Killing the King

The Trial of Charles I >> note 1

[Click on image to enlarge] Several accounts of the trial of Charles I were reported in contemporary news books and were taken down in shorthand by official recorders as well as spectators in the galleries. Some accounts of the entire trial were separately published, highlighting the drama of the event by describing the scene and the activities of the several participants and especially by quoting or paraphrasing the exchanges between King Charles (who repeatedly denied that the court established by Parliament had any authority over him) and the lord president of that court, John Bradshaw. As the engraving at right shows, the court was crammed with spectators, soldiers, and court officials. The following excerpts are taken from contemporary accounts.


Saturday, 20 January 1649.

The court being thus seated and silence made, the great gate of the said hall was set open to the end that all persons (without exception) desirous to see or hear might come into it, upon which the hall was presently filled and silence again ordered.

This done, Colonel Thomlinson, who had the charge of the Prisoner, was commanded to bring him to the court, who within a quarter of an hour's space brought him, attended with about twenty officers with partizans >> note 2 marching before him, there being other gentlemen to whose care and custody he was likewise committed marching in his rear.

Being thus brought up within the face of the court, the Sergeant at Arms with his Mace receives and conducts him straight to the Bar, having a crimson velvet chair set before him. After a stern looking upon the court and the people in the galleries on each side of him, he places himself, not at all moving his hat or otherwise showing the least respect to the court, but presently rises up again and turns about, looking downwards upon the guards placed on the left side and on the multitude of spectators on the right side of the said Great Hall.

After silence made among the people, the act of Parliament for the trying of Charles Stuart, King of England, was read over by the Clerk of the Court, who sat on one side of a table covered with a rich Turkey carpet and placed at the feet of the said Lord President, upon which table was also laid the Sword and Mace. After reading the said act, the several names of the commissioners were called over, every one who was present rising up and answering his call.

[The Prisoner] having again placed himself in his chair with his face towards the court, silence being again ordered, the Lord President stood up and said: "Charles Stuart, King of England, the Commons of England being deeply sensible >> note 3 of the calamities that have been brought upon this nation (which is fixed upon you as the principal author of it) have resolved to make inquisition for blood, and according to that debt and duty they owe to justice, to God, the kingdom, and themselves, and according to the fundamental power that rests in themselves, they have resolved to bring you to trial and judgment, and for that purpose have constituted this High Court of Justice before which you are brought."

This said, Mr. Cook, Attorney for the Commonwealth, standing within the Bar on the right hand of the Prisoner, offered to speak, but the King, having a staff in his hand, held it up and laid it upon the said Mr. Cook's shoulder two or three times, bidding him hold. Nevertheless, the Lord President ordering him to go on, Mr. Cook said: "My Lord, I am commanded to charge Charles Stuart, King of England, in the name of the Commons of England, with treason and high misdemeanors. I desire the said charge may be read."

The said charge being delivered to the Clerk of the Court, the Lord President ordered it should be read, but the King bid him hold. Nevertheless, being commanded by the Lord President to read it, the Clerk began:

The Charge of the Commons of England against Charles Stuart, King of England, of High Treason and other high crimes, exhibited to the High Court of Justice.

That [he] the said Charles Stuart, being admitted King of England and therein trusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise, and by his trust, oath, and office being obliged to use the power committed to him for the good and benefit of the people and for the preservation of their rights and liberties, yet nevertheless out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people, yea to take away and make void the foundations thereof and of all redress and remedy of misgovernment, which by the fundamental constitutions of this kingdom were reserved on the people's behalf in the right and power of frequent and successive Parliaments or National Meetings in Council, he (the said Charles Stuart) for accomplishment of such his designs and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices to the same ends, hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament and the people therein represented. * * *

The charge being read, the Lord President replied: "Sir, you have now heard your charge read, containing such matter as appears in it. You find that in the close of it, it is prayed to the court in the behalf of the Commons of England that you answer to your charge. The court expects your answer."

The King: I would know by what power I am called hither. * * * And when I know what lawful authority, I shall answer. Remember, I am your King — your lawful King — and what sins you bring upon your heads and the judgment of God upon this land, think well upon it — I say think well upon it — before you go further from one sin to a greater. Therefore let me know by what lawful authority I am seated here and I shall not be unwilling to answer. In the meantime, I shall not betray my trust. I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent. >> note 4 I will not betray it to answer to a new unlawful authority. Therefore, resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.

Lord President: If you had been pleased to have observed what was hinted to you by the court at your first coming hither, you would have known by what authority. Which authority requires you — in the name of the people of England, of which you are the elected King — to answer them.

The King: No, sir, I deny that.

Lord President: If you acknowledge not the authority of the court, they must proceed.

The King: I do tell them so — England was never an elective kingdom but an hereditary kingdom for near these thousand years. Therefore, let me know by what authority I am called hither. I do stand more for the liberty of my people than any here that come to be my pretended judges. And therefore let me know by what lawful authority I am seated here, and I will answer it. Otherwise, I will not answer it.

Lord President: Sir, how really you have managed your trust is known. Your way of answer is to interrogate the court, which beseems not you in this condition. You have been told of it twice or thrice.

* * *

Monday, 22 January 1649.

Lord President: Sir, you may remember, at the last court you were told the occasion of your being brought hither and you heard a charge against you containing a charge of High Treason and other high crimes against this realm of England. You heard likewise that it was prayed in behalf of the people that you should give an answer to that charge, that thereupon such proceedings might be had as should be agreeable to justice. You were then pleased to make some scruples concerning the authority of the court, and knew not by what authority you were brought hither. You did divers times propound your question and were as often answered that it was by the authority of the Commons of England assembled in Parliament that did think fit to call you to account for those high and capital misdemeanors wherewith you were then charged. Since that, the court hath taken into consideration what you then said. They are fully satisfied with their own authority and they hold it fit you should stand satisfied with it too, and they do require it that you do give a positive and particular answer to this charge that is exhibited against you. Their authority they do avow to the whole world that the whole kingdom are to rest satisfied with it. And thereunto you are to lose no more time, but give a positive answer thereunto.

The King: When I was here last, 'tis very true I made that question. And truly, if it were only my own particular case, I would have satisfied myself with the protestation I made the last time I was here against the legality of this court and that a King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here. * * *

Lord President: Sir, you have offered something to the court. I shall speak something unto you — the sense of the court. Sir, neither you nor any man are permitted to dispute that point. You are concluded. You may not demur [to] the jurisdiction of the court — if you do, I must let you know that they overrule your demurrer. >> note 5 They sit here by the authority of the Commons of England, and all your predecessors and you are responsible to them —

The King: I deny that. Show me one precedent.

Lord President: Sir, you ought not to interrupt while the court is speaking to you. This point is not to be debated by you, neither will the court permit you to do it. If you offer it by way of demurrer to the jurisdiction of the court, they have considered of their jurisdiction. They do affirm their own jurisdiction.

* * *

Tuesday, 23 January 1649.

* * * This court took into consideration the managing of the business of the court this day in the hall and the King's refusal to answer (notwithstanding he had been three several times demanded and required thereunto) and have thereupon fully approved of what on the court's part had then passed, and resolved that notwithstanding the said contumacy of the King and refusal to plead (which in law amounts to a standing mute and tacit confession of the charge) and notwithstanding the notoriety of the fact charged, the court would nevertheless, however, examine witnesses for the further and clearer satisfaction of their own judgments and consciences, the manner of whose examination was referred to further consideration [at] the next sitting, and warrants were accordingly issued forth for summoning of witnesses.

* * *

Saturday, 27 January 1649.

* * * The Prisoner is brought to the Bar, and proclamation is again (as formerly) made for silence, and the Captain of the Guard ordered to take into his custody all such as should disturb the court. * * *

Some discourse [was] used by the President for vindicating the Parliament's justice, explaining the nature of the crimes of which the Prisoner stood charged, and for which he was to be condemned, and by way of exhortation of the Prisoner for serious repentance of his high transgressions against God and the people and to prepare for his eternal condition.

* * *

Lord President: The court then, sir, hath something else to say unto you, which, although I know it will be very unacceptable, yet notwithstanding they are willing and are resolved to discharge their duty. * * *

Sir, the difference has been: who shall be the expositors of this law, sir? Whether you and your party, out of courts of justice, shall take upon them to expound the law, or the courts of justice who are the expounders — nay, the sovereign and highest court of justice, the Parliament of England, that is not only the highest expounder but the sole maker of the law. Sir, for you to set yourself with your single judgment, and those that adhere unto you to set themselves against the resolution of the highest court of justice — that is not law. Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England. For, sir, as they are those that at the first (as other countries have done) did choose to themselves this form of government, even for justice's sake, that justice might be administered, that peace might be preserved, so, sir, they gave laws to their governors, according to which they should govern. And if those laws should have proved inconvenient or prejudicial to the public, they had a power in them, a power reserved and innate to alter them as they should see cause. * * *

Sir, the term traitor cannot be spared. We shall easily agree it must denote and suppose a breach of trust, and it must suppose it to be done by a superior. And therefore, sir, as the people of England might have incurred that respecting you, if they had been truly guilty of it as to the definition of law, so on the other side when you did break your trust to the kingdom, you did break your trust to your superior. For the kingdom is that for which you were trusted. And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — "when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater." And, sir, the people of England cannot be so far wanting to themselves, God having dealt so miraculously and gloriously for them, they having power in their hands and their great enemy, they must proceed to do justice to themselves and to you. For, sir, the court could heartily desire that you would lay your hand upon your heart and consider what you have done amiss, that you would endeavor to make your peace with God.

Truly, sir, these are your high crimes — tyranny and treason. And there is a third thing too, if those had not been, and that is murder, which is laid to your charge. All the bloody murders that have been committed since the time that the division was betwixt you and your people must be laid to your charge that have been acted or committed in these late wars. * * * Sir, all I shall say before the reading of your sentence it is but this — the court does heartily desire that you will seriously think of those evils that you stand guilty of. Sir, you said well to us the other day, you wished us to have God before our eyes. Truly, sir, I hope all of us have so. That God that we know is a King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that God with whom there is no respect of persons, that God that is the avenger of innocent blood — we have that God before us, that God that does bestow a curse upon them that withhold their hands from shedding of blood, which is in the case of guilty malefactors and those that do deserve death.

* * *

The sentence formerly agreed upon and put down in parchment writing (oyez >> note 6 being first made for silence) was by the court's command solemnly pronounced and given, the tenor whereof followeth:

* * *

Now, therefore, upon serious and mature deliberation of the premises and consideration had of the notoriety of the matters of fact charged upon him as aforesaid, this court is in judgment and conscience satisfied that he (the said Charles Stuart) is guilty of levying war against the said Parliament and people, and [of] maintaining and continuing the same, for which in the said charge he stands accused. And by the general course of his government, counsels, and practices, before and since this Parliament began (which have been and are notorious and public, and the effects whereof remain abundantly upon record), this court is fully satisfied in their judgments and consciences that he hath been and is guilty of the wicked designs and endeavors in the said charge set forth; and that the said war hath been levied, maintained, and continued by him as aforesaid, in the prosecution and for the accomplishment of the said designs; and that he hath been and is the occasioner, author, and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel, and bloody wars, and therein guilty of High Treason and of the murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damage, and mischief to this nation acted and committed in the said war and occasioned thereby.

For all which treasons and crimes this court doth adjudge that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.

This sentence being read, the President spake as followeth: "The sentence now read and published is the act, sentence, judgment and resolution of the whole court," whereupon the whole court stood up and owned >> note 7 it.

Monday, 29 January 1649.

At the High Court of Justice for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart, King of England, January 29, 1649.

Whereas Charles Stuart, King of England, is and standeth convicted, attainted, and condemned of High Treason and other high crimes, and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this court to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body, of which sentence execution yet remaineth to be done, these are therefore 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 same day, with full effect. And for so doing, this shall be your sufficient warrant. And these are to require all officers, soldiers, and others, the good people of this nation of England, to be assisting unto you in this service.

Given under our hands and seals. (Signed by John Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell, and 57 other commissioners.)

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