The trials of King Charles I

By: Ian Ward

A lot can happen in a short space of time. The Truss administration lasted just forty-four days. Time enough though to crash the economy and end up sacking yourself. In my recent book The Trials of Charles I (Bloomsbury, 2022), I have revisited the events of a similarly measured period, just fifty-five days from the first move to put Charles Stuart on trial, to the moment of his execution on 30 January 1649. 

Not just fifty-five days, though. History is elastic. It can stretch as far as you like. There is a shorter history of the trials of Charles I and there are longer. Histories of the Truss administration will likely be conceived similarly. A messy forty-four days preceded by hundreds and thousands of similarly messy days, littered with mistakes committed both by herself and by her predecessors. That, however, is a different story, yet to be written.

The shorter history of the trial of Charles Stuart begins on 6 December 1648, with the purging of the House of Commons by Colonel Thomas Pride. At some point over the previous month, a cabal of senior New Model officers had decided that there could be no more ‘peace’ negotiations with a compulsive liar who had waged war against God’s ‘chosen’ people. Instead, he would be put on trial to answer for his heinous crimes. Pride’s purge removed any parliamentarians who might object. 

A month later, on 6 January, the Commons declared itself to be a ‘high court’ and established various committees to deal with matters of organisation, mainly security and decoration. Meanwhile the lawyers got to work, drafting up a hopefully credible charge, which would be read out on the morning of 20 January, the first day of the trial. Aside from being responsible for myriad war crimes, Charles had also committed treason against the commonwealth, and breached a ‘trust’ which had been sealed at his coronation. 

A week later, the verdict was read out, and the sentence delivered. Charles was, officially, the worst king England had ever suffered, worse even than Edward II and Richard II, hitherto the poster-boys of tyrannical English kingship. Scouring more distant history for a fitting comparison, the Lord President of the court could only think of the emperor Caligula. So ended the trial of the century; in the end done and dusted in a week. Three days later, Charles was dead. 

But what of the longer history, the before and the after? In a prosaic sense, Charles lost his head because he had lost too many battles, and then proved himself to be a useless, as well as thoroughly untrustworthy, negotiator. At the same time, though, he had inherited a crown that was already, as Shakespeare would have put it, ‘unsteady’. The Exchequer was compromised, owing far too much to foreign banks, the country riven with endless plagues, poor harvests and recalcitrant tax-dodgers. In a bid to raise money, Charles had ordered a windfall tax of doubtful legal propriety to be levied against some of his better-off subjects. And then made the mistake of going to court to try to enforce payment of his ‘ship money’. 

A country that was divided intellectually and culturally too, the consequence of a break with Rome which proved maddeningly difficult to properly resolve. His predecessors had already determined that there would be a ‘hard’ Reformation; but getting it ‘done’ was tying everyone in knots, cleric and layperson alike. And then there was the ‘union of crowns’, the brainchild of his father King James I of England, and VI of Scotland. That was hardly settled either. In the end it was the Scots who started the ‘war of three kingdoms’ in 1640, and then turned it in Parliament’s favour four years later when they joined forces with Cromwell at the battle of Marston Moor. 

As for the afterlife, it would be taken up with the appeal in the case of ‘Charles the Martyr’. Already underway by the time that Charles walked on to the scaffold, erected outside the upper floor of the Banqueting chamber at Whitehall shortly, shortly after lunch on the 30th. Down below, a souvenir text entitled Eikon Basilike was already being hawked around the streets of London. The sainted reflections of a latter-day Christ, betrayed by his subjects, but loving them still. And an instant best-seller, against which the new republic’s finest polemicists, John Milton included, seemed impotent. 

Of all the events in Charles’s life, none is more remembered that the moment of his leaving it. Having stolen scene after scene at his trial, Charles now proceeded to do the same in his very final moments. Confessing his own sins and forgiving those which had been committed against him, Charles was ready to relinquish his ‘corruptible’ crown in the sure knowledge that an ‘incorruptible’ awaited. The apotheosis of a martyred king.

Two centuries on, an otherwise hostile Lord Macaulay would admit that, whilst Charles was indeed a very bad king, his demeanour during his final hours had left a ‘prodigious’ and enduring impression. It is doubtful whether history will suppose the same of Liz Truss’s sourly unrepentant address to the nation as she departed Downing Street a couple of weeks ago. History chooses who to remember and who to forget, and it will probably forget Liz. It has not forgotten Charles Stuart, though.

Ian Ward is Professor of Law at Newcastle University, specializing in constitutional law and legal history.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.