About Beheading of King Charles I 1649. Before the first revolt in 1642, the Parliament of England did not have a large permanent role in the English system of government, functioning as a temporary advisory committee, summoned by the monarch whenever the Crown required additional tax revenue.
Two civil wars established the precedent that an English monarch cannot rule without Parliament’s consent causing Parliament to be more a permanent part of English government.
Charles I was a rickety, ill-educated, devious autocrat, married to a manipulative foreign Catholic. Charles was raised and lived in Scotland and hoped to unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland into a new single kingdom. He believed in the Devine Right of Kings where God had given him authority. That belief caused his disdain and contempt for his subjects. England at the time was Presbyterian, Puritan and other Independents, who talked to God directly and heard a different message than Charles did. They loathed the Catholic Bishops interfering in their affairs.
Lords and Earls set up a ‘junto’ of aristocrats to challenge the King’s authority after he took back their traditional powers and privileges to grant to his own favorites. There were over two hundred grievances against the King that were read to him by Parliament. Singled out were unjust taxes, land encroachments, property seizures, monopolies and fines, censorship of the press, imprisonments, mutilations, whippings, pillories, gags, confinements and banishments.
Rumors flew that Parliament intended to impeach the Catholic Queen so Charles went to Parliament with 400 soldiers to arrest five members of the House of Commons—who escaped out the back. That unprecedented act was a breach of the rights and privilege of Parliament. Things kept getting worse. Militias were formed and maneuvers were carried out.
In August 1642 while visiting the north of England the King raised his standard at Nottingham Castle, effectively declaring war on his people. For the next four years there was war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists.
The Parliamentarians won. The King must die.
The Beheading of King Charles I
Richard Brandon was the public executioner who lived outside the city wall beyond the Tower of London. It was a forbidding area that in the past was used for drowning pirates. Convicted pirates were chained to ramps until three tides had passed over them. Brandon had inherited his grim trade from his father John who had once said that public hangmen are strange men.
Sergeant Hulet who was “well-metalled” stood in for the executioner’s normal assistant Richard Jones a rag-and-bone man as they didn’t want it said the King’s head was severed from his body by a ragman. Fearing for their lives both executioner and assistant were disguised with shapeless cover-alls, grey periwigs and false beards to protect their identities from Royalist supporters seeking revenge.
Tradition states that you cannot hang, draw or quarter a monarch which was the common means of execution. For the nobility an axe is traditional. The King’s neck must be severed correctly, with a heavy single blow through the fourth vertebra. When the Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, it was terribly mangled. A bright axe was specially brought for the executioner from the Tower of London.
Oliver Cromwell wrote the King’s death warrant after everyone else balked at the task:
“Whereas Charles Stuart, King of England, is and standeth convicted, attainted, and condemned of High Treason and other high crimes, and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this court to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body, of which sentence execution yet remaineth to be done, these are therefore to will and require you to see the said sentence executed in the open street before Whitehall, upon the morrow, being the thirtieth day of this instant month of January, between the hours of ten in the morning and five in the afternoon of the same day, with full effect. And for so doing, this shall be your sufficient warrant. And these are to require all officers, soldiers, and others, the good people of this nation of England, to be assisting unto you in this service.”
King Charles I was beheaded January 30, 1649 at Whitehall Palace between two and three o’clock. The King tried to address the crowd, but the clamor was too great. The only phrases heard by the King were “A subject and a sovereign are clean different” and “I am a Martyr of the People” Charles Stewart removed his George medal and passed it to the Bishop for the Prince of Wales—his heir, saying “Remember.” The King knelt; Hulet moved the King’s hair out of the way, the axe descended smoothly. The King was dead.
The head was always held aloft so the crowd could be sure the intended was indeed beheaded.
Sergeant Hulet held the head high by its long hair and cried, “Here is the head of a Traitor.” Inexperience made him drop the head which thudded to the boards. The body and head were carried off indoors.
Brandon said he received thirty pounds for his day’s work and also boasted of an orange stuck full of cloves and a handkerchief, which according to him were taken from the King’s pocket after the headless corpse was carried off the scaffold. The executioner died naturally four months later. Some said it was a judgment.
The King’s embalmed body, with the severed head ghoulishly stitched back on, lay in state in the royal apartments at St James’s Palace for several days. It was then turned over to Bishop Juxon and other supporters for a private burial. When Westminster Abbey was refused them, as being too public, they settled on the Royal Chapel in Windsor. A vault was opened, which was found to contain the remains of King Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour. There, in a plain lead coffin, King Charles was buried.
The Prince of Wales, now King Charles II, led a failed campaign to regain the throne in the second Civil War.