On this day in history : 30th January 1649 – King Charles I is beheaded for treason at Whitehall, in London….

Charles had ascended the throne in 1635 after the death of his father James I – and it was to be a rocky ride with Parliament from the start…. He was to upset things further by marrying French Princess Henrietta Maria, a Catholic, within a year of becoming King – this enraged the Protestants among his subjects….

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Charles I by Sir Anthony van Dyck 1637/38 – Public domain

Charles believed kings had a divine right in the matters of ruling the land – that belief and his tax policies soon turned the government against him…. His response to political opposition was to dissolve Parliament several times and in 1629 he got rid of Parliament altogether and ruled alone…. This finally led to the outbreak of the first English Civil War in 1642, with the opposing Parliamentarians being led by Oliver Cromwell….

By 1648 Cromwell’s New Model Army had gained military supremacy in England…. Charles had been captured, managed to escape and had been recaptured….

His trial was set for early January 1649…. Out of 135 appointed commissioners only 68 turned up – and nearly all of them were Parliamentarian supporters…. The trial of a king was unheard of and those who chose to stay away were trying to disassociate themselves….

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Charles I at his trial by Edward Bower 1649 – Public domain

For the first three days Charles was brought to the Court and asked to make his plea – each time he refused…. After the third day he was removed from Court and the witness accounts against him were heard…. On January the 26th Charles was condemned to death; he was brought back to Court on the 27th to hear the declaration…. 59 out of the 68 commissioners signed the death warrant….

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Charles I in the dock – (his back pictured as he faces the High Court of Justice) – Uncredited engraver – Public domain

Charles spent his last days at St James’s Palace – he was possibly moved there to spare him from hearing the scaffold being erected…. He prayed, spent time with his loyal supporters and – perhaps most importantly – his children, whom he had not seen for some 15 months….

When Tuesday the 30th of January dawned it was a bitterly cold day…. Charles dressed in fine clothes, black with a blue sash…. It is said he asked for a second shirt to wear as he didn’t want to shiver and have the crowd think he was shaking with fear….

The scaffold, draped in black, had been erected in front of Banqueting Hall, at the Palace of Whitehall…. Crowds of spectators surrounded it….

At around 2pm Charles climbed on to the platform and proceeded to give his last speech…. He declared himself innocent of the crimes set against him…. He said he always desired the freedom and liberty of the people – he claimed he was a martyr of the people…. Few in the crowd heard his speech on account of the vast number of Parliamentarian guards blocking the scaffold….

Finishing his speech Charles bowed, put on his silk nightcap so that his hair would not get in the way and then placed his head on the block…. As he stretched out his hands, his signal to the executioner, the axe fell – severing his head in one clean blow…. A groan escaped the watching crowd – some dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood, believing a king’s blood could cure their illnesses….

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Contemporary German print of Charles I’s beheading – Public domain

There has always since been speculation as to the identity of the executioner, who was masked to prevent him from being identified…. Whoever it was, because of the single clean blow, knew what they were doing – they had experience…. The common hangman of the time, Richard Brandon, had reputedly refused to undertake the execution – even with the offered £200…. However, it is quite likely that it was indeed him who performed the act….

To pacify the family of Charles his head was sewn back on to his body…. Burial at Westminster Abbey was refused – instead King Charles I was laid to rest at Windsor Castle….

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