Charles I.—The Story of How the King Was Brought to His Death
T HIS poetry was written by James to his son, and perhaps it would have been better both for James and Charles had they tried to rule as the poem says kings ought to rule.
After Charles became the prisoner of the army, letters and messages passed continually between him and Parliament, and between him and the leaders of the army. Both parties offered to replace the King upon the throne if he would only promise them certain things. But these things Charles would not promise, for all the time he was secretly plotting with his friends, and hoping to free himself.
The leaders of the army treated Charles very kindly, allowing him to see his friends, and to have a great deal of liberty. This made it easy for him to escape, which he did, and fled to Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight. But although he thought that he was going to friends, he found that he was again a prisoner, and more carefully guarded than before.
The struggle for power between Parliament and army still went on. But Cromwell was master of the army, and he meant to be master of Parliament too. So one day when Parliament was about to meet, a man called Colonel Pride surrounded the House with soldiers. As they arrived, each member who would not do exactly as Cromwell and the other army leaders wished, was seized and turned away. When this was done there were only about fifty members left. This was called Pride's Purge, because he purged or cleaned away all those who did not think exactly as he did. It was still the Long Parliament that was sitting, but people now called it the Rump Parliament, because it was not a real parliament, but only part of one.
Cromwell was master of King and Parliament, but the army was too strong even for him. Against his will he was driven to do a deed from which he shrank. He was driven to condemn the King to death.
Charles was accused of high treason against the nation, and was brought to London to be tried. This was a crime which had never been heard of before, as high treason means a crime against the ruler.
More than a hundred men were called as judges of the King, but scarcely half of them came. Many of them were angry with Charles, and wished him to be punished. But the punishment for treason they knew was death, and they did not wish the King to be killed.
The judges assembled at Westminster Hall, and King Charles was brought before them as a prisoner. They who had always stood bareheaded in his presence, now sat with their hats upon their heads. Seeing that, Charles too kept on his hat, but it was seen that his hair, which had been very beautiful, had grown grey, and that he looked old and worn.
Charles had been foolish, he had been wicked, but now, in the face of death, he behaved with the dignity of a king. The men who sat before him, he said, had no right to judge or condemn him. He would not plead for mercy. Three times he was brought before the court, three times he refused to plead. At last the judges, without further trial, sentenced him to death as a "tyrant, a traitor, a murderer, and a public enemy."
Calm and dignified as ever, Charles walked out of the hall after the sentence had been pronounced.
"God bless your Majesty," cried a soldier as he passed, and was struck by his officer for daring to say such words.
"Methinks," said the King, pausing and smiling at the man, "the punishment is greater than the fault."
Three days later Charles the King walked for the last time through the streets of London, from St. James's Palace to Whitehall. The way was lined with soldiers, soldiers marched in front of him and behind him; the air was filled with the noise of trampling feet and the sound of drums.
The scaffold was raised outside the Palace of Whitehall, and hundreds of people crowded to see the dreadful end of their King, some in joy, very many in grief and awe.
Charles knelt by the block amid deep silence. And when a man in a black mask held up the King's head, crying, "Behold the head of a traitor!" a groan burst from the shuddering crowd.