”In January 1649, Parliament (the House of Commons had been previously purged by Colonel Pride of some 150 members in December 1648, leaving a small rump of some 80 members totally dependent upon Army leaders) established a High Court of Justice, under the presidency of John Bradshaw. On 20 January, the trial of Charles I began in Westminster Hall before some 70 Commissioners; it lasted until 27 January. Charles was accused of devising ‘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’ ”:
The outcome was known in advance. The King would be executed. The trial of Charles I did not unfold as judge John Bradshaw had wanted. Charles I had been obstinate and refused to recognize he validity of the court, it have no previous basis in English law; he refused to confess or deny the charge by affirming a denial of the legality of the court. He was right.However, To try and execute a reigning English monarch was a precedent and one that would be short lived.
The progress of the trial was little short of disastrous, and only a few of the fanatics, of which John Cook was one, can have seen it any other way. They had been prepared for the King’s refusal to recognize them. But they had not been prepared for his persistence, nor for his claim to stand for the laws and liberties of his people, still less for his eloquence, for the way in which, by the authority of his presence and his words, he dominated the proceedings.
“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 the 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 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 any thing that he calls his own. ( Charles I, trial)
The depositions of the witnesses were not very impressive, but they put beyond doubt the King’s personal participation in the war and his intention of continuing it, even during the treaty negotiations. After hearing the witnesses on January 25, 1649, the forty-six commissioners present resolved that they should now proceed to sentence the King to death. The following day, a draft sentence was produced, condemning the King ”as tyrant, traitor, murderer and a public enemy to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.”
When the last session of the trial opened, it was known to most of those present, and certainly to the prisoner, that the purpose of the court was to pass sentence. At the moment Judge Bradshaw began, there was a cry from one of two masked ladies in the gallery, ”Not half, not a quarter of the people of England. Oliver Cromwell is a traitor.” Colonel Axtell, who was in charge of security in Westminster Hall, ordered his men to level their muskets at her. Some say they heard him shout ”Down with the whores.” She was hustled out. The identity of the speaker was even more obscure. But the masked interruptor was lady Fairfax, who had come, accompanied by a friend, to relieve her conscience, and perhaps also to relieve her husband’s. The caution with which she concealed her identity suggests that this strong minded lady was acting without her husband’s knowledge.
Bradshaw’s final or
n before the prisoner took about forty minutes; a creditable performance garnished with a good deal of learning. He put it together deftly enough, but the task of legal and historical justification was a hopeless one. When he entered upon theory, he made a crucial point, and made it well: the authority of a ruler is valid only so long as he can offer protection in return. Here he touched the central core of government, and it was here that Charles had failed.
”Bradshaw’s address to the prisoner made an important point: ‘there is a contract and a bargain made between the King and his people, and your oath is taken: and certainly, Sir, the bond is reciprocal; for as you are the liege lord, so they liege subjects … This we know no, the one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty! … These things may not be denied, Sir … Whether you have been, as by your office you ought to be, a protector of England, or the destroyer of England, let all England judge, or all the world, that hath look’d upon it … You disavow us as a Court; and therefore for you to address yourself to us, not acknowledging us as a Court to judge of what you say, it is not to be permitted. And the truth is, all along, from the first time you were pleased to disavow and disown us, the Court needed not to have heard you one word.’ ”
The King’s supporters might argue that the King had made war only in defense of his rights. But rightly or wrongly, he had made war on his subjects, and in the crudest possible manner this violated the fundamental bond between him and his people. The clerk read out the formula on which the commissioners had agreed, and concluded with the sentence, ” that he the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public enemy, shall be put to death, by the severing of his head from his body.”
The King, who had listened calmly to the last , now spoke. ”Will you hear me a word sir?” Bradshaw had not expected this request. A prisoner condemned to death was already dead in law and could not speak in Court. The fact was so familiar with him that it had not occurred to him that the prisoner did not know it. But the King, as he himself had said, was no ordinary prisoner. ”You are not to be heard after the sentence,” said Bradshaw, and ordered the guard to take him away.
The curt refusal dismayed the King. He had not believed that his trial would end with such abrupt brutality. He had been all along, convinced that after the sentence he would be allowed to speak again. Now, suddenly, he saw that his chance had gone, leaving him recorded and condemned as guilty simply by his silence. He could not believe the monstrous injustice. The guards were all around him ready to take him away by force. The he found his voice for one last word:”I am not suffered for to speak: expect what justice other people will have.”
Fifty-eight Commissioners signed the King’s death warrant, nine others who were present when the King was sentenced refused to sign. John Downes, a Commissioner who argued in vain that Parliament should have been called to hear the King’s final offer of negotiation, and who withdrew from the Court before sentence was passed, was later to recall: ‘I did my best, I could do no more. I was single, I was alone; only I ought not to have been there at all’.
On 30 January, Charles I was executed, by being beheaded with an axe, on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall.