King Charles I: The Only English Monarch Executed for Treason
Quite a few European monarchs met their fates at the end of an executioner's axe. One of the most famous examples is King Charles I of England, sentenced to death for treason. Unlike many executions of the time, Charles’s execution went smoothly. Most interestingly, Charles’ execution bolstered rather than damaged his reputation because of the way he faced his death.
The death warrant for King Charles I of England in 1649, with 59 red wax seals of the judges who signed it (Public Domain)
Why Was King Charles I Executed?
King Charles I met his grisly fate because he believed in the divine right of kings at a time when the Parliament of England did not. Charles believed that God had given his family the right to rule, and that he had absolute power in his rule over England. The Parliament of England disagreed, and felt Charles's style of rule was that of a tyrant.
This disagreement led to the English Civil War fought between Charles’s loyalists and the English and Scottish armies. This was a war that King Charles I lost in 1645. He spent the next several years being captured, escaping, being recaptured, and trying to negotiate new alliances. But in the end, he was tried, convicted, and executed in 1649. The charge was high treason. His execution led to the abolition of the monarchy and creation of a republic - although that didn’t last long.
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A triple portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck (Public Domain)
The Execution of King Charles I
The days leading up to King Charles I’s execution, and the day itself, are remarkably well recorded. He was set to be executed on January 30th, 1649. He was moved two days prior, from the Palace of Whitehall to St James’ Palace. This move was probably intended as a kindness. The scaffolding for his execution was being erected just outside Whitehall, and it’s unlikely Charles would have enjoyed listening to its construction. Charles, ever the good Protestant, spent the day praying with the Bishop of London, William Juxon.
The day before his execution, King Charles I spent the morning doing administrative tasks, burning all of his personal papers and correspondences. He hadn’t seen his children for over a year, so he was allowed to see his two youngest children, Elizabeth and Henry, one last time.
He spent his last moments with Elizabeth telling her to stay true to Protestantism, and also telling her to tell her mother “his thoughts had never strayed from her”. He instructed his son that he should not allow the parliamentarians to make him a puppet king. The king then gifted his children his remaining jewels and sent them on their way.
Unsurprisingly, King Charles I is reported as having been restless the night before his execution; he didn’t go to sleep until around 2am. He evidently didn't get much sleep because he got dressed at 5am. For his execution, he dressed in all black with his blue garter sash. Charles was afraid of appearing cowardly, and asked for an extra shirt to prevent a shiver from the cold being mistaken for cowardice.
At 10am, King Charles I was sent to Whitehall. He had his last meal at noon: a glass of good red wine and a piece of bread. By this time, a large crowd had formed outside the Banqueting House, where a large platform had been built and draped in black outside for King Charles I’s execution. The execution block had purposely been built so low that Charles would have to prostrate himself to lay his head on the chopping block. The purpose of this was clear; it was a much more submissive pose than the usual kneeling before the block.
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Dutch painting of the execution of King Charles I, 1649. While depictions of the execution were suppressed in England, European depictions like this were produced, emphasizing the shock of the crowd with fainting women and bloodied streets (Public Domain)
King Charles I was called to the platform just before 2pm. Charles had planned to make one last speech, but soon realized that the barrier of guards between him and the crowd would make that impossible. Instead, he made his speech to Bishop Juxon and Mathew Tomlison, an officer of the parliamentarian army.
King Charles I’s speech was what one would expect from him. He declared his innocence, and his faith, and laid the blame for everything that had happened at the feet of Parliament. He finished his speech by declaring himself a “martyr of the people”. He asked Juxon for his silk nightcap so that his hair would not spoil the executioner’s aim. He then handed Juxon his sash and cloak and declared he was claiming his rightful place in heaven.
Ever the regent, Charles laid his head on the block and instructed the executioner to wait for his signal. He waited a moment and then gave the signal; his head came off cleanly with one strike of the axe.
Engraving depicting the executioner after the beheading of Charles I of England in 1649 (Public Domain)
His head was held up to the spectators, but the executioner did not shout the usual cry: "Behold the head of a traitor!" It is thought this is proof that the executioner was either inexperienced or terrified of being identified from his voice. King Charles I’s head was then dropped into the crowd, where soldiers gathered around it, eager to dip their handkerchiefs in the royal blood and claim locks of his hair.
Anonymously printed Dutch pamphlet titled ‘The murderous tragedy’, attacking the beheading of Charles I, showing Thomas Fairfax holding the king's severed head. (Public Domain)
King Charles I is a historical figure who is difficult to like. He firmly believed he was superior to everyone else, and that he had the divine right to rule. He was also quite deaf to the tone of his subjects; even after losing a civil war, he failed to see why so many of his subjects wanted to get rid of him. He was also more than a little sanctimonious.
Faults aside, King Charles I went to his death with dignity and died just about as noble a death as anyone being executed for treason could hope for. He believed people would see him as a martyr to his religion, and it worked. People began to claim that relics from his death could perform miracles.
Up until 1859, the Church of England observed January 30th as the “martyrdom of King Charles''. High Church Anglicans regard him as one of their saints to this day. This shows that if nothing else, a good death can do wonders for someone's reputation.
Top Image: King Charles I was beheaded with one blow of the axe blade. The identity of the executioner is unknown, as the official executioner credibly denied responsibility. Source: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
King Charles I Executed for Treason. March 2, 2010. A&E Television Networks. Available at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/king-charles-i-executed-for-treason
Wedgewood, C. 1981. A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I. Time Incorporated. Available at: https://archive.org/details/coffinforkingcha00wedg
Worden, B. February 2, 2009. The Execution of Charles I. History Today. Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/execution-charles-i