The Trial & Execution of Charles I: Your Dignity is Non-Negotiable

One story that profoundly sticks to my mind and that I recall with reverence as I navigate this world is that of the trial and execution of Charles Stuart I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, who was beheaded by the rump of his own parliament after being tried and convicted for treason in his own country. Aged 48 at the time, Charles’ life was a dramatic roller coaster from the moment he was a small child and the constant in it was that he always held himself to a high standard. His dignity was never something to be negotiated.

Born on November 19th, 1600, Charles was the youngest child of the King of Scotland, James Stuart VI and his wife, Anne of Denmark. In March 1603, when Charles was but two, Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England and Ireland for over forty years, died, and her first cousin twice removed, James, succeeded to the thrones of her kingdoms, as he was her senior genealogical relative. As James and his family made the trip south from Edinburgh to London, one member was conspicuously absent: James’ youngest son, Charles. The boy was in such fragile health that his father was worried the traveling would adversely affect him, and in truth, nobody expected Charles to survive to adulthood.

Charles did eventually make the trip, and was determined to overcome both his physical weaknesses and the stammer in his speech. In the first area, he took up a vigorous program of exercise to strengthen his body, taking long runs around the park and eventually taking up horse riding, fencing, and shooting. He would become proficient in all three. Attempting to overcome his stammer, Charles would place pebbles in his mouth and try to speak. The latter therapy, as you might expect, was not as successful.

Charles I of England Young
Charles as a child.

The young prince strove to hold himself to a higher standard than his father James, whose court has had a reputation of casualness and carousing ever since his reign. Charles was appalled by his father’s seemingly un-kingly behavior, and now heir to the throne (his stronger elder brother Henry died in 1612), he was determined to go a different, more elegant direction with his own court when the time came. Father and son did agree on one very important aspect of kingship however- the monarch’s divine right to rule his realm, accountable only to God. This belief, and Charles’ adamant defense of it, would haunt him throughout his entire reign, and ultimately cause his undoing.

James died in 1625, and Charles became king of the three kingdoms. It must have been a very pleasing moment for the young king. Doubted by his own family that he would even survive to adulthood, Charles was now on the throne, helped in no small part by his determination to overcome his weaknesses.

Charles I of England Trial and Execution
Charles as a young king.

Almost immediately however, as his father before him, Charles was at odds with his parliaments. Its power over the purse being established during the Middle Ages, Charles, as all Kings of England, needed the consent of Parliament to obtain the money he needed to pay for his projects. However, he found his various parliaments so disagreeable that he dissolved them very quickly, and was determined to rule alone. This he did successfully for eleven years, finding creative ways to raise money (some of these ways however, such as the infamous Ship Money, were bitterly resented, and cost Charles much goodwill).

Eventually however, troubles in Scotland caused by Charles’ religious policies forced him to call a Parliament, as it was the only body that could vote him the money he needed to deal with the situation. This ‘Short Parliament’ was dissolved quickly, but the situation in Scotland was now so dire that Charles had no choice but to call another one, the ‘Long Parliament,’ and negotiate. Part of these negotiations led to the execution of Charles’ close friend and advisor, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. In an act of complete misery and humiliation, Charles needed to sign his own friend’s death warrant, and he agonized for the longest time before finally caving. This was an act which Charles would never forgive himself for.

During these rounds of negotiations, Parliament, sensing weakness, pounced and demanded, among other things, parliamentary control of the military. This infuriated Charles. In January of 1642, Charles acted how any man might when pushed to the brink. Seeing what could only be described to him as a body of petulant, unsatisfied children attempting to usurp the ancient laws of the land, the King reacted with swift force. He went to arrest five troublesome MPs in the House of Commons and one in the Lords on a charge of treason, but they were all warned beforehand and escaped. War was now inevitable.

Charles I equestrian

How many of us might react in the same way? It is difficult to keep one’s composure in the face of such insolence. This is the behavior we associate with social justice warriors – the strong mob probing for or sensing weakness in the party from which it wants something. Charles resolved to bravely stand up for what he perceived as his divinely granted rights, and to punish the wickedness of the insolent mob.

The war however, was not kind to Charles or the Royalist cause. He was facing a superiority in manpower from the beginning, the military brilliance of Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, and the might of the New Model Army- the nascent genesis of the professional British soldier that would conquer a quarter of the globe in centuries to come. These factors were too much and finally brought the King to defeat. In 1648, after failing in his attempt to restore himself to power in the Second Civil War, the King was brought to trial.

The decision to try Charles was a controversial one. Most of the Long Parliament simply thought that they were fighting to bring the King to the negotiating table. These moderates were purged by the army, leaving only a rump that consented to the trial.

Charles I trial 1648
Charles at his trial

Charles’ dignity was on display at its absolute best in the last chapter of his life. He refused to cooperate with the court or answer the charges, rightly claiming that there was no law in England that allowed for the trial of the King. He would answer, he said, when he knew by what authority he was brought before this tribunal.

Charles calmly faced down his accusers in this event. He lost his stammer, speaking clearly and powerfully. He explained that the Divine Right of Kings and the ancient laws of the land did not allow for this farce of a court.

Nevertheless, the verdict was never in doubt, and Charles knew this. His power had been gutted by the war. On January 27th, 1649, Charles was declared guilty of high treason and sentenced to execution three days later.

The 30th was a bitterly cold day. Charles demanded extra shirts so that he would not shiver as he made his way to Whitehall in the frigid winter air. He did not want anyone to mistake a shiver from the cold for shivering due to fear. After bidding a tearful farewell to two of his children, he walked the last walk of his life. He was not afraid nor did he even think that his execution was wrong- he felt that it was the just price to be paid for his earlier execution of the Earl of Strafford, and respectfully owned up to this mistake before God.

Addressing the people gathered to witness the event, Charles showed neither fear nor sorrow, and, after assuring that his intention was to uphold the laws and liberties of his realm declared:

I go now from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.

The King was then beheaded, shocking the crowd and all of Europe.

Though Charles had been defeated in the war and placed in a position of powerlessness, he never let his enemies rob him of his dignity. His adamant refusal to negotiate cost him the war, his crown, and his life, but his self-worth was not to be lost. In the face of a most stressful situation, he refused to let his enemies set the frame against him, retaining control of the one thing he still had power over- his self-respect.

Posterity will remember a man for his accomplishments and his failures, but it will also remember him for his dignity and character. Thus, though the loser, Charles is often remembered in a positive light, often in contrast with those who had defeated him in the war. He is considered a martyr by many and his memory carries with it the air of nobility that his character created.

Though Charles I is certainly a bad lesson in persuasion and the laws of power and not to be emulated in most aspects in life, he does teach us one important overarching lesson.

Always strive to hold your self-respect in the highest regard. It is a big part of how people will remember you when you are gone and how people will value you in your time in this world. And it is the one thing that is not subject to the chaotic whims of fortune.

Law 34: Act like a king to be treated like one.

So Charles did. Even to his death.

Charles I martyr

This post is expanded, with primary sources from the trial, in Lives of the Luminaries.

As an aside, the story and character of Charles I played a part in creating The Red War. There are some parallels between him and the man who comes to be the leader of the Martian military forces, who is a direct male descendant of his.

In the meantime, had Charles been able to read Stumped, he might have saved his head. You should do the same.

This post originally appeared in the archive on November 25th, 2013.

It was also published on Return of Kings.

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