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Charles I's death warrant

The English Civil War of the mid-1600s pitted people against the establishment, and parliament against the king. Taking revenge for Charles's arrogant flouting of the laws, parliament had him beheaded. The monarchy was soon restored, but the balance of power was never the same again

Death warrant of King Charles I, 1649

Death warrant of King Charles I
Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/JO/10/1/297A
Copyright © Parliamentary Archives. Used by permission

 

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How did the Civil War come about?

Disagreements between Charles I and the parliament had been simmering for several years. Charles had been exercising too much power, such as raising taxes unreasonably and imprisoning without trial those who did not pay up, and had been ignoring the wishes of parliament.

Civil war broke out in 1642. At first, Charles's Royalist forces had the upper hand, with further promise of support from the Irish Catholic Confederation, which was fighting Parliamentarian forces in Ireland.

But in 1643 an agreement between English and Scottish parliaments brought the Scottish army into the war, and the balance changed. At the battles of Naseby and Langport in June and July 1645, the first showing of the Parliamentarian New Model Army under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, the Royalists suffered major losses.

Charles I's surrender in May 1646 concluded the first phase of the civil war, though he rejected all proposals intended to bring a peace. However, he did reach a secret agreement with the Scots regarding Presbyterianism in England, which incensed the English Parliament.

How did Charles's execution come about?

The Civil War reached the end of its next phase with Charles's trial and execution in January 1649. The charges against him were noted in a special Act of Parliament, namely that he "had a wicked design totally to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this nation", and that he had "levied and maintained a civil war in the land." The latter was the equivalent of treason, though the basis for it was weak.

The decision that the King would have to be executed and the monarchy abolished had come to Cromwell once he realised the gulf between King and Parliament could never be bridged.

There was not much support for it in Parliament, which had to be purged of royalist sympathisers, to leave a core (known as the Rump Parliament) of 80 MPs. The House of Lords refused to acknowledge the process and the House of Commons took the unprecedented vote of excluding the Lords and acting on its own. It was this reduced Rump Parliament that voted through the ordinance agreeing the King's trial. The reduced Parliament was, in effect, a High Court of Justice. The King refused to acknowledge the court or the charges and did not testify on his own behalf.

The trial and its legal basis corrupted the very freedoms and liberties over which the Civil War had been fought. His execution was on a cold and solemn day and the assembled crowd groaned as the axe severed his head.

How did the execution change things?

Charles had borne his final moments with great dignity, claiming he was a "martyr of the people". The execution not only severed his head from his body, but severed the link with the old-style of feudal and all-powerful monarch. Although the monarchy would be restored eleven years later, and although there had to be another revolution in 1688, to the country the king was no longer unassailable. No matter how illegally it was achieved, Parliament had asserted its own right.

What does this show?

This is Charles's death warrant, signed by 59 individuals. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, only 38 of those were still alive. Some had fled the country, but of the others 9 were executed and 15 were imprisoned. Only one, Richard Ingoldsby, was pardoned and allowed to keep his lands. He claimed Cromwell had seized his hand and forced him to sign the warrant.

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