The 30th January marks the 368th anniversary of the execution of Charles Stuart, the ‘tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy’, who had claimed to rule what later became known as the United Kingdom by ‘divine right’ – that he was chosen by the Christian God and therefore could do what he wanted. In defending his right to absolute power he caused destruction to rain on his country, causing death and suffering in an unprecedented scale on the general population.
Executions, and public ones at that, were not rare occurrences in England in the 17th century, but it wasn’t normal to decapitate those who had ‘been anointed by God’, although those individuals in previous centuries had had no reluctance to do so to others who might have displeased the Royal authority. However, Charles Stuart was the first king to face such a fate and be executed through the authority of the people.
The propaganda machine behind monarchies worked hard through the centuries to give kings – who were basically leaders of the most successful gangs of thugs, murderers, rapists and thieves at a particular time – an element of legitimacy that still exists to the present day. In Britain present day royalists loudly proclaim that the UK has the longest, unbroken line of monarchy in the world. This conveniently forgets that from the time of the first king (who might be Egbert in 827 or Alfred the Great in 871, depending upon whose authority you believe) this line is not from the same family – as it is popularly and misguidedly believed.
Gang leaders fell out and ended up killing erstwhile friends and allies; invaders from other parts of Europe came in wanting a slice of the action; wars raged across the country for decades as different pretenders to the throne slugged it out, until one of them lay dead in the mud of the battlefield; at times ‘kings’ were invited in by minor gang leaders as the only way to avoid more costly and fruitless internecine strife; one time the ‘chosen’ one was number 54 in line of succession, all the ones with a lower number being Roman Catholics – so in place of choosing someone based on merit the eventual candidate got the job merely because he wasn’t a ‘Papist’; at one time the royal family had to change its name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor as they feared the young soldiers being sent to live (and many to die) with the rats in the mud, water and noise of the trenches in France, fighting against likewise ill-fated German workers, might wonder why the King they were dying for had a German name.
Charles Stuart was the son of one of those monarchs brought in when a space had to be filled.
But Stuart had an abundance of arrogance that comes from being told you are God’s anointed. He spent most of his reign (from 1625) in opposition to Parliament as he struggled to get the finances he needed to avoid bankruptcy. Here he was not after money to improve the condition of the people but to finance wars against Spain, France and then against the Irish – kings are very keen on wars. (Unfortunately, after Stuart’s death the then republican leaders of the country continued their reactionary policy which led, first, to the needless death of many thousands of Irishmen and women but also the demise of the republic itself.)
When Stuart failed in his many attempts to get his own way he ran away from London and then, when he was able to collect around himself enough armed toadies, he instigated the First Civil War, 1642-46.
As we know from any cursory study of history civil wars are particularly pernicious and tend to be more costly in terms of casualties and last longer when inter-State wars would look for a way out, or at least a truce for a short time before starting again. That was the case, more or less, up to the 20th century when all common sense seemed to drown in the water-filled shell holes of the Western Front. Civil Wars tend to divide communities and this means that revenge comes into the equation when cities and towns change hands following the fluctuating fortunes of the two sides involved.
The Royalist had a few success but ultimately were defeated in May 1646. Stuart was imprisoned and it was suggested to him by the Parliamentarians that he accept the imposition of a Constitutional Monarchy – where he could sit on the throne but which would require him to renounce his ‘divine right’.
His arrogance meant that he would never accept such a situation and was obviously given too much freedom during his captivity and although still technically in the hands of his enemies was able to communicate with those followers who had not been eliminated and this resulted in the Second Civil War – a shorter conflict than the First not least because many Royalists refused to break their parole (an agreement not to take up arms against Parliament in return for their freedom to live a normal life). Stuart broke his parole and was therefore not trusted by many Parliamentarians and this inevitably led to his trial – a novel idea at the time.
After the fighting ended Stuart was imprisoned in Hurst Castle in Hampshire whilst his ultimate fate was decided upon in London and at the end of 1648 he was escorted by Major General Thomas Harrison, of the Parliamentarian Army, to be closer to the place of his trial.
The trial began on 20th January where he was accused of high treason and using his position to pursue self-interest rather than the good of the people. The indictment stated that he;
‘for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented”, and that the “wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation.’
Further, the indictment held him ‘guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.’
There will forever be a debate of how many people actually suffered during the two civil wars for which Stuart was being held responsible – all depending, in many senses, on which side of the Monarchist/Republican fence you place yourselves. After all, during the period in question such statistics were not considered in the same way as they are now and the disruption caused by the very nature of the conflict would have meant that even the best intentions in information collection would be thwarted.
Any figures would also vary depending on whether only military casualties are considered or whether the greater picture is taken into account. At the beginning of the 17th century a huge swathe of the population would have been living an existence barely more than subsistence. Such a condition needs very little to push that subsistence into outright starvation. And starvation leads to susceptibility to disease.
Marauding armies crisscrossing the country would play havoc with agriculture which, remember, was still based on the unproductive and wasteful feudal strip system. Any draft animals would be requisitioned by the armies and surpluses, if achieved, under threat of being stolen by hungry, armed men. Trade would have virtually ceased to exist, even in the locality, as fear of marauders and a poor transport infrastructure would keep people very much at home. As well as that many able-bodied men would be actually fighting instead of working on the land and their deaths or serious injury would have an impact on the rural communities long after the fighting stopped – and the Royalists kept on coming back with more death and destruction – even after the death of the war criminal.
And that was what Stuart was accused of being. He instigated the conflict as a significant proportion of the country wouldn’t play the game by his rules. He refused to accept reality and used the sycophancy and toadyism that always accompanies the monarchy to gather around himself a significant military force. As consequence something like 860,000 men, women and children died – of a population of seven million (in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) being about 12% of the population, more than any other conflict before or since.
When that level of death and destruction occurred in the 20th century the Fascist perpetrators in Germany and Japan were held to account and tried, convicted and sentenced. Stuart faced his Nuremberg 296 years before the Nazis.
If someone was guilty of such crimes today the international community would be branding him/her a ‘war criminal’ guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’ (as long as the individuals concerned were not citizens of the United States) and demanding that s/he face judgement at a special tribunal of the International Court of Justice located in The Hague, Netherlands. If seems strange, therefore, that some people cast aspersions upon the legitimacy of the trial that took place in London in January, 1649.
Maintaining his arrogance Stuart refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court and constantly referred to his supposed ‘divine right’.
Faced with overwhelming evidence he was found guilt and sentenced to death on 26th January. The orders for the execution to take place on Tuesday 30th January were signed and sealed the day before.
That order reads:
At the High Co[ur]t of Justice for the tryinge and iudginge of Charles Steuart, Kinge of England, January xxixth, Anno D[omi]ni 1648
Whereas Charles Steuard, Kinge of England is and standeth convicted, attaynted, and condemned of High Treason, and other high Crymes: and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Co[ur]t, to be putt to death by the severing of his head from his body; of w[hi]ch sentence, execuc[i]on remayneth to be done; these are therefore to will and require you to see the said sentence executed in the open streete before Whitehall, uppon the morrowe, being the Thirtieth day of this instante moneth of January, between the hours of tenn in the morning and five in the afternoone of the same day, w[i]th full effect. And for soe doing this shall be yo[u]r sufficient warrant. And these are to require all officers, souldiers, and other, the good people of this Nation of England, to be assistinge unto you in this service. Given under o[ur] hands and seals.
To Col. Francis Hacker, Col. Hunks, and Lieut-Col. Phayre, and to every of them.
(Here is should be noted that the date at the top of 1648 was correct at that time. The new year was then considered to start on 25th March and this wasn’t changed to what we now use as the beginning of the year, 1st January, until 1752. As an aside, this was at the same time as the Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian – a change which led many people to believe they had been robbed of 11 days of their life.)
Underneath were 57 signatures and seals of the Commissioners (those who sat in judgement) – some signatures were over erasures, so some of them were cowards and couldn’t deal with the seriousness of the crime of which Stuart was convicted. Then, as almost certainly would be the case in a similar situation now, the insidiousness and perniciousness of the tradition of the monarchy being different from us mere mortals playing a role in that decision.
Just before 14.00 on the afternoon of the 30th Stuart walked through the space provided by the removed window on the first floor of the Palace of Westminster on to a specially constructed scaffold. He was accompanied by the same Thomas Harrison who had brought the war criminal from Hurst Castle the month before and would have been the last person with which Stuart would have talked.
Stuart’s head was separated from his body by one sharp blow – so a professional was used, the identity of whom is still not definitively known.
Such was not to be the fate of those 57 signatories still alive in 1660 when the monarchy was invited back to be a parasite on the body politic of the British Isles.
In the discussions with Stuart’s eldest son, also named Charles there was an implied agreement that there would be no retaliation to those who had signed the death warrant of the father, being, as they were, merely servants of the people. When the new king had his feet under the table (and before he started his whoring and followed his favourite hobby of collecting mistresses) he started the process of extracting vengeance on the regicides.
The first to suffer at the hands of the vengeful spoilt brat was the very Thomas Harrison who had accompanied Stuart Elder to the scaffold. But Thomas didn’t get the quick death afforded the war criminal. His punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered.
This process, which had been around since the early part of the 13th century, had fallen into disuse during the time of the Commonwealth (from 1640-60). Rather than being hung with a drop that would break the neck the victim to be executed was dangled at the end of a rope, being throttled rather than hung. Just before loosing consciousness he (it was always a he, women liable to such punishment (that is, the crime of high treason) were merely burnt at the stake – for the sake of ‘public decency’) would be cut down, castrated and then shown the package, In the case of Thomas his abdomen was slashed open and molten metal poured into the wound. (At this point Thomas lashed out and hit his murderer who then immediately cut off his head – which seems to be a strange sort of punishment but was probably caused by the current level of ignorance and fear that a ‘dead’ man was able to react in such a manner.) The entrails would have been thrown into a nearby fire, his head cut off and the body hacked into four pieces, the separate five pieces then being distributed around the city of London, as a warning to others. The Royalists even took out the revenge on the dead, exhuming those who had died before 1660 and hanging the rotting copses from cages in various parts of London. Cromwell’s severed and preserved head even appearing in fairgrounds way into the 19th century.
Hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment for high treason so Stuart could quite legally have been submitted to such treatment.
This form of torture existed in Britain until 1870.
At least Thomas died with dignity, the same couldn’t be said of the others in the country who had fought against Stuart but then kowtowed to the new monarch that was installed on the throne in 1660. They might have dies peacefully in their beds but they died as forelock-tuggers, sycophants and gutless cowards.
No one should really have been surprised that the agreement before the Restoration wasn’t honoured. Way back in 1381 Wat Tyler, one of the principal leaders of the Peasants Revolt, met with the boy Richard of Bordeaux. Trusting the monarchy was to be Tyler’s last act as he was treacherously stabbed in the back by William Walworth, the Mayor of London, and then hacked to pieces by surrounding soldiers. The revolt didn’t last long after that. The lesson that should have been learnt then was ‘never trust the monarchy’.
An interesting aspect of the picture at the very top (a contemporary painting of the event) is the image of the fainting woman. When revolutions break out there’s no way anyone can foretell how events will develop. This realisation didn’t exist in the 17th century as such popular uprisings were few and far between, peasant revolts being the only benchmark. Unfortunately, after many more recent workers led revolutions many still don’t understand that ‘a revolution is not a dinner party’ (Mao Tse-tung), that things happen that have never happened before and that a revolution can eat its own.
So events like the execution of a monarch can happen. However, there was a kind of evolution in people’s thinking when the next European king was to lose his head. Women fainted in 1649, they knitted in 1793 when Louis Bourbon had an appointment with Madam Guillotine.
The immediate political fallout of Stuart’s execution was that the English Revolution lost its momentum and direction. There wasn’t a formed ideology before the First Civil War started but once the people had taken on the established order, and especially the monarchy and the whole concept of ‘divine right’, this encouraged a flowering of ideas and debates.
The Levellers, who were probably most influential in the couple of years between the first and second civil wars, argued for what is implied in their name. They wanted a more equal society, with equal participation of those who had previously been marginalised, by both the monarchy and Parliament – which itself represented land owning interests. Many of the young men who joined the Roundheads (the name given to Parliament’s army) were apprentices from the towns. They were given arms and training, had seen parts of the country which without the war would not have happened, were mixing with people who they never would have met in normal life and started to think. But thinking is dangerous and the ruling class doesn’t want the workers to do anything so dangerous.
Soon after the execution Cromwell, who had become the most powerful general in the army due to his successes against the Royalists, had become virtual ruler of the country in Stuart’s place. (Just as it used to happen in Rome.) A mad Puritan – Protestant fundamentalist – he had a hatred of Catholics and there were a lot of Catholics in Ireland who he saw as a potential threat. He planned to send an expeditionary force to Ireland but parts of the army, those parts where Leveller influence was the greatest, refused. After all why had they fought tyranny to become tyrants themselves in another part of the British Isles?
A group of soldiers mutinied and ended up being surrounded by troops loyal to Cromwell in the Church in Burford, Oxfordshire. Three of their leaders were executed, whilst the rest looked on, on 17th May 1649. This was the virtual end of the Leveller movement.
At about the same time the Diggers (sometimes called the True Levellers) perhaps a more radical group of activists, inspired by the almost poetic writings of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied common land on George’s Hill, in Weybridge, Surrey. This experiment was crushed, yet again by troops loyal to Cromwell, the working class always being the ones who trample on movements that seek to take the whole class out of the mire in which they live.
For a short period of time in the 17th century the English had got up off their knees and could have improved their lot if they but had the courage. The execution of Stuart in 1649 seems to have made them dizzy and they knelt down again, only periodically getting off their knees over the next 400 years, but never for long enough to change society.
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