrong?  What had the king done that was so horrible he had to pay for it with his life? 

Born in Scotland in 1600 as the youngest child of King James I, Charles was never meant to be the king of England.  Considered sickly as a child, he was shy, gentle, and quiet, perhaps because he suffered from a slight speech impediment and a limp.  When his older brother Henry died at 18 from typhoid, he became the new heir to the throne and was officially crowned in 1626 upon his father’s passing.  The idea a new young king would rule delighted Parliament, but that excitement was short-lived for several reasons.

Charles I

He followed in his father’s footsteps regarding his belief in the divine right of kings.  This belief centered around the idea that kings were chosen by God to rule, so only God could overrule them.  They had the sole right to make laws that only God could oppose.  Essentially, kings answered only to God and no other.  He ruled as an authoritarian, launching expeditions and attacks without Parliament’s support.  Naturally, his belief in the divine right of kings and his unwillingness to concede or even compromise didn’t sit well with Parliament, as the king’s rule became problematic and contentious on matters of state. 

Furthermore, Charles married Henrietta Maria of France, a devout Catholic, creating concerns that there might be a turn from the current Protestantism the country had comfortably settled into for almost 100 years.  Although Charles supported the Protestant church, some of his ideals bordered on Catholicism, frightening those who feared another religious upheaval. 

Queen Henrietta Maria

In the first 4 years as king, he dissolved Parliament 3 times, the last time for a period of 11 years.  However, when his treasury was nearly depleted from the many foreign wars England engaged in, he turned to Parliament to ask for more money, but because he had burned so many bridges, Parliament wasn’t quick to grant his request.  The members couldn’t agree and chose sides, dividing into two groups—the Royalists and Parliamentarians.  With no resolution, the king and his Royalists raised his banner in August 1642 against Parliament, thus beginning the bloodiest conflict on English soil—the English Civil War.  Although the Royalists (or Cavaliers) seemed to be winning, the tides turned in 1644 and the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) claimed victories under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. 

In 1646, Charles was taken prisoner, put under arrest at Hampton Court, and confined in the old Tudor royal apartments.  Dressed in the rough clothing of a commoner, he escaped but was recaptured shortly thereafter and sent to the Isle of Wight, where he was treated fairly.  A year later in 1648, he was taken to London to be placed on trial for attempting to "uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people".  When Parliament convened to judge the king, his supporters were blocked from entering, and a new Rump Parliament was created, stacking the favor in opposition of the king.  Consequently, in January 1649, Charles was found guilty and named a "tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation, [who] shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body”.

The death warrant of King Charles I signed by
59 members of the Rump Parliament

The people of England were divided.  After all, who could place a king on trial?  Wasn’t he above the law?  How could a king be tried for treason?  Was regicide the answer?  None of it seemed to make sense.  Nonetheless, they showed up on that bitterly cold afternoon to witness the first ordered beheading of a monarch on English soil.

This began the Commonwealth, a ten-year political structure where England was governed as a republic and Oliver Cromwell served as the Lord Protector.  However, not long after his appointment, the people grew discontented with the sober Puritan life Cromwell embraced and began to reconsider their harsh views against Charles.  When his son Charles II reclaimed the throne in 1660, they were ready for a return to a country governed by a monarchy.  The new king held accountable all the members of Parliament who signed his father’s death warrant.  Some fled the country, some begged for forgiveness, and others were tried and sentenced to death.  The country’s sentiment had changed regarding the fate of their old king.  A bit too late, unfortunately.

To this day, there remains disagreement as to whether King Charles I died as a martyr or a villain.  What do you think?


Donna Scott is an award-winning author of 17th and 18th century historical fiction.  Before embarking on a writing career, she spent her time in the world of academia.  She earned her BA in English from the University of Miami and her MS and EdD (ABD) from Florida International University.  She has two sons and lives in sunny South Florida with her husband.  Her first novel, Shame the Devil, received the first place Chaucer Award for historical fiction and a Best Book designation from Chanticleer International Book Reviews.  Her newest novel, The London Monster, will be released in January 2021.

Facebook: Donna Scott
Instagram: DonnaScotttWriter
Twitter: D_ScottWriter


  1. Thanks for a considered post. Have Tweeted.

  2. Really interesting. A clear and succinct account of the events leading up to the Interregnum and later, the Restoration. That image of the waistcoat is chilling.

    1. Thanks, Denise. I'm glad you like the post. Last year I had an opportunity to visit Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire and was able to see another waistcoat worn by Charles I. Of course, it wasn't as exciting as the one included above. :-)

  3. A fair analysis of the situation, and to your question "Did King Charles I died as a martyr or a villain?" my opinion is that he died as a King. Cromwell was right in deciding that Charles would never stop plotting to reclaim his throne, and doing exactly what he liked, regardless of the people's elected representatives' ideas. About 10 percent of the population had died from war and its resulting famine. The bloodshed had to end. Cromwell was remiss in not providing a viable chain of command for the succession before he died, leaving the factions to eventually realized they would prefer to have another King than allow a fellow Puritan take power. A series of strange resolutions to dangerous problems. The ability to compromise is necessary in fraught situations ... which is a lesson we all need to remember and apply today.


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