The Saturday just passed was the anniversary of a historical event whose impact continues to resonate today, but most people in 21st-century Britain probably don’t know the significance of the date, and of those that do not all would consider if an anniversary worth celebrating.
On 30 January 1649 (or 1648 as it would have been recorded under the Julian calendar) Charles I was executed outside the banqueting hall in Whitehall. Unsurprisingly the weather was bitterly cold, and Charles wore an extra layer of clothing so that the crowd would not mistake his shivering as a sign of fear at the fate that awaited him. Contemporary accounts include references to the size of the crowd, the groan of many spectators after the axe fell (due to his social rank Charles was spared the fate of so many of his executed subjects – death by hanging), and of the blood which dripped from the wooden scaffold.
News of the event spread across Western Europe via personal correspondence and was reported in news-books, a new communication medium which had emerged during the print revolution of the early modern period. Monarchs had been deposed before, even killed, but these regime changes had been brought about by cabals of plotters or because rulers had been defeated on the battlefield (the most recent English example would have been the defeat of Richard III’s forces by the army of Henry VII at Bosworth Field in 1485).
The events of January 1649 were very different because they took place at the end of a decade which had witnessed major uprisings across Europe and the fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, political events which were exacerbated by severe climate change, leading harvest to fail and thousands to die from disease and malnutrition. But the downfall of Charles Stuart was also different because his opponents argued that it resulted from due legal process being followed.
In Britain the royalists had lost the civil wars of the 1640s, but Charles was unwilling to accept any diminution of his authority which might result from a peace settlement. This was a man who his opponents regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy, a ‘man of blood’ responsible for the deaths and sufferings of tens of thousands. To his political enemies Charles was a war criminal who had betrayed the ancient constitution by seeking to rule without Parliament in the 1630s, then waged war on his own people, while in the eyes of godly puritans he was a not-so-closet Catholic, who had sought to re-introduce Catholicism under the guise of a series of policies promoting ‘the beauty of holiness’ and increased episcopal authority.
Despite all this, even his enemies felt Charles deserved his day in court, but the king refused to play ball and argued that those who wished to put him on trial did not have the authority to do so since he was a divinely ordained ruler. Whether the methods and procedures used in the trial were appropriate has been debated, but if the accused was unwilling to participate in the legal process his chances of being acquitted were always going to be slim.
The question mark in my title asks you, dear reader, to consider whether Charles Stuart should have been executed, but also whether (and how) the event ought to be marked and remembered. To many the events I have recounted may seem like distant history, but the reasons for the trial (the abuse of political authority, the persecution of individuals for their religious beliefs) still resonate today, while the question of how ruler should be held to account and what constitutes a just legal process are matters we all need to agree on.