Today is the Anglican Church’s feast of Charles I, King and Martyr—a saint whom Milton helped to murder.
This is what Andrew Marvell wrote about this dreadful historical event:
From “A Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return From Ireland”
And Hampton shows what part
He had of wiser art,
Where, twining subtle fears with hope,
He wove a net of such a scope,
That Charles himself might chase
To Carisbrooke's narrow case:
That then the royal actor born
The tragic scaffold might adorn:
While round the armèd bands
Did clap their bloody hands.
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene:
But with his keener eye
The axe's edge did try:
Nor called the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head,
Down, as upon a bed.
This was that memorable hour
Which first assured the forcèd power.
So when they did design
The Capitol's first line,
A bleeding head where they begun,
Did fright the architects to run;
And yet in that the State
Foresaw its happy fate.
--A poem that is particularly remembered in England on this day by the Society of King Charles the Martyr.
The legal murder of Britain’s rightful monarch was not only criminal; it was also stupid, because the fanatics like Milton who accomplished it also ensured the restoration of the monarchy by its excess:
Without a revolutionary ideology attached to it, the act of regicide can often work perversely to restore the fortunes of an ailing royal dynasty. The example of the only English monarch to be tried and executed is a case in point. Charles I gave two great gifts to the Stuart dynasty: legitimate male heirs and his remarkable death. Recent work on the trial and execution of Charles I has attempted to separate the modern mental association between the act of regicide and republicanism. Right down to December 1648, it has been argued, and perhaps even once the trial had begun, Charles could have got off and kept his throne if he had been prepared to have his ecclesiastical and political wings clipped. Even after the executioner had separated Charles’ head from his shoulders, a republican government was not a foregone conclusion and it is possible that instead a Cromwellian regency would have been formed with Charles’ youngest son, Henry, as puppet king.
It is also fair to say that the men that put Charles I on trial did not have a concept of "revolutionary justice", unless we can extend that idea to include the notion of the execution of divine wrath upon tyrants. One of the main grounds for punishing the king was the charge of "blood guilt", based upon the words of Genesis 9:6: "He that sheds mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed", and Numbers 35:33: "Blood defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed but by the death of him that caused it to be shed". Divine wrath for the sins the nation had incurred, particularly via the Second Civil War in its repudiation of God’s providential design for England, could only be assuaged by the blood of the author of that war. (In an interesting inversion of this sanguinary image, Royalists portrayed the king as the "princely pelican" who regurgitated his nourishing blood into the mouth of a grateful nation). Writers like John Canne and John Cook, the prosecuting counsel in the trial, who tried to justify the proceedings against Charles I also used the medieval precedents for royal deposition, in the cases of Edward II and Richard II, to argue that the king was guilty of infracting his coronation oath, which bound him to uphold the law. The same line was adopted by John Bradshaw, the president of the court in the trial proceedings.
Bradshaw argued that there was "a contract and a bargaine betweene the King and his people and your Oath is taken, and certainly Sir the Bond is Reciprocall, for as you are the liege Lord, so they liege subjects, and we know very well that hath been so much spoken of Ligeantia est duplex, This we know now, the one tye, the one bond, is the bond of Protection that is due from the Sovereigne, the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject, Sir if this bond be once broken, farewell Sovereignty". However, the High Court of Justice itself retreated from claiming to be enforcing any new, revolutionary law code, clinging instead to the procedures of English common law. It was this insistence on maintaining old legal forms which prevented Parliament from getting the great rhetorical showdown with the king that it wanted. Charles refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction and in consequence Cook was never given the opportunity to read his lengthy indictment.
So classical republican ideas played little part in justifying regicide. Indeed England was only declared a republic two months after the king’s execution. This is not to say that people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could not think of government without a monarch. Privy counsellors had been forced to consider the prospect many times during the reign of Elizabeth I, faced with a woman who refused to marry or name a successor and who at the same time was ill, ageing and under regular threat from assassination attempts. What they came up with was the idea of a monarchical republic, a type of Wurzel Gummidge monarchy, in which, if one head should get knocked off, a provisional government would be formed to screw on the next one. Always being at odds with the religion of some portion of their population whether Catholics or Protestant non-conformists, English monarchs were subject to repeated efforts by would-be regicides throughout the seventeenth century: the Gunpowder plotters, the Rye House plot, Fenwick’s plot to name just a few of the more serious ones. Scheme for an acephelous republic were resurrected too, with provisions for the continued sitting of Parliament and the creation of a council of the great and good, who would sit as an interview panel vetting prospective noble claimants to the throne. Such schemes had radical undertones. If the ruling monarch was not a good candidate because of their unwillingness to defend religion and/or the laws, surely they could be removed and better qualified individual put in their place? Arguably, earlier schemes for provisional republican governments came to fruition in 1688, as ad hoc assemblies of peers and commoners decided to declare their allegiance for William of Orange.
If the events of January 1649 were something of a personal disaster for Charles I, in public relations terms they constituted just about the best press the monarch had ever received. Government sponsored newssheets, set up to report what was hoped to be a great rhetorical victory for Bradshaw and the other court officials instead recorded the lucid and intelligent responses of a king known previously as a stammer and stutterer, more in love with pictures than words. Most important of all was the success of Charles I’s Eikon Basilike, an addition to the very small genre of autohagiography. Although it may have been taken from Charles’ own papers, the book itself was probably the literary invention of an Anglican clergyman, John Gauden. Gauden successfully replaced the real Charles, an inveterate plotter and double-dealer, inflexible and autocratic, with a saintly king who was perhaps to good for such a sinful world. The providential eschatology of the Parliamentarian saints was turned on its head. It was the king whose innocent blood would expiate the guilt of the rebellious nation’s crimes.
Despite John Milton’s revelation that parts of the king’s scaffold speech were actually plagiarised from Sir Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia, the book was a massive best-seller from the moment that it appeared in print and continued to be published in popular and scholarly editions right up to the twentieth century. Wencleslaus Holler’s famous print that adorned the book’s frontispiece with the king kneeling before an altar, eyes cast heavenwards, served up an image as potent and enduring as the text within. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he ordered that the anniversary of his father’s death, 30 January, should be observed as a day for solemn fasting and public humiliation. Anglican ministers would often preach sermons on this day expounding on the evils of rebellion and the threat still posed by Protestant dissenters.
Compare this with the fate of Louis XVI in 1793. Unlike in England, the French monarchy had come under sustained attack in print from the early 1720s onwards. As Robert Darnton has shown, the damage was done less by the great works of Enlightenment thought, but by a steady stream of salacious tittle-tattle or, to get poncy, mauvais discourse about Louis XV -- the Peter Stringfellow of the Bourbon dynasty -- which significantly diminished public respect for the institution. At Louis’s trial, a fairly clear sense of revolutionary justice was in evidence. Louis was tried not as a king, as Charles I was, but as an ordinary citizen, M. Capet (despite Robespierre’s attempts to have him denied even these rights as an "enemy of the people"). There is no equivalent in the English trial proceedings to Saint-Just’s chilling "no-one rules innocently". It was not without reason that Albert Camus saw in the king’s trial the beginnings of modern totalitarianism. Although monarchy would return to France, poor, dull Louis XVI never inspired the saintly veneration of the English king whose parallel life the Bourbon monarch had dwelt upon in his last days.
Without Bolsheviks or Jacobins then, regicide can just as soon prove the backdoor for restoration. William III did a far better job by getting the English ruling classes to push out James II and declare that he had "vacated" the throne. The exiled dynasty would remain a thorn in the side of the Hanoverian state until the final defeat at Culloden in 1745 but in the end who would remember Henry IX, last Stuart pretender to the throne, save as figure of historical curiosity? That sudden death, even if accidental, can confer the moral integrity and intelligence that was sadly lacking whilst the person was alive is clear from the experience of our most recent royal martyr, St. Diana of the Underpass. It cannot be long, surely, before she has her own religious cult with perhaps George Michael and Elton John as her apostles. I wouldn’t want to compare the blessed Obi Wan Kenobi with Charles Stuart, but surely the Jedi’s words encapsulate the historical experience of regicide in England, "If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine".
Here is the an account of Charles Stuart’s execution, including the noble speech he made from the scaffold:
KING CHARLS, HIS SPEECH
Made upon the
Immediately before his execution
On Tuesday the 30 of Jan. 1648
With a relation of the maner of
His going to Execution
Published by special authority
Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the
Royal Exchange, 1649.
About ten in the morning the King was brought from St. James's, walking on foot through the park, with a regiment of foot, part before and part behind him, with colours flying, drums beating, his private guard of partizans with some of his gentlemen before and some behind bareheaded, Dr. Juxon next behind him and Col. Thomlinson (who had the charge of him) talking with the King bareheaded, from the Park up the stairs into the gallery and so into the cabinet chamber where he used to lie.
(It is observed the King desired to have the use of the cabinet and the little room next it where there was a trap door.)
Where he continued at his devotion, refusing to dine, (having before taken the Sacrament) only about an hour before he came forth, he drank a glass of claret wine and eat a piece of bread about twelve at noon.
From thence he was accompanied by Dr. Juxon, Col. Thomlinson and other officers formerly appointed to attend him and the private guard of partizans, with musketeers on eahc side, through the Banqueting house adjoining to which the scaffold was erected between Whitehall Gate and the Gate leading into the gallery from St. James's.
The scaffold was hung round with black and the floor covered with black and the Ax and block laid in the middle of the scaffold. There were divers companies of foot, and troops of horse placed on the one side of the scaffold towards Kings Street and on the other side towards Charing Cross, and the multitudes of people that came to be spectators, very great.
The King being come upon the scaffold, look'd very earnestly upon the block and ask'd Col. Hacker if there were no higher. And then spake thus, directing his speech chiefly to Col. Thomlinson.
King: I shall be very little heard of anybody here, I shall therefore speak a word unto you here. Indeed I could hold my peace very well, if I did not think that holding my peace would make some men think that I did submit to the guilt as well as to the punishment. But I think it is my duty to God first and to my country for to clear myself both as an honest man and a good King, and a good Christian. I shall begin first with my innocence. In troth I think it not very needful for me to insist long upon this, for all the world knows that I never did begin a war with the two Houses of Parliament. And I call God to witness, to whom I must shortly make an account, that I never did intend for to encroach upon their privileges. They began upon me, it is the Militia they began upon, they confest that the Militia was mine, but they thought it fit for to have it from me. And, to be short, if any body will look to the dates of Commissions, of their commissions and mine, and likewise to the Declarations, will see clearly that they began these unhappy troubles, not I. So that as the guilt of these enormous crimes that are laid against me I hope in God that God will clear me of it, I will not, I am in charity. God forbid that I should lay it upon the two Houses of Parliament; there is no necessity of either, I hope that they are free of this guilt. For I do believe that ill instruments between them and me has been the chief cause of all this bloodshed. So that, by way of speaking, as I find myself clear of this, I hope (and pray God) that they may too. Yet, for all this, God forbid that I should be so ill a Christian as not to say God's judgments are just upon me. Many times he does pay justice by an unjust sentence, that is ordinary. I will only say this, that an unjust sentence (Strafford) that I suffered for to take effect, is punished now by an unjust sentence upon me. That is, so far as I have said, to show you that I am an innocent man.
Now for to show you that I am a good Christian. I hope there is (pointing to D. Juxon) a good man that will bear me witness that I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causes of my death. Who they are, God knows, I do not desire to know, God forgive them. But this is not all, my charity must go further. I wish that they may repent, for indeed they have committed a great sin in that particular. I pray God, with St. Stephen, that this be not laid to their charge. Nay, not only so, but that they may take the right way to the peace of the kingdom, for my charity commands me not only to forgive particular men, but my charity commands me to endeavour to the last gasp the Peace of the Kingdom. So, Sirs, I do wish with all my soul, and I do hope there is some here (turning to some gentlemen that wrote) that will carry it further, that they may endeavour the peace of the Kingdom.
Now, Sirs, I must show you both how you are out of the way and will put you in a way. First, you are out of the way, for certainly all the way you have ever had yet, as I could find by anything, is by way of couquest. Certainly this is an ill way, for couquest, Sir, in my opinion, is never just, except that there be a good just cause, either for matter of wrong or just title. And then if you go beyond it, the first quarrel that you have to it, that makes it unjust at the end that was just at the first. But if it be only matter of couquest, there is a great robbery; as a Pirate said to Alexander that he was the great robber, he was but a petty robber: and so, Sir, I do think the way that you are in is much out of the way. Now, Sir, for to put you in the way. Believe it you will never do right, nor God will never prosper you, until you five God his due, the King his due (that is, my successors) and the People their due, I am as much for them as any of you. You must give God his due by regulating rightly His Church (according to the Scripture) which now out of order. For to set you in a way particularly now I cannot, but onely this. A national synod freely called, freely debating among themselves, must settle this, when that every opinion is freely and clearly heard.
For the King, indeed I will not, then turning to a gentlemen that touched the Ax, said, hurt not the ax, that may hurt me (meaning if he did blunt the edge) For the King, the laws of the land will clearly instruct you for that. Therefore because it concerns my own particular, I onely give you a touch of it.
For the people. And truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever. But I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government; those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a soveraign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean , that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.
Sirs. It was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword I needed not to have come here. And, therefore, I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people.
In troth, Sirs, I shall not hold you much longer, for I will only say thus to you. That in truth I could have desired some little time longer, because I would have put then that I have said in a little more order, and a little better digested than I have done. And, therefore, I hope that you will excuse me.
I have delivered my conscience. I pray GOD that you do take those courses that are best for the good of the Kingdom and your own salvations.
Dr. Juxon: Will your Majesty, though it may be very well known, your Majesties afections to religion, yet it may be expected that you should say somewhat for the world's satisfaction?
King: I thank you very heartily, my lord, for that I had almost forgotten it. In troth, Sirs, my conscience in religion I think is very well knowne to all the world: and, therefore, I declare before you all that I die a Christian, according to the profession of the Church of England, as I found it left me by my father. And this honest man (pointing to Dr. Juxom) I think will witness it.
Then turning to the officers, said, "Sirs, excuse me for this same, I have a good cause and I have a gracious God. I will say no more."
Then turning to Colonel Hacker, he said, "take care that they do not put me to pain. And Sir, this, an it please you---" But then a gentleman coming near the Ax, the King said "Take heed of the Ax. Pray take heed of the Ax."
Then the King, speaking to the Executioner said "I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands—"
Then the King called to Dr. Juxon for his night-cap, and having put it on said to the executioner "Does my hair trouble you?" Who desired him to put it all under his cap. Which the King did accordingly, by the help of the executioner and the bishop.
Then the King turning to Dr. Juxom said, "I have a good cause, and a gracious GOD on my side."
Dr. Juxon: There is but one stage more. This stage is turbulent and troublesome; it is a short one. But you may consider, it will soon carry you a very great way. It will carry you from Earth to Heaven. And there you shall find a great deal of cordial joy and comfort.
King: I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.
Doctor Juxon: You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown, a good exchange.
The King then said to the Executioner, "Is my hair well?" Then the King took off his cloak and his George, giving his George to Dr. Juxon, saying, "Remember—." (It is thought for to give it to the Prince.)
Then the King put off his dublet and being in his wastcoat, put his cloak on again. Then looking upon the block, said to the Executioner "You must set it fast."
Executioner: It is fast, Sir.
King: It might have been a little higher.
Executioner: It can be no higher, Sir.
King: When I put out my hands this way (Stretching them out) then—
After having said two or three words, as he stood, to himself with hands and eyes lift up. Immediately stooping down laid his neck on the block And then the executioner again putting his hair under his cap, the King said, "Stay for the sign." (Thinking he had been going to strike)
Executioner: Yes, I will, an it please your Majesty.
And after a very little pause, the King stretching forth his hands, the executioner at one blow severed his head from his body. When the Kings head was cut off, the executioner held it up and shewed it to the spectators.
And his body was put in a coffin covered with black velvet for that purpose.
The Kings body now lies in his lodging chamber at Whitehall.
Sic transit gloria mundi
And what of John Milton, the apologist for the King’s murder and his most inveterate and envenomed enemy? He seems to have convinced himself, after some contact with Galileo and other foreign dissidents, that the coming Civil War would be “a fight for the greatness of the Renaissance, for curiosity and truth themselves.”
I will let Diane Purkiss, whose recent history of the English Civil War I’ve just quoted on the subject of John Milton, sum up:
The astounding thing is that this fiercely competitive, neurotic, insecure, emotionally constipated man whose prose writings often bore and sometimes hector did truly have the mind of a genius. Milton’s heart was not even as interesting as a foul rag-and-bone shop; it was more like a draper’s store circa 1950, with flannel cloth in neatly wound bolts. Yet somehow the alchemy of war wrought upon this unpromising material and transformed its baseness into an avalanche of pure gold. From the dry wastes of Milton’s egotism and emotional insensitivity somehow sprang skyrockets of bright angels, cascades of light, the mountains of Eden, and the bejeweled and velvet darkness of the most seductive Satan in Western literature. Of course we can catch glimpses of the splendours to come in the fugal sonorities of Areopagitica, in the starry courts of Comus, in the delicate fragile perfection of Lycidas. But Milton’s great epic still takes away the breath, in part because it is astounding that such grandeur comes from such a difficult man, but it could only have been produced by that war acting on that man. Paradise Lost is arguably among the war’s greatest and most enduring consequences.
--Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2006), pp. 321-22
But let no one call him a Christian; he knows not one thing of the love, compassion and mercy of his Saviour’s teaching; and let no one deny that he betrayed and helped to murder his Sovereign.