This week in history: Execution of King Charles I

30 January 2015

By Pan Macmillan

30 January 1649: the execution of King Charles I

Charles I was tried as a ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England’ by Oliver Cromwell’s ‘rump’ Parliament. Since Charles had refused to accept the legitimacy of the court and offered no defence, a guilty verdict was a virtually a foregone conclusion. But the execution of an anointed sovereign worried even some of the most ardent parliamentarians. Neither the trial nor its outcome were especially popular with the country at large.

Charles’ execution was scheduled for 30 January - the day itself was bitterly cold and the monarch donned an extra shirt to prevent himself from shivering, worrying that it would be mistaken for quaking in fear.

Spending his final night in St James’s Palace, he rose early to take a last communion in the Chapel Royal. At 2 p.m. he was escorted across St James’ Park by a parliamentary militiaman to Whitehall, where a scaffold had been erected outside the Banqueting House. He addressed the large crowd gathered to watch the grisly spectacle and with dignity set his head on the block after exchanging a few words with the officials and a heavily masked executioner (whose identity has never been discovered).

His head was severed with a single blow, and was held aloft for the multitude to admire. At that point, one witness recalled hearing ‘such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again’.
The body was taken back to St James’s for embalming, where Charles’ head was sewn back onto his torso. He was later buried at Windsor.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, his son, King Charles II, had the remains of the leading parliamentarians, including Cromwell who’d been laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, removed from their graves and their corpses were subjected to posthumous executions. For over twenty years, Cromwell’s severed head remained on public display on a pole at Westminster Hall.