Charles I beheaded
The execution of Charles I is perhaps the most radical act in British political history. How things had reached the point at which a monarch could and would be executed is much debated: seen by some as an act of desperation; by others as a logical conclusion of a trend towards democratic government since Elizabeth I 's reign.
Rather typically of the man, Charles, with even many of those seen as supporting Cromwell reluctant to support his trial, managed to lose sympathy during the proceedings: he thrice refused to plea, confirming the view of him as politically arrogant beyond redemption. Legend has it that at one moment in the trial when he wished to make a statement and poked his stick at the prosecutor, the silver end fell off and he had to bow to retrieve it.
When the verdict was given the king suddenly decided to mount a defence, but was dragged from the courtroom. Thus on January 30 1649 Charles was to die in London. He ate a last meal of bread and wine that morning, walked his dog in St James' Park, and was brought from Westminster to Whitehall, making the short journey on foot, having taken communion with Bishop Juxon and his attendant Herbert.
This most distant of kings, with his history of disdain for the rights of Parliament; this putative absolute ruler who had been content to drag the Scots into invading England and conspired with the rebellious Irish; who restarted the massively destructive Civil War (said to have claimed in percentage terms a greater death toll than WWI ); who had imposed ruinous monopolies and unjust taxes on the common people; at the last he claimed to represent the people: "Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whatsoever."
History, however, tends to deal kindly with his end, stage-managed in a tacit agreement with his enemies to be dignified and dramatic. The fact that Charles on this cold Tuesday in January wore two shirts to prevent shivers of cold being interpreted as shaking with fear is one of those facts that somehow seem to percolate into our national consciousness.
At the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall he was led to the balcony where a black cloth was draped over the scaffold. His head was severed with a single blow of the executioner's axe.
But who was the executioner? Richard Brandon, London's main hangman, had been asked and refused to do the deed. An Irishman, Gunning, is a name commonly cited as the axeman; Henry and William Walker, radical pamphleteers, have also been credited with the work, as were two more obscure figures, Daybourne and Bickerstaffe, arrested early in the Restoration but freed without evidence to try them. It is said that the axeman and his assistant were paid the princely (kingly?) sum of Ł100 to kill Charles, accepting on condition they retained anonymity by wearing masks.
We may never know who struck the blow. After the axe did its work, onlookers paid a small fee to dip handkerchiefs in the regal blood as souvenirs and magical cures. Rather than the severed head being displayed to the crowd as that of a traitor, and spiked for public viewing, Cromwell allowed it to be sewn to the body to make the family's visit to the corpse less disturbing than it would otherwise have been.
But for once the death of a king was not followed immediately by the succession of another. For more than a decade England experimented with Parliamentary supremacy and then personal dictatorship.
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