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Reluctant regicides? The trial of Charles I revisited

Dr Andrew Hopper investigates the recent controversy among historians about the nature of the trial of King Charles I. Which individuals drove the king’s trial and what were their aims and goals? Did the king know he was doomed from the outset or did doubts remain over the trial’s outcome? How committed were the trial commissioners to a capital sentence and what pressures constrained their freedom of action?

The trial papers of Charles I are on view in The Keeper’s Gallery.

Dr Andrew Hopper is senior lecturer in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. He is a historian of the British Civil Wars, and best known for his two monographs Black Tom: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2007) and Turncoats and renegadoes: Changing sides in the English Civil Wars (Oxford University Press, 2012).


Right, so there’s been much recent controversy among historians over who was driving the King’s prosecution, and when exactly they resolved upon his death. Sean Kelsey and John Adamson have argued that five weeks of indecision followed the army’s political coup against the moderates in Parliament, known as ‘Pride’s Purge’, on 6 December, 1648. It was not until mid-January that a decision for a trial was taken. So the old notion that the king’s fate was sealed by the army’s Purge of Parliament has now been called under question.

Bound up with how we interpret the trial of the king are numerous combustible issues, such as: what sort of king was Charles I? Who do we blame for the descent into civil war, and failure to achieve negotiated settlement thereafter? What do we make of the character, purpose and motives of the English and Welsh regicides?

In a series of influential articles, Sean Kelsey has argued that army leaders – Cromwell included – were reluctant to try the king, and for much of December they sought alternatives. Once the trial began, Kelsey maintains that execution was still not inevitable, that the charge against the king was deliberately weak, and that many commissioners sought an alternative sentence other than death.

So Kelsey sees the trial then as an attempt at negotiation by force, with the aim of forcing the king to relinquish his negative voice, relinquish his power of veto. Astoundingly, as is very well known, the court repeatedly tried to accommodate the king by offering him between nine and 12 opportunities to plead. Even on 27 January, a large minority of the king’s judges sought to comply with his request to address Parliament.

The king misinterpreted his opponents’ disarray as a sign of weakness, and by standing firm, he forced them into a reluctant capital sentence. It was only then, on 27 January, three days before the axe fell, the commissioners finally resigned themselves to the king’s execution.

So this reading of the trial draws support from contemporary commentaters, news books, tracts and newsletter writers; it spread the notiom that the army leaders were trying to frighten the king into concessions, rather than seeking to eliminate him. They used the threat of the trial to string along support, from Levellers and political radicals; army control of the king was seen as an indispensible asset in preserving the army’s political dominance, and furthering their desire to crush their former allies within the Parliamentarian coalition, their Presbyterian, and pro-Scottish interests.

So from this comes the idea that the king was more use to the army leaders alive than dead. And John Adamson has also suggested that the anxious army leaders needed the king to call off the mobilisation of a new coalition that was emerging in his favour in Ireland, that threatened a renewal of armed hostilities.

So this reading of the trial suggests that many of the regicides were uncertain, reluctant and fearful of the revolutionary prospect before them. And it’s won support from the influential historians of the wider conflict of the Civil War, such as Michael Braddick and Richard Cust.

It’s also had an impact beyond academia – Howard Brenton’s play, 55 Days, premiered at Hampsted Theatre in October and November 2012. It dramatised the period between Pride’s Purge of 6 December 1648, and the king’s execution on 30 January following, the ’55 Days’ showing the regicides – particularly Cromwell – as divided, uncertain, anxious, ready to negotiate with the king, and it was only that the king pushing them really beyond where they were prepared to go that turned them into king-killers.

Yet since 2010, since about four years ago, what we might call Kelsey’s and Adamson’s interpretation of the trial has come in for some pretty trenchant criticism, from the likes of Clive Holmes and Mark Kishlansky. They’ve argued that Kelsey has overestimated the strength of the king’s position, overblown the last-ditch attempts to negotiate with him, and placed too much weight on the wishful thinking of ill-informed royalist newsletter writers, such as Marchamont Nedham. They contend that the evidence suggest the trial was in earnest, and that there were no secret negotiations.

Mark Kishlansky has even recently contended that the purported mission of Basil Feilding, Earl of Denbigh, one of the Parliamentarian peers, to go to treat with the King at Windsor, on behalf of the army, on 25 December – as discussed by historians ever since Samuel Wilson Gardener in the Victorian times – the king’s supposed ‘last chance’ to reach a settlement with the army leaders…Kishlansky contends this never even took place. He also suggests that at this point, the Royalist threat from Ireland, argued to be a factor by Adamson, was nothing other than a paper tiger, and that the coalition had not emerged at this point and that the army leaders and allies in the House of Commons in England at the time were not really perturbed by this supposed threat.

Clive Holmes adheres to the traditional view that Cromwell was prepared to countenance the king’s death becaue God had evidence against the king, time and time again, on the battlefield, and if they failed to follow the signs of God’s providence, God would punish England further. So against this conviction, Holmes contends that once the trial began, the king knew he was doomed.

So we can see already two pretty diametrically opposed versions of how to interpret the trial. And all of this brings us to the exhibition downstairs, in the Keeper’s Gallery [] here this month [May 2014]. The National Archives has placed upon exhibition the Journal of State Papers relating to the trial proceedings. At the end of the trial a committee was appointed to peruse and consider the whole narrative of proceedings, so that they might be presented for examination to the House of Commons. The clerks of the High Court of Justice, Andrew Broughton and John Phelps, set about this task. The document was finally presented to the House of Commons on 12 December, 1650, almost two years after it was requested. And it was entitled A Journal of the Proceedings of the High Court of Justice.

[It] is a bound manuscript book, and sometimes being called Bradshaw’s Journal, to link it to the Lord-President of the High Court, although there is no known direct connection to him. This journal has been directly cited by most leading historians including Sean Kelsey, since JG Muddiman’s book, The Trial of Charles I (1928). It comprises 59 folios, almost identical with the trial proceedings that were later printed in State Trials by Howell. You can see a manuscript book downstairs in the exhibition. It includes the Acts for establishing the High Court of Justice, the dialogue between the king as his prosecutors, and the eventual subscribers to the sentence, in the same order, it gives their names in the same order as on the death warrant. It even shows the order to fetch an executioner’s axe from out of the Tower of London.

Later in the volume, it includes the act for settling the Protector of Government in 1654, so there were parts of the document that were added later. Also on display is a printed tract related to the details from the Treaty of Newport. Now, these were the last negotiations between the king and the Long Parliament, in the form of 15 Parliamentary Commisioners who were sent to negotiate with Charles I in the Town Hall of Newport on the Isle of Wight, where the King was located between September and November 1648. During these negotiations the king made important concessions, which I imagine he had no intention of keeping, including relinquishing control of the armed forces. Yet Cromwell blasted the Treaty of Newport in a letter to the king’s jailer Colonel Robert Hammond, on 25 November 1648, referring to it as ‘this ruining, hypocritical agreement’. And he referred to the king as ‘this man against whom the Lord has witnessed’.

Hostility to the Newport negotiations brewed among Parliament soldiery. They had been forced into fighting a second civil war against a duplicitious king, enduring much hardship and bloodshed in the process. Radicals amongst them called for justice against the authors of the Second Civil War, and an end to negotiations with the king. The manifesto for their intentions was Henry Ireton’s Remonstrance of the Army, which was approved by the Council of the Army, at St Albans. It demanded, the quotation’s here: ‘exemplary justice in capital punishment upon the principal author and some prime instruments of our late wars’.

How do we interpret that key quotation? Kelsey argues it is ambiguous, as it did not name the King personally. Kishlansky concedes that ‘exemplary justice’ need not have meant a capital sentence to some. Yet Holmes considers that it was clear enough to contemporaries and there was nothing ambiguous about the Remonstrance of the Army.

When the House of Commons rejected this army remonstrance, and ordered the Commander-in-chief, General Thomas Fairfax, not to bring the army closer to London, it invited armed retalliation. On 2 December, the army occupied Westminster, and when the Commons voted to continue negotiating with the king on 5 December, Commissary General Ireton, aided by army, Friendly and Pease [?] organised the soldiers to mount a political coup. This famously occurred the following day, on 6 December 1648, when several regiments occupied Westminster precincts.

Colonal Thomas Pride stood outside the entrance to the House of Commons, holding a list of MPs that he intended to prevent from sitting. Pointing out to him those to be arrested and those to be prevented from sitting (because he didn’t know many of them personally, being a professional soldier) was a renegade Peer Lord Grey of Groby, derisively nicknamed as the ‘Grinning Dwarf’, standing aside Colonel Pride telling him who was allowed in, who wasn’t, who was to be arrested. 45 MPs were imprisoned, and still more were excluded from sitting, only 56 MPs known to be friendly to the army were initially permitted to sit, and military guard of the house continued for a week afterwards.

Then, from between 3-6 January 1649, the House of Commons passed an act setting up a High Court of Justice to try the King. They nominated 135 Commissioners, some without their consent, to sit as the King’s judges. The charges against the king were drawn up from 9 January and took ten days to formulate.

Kelsey argued that the charges were deliberately understated, and gave the king perfect opportunity to clear his name. They amounted to the accusation of a treasonous waging of war on his own people in England and Ireland, though interestingly not Scotland.

Yet Holmes has argued that the charge against the King was not weak, nor was it minimal. It accused the King of treason against his own people, and of breach of trust, a crime for which many royalist insurgents had already been executed for their part in the Second Civil War, either for breaking their paroles not to fight again or having previously been Parliamentarians, and changed by the rapidly changing circumstances,1646-1648, found themselves more close to a Royalist position by 1648.

It was important for the army to try the King in public, with a show of legal process. None of the High Court Judges would sit on the trial, so the regicides had to procure John Bradshaw, a provincial judge from Cheshire, to preside.

But the trial of the King was highly illegal. It took place under no new constitution, no new political settlement had been made upon which the King could be tried. During the trial he was wrongly declared to be an elected monarch. He was tried according to the theory of power ascending upward from the people, when England had always been a monarchy with a theory of descending power. No new constitution or Leveller-inspired agreement of the people was in place to legitimise the trial.

The army’s supporters entered into the trial to demonstrate the extent of the King’s wickedness, but famously of course were wrongfooted by his tactics. The King refused to plead, declining to recognise the illegal court. Onlookers from across the political spectrum, from Levellers to Royalists, saw the proceedings as a sham. And after the event, Jason Peacey has shown us that the Republican’s attempt at kind of a PR campaign to spin and justify what they’d done did very little to change this perception.

So who were the regicides? Of the 135 Commissioners appointed, 59 signed the death warrant. But ten more who did not sign were present and stood in approval when the sentence was passed, on 27 January. So the number of regicides, it might be said, not 59 as is the commonly given number, but 69. These men were a mixture of army officers, soon-to-be Republican MPs, and independent ministers from the City of London. Some, not all, were united by religious conviction that Charles I had broken God’s Providence, and had the blood of the people on his hands.

And I’m sure many of you would have seen the image of the death warrant of Charles I. It used to be available as a poster, a friend of mine had it in his downstairs lavatory [laughter] so when he was sitting you could peruse the signatures.

And Hughes has argued that the regicides’ decision were not just determined by their religious or political views as you might expect, but also by their character traits. How courageous, rash, or cautious perhaps their personalities were.

After the Restoration, several of these men, including one commissioner – Thomas Waite – testified they’d been forced to participate in the trial and that doubt had remained, at the time, over its outcome. At first glance, this would appear to strength Sean Kelsey’s argument that many of the King’s judges were reluctant, uncertain, and far from united.

Thomas Waite contended that as late as 28 January, his patron Lord Grey of Groby, the second signatory on the warrant, second only to the Lord President himself, remained uncertain that the King would die, and that many did not sign the document until 29 January, the very day before the King’s execution.

Yet Mark Kishlansky and Clive Holmes have dismissed this evidence as unreliable. Indeed it was taken from a man who was surely lying, possibly lying, certainly being inventive with the truth perhaps, to avoid the horrific execution that was threatened to him, of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

So other post-Restoration testimony from regicides on trial for their lives is obviously tainted and they were trying to excuse what they had done, they were trying to paint their actions in the best possible light. So as these men turned on each other, in 1660-1662, when the trials of the regicides took place, as these men turned on each other, they suggest very little of an organised party amongst the judges, intent on delivering an alternative or lesser sentence, and that’s kind of a key part of Holmes’ argument.

So what of the two leading generals of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell? They developed very different political positions during the trial, but both became associated with the outcome, much to the former, much to Fairfax’s later regret. But Fairfax was the most notable absence among the King’s regicides. He feared more bloodshed, but nevertheless allowed the execution to proceed. He was named among the trial commissioners, and from the manuscript journal, in the exhibition downstairs, we can see he attended a preliminary meeting of commissioners in the Painted Chamber on 8 January 1649.

Yet once he was convinced the trial was to be in earnest, he withdrew from proceedings. This might undermine notions that the King’s fate was still very much up for grabs at this stage. A masked lady, thought to be his wife, interrupted proceedings of the trial to vindicate him from involvement, causing the prosecution some trouble with this disturbance. This did not prevent Fairfax, as General of the army, though as being depicted as directly responsible for the King’s execution in a number of ill-informed contemporary illustrations. [Shows image] I’ve got a few here, there are a number of prints and portraits here, depicting Fairfax as the headsman – quite erroneously of course.

Even before the trial began, Edward Stephens, an MP, excluded by Pride’s Purge, compared Fairfax to Pontius Pilate, beginning a series of connections that would link the sacrifice of Charles I to the sufferings of Christ. The reality was that he had been sidelined by his own officers, and his relationship with Cromwell and Ireton never recovered. Yet after the King’s execution he was allowed to write his own Oath of engagement to the Commonwealth, which had proved nothing of the past, which shows that the new Republic was very keen to keep him on board as Lord General of the Army. His ultimate failure to either endorse or prevent the regicide led to strong criticism of him being ridiculed as a mere pawn, or fool, or a tool of Cromwell’s Machiavellian ambition, [shows image] and we can see this from a Dutch medal, struck in 1660, in the British Museum, the ‘Devil’ Cromwell and the ‘Fool’ Fairfax, two sides of coin.

So what of Lieutenant General Oliver Cromwell’s ultimate role in the trial and execution of Charles I? This is more murky, more uncertain. The old question, ‘was the King doomed from the moment Cromwell decided he should die?’, remains a vexacious one, because we cannot know for certain when Cromwell decided this and how set he was upon that course of action thereafter. None of his letters survive between the purge of Parliament on 6 December 1648 and the regicide on 30 January.

Instead, Cromwell’s actions during the trial, and its prelude, are seen through the distorting lens of the popular press, which printed much rumour and speculation. Our knowledge is further skewed by the evidence for his behaviour, testified by those regicides on trial for their lives, after 1660. Naturally, these men had an interest in downplaying their role and magnifying his. As he’d been head of state thereafter – and eventually Lord Protector – he was a convenient ‘bogey-man’ on which to blame everything, when they were seeking to save their lives in their trials.

For example, Thomas Waite and John Downes reported being ‘abused’ by Cromwell for urging caution during the trial. Downes claimed that Cromwell had called the King ‘the hardest-hearted man upon the earth’, and whispered in Downes’ ear, that (quote) ‘I aimed at nothing but making a mutiny in the army the cutting of throats’. Others claimed to have acted in ignorance or under duress; Waite, who testified that Cromwell had menaced him, and laid hold of him, claimed to have been tricked into signing a document after the King was dead, not knowing what was contained therein. Even more preposterously, Richard Inglesby claimed that Cromwell guided his ‘trembling hand’ across the death warrant [laughter], forcing out his signature as he did so.

So as Cromwell became ultimately the head of state, he was a convenient, sort of ‘bogey-man’ figure for both Parliamentarians and Royalists, to apportion blame upon, and to seek to excuse their own conduct. And he became the arch-villain regicide in Tory historiography thereafter. A lot of this post-Restoration vilification of Cromwell comes in to blame him personally as the man chiefly responsible for the King’s death, but of course this is tainted, tricky evidence for us to use in this way.

It used to be thought that Oliver Cromwell lingered at the Siege of Pontefract in Yorkshire, which was still going on – the Second Civil War was still going on – during the King’s trial and execution. It used to be thought that this was very politic of Oliver, to delay arriving in London until after the Purge had happened, as if he had no hand in the matter. He successfully delayed Fairfax’s order to return to London for some time so that he’d arrive after the Purge had happened.

Yet a recent discovery among John Evelyn’s papers in the British Library, by Jason Peacey, suggests otherwise. He’s found a London correspondent, writing on 30 November 1648, that Cromwell was in fact among the army, ‘as thick as bees around about this city’. Why is this primary evidence being neglected by leading historians in the the prelude to the trial? The evidence could overturn traditional opinion, and if Cromwell was present in London during the Purge, maybe he played a more proactive role in it than once thought. How does that then impact on the conception of what the trial was about?

It could be argued that the real driver of events in precipitating the King’s downfall was no single individual, but the collective weight of the New Model Army itself. This is where Kelsey’s, perhaps rather Westminster-centric focus, and its neglect of a particular, popular lobbying, comes into potential criticism. Mounting pressure to execute the King came from army units and garrisons and provincial forces, stationed across the country, not just those immediately around London.

Parliament received dozens of provincial petitions calling for capital justice against the authors of the war. From October to December 1648, John Lambert and his Northern Brigade, came out in favour of a trial, or at least the Council of War, the Chief Officers of the Northern Brigade, did so.

In addition, several civilian petitions supporting justice against the king were received from Yorkshire and from Newcastle; one claimed to represent the well-affected of Leeds and Bradford, and another, the gentlemen and freeholders of Yorkshire. David Scott has highlighted the important role of the North in bringing the King to trial, where he argues that there was some kind of regionally-derived grievance against the King evident.

It’s often forgotten by Westminster-centric histories that the Civil War was still being fought in Yorkshire at the time of the execution, Pontefract had been withstanding a siege for months, and the North had suffered terribly from repeated occupation by Scottish armies in 1640, again in 1644, and again in 1648. So to have these occupations, to have the insult of this third Scottish invasion in 1648, instigated by a King insensitive to his people’s suffering, was too much for many Northerners. No less than eight of the regicides came from the five Northern counties; six were Yorkshiremen.

Scott suggests then that Northerners’ support for the regicide was an attempt to sever the link between England and Scotland, in order to make future Scottish incursions less likely. Quite an interesting point there about the interplay between the kingdoms of England and Scotland; it’s not one that’s been universally accepted, but there is certainly a strength of feeling amongst those Northern regicides, and certainly a very anti-Scottish sentiment, something that perhaps continues to this day amongst Yorkshiremen and Geordies, over the centuries since!

So the survival of the King was also an obstacle to the formation of any new regime that could guarantee an indemnity for the soldiers once disbanded. This was crucial; without an indemnity soldiers would be vulnerable to legal prosecution for acts committed whilst under orders.

Along with the problem of their mounting and unmet pay arrears, this was a practical issue which had done much to radicalise the army. So for instance, if you were a soldier, who, acting under the orders of your captain, had requisitioned horses from a local gentleman, once you were disbanded and sent home and you were resident in that area, you could be tried for horse theft and hanged. So that’s why Parliament were so eager to – well, Parliament soldiers, the New Model Army in particular, but also the Provincial Forces – were so eager to have a legal indemnity in place, to protect the soldiers for what they’d done during the war. The King was seen by some to be an obstacle to achieving this.

Prominent army officers called for justice against the king. Colonel Thomas Harrison famously called Charles I ‘that man of blood’. Colonel Robert Lilburne, brother to the famous Leveller John Lilburne, demanded ‘a trial to make answer for all the blood that had been spilt in this land’. The religious motive behind the execution was that God witnessed against Charles in battle during the First Civil War. And rather than accepting the will of God, the King had defied it, by attempting to renew the Civil War. He negotiated with the Scots’ army of the Engagement to invade, to restore him to his throne by force. He’d instigated these provincial uprisings across England and Wales, in his support to rekindle the flames of civil war, a second time.

These provincial arguments carried an enormous weight amongst some of the regicides, these – I should say, providential arguments. Demands for justice against the King from the Northern garrisons stressed ‘the special overruling hand of Providence’. These were men who feared God; if they did not punish Charles I then surely God would punish them – and the English people too – for their neglect in following his signs and implementing his providential will.

Alongside this stood millenarian fervour; the idea that England was God’s elect nation and that the English people were living through the last days. The kings of the earth must fall for Jesus to return and rule with his saints. For this, Joseph Salmon implored the army to continue with its reformation in 1649, writing ‘you are the rod of God, you strike through king, gentry and nobility, they all fall before you’.

There was also the realisation that Charles I could not be treated with. He would never stop plotting and deceiving to recover his crown; because he felt he need not keep his word to rebels because word could not be trusted. He had the capacity for several lines of action, several lines of political plans at the same time, even if they were in direct contradiction with each other. If he were not disposed of, England would run the continual risk of further civil war. So, he became too great a risk to be negotiated with, and a liability for those seeking to keep the army under control; some feared what the rank-and-file of the army would do, if they were loosened out of the power of their officers.

Now I’ve argued that it was Fairfax’s ultimate realisation of this that prevented him from intervening to stop the trial. The consequences of such a political intervention would have been too great, it would have split the army, and possibly reignited further armed conflict. Thomas Chaloner, a Yorkshire regicide and MP, and associate of the Fairfaxes, felt that the people’s safety was the highest law. He argued against a reprieve for the King, on 6 January 1649, saying:

‘Unless we should value this one man, the king, above so many millions of people whom we represent, and prefer his honour, safety and freedom, before the honour, safety and freedom of the whole nation’

Major William Rainsborowe, brother of the famous Leveller, Colonel Thomas Rainsborowe, took up this theme in July 1649, when devising a motto for his standard: sallus populi suprema lex (the people’s safety is the highest law). He placed this, rather provocatively, above an image of a severed head and an axe dripping with blood. From a safe distance of course, six months after the King had been executed.

So, I’d like to conclude now. Contemporary Royalist propaganda and Tory historiography since have depicted the regicides as religious fanatics, social subversives, hypocrites, low born parvenues bent on overturning the natural, God-given order. Yet on the other hand, recent research into these men and their own testimony, admittedly in the aftermath of the Restoration in some cases, suggests very mixed motives, and that some trial commissioners may well have been pressured or reluctant.

Ultimately, the nature of the evidence of the 55 days between the Purge and the execution is hugely problematic. As Clive Holmes has pointed out, the evidence is marked and distorted by wishful thinking, self-interest, selective briefing, spin, and deliberate ‘promulgation of misinformation’ as he puts it. Much depends on how we read the problematic evidence relating to the trials of the English regicides from 1660 to 1662. So both of the opposing interpretations remain tenable, with strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the debate.

Yet, interestingly, neither side of the argument can really place Cromwell convincingly as the prime mover. In Kelsey’s case, the king seized on indecision and weakness among his prosecutors, and then overplayed his hand, leaving them little choice but to execute him. This distances Charles I from attempts to portray him as knowingly taking on the role of martyr king, against his cruel persecutors, in this selfless royal sacrifice, beloved of the High Anglican tradition. Of course, you can still witness ‘Charles the Martyr’ sermons on 30 January in many English cathedrals.

In Kishlansky’s and Holmes’ case, it was the weakness of the perhaps more moderate members of the trial’s commissioners but ultimately, really, the strength of hostility of the army as a whole, that eventually sealed Charles I’s fate. Their interpretation might be said to put the King in a more favourable light – Charles I was not the personal disaster and political non-entity that his detractors have maintained. Indeed, if he’d been so useless as a King, why was civil war possible? Why did it go on so long? Why was an armed Royalist party so potent through the 1640s?

In retrospect, it is hard to envisage putting a 17th Century monarch on trial in public, unless you are confident of a capital sentence being implemented. The delay with the trial, and the multiple opportunities for the King to plead, were about openess, publicity, and sustaining as broad a support for the proceedings as possible, not about a chance for a negotiated acquittal.

Yet at the same time, we cannot rule out that doubt must have lingered amongst some contemporaries, even amongst trial commissioners themselves, nourished by the faltering nature of the trial’s proceedings, and overruled by the enormative of the undertaking of what they were about – whether Englishmen really could do the unthinkable.

Transcribed by Hannah Wright as part of a volunteer project, March 2015