Charles I of England - Execution

Execution

Charles Stuart, as his death warrant states, was beheaded on Tuesday, 30 January 1649. It was reported that before the execution he wore warmer clothing to prevent the cold weather causing any noticeable shivers that the crowd could have mistaken for fear or weakness.

The execution took place at Whitehall on a scaffold in front of the Banqueting House. Charles was separated from the people by large ranks of soldiers, and his last speech reached only those with him on the scaffold. He declared that he had desired the liberty and freedom of the people as much as any, "but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having government.... It is not their having a share in the government; that is nothing appertaining unto them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things."

Charles put his head on the block after saying a prayer and signalled the executioner when he was ready; he was then beheaded with one clean stroke. His last words were, "I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be."

Philip Henry records that moments after the execution, a moan was heard from the assembled crowd, some of whom then dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood, thus starting the cult of the Martyr King; however, no other eyewitness source, including Samuel Pepys, records this. Henry's account was written during the Restoration, some 12 years after the event though Henry was 19 when the King was executed and he and his family were Royalist propaganda writers.

The executioner was masked, and there is some debate over his identity. It is known that the Commissioners approached Richard Brandon, the common Hangman of London, but that he refused, and contemporary sources do not generally identify him as the King's headsman. Ellis's Historical Inquiries, however, names him as the executioner, contending that he stated so before dying. It is possible he relented and agreed to undertake the commission, but there are others who have been identified. An Irishman named Gunning is widely believed to have beheaded Charles, and a plaque naming him as the executioner is on show in the Kings Head pub in Galway, Ireland. William Hewlett was convicted of regicide after the Restoration. In 1661, two people identified as "Dayborne and Bickerstaffe" were arrested but then discharged. Henry Walker, a revolutionary journalist, or his brother William, were suspected but never charged. Various local legends around England name local worthies. An examination performed in 1813 at Windsor suggests that the execution was carried out by an experienced headsman.

It was common practice for the head of a traitor to be held up and exhibited to the crowd with the words "Behold the head of a traitor!" Although Charles's head was exhibited, the words were not used. In an unprecedented gesture, one of the revolutionary leaders, Oliver Cromwell, allowed the King's head to be sewn back onto his body so the family could pay its respects.

Charles was buried in private on the night of 7 February 1649, inside the Henry VIII vault in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. The royal retainers Sir Thomas Herbert, Capt. Anthony Mildmay, Sir Henry Firebrace, William Levett Esq. and Abraham Dowcett (sometimes spelled Dowsett) conveyed the King's body to Windsor. The King's son, King Charles II, later planned an elaborate royal mausoleum, but it was never built.

Ten days after Charles's execution, a memoir purporting to be written by the king appeared for sale. This book, the Eikon Basilike (Greek: the "Royal Portrait"), contained an apologia for royal policies, and it proved an effective piece of royalist propaganda. William Levett, Charles's groom of the bedchamber, who accompanied Charles on the day of his execution, swore that he had personally witnessed the King writing the Eikon Basilike. John Cooke published the speech he would have delivered if Charles had entered a plea, while Parliament commissioned John Milton to write a rejoinder, the Eikonoklastes ("The Iconoclast"), but the response made little headway against the pathos of the royalist book.

Following the death of the king, several works were written expressing the outrage of the people at such an act. The ability to execute a king, believed to be the spokesman of God, was a shock to the country. Several poems, such as Katherine Phillips' Upon the Double Murder of King Charles, express the depth of their outrage. In her poem, Phillips describes the "double murder" of the king; the execution of his life as well as the execution of his dignity. By killing a king, Phillips questioned the human race as a whole—what they were capable of, and how low they would sink.

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