The Trial of Charles I

As I start reading this book it is 371 years to the day (January 30th 1649) since the execution of King Charles I and the events that led up to initially the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland later that year and then by 1653 the Protectorate under the control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The republic he founded turned out to be somewhat less of a democratic state than its founders hoped, relying on military force to control the country rather than popular support. The appointment of Cromwell’s third son, Richard, as Lord Protector on the death of Oliver in 1658 and thus replacing one hereditary leader with another did little to suggest that getting rid of the monarchy had led to significant change and eventually led to the Restoration in 1660 with King Charles II taking his place on the throne. It’s a fascinating period of British history so I’m looking forward to tackling this slim volume published by the Folio Society in 1959 and bound to resemble a book from Charles I’s own library.

20200203 The Trial of Charles I

The book is split into six sections, the first is a really good summary of the reign of Charles I and the issues that led to the Civil War and the subsequent trial after Charles lost the conflict. This twenty six page introduction is written by noted historian C V Wedgewood and she succeeds admirably in setting the scene for the remainder of the book which is made up from contemporary sources.  These take us from 13th November 1647 when Charles fled to the Isle of Wight hoping to avoid parliamentary forces and maybe get across the channel to France right through to his funeral in February 1649. The texts come from two sources and are interleaved as they cover the time period. Initially we come to Sir Thomas Herbert who was Groom of the Bedchamber throughout the book and was therefore in constant contact with the King right up until his death, the second source is John Rushworth who was a lawyer and collected information about any court cases that interested him and therefore is the best non-partisan recorder of the trial and its aftermath.

Thomas Herbert provides a lot of interesting background to the incarceration of Charles in the Isle of Wight and thence Windsor and ultimately St James in London for the trial itself. Although by inclination a Parliamentarian he provides a fair and balanced account of the Kings actions during this time and the publication of his account helped considerably with the improvement of the regard Charles was held in when it revealed the calm and dignified way he acted at all times compared to the treatment he received from his captors. Rushworth’s account of the trial itself, relying as it does on transcripts paints a clear picture of what would now be regarded as a kangaroo court where the decision of guilt had already been made before they started, the only question was if Cromwell could persuade enough judges to pass the death sentence. Charles is brought before the court and legitimately challenges the legality of the process. In fact there was no actual basis in law for Parliament to sit as a court and they were well aware of this as his repeated challenges simply result in adjournments to the next day whilst they try to come up with a legal argument. In the end Parliament simply ends up with the effective position that this is a legal court because we say it is and will not allow dissent from this statement. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days of ‘evidence’ where Charles was not allowed to attend let alone challenge anything given against him they decided on the death sentence that Cromwell had wanted from the first.

We then switch back to Herbert’s account of Charles’s last few days, which are spent in prayer and in trying to do what he can for his children. Rushworth is used again for a description of the execution before we return to Herbert to cover the funeral. These three sections are a lot shorter than the first two but again show the King in a favourable light. What is particularly interesting is the use of these two contemporary sources, I learnt about the Civil War at school and we probably covered the entire period of this book in one lesson being more concerned with the start of the conflict and the battles rather than the capture and trial of King Charles I. This book is an extremely interesting addition to my knowledge of this part of British history, for instance I didn’t know that the Scottish parliament had written to the English one complaining about the way they were handling the situation as Charles was also their King and they certainly didn’t want him executed.

There are four brief appendices, the most interesting of which concerns the death warrant itself and the changes made to it which suggest that it was written earlier and then had to be amended to fit the ultimate date along with two names that have been written over ones subsequently removed. It appears that the decision of the judges was more fluid than the Parliamentarians would have liked.