The Trial of Charles I (1649)
A king is put on trial and charged with treason against his own nation. Shockwaves eminate from the challenge to the institution of the monarchy, the pervading form of government for centuries.
The trial of Charles I was a unique situation. Following nearly five years of civil war between Charles and his royalist supporters and Parliament and its supporters, Charles was captured in 1647 and held in captivity for almost two years as Parliament secured their victory and determined what to do with the monarch. The English Civil War stemmed from a dispute over the distribution of power in England’s constitution. Royalists asserted Charles’ divine right as king to raise revenue without permission from Parliament and summon Parliament only at his pleasure, and supported his religious affiliation which struck dissenting Protestants as trending towards absolutist Catholicism. Parliamentary supporters challenged these assertions, particularly royalist claims that the king was endowed with divine rights that could not be circumscribed by his subjects. The fundamental disagreement between the nature and legitimacy of power underscored the entire conflict. For the victors, a definitive answer was needed to the question of the monarch’s power.
A trial was a means to answer this question publicly and, after bypassing a reluctant House of Lords, the trial of Charles I for treason commenced on January 20, 1649 at Westminster Hall. John Bradshaw, a local London judge, was appointed as Lord President of the trial and John Cook, the Solicitor General, led the prosecution of the king. As you read the trial excerpts below, keep an eye out for the question of authority. What are the specific charges brought against Charles and what do they tell us about Parliament’s view of monarchical power? How does Charles behave towards those trying him? How effective is this trial in answering the question of whether kingly power has limits? If limits exist, what are they? How does the trial proceedings square up with Charles’ Eikon Basilike?
Geoffrey Robertson, The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008).
C.V. Wedgwood, A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (New York: Macmillan, 1964).
Howard Tomlinson, ed., Before the English Civil War: Essays on Early Stuart Politics and Government (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984).
King Charles his tryal at the High Court of Justice in Westminster Hall, begun Jan. 20 ended Jan. 27, 1648 : together with his speech on the scaffold at his execution at White-Hall Gate, Jan. 30th 1648 : to which is added, these severall speeches deliver’d immediatly before their executions, some of which were never printed before … , London : Printed for John Playford and are to be sold at his shop in the Inner Temple, 1655. EEBO.
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Extract from a report of the trial of Charles I, January 1649
(Catalogue ref: SP 16/517)
Then the Clerk reads.
Charles Stuart King of England, you are accused, on the behalf of the people of England, of divers high crimes and treasons, which charge hath been read unto you. The Court now requires you to give your final and positive answer by way of confession or denial of the charge.
Sir, I say again, that so I might give satisfaction to the people of England of the clearness of my proceedings, not by way of answer, not in this way but to satisfy them that I have done nothing against the trust that hath been committed to me, I will do it; but to acknowledge a new Court against their privileges to alter all the fundamental laws of the Kingdom in their behalf, Sir, you must excuse me.
Lord President Bradshaw
This is the third time that you have publicly disowned this Court and put an affront upon it. How far you have preserved the fundamental laws and the freedom of the subject your actions have spoken it, for truly, Sir, men’s intentions are used to be shown by their actions; you have written your meaning in bloody characters throughout the whole kingdom. But, Sir, the Court understands your meaning. Clerk record the default, and gentlemen you that brought the prisoner, take him back again.
I have one word to you; if it were only my particular indeed I would not.
Sir you have heard the pleasure of the Court, and you are, though you will not understand it, to find that you are before a court of justice.
Well, Sir, I find I am before a power and went away. These words he spake with a low voice as he was going away.
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