Who Killed the King?

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. 

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