Yes, faithful readers, part eight has dawned already - and with it, we near the end of this overview of the English Civil War.
There were effectively three civil wars in England in the first half of the seventeenth century, though it was the second conflict that saw the execution of Charles I and the introduction of the Republic. As I'm sure you'll remember, we left Charles riding into the parliamentary camp at Southwell, and royalist organisation effectively died with the king's surrender in 1646. There began a long period of negotiation throughout 1646, with Charles being seen as the lynchpin to control of the country by whichever faction could successfully treat with him, be they the Scots, the Independents, the New Model Army, or the Presbyterian government in Westminster. Charles clearly knew this, and so courted each side as he made the rounds through the country. In December, Charles made a play for Scottish support by agreeing to implement the Solemn League and Covenant, while he was being kept in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. While this never officially happened, it was enough to garner some significant Scottish support in the war that followed.
It's important to note that Charles was not a prisoner during this time, and certainly nobody wanted to cut his head off. Remember, the Civil War had started in 1642 as a 'rescue mission' by Parliament. Charles was kept in a degree of luxury, albeit under guard, but in 1647 members of the Army captured him, setting in motion the events of the Second Civil War.
The issue of pay was a long-standing one between the Army and Parliament, but when they captured Charles, Parliament used the issue to their advantage, withholding arrears in an attempt to coerce them into handing the king over. However, the officers of the New Model Army found themselves in an increasingly important position politically, because they held the king in their custody, and it was enough to make the Scots resume their alliance with Parliament's Presbyterian faction - and the remaining royalists, no less - and declare war on the army.
The Second Civil War had the curious effect of almost reversing the factions of the earlier conflict, as the New Model Army mutinied and declared their support for the king in February 1648. The new Royalists were once the military instrument of Parliament. However, the military action of the Second war was comparatively short-lived, and has been described since more as a revolt than an actual civil war.
Following the Army declaring for the king in February/March, a wave of uprisings broke out against parliament, swiftly put down by Cromwell, Fairfax and others. By August, the war was effectively over, when Charles' troops were roundly defeated at the Battle of Preston. Charles was in the north to meet with the Scottish support for his negotiations from December 1646, known as The Engagement, but Cromwell crushed the Scottish army and ended any hope of reinstating Charles as king.
You'll remember, I'm sure, that I began this series by saying that it was on 1 January 1649 that Parliament decided to put Charles on trial. So, what happened to bring them to this point?
At the end of the war, there was quite a high demand for the king to be punished, especially for inciting the second conflict, which was seen by many as wasteful and unnecessary. What is perhaps odd, though, is that many had thought the Charles' position during the first war was justifiable. Negotiations began to put Charles back on the throne as a constitutional monarch - that is, a king under the law. This had already been negotiated in Scotland, as part of the National Covenant of 1638 (remember, Charles ruled in Scotland separately to how he ruled in England and in Ireland).
The idea of returning Charles to the throne infuriated many of the more die-hard Independents, including Cromwell, and on 6 December 1648 a contingent of the military was led into Parliament by Colonel Thomas Pride. Subsequently, any MP who had shown himself to be supportive of restoring Charles to the throne was removed from the House, and in Pride's Purge, about 200 MPs were forcibly removed from power. The remaining 75 MPs then formed the 'Rump' Parliament, which was to govern England for the foreseeable future.
Can they really try him?
The answer to this question is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no, and a stunning example of legal manoeuvering, I have to admit! On 1 January, it is true that the Rump did not have the legal authority to try the king - much less try him for treason, which was defined on the statute books as killing the king (among other things). However, let's look at this in some more detail.
English history isn't exactly replete with precedents, but similar situations have arisen in the past nonetheless. Edward II was asked by parliament to abdicate before he disappeared, for instance. In 1485, Henry VII actually amended the treason law to legitimize his own coup that overthrew Richard III, so that if the man who sat the throne wasn't the legal king, but only the king in name, it did not constitute treason to kill him.
However, on 4 January 1649, the Rump passed a sort of preliminary vote that essentially gave themselves the right to try the king:
1) The people of the kingdom are the source of all just power, second only to God;
2) The House of Commons, being the elected body of the people, is therefore the source of all just power in the kingdom; therefore
3) The House of Commons has the sole legislative power in the kingdom.
How does this allow them to try the king? Well, the legal system in England was built in three stages: a bill must pass through the Commons, the Lords, then the King before it became law. During the war, this had broken down when Parliament was issuing its 'Ordnances' that were sort of emergency laws that didn't require the Lords or the Royal Assent, but the vote of 4 January basically made it law that the Lords and the King were not required to make a bill law. This is pretty mind-blowing stuff, but it does get worse.
"Remember I am your King, your lawful King..."
With that established, the date for the king's trial was set for 20 January 1649. 150 commissioners were named to act as the jury, including six peers, though tensions remained high throughout the month, and their number was reduced to 135 before the trial, though it was decided that only 20 would actually be required to deliberate if necessary. As it happened, no more than 68 ever appeared at any one session during the trial.
Charles Stuart, king of England, the Commons of England assembled in Parliament, being deeply sensible of the calamities that have been brought upon this nation, which is fixed upon you as the principal author of it...
So began the trial, with an acclamation of blame for the war firmly at the feet of the king. When the prosecutor actually charged him with treason, Charles was said to have laughed, before making his famous rebuttal, "I would know by what power I am called hither". Reading through the transcript of the trial, which was of course made by a Parliamentary scribe, I admit I had a degree of empathy with Charles: a group of men decides they have the power to hold a trial and, after amending the constitution to allow them to do so, they try him for treason, though it is clear that they have already decided his guilt before the date was even set. I would probably have laughed at them, as well.
Charles was accused of abusing his executive powers as king, though the irony here is that the Rump Parliament effectively abused their powers when they did away with the legislative checks on power and gave themselves the power to pass a law. In principle, the Rump Parliament were as bad as the king they were trying.
It is undeniable that the charge of treason is a thorny one. As I said before, the Treason Act defined treason as the murder or attempted murder of the king, the heir apparent, the queen, or the lord chancellor of the kingdom, or the raising of arms against any of those four persons. The moment the Earl of Essex raised his army and pursued Charles through the midlands in 1642, he was arguably guilty of treason, and the subsequent civil war made the entire parliamentary cause treasonous.
But history is written by the winners, of course, and Charles had raised arms against his country, and so was guilty before he even sat a trial.
I sound like I am sympathizing strongly with Charles here, I know. I should say that my sympathies lie with the legal system, and I feel that the Rump Parliament abused that system for its own purposes when they did away with the Lords and the King. There can be no doubting that a king who raises arms against his own people has failed, of course. Charles' own belief in the divine right of kings ought to have prevented the civil war itself, as the belief states that God has chosen the king to govern his people fairly and justly. Charles' behaviour does smack strongly of a temper tantrum, of course, and so is unbecoming for a monarch, but I'm not sure that could justify the constitutional manipulation undertaken by the Rump to enforce its will.
At any rate, Charles refused to formally answer the charges laid against him. Instead, he continually questioned, when he was allowed to speak, the legality of the court before which he was arraigned. It was, perhaps, a too subtle tactic. The commissioners were charging him with killing his own subjects, and Charles' defense, such as it was, was to question the authority of the men who questioned him. Despite several incidences of Charles appearing to be getting the better of the judges, who told him to stop with his line of questioning in what appears to be a blustering fashion, it ultimately proved fatal for him, as a defendant who enters no plea was assumed to have plead guilty by the law of the time. As such, Charles was found to be guilty on 24 January, and condemned to death.
Charles was, at this time, still king, which was affirmed by the clerk when he read the sentence. This was, therefore, something quite new in English history - the reigning king was sentenced to death while still in office by his own subjects. Again, pretty mind-blowing stuff! On 27 January, Parliament passed an act that made it illegal to declare any person to be king, though did not formally abolish the monarchy until 17 March. The House of Lords had, by that time, already been abolished on 6 February.
It is perhaps common currency the story of Charles asking for two shirts on the morning of his execution, due to the unseasonably cold weather making him shiver. It is also fairly common knowledge that Parliament struggled to find a suitable executioner, the City's hangman having refused. In fact, Alexandre Dumas makes a bit of a tale out of this in Twenty Years After, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, where D'Artagnan et al race to save Charles from the block, only to be thwarted when the son of Milady roughly does the job himself. (If you haven't already, I can highly recommend reading Dumas' novels, which are full of swashbuckling adventure!).
After making a mournful speech, which was likely not heard beyond the scaffold due to the large crowd of soldiers that interposed between it and the people, Charles was executed in one clean stroke around 2pm. It was common practice for the executioner to hold the head by the hair to the crowd, and declare "Behold, the head of a traitor!", but the words were not spoken, presumably because the person who eventually acted as the headsman did not want to be recognised.
Denied burial at Westminster Abbey, Charles was interred at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, with his head reattached.
The execution of the king did not stop the fighting, which continued in Ireland until 1653 as the Third Civil War, and would again spark up later in the century. Oliver Cromwell vehemently opposed any idea that he would succeed Charles as king, but as leader of the Puritans in Parliament, he accepted the title of Lord Protector in 1653, and nominated his son Richard to succeed him in his place upon his death in 1658. It is perhaps quite ironic that Cromwell himself grew tired of rule by parliament and dissolved the Rump in 1653, echoing Charles' own frustrated actions all the way back in 1629.
The army maintained significant power throughout the period of the Commonwealth, and when it appeared that the politicians were losing sight of the original aims of the civil wars, they had sufficient power as to force Richard Cromwell to dissolve Parliament in 1659, reinstated first the Rump Parliament, then the MPs who had been expelled in Pride's Purge of 1648, before finally negotiating to restore the monarchy itself in the person of the former Prince of Wales as Charles II.
It would be remiss to think the Restoration of 1660 was a return to some form of 'old way'. Charles II was a constitutional monarch, but he was still allowed to dissolve parliament when needed: the 1664 Triennial Act stipulated that a parliament must meet every three years, but did away with the previous requirements that it could only be dissolved with its own permission. The Restoration was, instead, a re-imagining of what monarchy should be. Despite promising religious toleration in his Declaration of Breda made shortly before he returned to England, Charles II's first parliament passed a flurry of pro-Anglican laws that severely curtailed the powerbase of the Puritans, perhaps in the hope that they wouldn't start another war now that Charles had reopened the theatres...
So that's my month of Civil War finished! Only intended as a high-level overview, I hope it has inspired you to find out more, and maybe visit a battlefield or two!