The axe was raised, it struck and Charles was beheaded. Charles died after being found guilty of a crime, which didn’t exist until Oliver Cromwell and his followers created it. They then appointed themselves as judge and jury adding a further layer of controversy. Was Charles executed or murdered?
Between 1641 and 1648 Britain was ravaged by civil wars. On many occasions Charles demonstrated a lack of trustworthiness. Cromwell became convinced that meaningful negotiations, to end the civil wars, were impossible This created a problem. Ending the civil wars, with Charles alive, meant he’d remain as a focal point of dissension. Alternatively, assassinating him would create a martyr.
Charles was recognised as king by everyone in 1649. This compounded Cromwell’s problem. Worse, it was accepted that Charles was king because he was chosen by God. Killing him would have been interpreted as martyrdom. Cromwell was an adroit politician who manouvred his way past this difficulty by saying God had withdrawn his favour from Charles. How else, went Cromwell’s argument, could Charles have been defeated? Cromwell didn’t put king Charles on trial. He put Charles Stuart on trial but this sophistry wasn’t accepted by many observers.
“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.”1 (my emphasis)
Charles refused to recognise the court, “…[or] the charges against him or the authority of the court to lay these charges, the Commissioners took the decision to deny the king the right to speak to the court until he answered the charges.”2
The trial was a statement that Charles should be executed but most MPs refused to be judges. They didn’t believe a king could be tried and executed. “….even among those MPs considered loyal to Cromwell, there was no clear support to try Charles.”3
Cromwell’s desire to execute Charles meant he took enormous political risks. His own MPs didn’t support him and most of the population rejected his position. Royalists denied the legitimacy of the trial proclaiming, “The King is dead, Long live the King,” marking the succession of Charles the second.4
Cromwell’s political adroitness couldn’t conceal the unique nature of the trial and execution of Charles. Just how could he be executed for a crime that didn’t exist when it was ‘committed’?5 The intransigence of Charles prolonged the civil war beyond 1645 when he was decisively defeated at Naseby.6 Post 1645 the civil wars changed and he could, plausibly, be described as a ‘Man of Blood’. Every death after 1645 was ‘unnecessary’ to be laid at his door.
Cromwell was a deeply religious man who saw the ‘hand of God’ in every event. The defeat of Charles and his utter untrustworthiness led to Cromwell believing that he’d forfeited his anointment as king. Charles was unworthy of kingship and therefore wasn’t really a king in Cromwell’s assessment. He was a ‘Man of Blood’ deserving to die. Cromwell’s political calculation was this was demonstrable and the people would agree with him.
The execution of Charles horrified European monarchs but within a few years their feelings shifted to Realpolitik.7 Regardless of their fears, Cromwell was a fact of life and had to be accommodated. British foreign policy thrived under Cromwell. Meanwhile Charles II became an embarrassment and was shuffled from one location to another relying on largesse from his royal ‘cousins’. The execution of Charles was a legal novelty. However, within the swirls of religion and politics Cromwell showed incredible courage by not assassinating Charles and putting him on trial. Charles wasn‘t murdered, he was executed after a novel but legitimate trial.
4 Charles II always dated his accession to the throne from 1649 after his fathers’ death not 1660 when the monarchy was restored.
5 The Allies faced an identical problem in 1945 when Nazi Germany was defeated. The Nazis had committed horrific crimes but no-one had ever seen genocide before. Indeed, the concept ‘genocide’ didn’t exist prior to 1945 but the Nazi leadership were put on trial and executed. See Adolf Eichmann, Train Drivers and Crimes Against Humanity: Auschwitz 1944 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com)