Trial of Charles I
C.V. Wedgwood's A Coffin For King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I is generally considered the classic account of the trial and execution of Charles I. The book opens in late 1648 with Charles captive on the Isle of Wight. Having lost the first English Civil War (1642-1645), Charles had been taken into captivity from whence he plotted and conspired and provoked until Royalist uprisings blotted the countryside in what was known as the Second Civil War. Charles also played at negotiating a settlement, but despite his utter military defeat he had never accepted that he was not rightly entitled to be king. Believing himself ordained by God, Charles would not submit. Cromwell, for his part, also believed God he was doing God's work. At last, exasperated by Charles' deceitful behavior, Cromwell and his allies determined to take ultimate action against the king.
Wedgwood meticulously covers the events beginning with the collapse of treaty negotiations. The New Model Army took custody of the king and eventually brought him to London for trial. The Army had also taken control of Parliament by forcing out uncooperative members in Pride's Purge.
To say that the Parliament made a hash of the trial is an understatement. Wedgwood, however, at times argues a brief on behalf of the king that strains logic. Wedgwood essentially adopts Charles' argument that the trial of the king by the House of Commons (without the Lords) was unlawful. Indeed the circumstances were so novel - the people asserting the right to try and execute their ruler - that the Parliamentary judges were also flummoxed by Charles' denial of the jurisdiction of the court and his consequent refusal to enter a plea.
Under the common law at the time, a defendant who refused to enter a plea was presumed guilty and therefore no trial would take place. Parliament, of course, wanted a trial in order to call witnesses and establish the king's treachery, especially in fomenting the second Civil War. Despite being engaged in the revolutionary act of holding a monarch to a legally responsible for his acts, the Parliamentary judges lacked the imagination to find a way to forge ahead with the presentation of their damning evidence. The entire enterprise teeters on the edge of collapse, but Cromwell pushes through to the end. The death warrant was signed and the king executed.
Some eleven years later, Charles II manages to regain the throne and the so-called regicides are brought to trial although a relatively small number (six) were executed. Those few, however, suffered excruciating deaths by partial hanging, and then being drawn and quartered.
Wedgwood covers the details closely, so much so that by the end this reader was quite ready for the old boy to have his noggin separated from his shoulders. Wedgwood's evident sympathy for the Royalist cause is a bit jarring. She refers to the kings' execution as `murder' and to Charles' `martyrdom' and my reading is that she adopts these views as her own. Yes, the trial of the king did not follow the proper forms, but for the very good reason that no such forms existed when the prisoner in the dock was the king. The Parliament did attempt to conduct a trial to justify their actions, rather than simply sticking a knife into him. The bungled it badly, but they made the effort. Charles had made it quite plain that he would never stop his machinations to regain the throne as long as he lived. He really left Cromwell, Parliament and the Army no choice, short of reinstalling him on the throne.
An interesting read, although one cannot escape the nagging thought that the details do not much matter. Given his unwillingness to accept an accommodation, the king's death at the conclusion of the Civil War was inevitable unless he had escaped it by fleeing to the Continent. Of more interest is the nature of the revolution and its limits.
The Parliamentary leaders did acheive the limitation of the crown's powers and took control of taxation. As Christopher Hill summarized it, "Absolute monarchy on the French model was never again possible." (See Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (Norton Library History of England)). It was, however, only a partial revolution. The attempt to greatly expand the voting franchise, elect Justices of the Peace, and redistribute property to the lower classes was utterly defeated. The threat from below was eliminated for another century or more. And this outcome was agreeable to most of the Parliamentray leadership.