Why didn’t Oliver Cromwell Order the Assassination of Charles the First?

Political assassination is the murder of a significant figure by an organised conspiracy in pursuit of political ends.1

There were two English civil wars as well as Scottish and Irish rebellions in the 1640s. The second civil war, 1646-8, left Cromwell with unpalatable political choices. He accepted the concept of kingship but needed to emasculate this king’s prerogative. Only a permanent diminution of regal power would guarantee such an outcome. Charles resisted and knew Cromwell needed his agreement to legitimate the shift of power to parliament. He refused to concede any reduction in his prerogative. This wasn’t purblind stubbornness. Charles believed he was anointed by God as an expression of His wishes.

The political situation in 1648 almost demanded the assassination of Charles. He’d lost the second civil war and was Cromwell’s prisoner. Cromwell was a parliamentarian who’d ‘discovered’ he was at war with Charles Stuart not King Charles. He developed the concept of a parliamentary republic as a way out of the conundrum. Cromwell’s political journey overturned centuries of assumptions about power and society.

Assassination is murder ‘by an organised conspiracy’. Prior to Cromwell, the assassination of a king implied you had another king ready mount the throne. It didn’t mean abolishing kingship. Cromwell wasn’t a conspirator. He believed he was doing God’s work. Cromwell ‘knew’ his cause was approved by God because he was victorious. Cromwell had the ‘hand of God’ guiding him and his policy of abolishing kingship. Contrariwise Charles was ‘abandoned’ by God.

His [Cromwell’s] ultimate religious authority was his own interpretation of the Holy Spirit on him, as it spoke directly to his conscience, and mediately through the Holy Scriptures.” This led him to believe he had, “…a monopoly on religious truth.”2

He wanted the guilt of Charles demonstrated. Charles was A Man of Blood and a Tyrant. Cromwell wanted him tried as such. The trial would place the entire guilt of the civil wars publicly on the shoulders of Charles. Cromwell saw Charles as a criminal who should be executed, in full view of the people.

The peculiar nature of the trial reflects not simply the fact that a King was on trial but that both the King and his judges took their stand on what are still crucial principles – the King on his right to trial by a properly constituted court acting on the basis of established law, and his accusers on the need to call to account a King they had described as a tyrant who shed the blood of his people.”3 (my emphasis)

Charles said the court was improper as it wasn’t part of, ‘established law.’ Of course it wasn’t. It was unique. Both the trial and charge were novel. To ensure parliament would try Charles, a coup was engineered by Colonel Pride, who barred non-Cromwell loyalists, thus fixing the vote. This became the so-called Rump parliament, “…of the 46 men allowed in…only 26 voted to try the king. Therefore even among those MPs considered loyal to Cromwell, there was no clear support to try Charles.”4

In the event, 59 MPs signed the death warrant out of 138 who’d been nominated. When Charles was executed, his eldest son, also Charles, was immediately declared king. There were then two ‘legitimate’ forms of government, as it were. One in power and one in waiting. In that sense Cromwell’s refusal to assassinate Charles was misplaced. He’d hoped that the legitimacy of the paradigm shift would be acknowledged and the republic would be an acceptable replacement to monarchy. Nonetheless Cromwell did establish a new intellectual framework which ultimately led to the constitutional monarchy Britain has today.

Notes

1BALL, SIMON. “THE ASSASSINATION CULTURE OF IMPERIAL BRITAIN, 1909-1979.” The Historical Journal, vol. 56, no. 1, 2013, pp. 231–256., http://www.jstor.org/stable/23352222. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021. p231

2 Drake, George. “The Ideology of Oliver Cromwell.”Church History, vol. 35, no. 3, 1966, pp. 259–272.JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3162307. Accessed 5 Jan. 2021. pp259 and 261

3 The trial of Charles I – UK Parliament

4 The Trial and Execution of Charles I – History Learning Site The Rump parliament was December 1648.

Source

For a contemporary statement of the charges and conviction see The National Archives | Treasures from The National Archives | Trial of Charles I (there’s a transcript as 17th century script is hard to read)

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