Subscribe to History Today

The Trial of Charles I

Sean Kelsey reconsiders the events of January 1649 and argues the trial was skilfully appropriated by rump politicians in paving the way for the new Commonwealth.

The trial of Charles I stands out as probably one of the most remarkable, certainly one of the most dramatic events in the early modern history of the British Isles. It is best known as the gripping first scene of the fifth act in the tragedy of a doomed king. Charles was notoriously shy of the public arena. Yet in this, his darkest hour, he turned in the finest performance of his entire career. Famously, he overcame a life-long speech impediment to castigate his accusers in tones which ring down the ages: 'I do stand more for the liberty of my subjects than any that come here to be my pretended judges,' he declared.

Contemporaries compared the King's tribulations with Christ's suffering at the hands of the Pharisees. Newsbook accounts produced at the time, even official versions, whatever else they tell us about the events of that fateful week, certainly convey a morbidly idolatrous obsession with the royal actor. By a singular curiosity of grammar, even the High Court's own record preserves a living image of the King's first appearance before his judges. The past-tense narrative gives way momentarily to the present and Charles lives once more in the recollection of that Saturday morning, January 20th, 1649, when he was brought to the Bar and,

...after a sterne lookeing uppon the Court and the People in the Galleries on each side of him he places himselfe in the Chaire [set for him, and] presently riseth upp againe and turnes about.

The King's 'martyrdom' continues to transfix the English historical imagination. Although generations of historians have remained mesmerised by the exchanges between Charles and the tribunal's chairman, John Bradshaw, in essence, all accounts of the trial implicitly assert that this was a form of royal masque, just like any other - it would be nothing without the presence of the king.

A contemporary engraving of Charles I's trial in Westminster Hall showing John Bradshaw presiding.

But it is worth remembering that the trial was also the first scene in another, far less highly-regarded drama - the story of the English Commonwealth, the parliamentary republic which ruled England between 1649 and 1653. The trial was a first-class piece of political drama and spectacle, and although not without mishap, it is rarely remarked just how carefully and thoughtfully that spectacle was orchestrated and choreographed.

The trial did not just condemn a king. It also gave England's civilian political order a much-needed shot in the arm by restoring some of the civic sheen so badly tarnished in the tumultuous opening scene of the Commonwealth, the military coup of early December 1648 known as Pride's Purge. The trial provided an opportunity to make a number of assertions about the location of legitimate authority, and the direction in which the revolutionary settlement was headed. Careful calculation went into decisions about the venue, the mounting of suitable spectacle, the conduct of ceremonial and the preservation of the dignity of proceedings. Indeed, looking at it another way, one might say that the trial of Charles I was merely the pretext for a spectacular exercise in managing political appearances. It demonstrated that the civilians had once again taken command of the wheel-house of state.

By the end of 1648, such an outcome had seemed desperately uncertain, as the sword re-entered politics and the army seized control. The King, defeated in one civil war, had connived at another. He had picked up support in Ireland with the defection of Lord Inchiquin to the royalist cause. His partisans in England and Wales stirred up widespread royalist and counter-revolutionary insurrection on land and by sea. Finally, having made an alliance with the Duke of Hamilton, Charles pinned his hopes on a Scottish invasion of England. The collapse into a second British civil war made moderate English parliamentarians desperate for a peaceful settlement with their king. In November, they reopened negotiations with Charles at Newport on the Isle of Wight. By contrast, 1648 hardened the hearts of the more zealous members of the broad parliamentarian coalition. The New Model Army, chastened by its experience of trying to negotiate a peace with an untrustworthy king, began to demand justice on those 'principal actors' who had precipitated renewed civil war, even in the teeth of God's judgement against them.

Suddenly confronted with the appalling prospect of the King talking his way back to the throne, the military high command ordered he be seized at Carisbrooke and taken to Windsor. In the meantime, the army marched on the capital, determined to force Parliament to bring Charles to justice for the bloodshed he had visited on his subjects. Occupying London, the soldiers put the fear of God in many citizens, who fled in droves, and plundered government treasuries, causing the equivalent of a latter-day run on the pound. Notoriously, St Paul's Cathedral was used as a stable. The apparently wanton destruction of the established order did not stop there. Early in December the army under Colonel Thomas Pride forcibly excluded from the House of Commons all MPs who continued to pin their hopes on the outcome of the Newport talks, leaving behind a 'Rump' of 154 members more amenable to terminating the treaty, castigated on all hands as the army's puppets.

The circumstances surrounding the subsequent moves to bring the King to trial are complex. In the second half of December, a court martial at headquarters drew up capital charges against him. The army appeared poised to destroy the man of blood with the sword of God. But the purged House of Commons had other ideas. Having by-passed opposition in the peers' House by declaring that sovereignty lay in the people's representatives, on Saturday, January 6th, 1649, MPs passed an Act erecting a High Court of Justice to try the King on charges of treason against his subjects. Preaching to the garrison at St James's palace the next day, the chaplain and parliamentarian Hugh Peters reportedly told soldiers that the King would be dead within a week, and it was claimed that the court would sit in judgement at Windsor that coming Tuesday 9th, to sentence Charles summarily, giving him Wednesday to prepare for his death on Thursday 11th. But if the soldiers had expected such peremptory justice, they were soon to be disappointed.

Charles I at his trial by Edmund Bowers
Charles I at his trial by Edmund Bowers

Professor Blair Worden, the foremost historian of the Rump Parliament, has described its members' behaviour in the weeks and months after the purge as evincing all the signs of a 'pursuit of respectability'. Apparently even the most radical among them were eager to demonstrate their reliably moderate credentials, in order to defuse any danger, real or imagined, that 'the days of overturning' had come. The manner in which the King's trial was planned conforms perfectly to such a notion.

On the day the Rump erected the High Court, Ralph Darnell, Commons clerk, informed Bulstrode Whitelocke that, after some dispute, the House had decided that the court's first meeting would be held in the Painted Chamber at the Palace of Westminster. He clearly sensed the decision was significant, but had to concede that 'I know not the weight of this argument', and thought his patron 'may perhaps conceive the meaning of it'. Whitelocke did not record his own conclusion, if indeed he drew any. But its implications were clear. The King's fate was now firmly in the hands of that vestige of civilian authority yet remaining in the land. The likelihood of speedy and summary justice began rapidly to recede.

The Painted Chamber was the robing room of the nobility, the chamber next to the Lords' House where they adopted the garb of their sovereign's peers. The Lords themselves, along with the chief judicial figures of the day, declined to participate in the tribunal's labours. But apologists like John Goodwin and John Milton subsequently depicted the actions of that handful of good men which tried and condemned Charles I as a latter-day baronial revolt, in which the roles of the chief protagonists were played by untitled but virtuous men of noble character. The revolution was portrayed as a new chapter in the history of that aristocratic constitutionalism which had long sustained English traditions of resistance to royal authority. In the course of proceedings, John Bradshaw, Lord President of the High Court of Justice, recalled the 'Barons' Wars':

When the nobility of the land did stand up for the liberty and property of the subject and would not suffer the kings that did invade to play the tyrant freely... But...if they [the peers] do forbear to do their duty now and are not so mindful of their own honour and the kingdom's good as the barons of England of old were, certainly the Commons of England will not be so unmindful of what is for their preservation and for their safety.

That they might encompass the death of a king within the Painted Chamber marked the revolutionaries' virtual accession to the offices of the peers. The King's trial was the first opportunity for these latter-day barons, keepers of English freedoms, to try the new mantle for size.

From the outset, it was clear that the King's judges intended to make a suitable impression. The pomp and circumstance commenced immediately. Meeting on Monday 8th, the High Court ordered sergeant-at-arms Edward Dendy to proclaim in Westminster Hall the following day that official proceedings would begin, in the Painted Chamber, on Wednesday 10th. So it was that at about ten o'clock the following morning, Dendy, riding on horseback, was escorted across New Palace Yard by a guard of two troops of horse and several companies of foot as far as the Great Hall. The guard drew up outside, and Dendy then rode into Westminster Hall, where Chancery was sitting, carrying the House of Commons' mace on his shoulder, attended by six trumpeters on horseback, and numerous other officers of the High Court. To quote a contemporary account, 'the trumpeters sounded in the middle of the hall and the drums beat in the yard, then the proclamation was made'. The Commons then ordered that the same proclamation be made in the City in the same manner, where 'the streets thronged with spectators' eager to see the great spectacle.

The next day, the High Court appointed one of its number, the Cheshire judge John Bradshaw as chairman, voting to style him President. When he protested his unfitness for so grave a task, his colleagues brushed aside his objections and voted that he be entitled Lord President, 'and that as well without as within the said court during the Commission and sitting of the said Court'. A few days later, it was appointed that Bradshaw and his entourage be accommodated during the trial in the house of Sir Abraham Williams, located in the New Palace Yard, not far from Westminster Hall, and that he be allowed 'all provisions and necessaries' during his stay there. A few days later, Bradshaw took up even grander rooms in the Dean's house at Westminster Abbey.

The Lord Presidency was also denoted by the observation of a pointed ceremonial protocol. In progressing to and from the trial, Bradshaw was preceded through Westminster Hall by a mace bearer, Dendy again, and by John Humphreys, Esq., carrying the sword of state, and accompanied by a guard of twenty officers 'or other gentlemen'.

An anonymous print showing Charles I on the scaffold.

Considerable care and attention were spent in ensuring that the King was tried in a suitably grave manner with all due solemnity. A committee of the High Court was appointed to this end on the day of Bradshaw's elevation. It was agreed that the trial itself take place in the Great Hall of Westminster Palace 'because it is a place of public resort... the place of the publick Courts of Justice for the Kingdome'. The stage chosen, the commissioners ordered the temporary dismantling of the courts of Chancery and King's Bench which normally conducted the judicial business of the realm in the Great Hall. Benches were erected and hung with scarlet. An 'elbow chair' upholstered in crimson and gold was set in place for the Lord President, with a turkey-carpeted table before him. There is evidence to suggest that extra galleries were erected around the walls overlooking the Court to accommodate extra spectators, particularly MPs wanting a good vantage point from which to observe the unfolding events. Further orders were given for dismantling the booksellers' and stationers' shops and booths built along either side and up the middle of the hall. Rails were erected to hold back the public, and to keep the crowds and soldiers separated.

It was suggested that consultations be held with the College of Arms regarding a suitable manner of attire for the Court's officers, several of whom were provided with gowns, cloaks and tip-staves. Whatever the outcome of the proposed discussions with the heralds, an important symbolic change was made to the appearance of the High Court when, during the course of the trial, the King's arms were removed from the wall behind the commissioners and replaced with the arms of St George. Perhaps the King's judges sought to establish a symbolic distinction between national and regal interest, whilst asserting the primacy of the former. Unmistakably, they proclaimed that the triple-crowned king of all the Britons would meet his fate at the hands of his English subjects, and they alone.

The trial did not run smoothly. Apart from hostile outbursts by members of the public, there were further serious embarrassments. John Fry, one of the King's judges, was suspended from the tribunal for allegedly denying Christ's divinity on the accusation of his fellow judge, John Downes. Major Fox, captain of the Lord President's bodyguard, was arrested and imprisoned for debt. There were hesitations and ambiguities over the protocols of seating the King, and whether or not to require that he bare his head before the gathered assembly of his judges. The author of a later account of the trial, John Nalson, also commented critically, if rather opaquely, that:

The...Mace was sometimes handed by their Serjeant at Arms, on the out-side of the Bar, nigh the King on his left-hand; But in this they are to be pardoned, it being the first time they had Kinged it, and therefore it was not to be expected that they should be so ready and exact in their Ceremonies.

Whether or not they understood its nuances, no doubt the pomp made little impact on those who regarded the whole affair with horrified disgust. But the remarks of Marchamont Needham, ever pungent and sharp-witted in his criticism, are telling. 'How like Judges they look for such a purpose,' wrote he, in the guise of the 'royalist Independent' weekly journal, Mercurius Pragmaticus,

...cloath'd in the scarlet of their rebellious sin, their Garments Roul'd in Blood; Their ermin spotted with Carnation...The outward face and Vissage of a Court they have in all its proportions, from the Fore-top to the Mouth, from the Beetle-brow'd President, to the foul-mouth'd Cryer.

Bradshaw had indeed worn scarlet gowns for the condemnation and sentencing of the King (and, we are told, many of 'the commissioners... their best habit'). A number of hostile witnesses would later denounce not just the treachery of the trial, but particularly the pretentious manner in which it was conducted, Clarendon in particular commenting disdainfully in his History of the Rebellion on the 'pride, impudence and superciliousness' with which the Lord President had comported himself, a 'vulgar spirit' intoxicated with self-importance.

Clearly justice not only had to be done but also had to be seen to be done. The army and others had called for 'some fittest Examples of Justice upon chief Offenders'. Its very public nature was testimony to the faith of those concerned in the righteousness of their cause. Other kings, other tyrants had been 'vanished' by their loyal subjects in dark corners of the realm. By contrast, Colonel Thomas Harrison had promised Charles during his captivity at Windsor that, 'what would be done concerning his Majesty would be open, and to the eyes of the world. And protested that he himself would oppose any that should privately offer violence to his person.' Eleven years later, Harrison himself went to his death proclaiming that 'the things that have been done have been done upon the Stage, in the sight of the Sun'. The English revolution was no hole-and-corner affair. It was the very public triumph of a small faction which glossed the illigitimacy of its actions with a sheen of civic respectability.

Visibility was the essential response to the inevitable intensity of the world's gaze in a world where men already understood the importance of, and were even already cynical about, the management of news and public opinion. Visibility was also the corollary of a desire to collectivise responsibility. Each day's public proceedings were preceded by an open calling of the roll, those present rising in their seats in full view of the gathered crowd as their names were called. Legitimist in its conception, the trial was, above all, the triumph of dignified formalism amid legal, judicial and constitutional anti-formalism.

Charles I's death warrant.

The High Court's work culminated on January 27th, with the solemn condemnation of the King. Days later, the crown was abolished. But even amid the demolition of the monarchy, the foundations of a republic had been laid. Upon them would be built in the weeks and months ahead all the trappings and surface gilding that one might expect from a Renaissance European state seeking to express its authority and assert its legitimacy. Key components of the public image of the free state were all presaged during the trial. Major public spectacle on this kind of scale was a frequent occurrence in the political life of the metropolitan authority. Diplomatic receptions, the celebration of military victories and the launching of new warships were all conducted with considerable pomp and ceremony. The honour and dignity of the regime and its officers were asserted at every available opportunity. Whitehall Palace was refurbished to accommodate the new governors, and redecorated in a manner suggesting a degree of self-regarding vanity and an instinctive sense of the propriety of governance which conventional accounts of the period never mention.

After its appearance in the Great Hall in January 1649, the cross of St George became a key ingredient in a brand new state iconography which also featured an imaginatively redesigned ceremonial great mace of Parliament borne before the Speaker to dignify and solemnify regular meetings of the House as well as great state occasions. We might also pause over the appointment first of the Lord President of the High Court, then of successive Lord Presidents of the Council of State, as well as three Lord Commissioners of the Great Seal, and even Cromwell's apparently unilateral adoption of the title of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and later Lord General of the Commonwealth forces. All those lordly epithets are suggestive indicators of how seriously the regime took itself and its responsibilities, which appears quite contrary to the conventional view that the Commonwealth was a stop-gap measure, universally accepted to be no more than a temporary government.

It seems fair to say that, of all England's political institutions, no other body has suffered a worse fate as a consequence of defeat than the English Commonwealth. Too often, the Rump is characterised as little more than a crudely-stitched guy awaiting its destruction at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, fuel to the spiritual urges which inflamed the ranks of the military. Such Whiggish teleology has served to distract attention from the sheer verve and imagination with which the Rumpers ruled the English Commonwealth. Unwilling revolutionaries many may have been, but that did not mean they were incapable of throwing themselves into the restoration of civic decorum with enthusiasm. Indeed, that was precisely the point of their participation in a government born in such pained and bloody circumstances. In a sense, the trial was the first crisis of the restoration, or the first step back towards peace and normality.

At the Palace of Westminster in January 1649, a handful of parliamentarians reasserted the accepted patterns of civic life, of due process and stately formality, even amid the constitutional irregularity of revolution. What is more, their efforts were the precursors to a number of remarkably creative experiments in remoulding the English state which followed in the wake of the King's execution and the abolition of the monarchy. To view the trial as a melancholy image from a story of royal martyrdom is to ignore the fact that it also inaugurated an unprecedented period of parliamentary republican rule utterly unique in English history. The trial of Charles I sheds new light on this somewhat neglected subject, illustrating the revolutionary regime's reliance upon some of the deeper, more conservative impulses of English political culture. For the King, the trial was the beginning of the end. For the English Commonwealth, it was the end of the beginning.

Sean Kelsey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Kings College, University of London.

The Trial of Charles I

Related Articles

The knitted silk 'vest' in the Museum of London. Could it have been worn by Charles at his execution?

By Kay Staniland

The authenticity of the 'ghastly' relics claiming to have originated from Charles I's execution.

By Blair Worden

The enduring and sometimes surprising consequences.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X