Great Civil War In England, Execution Of Charles I, Part 2

Author:      Macaulay, Lord;Knight, Charles

 

By Charles Knight

 

 

 

 

     The drawbridge of Hurst castle ^1 is lowered during the night, December

17, 1648, and the tramp of a troop of horse is heard by the wakeful prisoner.

He calls for his attendant Herbert, who is sent to ascertain the cause of this

midnight commotion.  Major Harrison is arrived.  The King is agitated. He has

been warned that Harrison is a man chosen to assassinate him.  He is reassured

in the morning, in being informed that the major and his troop are to conduct

him to Windsor.  Two days after, the King sets out, under the escort of

Lieutenant-Colonel Cobbett.  At Winchester he is received in state by the

mayor and aldermen; but they retire alarmed on being told that the House has

voted all to be traitors who should address the King.

 

[Footnote 1: Charles I had been confined here for nearly three weeks.]

 

     The troop commanded by Cobbett has been relieved on the route by another

troop, of which Harrison has the command.  They rest at Farnham.  Charles

expresses to Harrison, with whose soldierly appearance he is struck, the

suspicions which had been hinted regarding him.  The major, in his new buff

coat and fringed scarf of crimson silk, told the King "that he needed not to

entertain any such imagination or apprehension; that the Parliament had too

much honor and justice to cherish so foul an intention; and assured him that

whatever the Parliament resolved to do would be very public, and in a way of

justice to which the world should be witness, and would never endure a thought

of secret violence." This, adds Clarendon, "his majesty could not persuade

himself to believe; nor did imagine that they durst ever produce him in the

sight of the people, under any form whatsoever of a public trial."

 

     The next day the journey was pursued toward Windsor.  The King urged his

desire to stop at Bagshot, and dine in the forest at the house of Lord

Newburgh.  He had been apprised that his friend would have ready for him a

horse of extraordinary fleetness, with which he might make one more effort to

escape.  The horse had been kicked by another horse the day before and was

useless.  That last faint hope was gone.  On the night of December 23d the

King slept, a prisoner surrounded with hostile guards, in the noble castle

which in the days of his youth had rung with Jonson's lyrics and ribaldry; and

the "Gipsy of the Masque" had prophesied that his "name in peace or wars,

nought should bound."

 

     But even here he continued to cherish some of the delusions which he had

indulged in situations of far less danger.  He was still surrounded with

something of regal pomp.  He dined, as the ancient sovereigns had dined, in

public - as Elizabeth, and his father, and he himself had dined - seated under

a canopy, the cup presented to him on the knee, the dishes solemnly tasted

before he ate.  These manifestations of respect he held to be indicative of an

altered feeling.  But he also had an undoubting confidence that he should be

righted, by aid from Ireland, from Denmark, from other kingdoms - "I have

three more cards to play, the worst of which will give me back everything."

After three weeks of comparative comfort, the etiquette observed toward him

was laid aside; and with a fearful sense of approaching calamity in the

absence of to the ancient the absence of "respect and honor, according to the

ancient practice," is there anything more contemptible than a despised prince?

 

     During the month in which Charles had remained at Windsor there had been

proceedings in Parliament of which he was imperfectly informed.  On the day he

arrived there it was resolved by the Commons that he should be brought to

trial.  On January 2, 1649, it was voted that, in making war against the

parliament, he had been guilty of treason; and a high court was appointed to

try him.  One hundred fifty commissioners were to compose the court - peers,

members of the Commons, aldermen of London.  The ordinance was sent to the

Upper House and was rejected.  On the 6th a fresh ordinance, declaring that

the people being, after God, the source of all just power, the representatives

of the people are the supreme power in the nation; and that whatsoever is

enacted or declared for law by the Commons in Parliament hath the force of a

law, and the people are concluded thereby, though the consent of king or peers

be not had thereto.

 

     Asserting this power, so utterly opposed either to the ancient

constitution of the monarchy or to the possible working of a republic, there

was no hesitation in constituting the high court of justice in the name of the

Commons alone.  The number of members of the court was now reduced to one

hundred thirty-five.  They had seven preparatory meetings, at which only

fifty-eight members attended.  "All men," says Mrs. Hutchinson, "were left to

their free liberty of acting, neither persuaded nor compelled; and as there

were some nominated in the commission who never sat, and others who sat at

first but durst not hold on, so all the rest might have declined it if they

would when it is apparent they should have suffered nothing by so doing."

 

     Algernon Sidney, although bent upon a republic, opposed the trial,

apprehending that the project of a commonwealth would fail if the King's life

were touched.  It is related that Cromwell, irritated by these scruples,

exclaimed: "No one will stir.  I tell you, we will cut his head off with the

crown upon it." Such daring my appear the result of ambition or fear or

revenge or innate cruelty in a few men who had obtained a temporary

ascendency.  These men were, on the contrary, the organs of a wide-spread

determination among thousands throughout the country, who had long preached

and argued and prophesied about vengeance on "the great delinquent"; and who

had ever in their mouths the test that "blood defileth the land, and the land

cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him

that shed it." ^1 They had visions of a theocracy, and were impatient of an

earthly king.

 

[Footnote 1: Ludlow uses this text, from Numbers xxxv, in explaining his

convictions.]

 

     Do we believe, as some, not without reasonable grounds, may believe, that

the members of the high court of justice expressed such convictions upon a

simulated religious confidence?  Do we think that, in the clear line of action

which Cromwell especially had laid down for his guidance, he cloaked his

wordly ambition under the guise of being moved by some higher impulse than

that of taking the lead in a political revolution?  Certainly we do not. The

infinite mischiefs of assuming that the finger of God directly points out the

way to believers when they are walking in dangerous and devious paths may be

perfectly clear to us who calmly look back upon the instant events which

followed upon Cromwell's confidence in his solemn call to a fearful duty. But

were are not the more to believe, because the events have a character of guilt

in the views of most persons, that such a declared conviction was altogether,

or in any degree, a lie.

 

     Those were times in which, more for good than for evil, men believed in

the immediate direction of a special providence in great undertakings.  The

words "God hath given us the victory" were not with them a mere form.  If we

trace amid these solemn impulses the workings of a deep sagacity - the union

of the fierce resolves of a terrible enthusiasm with the foresight and energy

of an ever-present common-sense - we are not the more to conclude that their

spiritualism or fanaticism or whatever we please to call their ruling

principle was less sincere by being mixed up with the ordinary motives through

which the affairs of the world are carried on.  Indeed, when we look to the

future course of English history, and see - as those who have no belief in a

higher direction of the destiny of nations than that of human wisdom can alone

turn away from seeing - that the inscrutable workings of a supreme power led

out country in the fulness of time to internal peace and security after these

storms, and in a great degree in consequence of them, can we refused our

belief that the tragical events of those days were ordered for out good?

Acknowledging that the overthrow of a rotten throne was necessary for the

building up of a throne that should have its sole stable foundation in the

welfare of the people, can we affirm that the men who did the mightier portion

of that work - sternly, unflinchingly, illegally, yet ever professing to "seek

to know the mind of God in all that chain of Providence" - are quite correctly

described, in the statute for their attainder, as "a party of wretched men,

desperately wicked, and hardened in their impiety"?

 

     On January 19th Major Harrison appeared again at Windsor with his troop.

There was a coach with six horses in the court-yard, in which the King took

his seat; and, once more, he entered London, and was lodged at St. James'

palace.  The next day the high court of justice was opened in Westminster

hall.  The King came from St. James' in a sedan; and after the names of the

members of the court had been called, sixty-nine being present, Bradshaw, the

president, ordered the sergeant to bring in the prisoner.  Silently the King

sat down in the chair prepared for him.  He moved not his hat, as he looked

sternly and contemptuously around.  The sixty-nine rose not from their seats

and remained covered.  It is scarcely eight years since he was a spectator of

the last solemn trial in this hall - that of Strafford.  What mighty events

have happened since that time!

 

     There are memorials hanging from te roof which tell such a history as his

saddest fears in the hour of Strafford's death could scarcely have shaped out.

The tattered banners taken from his Cavaliers at Marston Moor and Naseby are

floating above his head.  There, too, are the same memorials of Preston.  But

still he looks around him proudly and severely.  Who are the men that are to

judge him, the King, who "united in his person every possible claim by

hereditary right to the English as well as the Scottish throne, being the heir

both of Egbert and William the Conqueror"?  These men are, in his view,

traitors and rebels, from Bradshaw, the lawyer, who sits in the foremost

chair, calling himself lord-president, to Cromwell and Marten in the back

seat, over whose heads are the red cross of England and the harp of Ireland,

painted on an escutcheon, while the proud bearings of a line of kings are

nowhere visible.

 

     Under what law does this insolent president address him as "Charles

Stuart, King of England," and say: "The Commons of England being deeply

sensible of the clamities that have been brought upon this nation, which are

fixed upon you as the principal author of them, have resolved to make

inquisition for blood"?  He will defy their authority.  The clerk reads the

charge, and when he is accused therein of being tyrant and traitor he laughs

in the face of the court.  "Though his tongue usually hesitated, yet it was

very free at this time, for he was never discomposed in mind," writes Warwick.

"And yet," it is added, "as he confessed himself to the Bishop of London that

attended him one action shocked him very much; for while he was learning in

the court upon his staff, which had a head of gold, the head broke off on a

sudden.  He took it up, but seemed unconcerned, yet told the Bishop it really

made a great impression upon him." It was the symbol of the treacherous hopes

upon which he had rested-golden dreams that vanished in this solemn hour.

 

     Again and again contending against the authority of the court, the King

was removed, and the sitting was adjourned to the 22d.  On that day the same

scene was renewed; and again on the 23d.  A growing sympathy for the monarch

became apparent.  The cries of "Justice, justice!" which were heard of first

were now mingled with "God save the King!" He had refused to plead; but the

court nevertheless employed the 24th and 25th of January in collecting

evidence to prove the charge of his levying war against the Parliament. Coke,

the solicitor-general, then demanded whether the court would proceed to

pronouncing sentence; and the members adjourned to the Painted Chamber.

 

     On the 27th the public sitting was resumed.  When the name of Fairfax was

called, a voice was heard from the gallery, "He has too much wit to be here."

The King was brought in; and, when the president addressed the commissioners,

and said that the prisoner was before the court to answer a charge of high

treason and other crimes brought against him in the name of the people of

England, the voice from the gallery was again heard, "It's a lie - not

one-half of them." The voice came from Lady Fairfax.  The court, Bradshaw then

stated, had agreed upon the sentence.

 

     Ludlow records that the King "desired to make one proposition before they

proceeded to sentence; which he earnestly pressing, as that which he thought

would lead to the reconciling of all parties, and to the peace of the three

kingdoms, they permitted him to offer it: the effect of which was that he

might meet the two Houses in the Painted Chamber, to whom he doubted not to

offer that which should satisfy and secure all interests." Ludlow goes on to

say, "Designing, as I have been since informed, to propose his own

resignation, and the admission of his son to the throne upon such terms as

should have been agreed upon."

 

     The commissioners retired to deliberate, "and being satisfied, upon

debate, that nothing but loss of time would be the consequence of it, they

returned into the court with a negative to his demand." Bradshaw then

delivered a solemn speech to the King, declaring how he had through his reign

endeavored to subvert the laws and introduce arbitrary government; how he had

attempted, from the beginning, either to destroy parliaments or to render them

subservient to his own designs; how he had levied war against the Parliament,

by the terror of his power to discourage forever such assemblies from doing

their duty, and that in this war many thousands of the good people of England

had lost their lives.  The clerk was lastly commanded to read the sentence,

that his head should be severed from his body; "and the commissioners," says

Ludlow, "testified their unanimous assent by standing up." The King attempted

to speak, "but, being accounted dead in law, was not permitted."

 

     On January 29th the court met to sign the sentence of execution,

addressed to "Colonel Francis Hacker, Colonel Huncks, and Lieutenant-Colonel

Phayr, and to every one of them." This is the memorable document:

 

     "Whereas Charles Stuart, king of England, is and standeth convicted,

attainted and condemned of High Treason and other high Crimes: and Sentence

upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Court, to be put to

death by the severing of his head from his body; of which Sentence execution

remaineth to be done:

 

     "These are therefore to will and require you to see the said Sentence

executed, in the open street before Whitehall, upon the morrow, being the

thirtieth day of this instant month of January, between the hours of ten in

the morning and five in the afternoon with full effect.  And for so doing,

this shall be your warrant.

 

     "And these are to require all Officers and Soldiers, and others the good

people of this Nation of England, to be assisting unto you in this service.

 

"Given under our hands and seals.

 

                         "John Bradshaw.

                         "Thomas Grey.

                         "Oliver Cromwell."

                                   And fifty-six others.

 

     The statements of the heartless buffoonery, and the daring violence of

Cromwell, at the time of signing the warrant, must be received with some

suspicion.  He smeared Henry Marten's face with the ink of his pen, and Marten

in return smeared his, say the narratives.  Probably so.  With reference to

this anecdote it has been wisely observed, "Such 'toys of desperation'

commonly bubble up from a deep flowing stream below." Another anecdote is told

by Clarendon; that Colonel Ingoldsby, one who signed the warrant, was forced

to do so with great violence, by Cromwell and others; "and Cromwell, with a

loud laughter, taking his hand in his, and putting the pen between his

fingers, with his own hand writ 'Richard Ingoldsby,' he making all the

resistance he could."

 

     Ingoldsby gave this relation, in the desire to obtain a pardon after the

Restoration; and to confirm his story he said, "if his name there were

compared with what he had ever writ himself, it could never be looked upon as

his own hand." Warburton, in a note upon this passage, says, "The original

warrant is still extant, and Ingoldsby's name has no such mark of its being

wrote in that manner."

 

     The King knew his fate.  He resigned himself to it with calmness and

dignity; with one exceptional touch of natural human passion, when he said to

Bishop Juxon, although resigning himself to meet his God: "We will not talk of

these rogues, in whose hands I am; they thirst for my blood, and they will

have it, and God's will be done.  I thank God, I heartily forgive them, and I

will talk of them no more." He took an affectionate leave of his daughter, the

Princess Elizabeth, twelve years old; and of his son, the Duke of Gloucester,

of the age of eight.  To him he said: "Mark, child, what I say: they will cut

off my head, and perhaps make thee king; but thou must not be king so long as

thy brothers Charles and James live." And the child said, "I will be torn in

pieces first."

 

     There were some attempts to save him.  The Dutch ambassador made vigorous

efforts to procure a reprieve, while the French and Spanish ambassadors were

inert.  The ambassadors from the states nevertheless persevered, and early in

the day of the 30th obtained some glimmering of hope from Fairfax.  "But we

found," they say in their despatch, "in front of the house in which we had

just spoken with the general, about two hundred horsemen; and we learned, as

well on our way as on reaching home, that all the streets, passages, and

squares of London were occupied by troops, so that no one could pass, and that

the approaches of the city were covered with cavalry, so as to prevent anyone

from coming in or going out.  The same day, between two and three o'clock, the

King was taken to a scaffold covered with black, erected before Whitehall."

 

     To that scaffold before Whitehall Charles walked, surrounded by soldiers,

through the leafless avenues of St. James' Park.  It was a bitterly cold

morning.  Evelyn records that the Thames was frozen over.  The season was so

sharp that the King asked to have a shirt more than ordinary when he carefully

dressed himself.  He left St. James' at ten o'clock.  He remained in his

chamber at Whitehall for about three hours in prayer, and then received the

sacrament.  He was pressed to dine, but refused, taking a piece of bread and a

glass of wine.  His purposed address to the people was delivered only to the

hearing of those upon the scaffold, but its purport was that the people

"mistook the nature of government; for people are free under a government, not

by being sharers in it, but by due administration of the laws of it." His

theory of government was a consistent one.  He had the misfortune not to

understand that the time had been fast passing away for its assertion.  The

headsman did his office; and a deep groan went up from the surrounding

multitude.

 

     It is scarcely necessary that we should offer any opinion upon this

tremendous event.  The world had never before seen an act so daring conducted

with such a calm determination; and the few moderate men of that time balanced

the illegality and also the impolicy of the execution of Charles, by the fact

that "it was not done in a corner," and that those who directed or sanctioned

the act offered no apology, but maintained its absolute necessity and justice.

"That horrible sentence upon the most innocent person in the world; the

execution of that sentence by the most execrable murder that was ever

committed since that of our blessed Saviour," forms the text which Clarendon

gave for the rhapsodies of party during two centuries.  On the other hand, the

eloquent address of Milton to the people of England has been in the hearts and

mouths of many who have known that the establishment of the liberties of their

country, duly subordinated by the laws of a free monarchy, may be dated from

this event: "God has endued you with greatness of mind to be the first of

mankind, who, after having conquered their own king, and having had him

delivered into their hands, have not scrupled to condemn him judicially, and,

pursuant to that sentence of condemnation, to put him to death."

 

     In these times in England, when the welfare of the throne and the people

are identical, we can, on the one hand, afford to refuse our assent to the

blasphemous comparison of Clarendon - blasphemy more offensively repeated in

the church service for January 30th; and at the same time affirm that the

judicial condemnation which Milton so admires was illegal, unconstitutional,

and in its immediate results dangerous to liberty.  But feeling that far

greater dangers would have been incurred if "the caged tiger had been let

loose," and knowing that out of the errors and anomalies of those times a

wiser revolution grew, for which the first more terrible revolution was a

preparation, we may cease to examine this great historical question in any

bitterness of spirit, and even acknowledge that the death of Charles, a bad

king, though in some respects a good man, was necessary for the life of

England, and for her "teaching other nations how to live."

 

     We must accept as just and true Milton's admonition to his countrymen in

reference to this event, which he terms "so glorious an action," with many

reasonable qualifications as to its glory; and yet apply even to ourselves his

majestic words.  "After the performing so glorious an action as this, you

ought to do nothing that is mean and little, not so much as to think of, much

less to do, anything but what is great and sublime.  Which to attain to, this

is your only way; as you have subdued your enemies in the field, so to make

appear, that unarmed, and in the highest outward peace and tranquillity, you

of all mankind are best able to subdue ambition, avarice, the love of riches,

and can best avoid the corruptions that prosperity is apt to introduce - which

generally subdue and triumph over other nations - to show as great justice,

temperance, and moderation in the maintaining your liberty, as you have shown

courage in freeing yourselves from slavery."

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