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Why, ask Richard Weight and Toby Haggith, do modern Britons still find it so hard to acknowledge their revolutionary past?

The English killed their King and don’t like to talk about it. The scarcity of memorials to the regicide of Charles I shows how controversial the event remains, while also fostering collective amnesia about an event that shaped the modern world. In a recent Home Office publication surveying British history for new immigrants the entire period of the Civil Wars was omitted on the grounds that ‘the wounds are still too fresh’.

Charles I was beheaded on January 30th, 1649 after seven years of conflict. The radical democratic and millenarian ideas that were unleashed during the period, coupled with the king’s repeated duplicity during peace negotiations, led to his trial and execution for treason.

A scaffold was erected outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, which had been commissioned by Charles’ father James I and designed by Inigo Jones. It was chosen by the regicides as a symbol of royal arrogance and excess. Diplomatic ceremonies and elaborate masques had been staged there in the 1630s, beneath a ceiling that celebrated the divine right of kings, painted at great expense by Peter Paul Rubens.

Charles was brought from St James’s Palace on foot ‘with Colours flying, Drums beating’, along streets lined with soldiers and spectators. Others climbed onto rooftops to get a view. Around 2pm he was led through the Banqueting House, past Cromwell and some of the commissioners who had signed his death warrant. 

Masque of Blacknesse

Through the seven windows that faced Whitehall the dignitaries watched the king step onto the scaffold via a gap broken into the north end of the hall. The wooden barrier around the scaffold was draped in black cloth, a scene described by one writer as a ‘Masque of Blacknesse’. The executioner refused his office and he was replaced by two men ‘fantastically disguised’, whose identity remains a mystery.

Surveying the crowd, Charles made a speech that included a defence of divine right versus the rights of citizens. It would sit uneasily with modern Britons were they taught it at school: ‘For the people,’ he said, ‘I must tell you that their Liberty and their Freedom … is not for having share in Government that is nothing pertaining to them; A Subject and a Sovereign are clean different things.’ Minutes later he was felled with one blow and his bleeding head was held aloft by its hair for the crowd to see. Quickly reunited, head and body were taken to a tomb in Windsor Castle, where they lie today.

It was a shocking moment even in a society used to public executions and, in the decade that followed, Cromwell’s propagandists hesitated to exploit the event. Kings had been killed before, but usually in battle or in secret as rivals plotted for the throne, not in the name of a political or religious ideology that privileged the people. 

However, opposition to the regicide has also been exaggerated. Histories, such as R.J. Unstead’s children’s book Struggle for Power (1972), often quote the memory of a teenage witness, Philip Henry, that the crowd emitted ‘such a groan as I never heard before, and desire I may never hear again’. Yet Henry was the son of Charles I’s closest servant and he was writing as a courtier of Charles II during the Restoration, when frightened republicans had their heads down.

Accounts of the Restoration have been based on a myth of magnanimity, which presents it as a time of fun and invention after 20 years of trauma and stagnation: exit the Puritans, enter Nell Gwyn and Christopher Wren. In fact the royalist regime took revenge on the regicides to set an example to their surviving supporters. In October 1660 ten of them were executed at Charing Cross in front of onlookers including Charles II and Samuel Pepys, who was moved by their bravery. After being hanged they were cut down and, still alive, watched their genitals being hacked off before they were disembowelled. Only because of growing ministerial concern about the effect this bloody revenge was having on public opinion did the regime order that the remaining regicides be jailed instead.

The centenary of 1749 passed with little commemoration. Coming just four years after the Stuarts’ last violent attempt to reclaim the British throne in the Jacobite Rising, Charles I’s execution was not a clear propaganda opportunity for George II, while supporters of his constitutional monarchy preferred to celebrate the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which led to Hanoverian rule.   

Atlantic crossing

Abroad, the regicides’ reputations fared much better. Three who escaped to the American colonies – Edward Whalley, William Goffe and John Dixwell – had streets named after them in New Haven, Connecticut, honoured as forefathers of the American Revolution. To show solidarity with French revolutionaries in 1789 American leaders sent a code of republican laws and a medallion with an image of Cromwell on one side. Louis XVI was publicly executed in 1793 on the spot where his father’s statue had stood, in an echo of Charles I’s execution outside his father’s folly. The square was renamed the Place de la Concorde in 1830 and the Bastille became the preferred memorial to the French Revolution. That was because, unlike Whitehall, the site of regicide in Paris was also the site of ‘The Terror’, where almost 3,000 people on both sides of the political divide had been executed. Throughout the 19th century the English Revolution continued to be seen as an inspiring precedent by European commentators.     

Despite periodic fear of new revolutions being imported from the Continent, during the birth pangs of British democracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries Cromwell’s rule was seen as a precedent for reform by groups ranging from supporters of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Edwardian Liberals, including Winston Churchill.

Even the regicide, which remained an embarrassment for moderates, was a feature of political debate, usually as a warning of what might happen if peaceful, legal protest was ignored. In 1884 a demonstration for House of Lord’s reform passed by the site of Charles’ execution on its way to Hyde Park, where speakers told the crowd that the abolition of the Lords by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1649 had set a precedent. Reynold’s News observed:

No man with the feelings of an Englishman seeing the procession traversing the historic roads of Whitehall, Charing Cross and Piccadilly could not but be impressed with the recollection of another crowd that stood there in 1648 [sic] to witness the last act in a contest with the people. Except that Englishmen are now much more inclined to employ scorn and contempt rather than the scaffold and the headsman, they are very much what their forefathers were when privilege chose to attack the sacred rights of the people.

The Victorian cult of Cromwell attracted some Conservatives, who saw him as a founder of British Unionism and of the Empire. He was also an inspiration for evangelical Protestants, who successfully lobbied Church and Parliament in 1858 to abolish a statute of 1660, which had ordered prayers to be said for ‘Charles the Martyr’ on the anniversary of his execution. (By the 1900s less than 30 churches in Britain were still voluntarily saying prayers for him.)

It was to please nonconformists in his party that the Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery got a statue of Cromwell erected outside Parliament in 1899, though not without controversy. Queen Victoria was said to be ‘dismayed’ and it contributed to the fall of Rosebery’s government in 1895, as Irish nationalists – remembering the atrocities at Drogheda and Wexford – deserted him.  

While democrats of all hues were lauding Cromwell, the royal family continued to regard Charles not just as a relative but as a martyr of monarchy. On December 13th, 1888 a secret ceremony was held at his tomb in Windsor Castle attended by the future Edward VII. The Prince of Wales had been given ‘relics’ of Charles – a lock of his auburn beard, a tooth and the vertebrae where the axe had fallen – by the grandson of George III’s physician, Sir Henry Halford. In 1813 Halford had removed body parts from the tomb in an extraordinary act of royal grave robbing. Eager to lay Charles’ missing body parts to rest, the Prince of Wales was joined by a few clergy in a short service around Charles’ tomb: ‘The utmost decorum and reverence was observed by the workmen. No one entered the tomb’, noted the Dean, Randall Davidson, who was Victoria’s favourite religious adviser and organised her funeral before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1903.

Enter Labour

His assistant at this event, Canon Dalton, had just become the father of a boy, Hugh, who went on to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in Attlee’s 1945 Labour government. This was a fitting coincidence, because the regicide last entered mainstream political debate when the Labour Party first took office in 1924.

The motion ‘Is Republicanism the policy of the Labour Party?’ had been defeated at the 1923 party conference by 3,694 000 votes to 386 000. Yet following Labour’s election victory a year later there was fear of a constitutional crisis, as George V decided whether or not to sanction a minority Labour government. To concentrate the king’s mind, George Lansbury invoked the regicide at a meeting in Shoreditch Town Hall:

A king of England had once stood out against the will of the common people and he had lost his head … King George V would be well advised not to interfere. Such ‘jiggery pokery’ is to be resisted.

A sympathetic play about Cromwell by John Drinkwater was then running in the West End of London. But a political speech on the subject was another matter. Conservative Associations suggested that Lansbury had ‘opened the door to a new civil war between royalists and anti-royalists’ and at one meeting there were threats to shoot him.

George V was still rattled by the Bolshevik regicide of his Russian cousin, Nicholas II, just six years earlier in 1918. The Shoreditch speech so worried him that, after appointing Ramsey MacDonald prime minister, the king pressured him to leave the talented Lansbury out of the first Labour Cabinet; mainly to please the king, MacDonald agreed.

Royal anxiety about the regicide was not just a morbid fear of socialism but of the robust parliamentarianism that monarchs already endured from Liberals. In 1911 the House of Lords finally had its powers reduced, after its opposition to the redistributive ‘People’s Budget’ championed by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. George V assented but reacted angrily to a proposal by Churchill – then First Lord of the Admiralty – that a Dreadnought be named HMS Oliver Cromwell. The king described it as ‘an offensive oxymoron’ and the plan was dropped.

Father of democracy

When Churchill became prime minister his hero reappeared for duty with no opposition from George VI. Amid the social patriotism of the Second World War Cromwell sometimes featured in government propaganda as a father of British democracy and ‘Cromwell’ was the name chosen for a new cruiser tank, which entered service in 1943 to combat the Germans’ lethal Panzer.

After the war both Cromwell and the regicide virtually disappeared from political debate. When the 300th anniversary arrived in 1949 Hugh Dalton had been replaced as Chancellor by Stafford Cripps, who was one of the last politicians to use the event in a political campaign (in 1934 Cripps had warned that a future Labour government ‘would have to overcome opposition from Buckingham Palace’, prompting a terse reply from the king). As Chancellor he kept quiet, leaving the tercentenary of the regicide to be marked instead by devout royalists.

In 1903 the Royal United Services Institute had a memorial plaque placed facing the spot where the king was executed. At the tercentenary the Labour government approved the institute’s suggestion that a bust of Charles be mounted above the plaque – with the macabre effect of Charles forever to be seen mournfully contemplating the moment of his demise (made more poignant by the fact that it faced a clock opposite, on which a black spot adjoins the numeral ‘2’ to mark the hour of the regicide on a daily basis). The bust was in place by 1950; another one appeared in 1956 on the wall of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, provocatively facing Hamo Thorneycroft’s statue of Cromwell. For supporters of Charles I the erection of these two busts was a victory in the battle for control of Civil War memorialisation.

In the 1960s the young dandies of Carnaby Street that Harold Wilson affected to represent looked more like Cavaliers than Roundheads. Yet, amid the broadly progressive temper of the Sixties, 17th-century radicals such as the Levellers attracted a following and it was in this period that the regicide got its first cinematic treatment. Ken Hughes’ Cromwell, released in 1970, starred Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness as Charles I. It shows a dignified king walking through the Banqueting House and pausing by Harris’ cockily determined Cromwell, though the two men say nothing to each other. At the beheading the crowd neither cheer nor ‘groan’ and the film cuts to an unrepentant Cromwell addressing his fellow regicides: ‘The office of King is now abolished. Long Live Parliament! Long Live the Republic!’

Such a balanced depiction of regicide is a tricky job for the Historic Royal Palaces trust, which now curates the Banqueting House on behalf of Crown and state for the 30,000 tourists who visit each year. Since the late 1960s an annual remembrance service has been held on 30th January, organised by the Society of King Charles the Martyr. A high Mass, complete with royal ‘relics’, follows the ritual established at the Restoration. The permanent display echoes the theme of martyrdom: the story of Charles’ reign climaxes with a short film that depicts him praying before his execution, without commentary or text, which is shown on a quasi-religious triptych of video screens mounted on a wooden altar. Nearby a print of Charles’s severed head hangs over the stairwell. Yet the windows through which the regicides watched his execution are often blacked out with blinds, turning the visitor’s gaze inwards towards the masques that are – in a final irony – once more performed in period costume. 

Whether you believe the execution of Charles I was the culmination of a revolution that helped to establish our modern liberties, or whether you see it as a stain on the otherwise peaceful evolution of British democracy, it was a momentous event that inspired revolutionaries in France and the United States. The mixture of embarrassed silence and romantic royalism that now characterises the popular memory of the regicide is partly because Britons now inhabit a culture more used to ‘scorn and contempt’ than ‘the scaffold and the headsman’. But the nation’s amnesia is also, perhaps, a sign that the British are not yet able to acknowledge their revolutionary past.

Richard Weight is an independent author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Mod: A Very British Style (Bodley Head, 2013). Toby Haggith is a historian of Britain and a museum curator.

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