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?

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.