On this day in history….30th January 1649

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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….

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”….

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….


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….

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