On this day in history….9th February 1649

On this day in history : 9th February 1649 – The funeral of King Charles I, who was beheaded in Whitehall, London – the only English king to be executed….

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King Charles I by Sir Anthony van Dyck – Public domain

Like his father before him Charles believed in the ‘Divine Rights of Kings’…. It was his belief that kings were chosen by God – and so he only had God to answer to…. He refused to consider the views of others….especially in religious and parliamentary matters. He dissolved Parliament several times and governed the Country alone…. He was determined to hold on to his absolute power and thought it his sole right to make the Laws of the Land – and to go against him was a sin against God…. He was something of a dictator perhaps….

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King Charles I after original by van Dyck – Public domain

This of course made him unpopular both with the people and his own Parliament…. Eventually it was to lead to civil war….the Royalists against the Parliamentarians (Roundheads), led by Oliver Cromwell….

Gradually the Roundheads gained the upper hand…. Charles fled London but eventually surrendered to the Scots – who handed him over to Cromwell…. Charles was imprisoned in 1646 – and kept at Hampton Court Palace – but managed to escape…. He was recaptured and then held at Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight….where he was treated well….

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Charles at Carisbrooke Castle, as painted by Eugene Lami in 1829 – Public domain

Charles refused to repent or admit defeat – and on the 1st of January 1649 he was put on trial at Westminster Hall….accused of being a “tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England”….

Charles refused to defend himself – not recognising the legality of the court…. His date of execution was set for the 30th of January 1649….

Charles is usually portrayed as an arrogant man – but by all accounts in private he was gentle and polite…. He was shy in public which came over as arrogance…. He was a particularly loving father to his six children and spent his last few days at St. James’s Palace consoling them….

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Five of the children of King Charles I after Sir Anthony van Dyck – Public domain

On the morning of the day of the execution, a bitterly cold Tuesday, he rose early…. He asked for two thick shirts as he didn’t want to shiver and have the crowds think he was shaking from fear…. At 10am he walked with his guards to Whitehall Palace where he was to wait in his bedchamber until the call to the scaffold was made….

The call came just before 2pm…. The scaffold was set up just outside Banqueting Hall in Whitehall – and was draped in black…. The executioner and his assistant were hooded, so as not to be recognised….

Despite the bitter January weather a huge crowd had gathered – but were held back at a considerable distance from the scaffold, in case of unrest…. So far away in fact, that few were able to catch the words of the King’s final speech….

….” I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world”….

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The Execution of Charles I of England – Scottish National Gallery – Public domain

At just after 2pm King Charles I was dead; beheaded with a single blow….and an audible groan was heard from the crowd…. Charles may not have been the most popular of kings but he had faced his death with courage – his personal dignity had won him much sympathy from the public….

The King’s embalmed body – with head re-attached – remained on public view at St. James’s Palace until the 7th of February. The Committee of Parliament refused permission for a burial at Westminster Abbey but allowed his being laid to rest in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle….

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Usually a king’s funeral would be filled with pomp and ceremony but the funeral of King Charles I was a very different affair. The only English king to have been tried and executed for treason is now buried in the vault of King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour…. On the 30th of January every year a Service of Commemoration is held at Banqueting House and a wreath laid at his statue outside the Banqueting Hall, the site of his execution….

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Statue of King Charles I at Banqueting House – image credit: CVB via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

On this day in history….3rd February 1014

On this day in history : 3rd February 1014 – The death of Sweyn Folkbeard – England’s shortest-reigning king, with a reign of just 40 days….

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Sweyn Folkbeard, detail of a mid-13th-century miniature. Cambridge University Library. Public domain.

Sweyn was born around 960 AD and was the son of Harald Bluetooth, the first Scandinavian king to be baptised a Christian….

Sweyn Folkbeard – (known as such because of his long clefted beard) – grew up to be a brutal and violent man….but then – they were brutal and violent times…. During the mid 980s AD he led a revolt against his father and seized the throne…. Harald went into exile and died soon after….

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Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth. Painting by Lorenz Frolich c.1883-86. Public domain.

It was during the 990s AD that Sweyn began a campaign of fear and mass destruction in England…. King of England at the time – Ethelred the Unready – attempted to rid himself of the troublesome Dane by paying him off…. The ‘Danegeld Tax’ was intended to pay tribute to the Vikings and save the land from being ravaged. Only it did not work….the Danes continued to raid Northern England, albeit on a smaller scale…. Some Danes even began to settle here….

Ethelred was advised in order to save England he must get rid of the Danes once and for all…. On the 13th of November 1002 he ordered the complete massacre of all Danes in England – men, women and children (St. Brice’s Day Massacre)…. Among those to be slaughtered was Gunhilde, Sweyn’s sister….

Sweyn swore revenge…. In 1003 he arrived with a massive invading force….landing at Sandwich (Kent). From there he ravaged much of Southern England….terrifying the natives and forcing them into submission. He then proceeded north to the Humber – Northumbria surrendered…. Next Sweyn made his way to Winchester and finally turned his attention to London….

Ethelred resisted at first, putting up a fierce fight….but his subjects were terrified of the consequences. The English Earls, not happy with how their King was handling matters, reluctantly declared Sweyn King of England…. Ethelred fled to the Isle of Wight and from there to Normandy – where he joined his wife and children….

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Ethelred the Unready in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle. Public domain.

Sweyn was made King of England on Christmas Day 1013 (although he was never crowned)…. He ruled from a fortification at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire…. On the 3rd of February 1014 he died suddenly…. Some say he had a fall from his horse, whilst others believe he died from apoplexy (stroke). He had reigned for just 40 days….

He was buried in England but later his remains were moved to Roeskild Cathedral, Denmark. He was succeeded as King of Denmark by his son, Harald II….

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Viking longboat ‘Hugin’ at Pegwell Bay, near to Sandwich Kent…. A gift from the Danish government in 1949….

On this day in history….2nd February 1650

On this day in history : 2nd February 1650 – The birth of Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn – who from selling oranges goes on to become an actress and the mistress of King Charles II….

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Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn – Image credit : Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

Born Eleanor Gwyn – the early details of Nell’s life are sketchy….but it is thought her father died in Debtor’s prison and her mother ran a bawdy house….

When Nell was around 14-years-old a friend of her mother’s, Mary Meggs – a former prostitute also known as ‘Orange Moll’ – was granted a licence to sell fruit and confectionery at Drury Lane Theatre…. She hired Nell and her older sister, Rose, to sell oranges….the scantily clad ‘orange-girls’ would sell sweet ‘china’ oranges at sixpence each….

The girls were also used to act as messengers between men in the audience and the actresses backstage…. Female actors were a relatively new phenomenon – until recent years the roles of women had been played by men and boys…. With her vivacious wit, high spirits and pretty heart-shaped face Nell soon came to the attention of Charles Hart, a leading actor of the time…. At the age of 15 Nell made her debut on the stage….and she also became Charles Hart’s mistress….

Plays were written for Nell to bring out her comic talents….but as well as having the ability to make audiences laugh she was an excellent singer and dancer. Nell Gwyn became the leading comedienne of The King’s Company….

Nell was popular amongst the gentlemen and was mistress to a fair few….including Charles Sackville (Lord Buckhurst). When her relationship with King Charles II began she referred to the King as her Charles the Third….

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King Charles II of England by John Michael Wright – Public domain

Her love affair with the King began in April 1668, when she attended a performance of the play ‘She Wou’d if She Cou’d’ by George Etherege at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields…. The box alongside hers was occupied by King Charles II and they spent the entire evening flirting with each other….

Nell became the King’s mistress in 1669. She was actually one of many….the King was a busy boy…. As well as having a wife, the Portuguese Queen consort Catherine of Braganza, he liked to have several mistresses on the go at one time…. Frances Stuart, Lucy Walters, Louise de Kerouaille, Moll Davis and Lady Castlemaine were just a few Nell had to share him with….and other mistresses came and went….

The rivalry between the King’s women was great….all were needy and greedy – demanding houses, money and even titles….all except Nell. Perhaps this was a clever move on her part….she was given a house near to Pall Mall and an allowance of £4,000 per year – and then later a further £5,000 per year on top….

The King had 13 children that he acknowledged with his mistresses – and he provided for them all…. Nell gave birth to their first child, Charles, on the 8th of May 1670…. She herself had never received a title from the King – but managed to manipulate one for her child….by calling him a ‘little bastard’ in front of his father…. The King was shocked – but Nell responded by asking what else she should call him, for was it not true? The King immediately made his young son the Duke of St. Albans…. Nell gave birth to their second son, James, Lord Beauclerk in 1671….but he was to die in 1680….

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Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans c.1690 – artist : Godfrey Knellor – Public domain
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Nell Gwyn with her two sons. Image credit : Lisby via Flickr

King Charles II himself was to die 5 years later, on the 6th of February 1685…. On his deathbed he requested of his brother, James, who was to succeed him….“Let not poor Nelly starve”….

After the King’s death Nell found herself in considerable debt with the threat of Debtor’s prison hanging over her…. True to his word King James II settled her debts and gave her a pension of £1,500 per year….

However, just 2 years later Nell was to suffer a stroke – and 8 months later, on the 14th of November 1687, she died….she was just 37 years of age…. Nell Gwyn, favourite of the King, was to become a legend….out of all the King’s mistresses she was the only one who managed to win the affection of the people….

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Nell Gwyn – artist Peter Lely c.1675 – Public domain