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Who Killed the King?

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History does not reveal the identity of the masked executioner who severed Charles I’s head from his body, or of his assistant who held it up to the waiting crowd. Geoffrey Robertson QC re-examines the evidence.

'Hurt not the axe, that it may not hurt me,’ Charles I muttered to Colonel Hacker, who had the task of supervising his execution on the black-draped scaffold outside the Banqueting House on January 30th, 1649. The bright axe, specially brought from the Tower, did not disappoint: when the King’s embalmed body was discovered in 1813 in a vault at Windsor Castle, a very ‘post’ post-mortem reported that ‘The fourth cervical vertebrae was found to be cut through its substance transversely … by a heavy blow, inflicted with a very sharp instrument.’

Contemporary accounts describe the executioner as professional, even surgical. His assistant, however, was clumsy and angry – he threw the head down ‘with such violence that the still warm cheek was badly bruised’. The faces of both men were hidden by visors, long wigs and false beards to protect them from reprisals for killing the man whom many believed to be the Lord’s anointed. Who were they?

There were no clear answers in 1660 when the restored but vengeful Charles II demanded to know who had beheaded his father, but the royalist prosecutors eventually charged one William Hulet, a sergeant from Colonel Hewson’s regiment with being the King’s executioner. For his trial, the rigged and bloody assize at the Old Bailey in October 1660 that automatically convicted all the other regicides, briefly metamorphosed into a genuine and fair enquiry. 

The prosecution claimed that Sergeant Hulet was the grey-bearded axe-man who gave the fatal blow. Its main witness, a sergeant from the same regiment, said that on the day before the execution Hewson had sworn a number of his officers to secrecy and offered £100 and promotion to anyone who would act as executioner. They all refused, but subsequently Hulet was promoted, and Hewson afterwards would jokingly call him ‘Father Gray Beard’. The sergeant’s evidence was circumstantial at best, and unreliable: he claimed to have recognized Hulet’s voice when the executioner spoke to the King on the scaffold, but was readily confounded by the fact that he had been stationed in Scotland Yard – half a mile away – at the time. 

The other prosecution witnesses were not much better: a Captain Toogood testified that Colonel Hewson had told him that Hulet was ‘a very metalled fellow – he did the King’s business for me upon the scaffold.’ It was unlikely that Hewson would blurt out the army’s great secret to a mere captain, so Toogood’s evidence was too good to be true. Another officer claimed that Colonel Axtell admitted to him that ‘we would not employ persons of low spirits that we did not know’ and so chose ‘stout fellows’, namely Hulet and a Sergeant Walker. Both witnesses, confusingly, said that their informants had identified Hulet as the assistant, and not the beheadsman. 

Hulet was stout and metalled enough at his trial to cast doubt on all this hearsay evidence. His alibi was that he had been in army detention on the day of the King’s execution for refusing to do scaffold duty. He called witnesses who claimed to have heard the public hangman, Richard Brandon, confess before his death to having decapitated the King. The co-accused Colonel Axtell gave evidence that on the morning of the execution he had sent a troop to collect Brandon and his ‘instruments’ from his home in Rosemary Lane, in Whitechapel. Axtell made no mention of the hangman’s usual assistant, Richard Jones, a rag-and-bone man from the same street.

There was credible evidence from a bargeman that shortly after the execution Brandon was escorted to the pier behind Whitehall by a troop of musketeers. Halfway across the Thames, the bargeman recognized Brandon and accused him of having executed the king. Brandon denied this, but trembled so much that the boatman was sure he was lying. The boatman had noticed that Brandon tipped the soldiers who brought him to the boat with a gold half crown. This is a telling detail in two respects: firstly, the executioner had been paid in half crowns (witnesses said forty) for beheading the King, and the fact that Brandon tipped the soldiers suggests that he had just been paid for his services and was rewarding them for escorting him safely away.

Chief Justice Orlando Bridgeman summed up all the conflicting evidence with unprecedented fairness and the jury actually retired for some time to consider it (in all the other regicide trials, they convicted without bothering to leave the jury box). Hulet was found guilty, but the authorities remained unconvinced. He was eventually released, and the case has never been closed.

Richard Brandon remains a prime suspect. Back in 1649, on the London streets, he was assumed to have done the deed and was rumoured to have hawked for sale in Rosemary Lane an orange spiced with cloves that the King had clenched in his mouth as the axe descended. Brandon had died just four months later – in agonies of conscience, according to some. But others insisted that he was innocent: at the last minute he had refused to carry out his trade and was replaced by a reliable Roundhead. These conspiracy theorists pointed to the fact that the execution had been delayed for several hours – obviously while Cromwell found someone else to do the job. (They overlook a more sensible explanation, namely that the delay was necessary for Parliament to draft and pass a law forbidding proclamation of Charles’s eldest son or anyone else as king.)

Certainly there was some backsliding on execution morning. Hercules Hunks, one of the officers entrusted with the business, refused to sign the warrant appointing the executioners. ‘Why me?’ ‘Because,’ said Cromwell through gritted teeth, ‘you are named by virtue of the warrant to draw up an order for the executioner.’ Colonel Axtell, who was waiting to take this authority to the masked men, upbraided Hunks: ‘The ship is coming into harbour – will you strike sail before we come to anchor?’ Cromwell himself wrote out the executioner’s warrant, muttering that Hunks was a ‘peevish fellow’. He obtained Hacker’s signature and gave the warrant to Axtell to take to the executioner. 

There is, however, one simple solution that accords with the known facts. Cromwell’s objective was to stage an execution that conformed to tradition and which would go off without a hitch. It suited his purpose to have the decapitation done by the customary executioner, the common hangman. Brandon had been born to this grisly trade, and had already expertly severed the heads of Strafford and Laud among others. Cromwell wanted the King, if not ‘carved as a dish fit for the gods’ at least surgically dispatched – nobody wanted him hacked to death like his grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, who had been butchered on the scaffold at Fotheringay Castle. Brandon knew the ritual and could execute it faultlessly, whereas a botched beheading would convince the groundlings that ‘the great business’ had been wrong from the start. Brandon must have been Cromwell’s first choice.

But the hangman had not served in the New Model Army and might quail at the last, like Hercules Hunks. So there had to be a backup, someone of ‘stout metal’ there on the scaffold to take hold of the axe if Brandon refused to go through with the job. That person would have to be a soldier, who could be trusted to take over and complete the execution with the least possible public embarrassment. Hewson swore his best men to secrecy and offered them the job of the axe-man’s assistant – an understudy who might have to step in at the last moment. That is why Brandon alone was fetched from his home in Whitechapel early on the Tuesday morning: his usual assistant, Jones the Ragman, was surplus to requirements.

Who then replaced him? Some (such as the French ambassador) suggested Cromwell himself. He was certainly in the frame of mind to have done the act if all about him quailed, but at the time of execution he was locked in prayer with Fairfax. The finger was also pointed at Cromwell’s chaplain, Hugh Peters, but he was cleared after his former servant (now a trusted royalist) testified that he had been ‘melancholy sick’ on the day of the King’s death and had not left his bed. Another suspect, John Cooke, the prosecutor at Charles I’s trial, was also quickly exonerated – barristers do not soil their hands with axeman’s work.

In the event, the executioner performed with an expertise that no one could have attained without practice: he knew how to tuck the victim’s hair under his cap, to bend for forgiveness and so on. His assistant behaved exactly as if he were a soldier who hated Charles, that ‘man of blood’. He grabbed the head and waved it aloft, then dashed it violently down on the scaffold, omitting the traditional cry ‘Behold the head of a traitor!’, either because he had never made it before, or because he did not want anyone to recognize his voice.

Hulet’s alibi – that he was locked up for the day because he refused scaffold duty – is not credible, especially since he was promoted soon afterwards. That he was the assistant explains why Hacker and Axtell, who would have known the real identity of the disguised men, refused to divulge any information to the royalist authorities. Like most old murder mysteries, this one is incapable of final solution, unless in some attic there turns up the yellowed parchment warrant written out by Cromwell. That it remained an unsolved mystery in 1660, when royalist revenge was in full swing and rich rewards and pardons were on offer for incriminating evidence, remains a tribute both to the courage of the regicides and to the discipline of the New Model Army. Its colonels went to the scaffold determined to protect the simple soldier who had obeyed Cromwell’s momentous order, to stand by and if necessary to strike the blow that would turn the country – all too briefly – into a republic.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC is author of The Tyrannicide Brief: The Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold (Vintage, 2005) and The Levellers: The Putney Debates (Verso, 2007).

Historical dictionary: Charles I


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