Gateway to the Classics: Charles I by Jacob Abbott
Charles I by  Jacob Abbott

Trial and Death

A S soon as the army party, with Oliver Cromwell at their head, had obtained complete ascendency, they took immediate measures for proceeding vigorously against the king. They seized him at Carisbrooke Castle, and took him to Hurst Castle, which was a gloomy fortress in the neighborhood of Carisbrooke. Hurst Castle was in a very extraordinary situation. There is a long point extending from the main land toward the Isle of Wight, opposite to the eastern end of it. This point is very narrow, but is nearly two miles long. The castle was built at the extremity. It consisted of one great round tower, defended by walls and bastions. It stood lonely and desolate, surrounded by the sea, except the long and narrow neck which connected it with the distant shore. Of course, though comfortless and solitary, it was a place of much greater security than Carisbrooke.

The circumstance of the king's removal to this new place of confinement were as follows: In some of his many negotiations with the Parliament while at Carisbrooke, he had bound himself, on certain conditions, not to attempt to escape from that place. His friends, however, when they heard that the army were coming again to take him away, concluded that he ought to lose no time in making his escape out of the country. They proposed the plan to the king. He made two objections to it. He thought, in the first place, that the attempt would be very likely to fail; and that, if it did fail, it would exasperate his enemies, and make his confinement more rigorous, and his probable danger more imminent than ever. He said that, in the second place, he had promised the Parliament that he would not attempt to escape, and that he could not break his word.

The three friends were silent when they heard the king speak these words. After a pause, the leader of them, Colonel Cook, said, "Suppose I were to tell your majesty that the army have a plan for seizing you immediately, and that they will be upon you very soon unless you escape. Suppose I tell you that we have made all the preparations necessary—that we have horses all ready here, concealed in a pent-house—that we have a vessel at the Cows waiting for us—that we are all prepared to attend you, and eager to engage in the enterprise—the darkness of the night favoring our plan, and rendering it almost certain of success. Now," added he, "these suppositions express the real state of the case, and the only question is what your majesty will resolve to do."

The king paused. He was distressed with perplexity and doubt. At length he said, "They have promised me, and I have promised them, and I will not break the promise first." "Your majesty means by they and them, the Parliament, I suppose?" "Yes, I do." "But the scene is now changed. The Parliament have no longer any power to protect you. The danger is imminent, and the circumstances absolve your majesty from all obligation."

But the king could not be moved. He said, come what may, he would not do any thing that looked like a breaking of his word. He would dismiss the subject and go to bed, and enjoy his rest as long as he could. His friends told him that they feared it would not be long. They seemed very much agitated and distressed. The king asked them why they were so much troubled. They said it was to think of the extreme danger in which his majesty was lying, and his unwillingness to do any thing to avert it. The king replied, that if the danger were tenfold more than it was, he would not break his word to avert it.

The fears of the king's friends were soon realized. The next morning, at break of day, he was awakened by a loud knocking at his door. He sent one of his attendants to inquire what it meant. It was a party of soldiers come to take him away. They would give him no information in respect to their plans, but required him to dress himself immediately and go with them. They mounted horses at the gate of the castle. The king was very earnest to have his friends accompany him. They allowed one of them, the Duke of Richmond, to go with him a little way, and then told him he must return. The duke bade his master a very sad and sorrowful farewell, and left him to go on alone.


Ruins of Carisbrooke Castle.

The escort which were conducting him took him to Hurst Castle. The Parliament passed a vote condemning this proceeding, but it was too late. The army concentrated their forces about London, took possession of the avenues to the houses of Parliament and excluded all those members who were opposed to them. The remnant of the Parliament which was left immediately took measures for bringing the king to trial.

The House of Commons did not dare to trust the trial of the king to the Peers, according to the provisions of the English Constitution, and so they passed an ordinance for attainting him of high treason, and for appointing commissioners, themselves, to try him. Of course, in appointing these commissioners, they would name such men as they were sure would be predisposed to condemn him. The Peers rejected this ordinance, and adjourned for nearly a fort-night, hoping thus to arrest any further proceedings. The Commons immediately voted that the action of the Peers was not necessary, and that they would go forward themselves. They then appointed the commissioners, and ordered the trial to proceed.

Every thing connected with the trial was conducted with great state and parade. The number of commissioners constituting the court was one hundred and thirty-three, though only a little more than half that number attended the trial. The king had been removed from Hurst Castle to Windsor Castle, and he was now brought into the city, and lodged in a house near to Westminster Hall, so as to be at hand. On the appointed day the court assembled; the vast hall and all the avenues to it were thronged. The whole civilized world looked on, in fact, in astonishment at the almost unprecedented spectacle of a king tried for his life by an assembly of his subjects.

The first business after the opening of the court was to call the roll of the commissioners, that each one might answer to his name. The name of the general of the army, Fairfax, who was one of the number, was the second upon the list. When his name was called there was no answer. It was called again. A voice from one of the galleries replied, "He has too much wit to be here." This produced some disorder, and the officers called out to know who answered in that manner, but there was no reply. Afterward, when the impeachment was read, the phrase occurred, "Of all the people of England," when the same voice rejoined, "No, not the half of them." The officers then ordered a soldier to fire into the seat from which these interruptions came. This command was not obeyed, but they found, on investigating the case, that the person who had answered thus was Fairfax's wife, and they immediately removed her from the hall.

When the court was fully organized, they commanded the sergeant-at-arms to bring in the prisoner. The king was accordingly brought in, and conducted to a chair covered with crimson velvet, which had been placed for him at the bar. The judges remained in their seats, with their heads covered, while he entered, and the king took his seat, keeping his head covered too. He took a calm and deliberate survey of the scene, looking around upon the judges, and upon the armed guards by which he was environed, with a stern and unchanging countenance. At length silence was proclaimed, and the president rose to introduce the proceedings.

He addressed the king. He said that the Commons of England, deeply sensible of the calamities which had been brought upon England by the civil war, and of the innocent blood which had been shed, and convinced that be, the king, had been the guilty cause of it, were now determined to make inquisition for this blood, and to bring him to trial and judgment; that they had, for this purpose, organized this court, and that he should now hear the charge brought against him, which they would proceed to try.

An officer then arose to read the charge. The king made a gesture for him to be silent. He, however, persisted in his reading, although the king once or twice attempted to interrupt him. The president, too, ordered him to proceed. The charge recited the evils and calamities which had resulted from the war, and concluded by saying that "the said Charles Stuart is and has been the occasioner, author, and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel, and bloody wars, and is therein guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages, and mischiefs to this nation acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby."

The president then sharply rebuked the king for his interruptions to the proceedings, and asked him what answer he had to make to the impeachment. The king replied by demanding by what authority they pretended to call him to account for his conduct. He told them that he was their king, and they his subjects; that they were not even the Parliament, and that they had no authority from any true Parliament to sit as a court to try him; that he would not betray his own dignity and rights by making any answer at all to any charges they might bring against him, for that would be an acknowledgment of their authority; but he was convinced that there was not one of them who did not in his heart believe that he was wholly innocent of the charges which they had brought against him.

These proceedings occupied the first day. The king was then sent back to his place of confinement, and the court adjourned. The next day, when called upon to plead to the impeachment, the king only insisted the more strenuously in denying the authority of the court, and in stating his reasons for so denying it. The court were determined not to hear what he had to say on this point, and the president continually interrupted him; while he, in his turn, continually interrupted the president too. It was a struggle and a dispute, not a trial. At last, on the fourth day, something like testimony was produced to prove that the king had been in arms against the forces of the Parliament. On the fifth and sixth days, the judges sat in private to come to their decision; and on the day following, which was Saturday, January 27th, they called the king again before them, and opened the doors to admit the great assembly of spectators, that the decision might be announced.

There followed another scene of mutual interruptions and disorder. The king insisted on longer delay. He had not said what he wished to say in his defense. The president told him it was now too late; that he had consumed the time allotted to him in making objections to the jurisdiction of the court, and now it was too late for his defense. The clerk then read the sentence, which ended thus: "For all which treasons and crimes this court doth adjudge that he, the said Charles Stuart, is a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy, and shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body." When the clerk had finished the reading, the president rose, and said deliberately and solemnly,

"The sentence now read and published is the act, sentence, judgment, and resolution of the whole court."

And the whole court rose to express their assent.

The king then said to the president, "Will you hear me a word, sir?"

President. "Sir, you are not to be heard after the sentence."

King. "Am I not, sir?"

President. "No, sir. Guards, withdraw the prisoner!"

King. " I may speak after sentence by your favor, sir. Hold—I say, sir—by your favor, sir—If I am not permitted to speak—" The other parts of his broken attempts to speak were lost in the tumult and noise. He was taken out of the hall.

One would have supposed that all who witnessed these dreadful proceedings, and who now saw one who had been so lately the sovereign of a mighty empire standing friendless and alone on the brink of destruction, would have relented at last, and would have found their hearts yielding to emotions of pity. But it seems not to have been so. The animosities engendered by political strife are merciless, and the crowd through which the king had to pass as he went from the hall scoffed and derided him. They blew the smoke of their tobacco in his face, and threw their pipes at him. Some proceeded to worse indignities than these, but the king bore all with quietness and resignation.

The king was sentenced on Saturday. On the evening of that day he sent a request that the Bishop of London might be allowed to assist at his devotions, and that his children might be permitted to see him before he was to die. There were two of his children then in England, his youngest son and a daughter. The other two sons had escaped to the Continent. The government granted both these requests. By asking for the services of an Episcopal clergyman, Charles signified his firm determination to adhere to the very last hour of his life to the religious principles which he had been struggling for so long. It is somewhat surprising that the government were willing to comply with the request.

It was, however, complied with, and Charles was taken from the palace of Whitehall, which is in Westminster, to the palace of St. James, not very far distant. He was escorted by a guard through the streets. At St. James's there was a small chapel where the king attended divine service. The Bishop of London preached a sermon on the future judgment, in which he administered comfort to the mind of the unhappy prisoner, so far as the sad case allowed of any comfort, by the thought that all human judgments would be reviewed, and all wrong made right at the great day. After the service the king spent the remainder of the day in retirement and private devotion.

During the afternoon of the day several of his most trusty friends among the nobility called to see him, but he declined to grant them admission. He said that his time was short and precious, and that he wished to improve it to the utmost in preparation for the great change which awaited him. He hoped, therefore, that his friends would not be displeased if he declined seeing any persons besides his children. It would do no good for them to be admitted. All that they could do for him now was to pray for him.

The next day the children were brought to him in the room where he was confined. The daughter, who was called the Lady Elizabeth, was the oldest. He directed her to tell her brother James, who was the second son, and now absent with Charles on the Continent, that he must now, from the time of his father's death, no longer look upon Charles as merely his older brother, but as his sovereign, and obey him as such; and he requested her to charge them both, from him, to love each other, and to forgive their father's enemies.

"You will not forget this, my dear child, will you?" added the king. The Lady Elizabeth was still very young.

"No," said she, "I will never forget it as long as I live."

He then charged her with a message to her mother, the queen, who was also on the Continent. "Tell her," said he, "that I have loved her faithfully all my life, and that my tender regard for her will not cease till I cease to breathe."

Poor Elizabeth was sadly grieved at this parting interview. The king tried to comfort her. "You must not be so afflicted for me," he said. "It will be a very glorious death that I shall die. I die for the laws and liberties of this land, and for maintaining the Protestant religion. I have forgiven all my enemies, and I hope that God will forgive them."

The little son was, by title, the Duke of Gloucester. He took him on his knees, and said, in substance, "My dear boy, they are going to cut off your father's head." The child looked up into his father's face very earnestly, not comprehending so strange an assertion.

"They are going to cut off my head," repeated the king, "and perhaps they will want to make you a king; but you must not be king as long as your brothers Charles and James live; for if you do, very likely they will, some time or other, cut off your head." The child said, with a very determined air, that then they should never make him king as long as he lived. The king then gave his children some other parting messages for several of his nearest relatives and friends, and they were taken away.

In cases of capital punishment, in England and America, there must be, after the sentence is pronounced, written authority to the sheriff, or other proper officer, to proceed to the execution of it. This is called the warrant, and is usually to be signed by the chief magistrate of the state. In England the sovereign always signs the warrant of execution; but in the case of the execution of the sovereign himself, which was a case entirely unprecedented, the authorities were at first somewhat at loss to know what to do. The commissioners who had judged the king concluded finally to sign it themselves. It was expressed substantially as follows:

"At the High Court of Justice for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart, king of England, January 29th, 1648:

"Whereas Charles Stuart, king of England, has been convicted, attainted, and condemned of high treason, and sentence was pronounced against him by this court, to be put to death by the severance of his head from his body, of which sentence execution yet remaineth to be done; these are, therefore, now 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 of the said day, with full effect; and for so doing this shall be your sufficient warrant."

Fifty-nine of the judges signed this warrant, and then it was sent to the persons appointed to carry the sentence into execution.

That night the king slept pretty well for about four hours, though during the evening before he could hear in his apartment the noise of the workmen building the platform, or scaffold as it was commonly called, on which the execution was to take place. He awoke, however, long before day. He called to an attendant who lay by his bed-side, and requested him to get up. "I will rise myself," said he, "for I have a great work to do to-day." He then requested that they would furnish him with the best dress, and an extra supply of under clothing, because it was a cold morning. He particularly wished to be well guarded from the cold, lest it should cause him to shiver, and they would suppose that he was trembling from fear.

"I have no fear," said he. "Death is not terrible to me. I bless God that I am prepared."

The king had made arrangements for divine service in his room early in the morning, to be conducted by the Bishop of London. The bishop came in at the time appointed, and read the prayers. He also read, in the course of the service, the twenty-ninth chapter of Matthew, which narrates the closing scenes of our Saviour's life. This was, in fact, the regular lesson for the day, according to the Episcopal ritual, which assigns certain portions of Scripture to every day of the year. The king supposed that the bishop had purposely selected this passage, and he thanked him for it, as he said it seemed to him very appropriate to the occasion. "May it please your majesty," said the bishop, "it is the proper lesson for the day." The king was much affected at learning this fact, as he considered it a special providence, indicating that he was prepared to die, and that he should be sustained in the final agony.

About ten o'clock, Colonel Hacker, who was the first one named in the warrant of execution of the three persons to whom the warrant was addressed, knocked gently at the king's chamber door. No answer was returned. Presently he knocked again. The king asked his attendant to go to the door. He went, and asked Colonel Hacker why he knocked. He replied that he wished to see the king.

"Let him come in," said the king.

The officer entered, but with great embarrassment and trepidation. He felt that he had a most awful duty to perform. He informed the king that it was time to proceed to Whitehall, though he could have some time there for rest. "Very well," said the king; "go on; I will follow." The king then took the bishop's arm, and they went along together.

They found, as they issued from the palace of St. James into the park through which their way lay to Whitehall, that lines of soldiers had been drawn up. The king, with the bishop on one side, and the attendant before referred to, whose name was Herbert, on the other, both uncovered, walked between these lines of guards. The king walked on very fast, so that the others scarcely kept pace with him. When he arrived at Whitehall he spent some further time in devotion, with the bishop, and then, at noon, he ate a little bread and drank some light wine. Soon after this, Colonel Hacker, the officer, came to the door and let them know that the hour had arrived.

The bishop and Hacker melted into tears as they bade their master farewell. The king directed the door to be opened, and requested the officer to go on, saying that he would follow. They went through a large hall, called the banqueting hall, to a window in front, through which a passage had been made for the king to his scaffold, which was built up in the street before the palace. As the king passed out through the window, he perceived that a vast throng of spectators had assembled in the street to witness the spectacle. He had expected this, and had intended to address them. But he found that this was impossible, as the space all around the scaffold was occupied with troops of horse and bodies of soldiers, so as to keep the populace at so great a distance that they could not hear his voice. He, however, made his speech, addressing it particularly to one or two persons who were near, knowing that they would put the substance of it on record, and thus make it known to all mankind. There was then some further conversation about the preparations for the final blow, the adjustment of the dress, the hair, &c., in which the king took an active part, with great composure. He then kneeled down and laid his head upon the block.

The executioner, who wore a mask that he might not be known, began to adjust the hair of the prisoner by putting it up under his cap, when the king, supposing that he was going to strike, hastily told him to wait for the sign. The executioner said that he would. The king spent a few minutes in prayer, and then stretched out his hands, which was the sign which he had arranged to give. The axe descended. The dissevered head, with the blood streaming from it, was held up by the assistant executioner, for the gratification of the vast crowd which was gazing on the scene. He said, as he raised it, "Behold the head of a traitor!"

The body was placed in a coffin covered with black velvet, and taken back through the window into the room from which the monarch had walked out, in life and health, but a few moments before. A day or two afterward it was taken to Windsor Castle upon a hearse drawn by six horses and covered with black velvet. It was there interred in a vault in the chapel, with an inscription upon lead over the coffin:


After the death of Charles, a sort of republic was established in England, called the Commonwealth, over which, instead of a king, Oliver Cromwell presided, under the title of Protector. The country was, however, in a very anomalous and unsettled state. It became more distracted still after the death of the Protector, and it was only twelve years after beheading the father that the people of England, by common consent, called back the son to the throne. It seems as if there could be no stable government in a country where any very large portion of the inhabitants are destitute of property, without the aid of that mysterious but all-controlling principle of the human breast, a spirit of reverence for the rights, and dread of the power of an hereditary crown. In the United States almost every man is the possessor of property. He has his house, his little farm, his shop and implements of labor, or something which is his own, and which he feels would be jeopardized by revolution and anarchy. He dreads a general scramble, knowing that he would probably get less than he would lose by it. He is willing, therefore, to be governed by abstract law. There is no need of holding up before him a scepter or a crown to induce obedience. He submits without them. He votes with the rest, and then abides by the decision of the ballot-box. In other countries, however, the case is different. If not an actual majority, there is at least a very large proportion of the community who possess nothing. They get scanty daily food for hard and long-continued daily labor; and as change, no matter what, is always a blessing to sufferers, or at least is always looked forward to as such, they are ready to welcome, at all times, any thing that promises commotion. A war, a conflagration, a riot, or a rebellion, is always welcome. They do not know but that they shall gain some advantage by it, and in the mean time the excitement of it is some relief to the dead and eternal monotony of toil and suffering.

It is true that the revolutions by which monarchies are overturned are not generally effected, in the first instance, by this portion of the community. The throne is usually overturned at first by a higher class of men; but the deed being done, the inroad upon the established course and order of the social state being once made, this lower mass is aroused and excited by it, and soon becomes unmanageable. When property is so distributed among the population of a state that all have an interest  in the preservation of order, then, and not till then, will it be safe to give to all a share in the power  necessary for preserving it; and, in the mean time, revolutions produced by insurrections and violence will probably only result in establishing governments unsteady and transient just in proportion to the suddenness of their origin.

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