A King’s Demise

Bust of King Charles I in the British Museum, London

Bust of King Charles I in the British Museum, London

Three hundred and sixty-four years ago this month, England’s King Charles I was beheaded by direction of Parliament, with General Oliver Cromwell leading the formalities. King Charles was charged with treason, having just lost a bloody civil war and continuing to plot with is pesky royalist friends.

Charles I was considered a bad king. He signed away business monopolies to his favorites without regard to the consequences, taxed greedily and without consent of Parliament, and spent lavishly on his grand art collection. He thought he had the right: the God-given King’s Prerogative, to which Parliament did not subscribe. Plus, his wife was Catholic when the country most definitely had gone Protestant and Puritan.

In her book, Rebels and Traitors, Lindsey Davis does a nice job of describing the dramatic scene:

The King knelt before the block. He spoke a few words to himself, with his eyes uplifted. Stooping down, he laid his head upon the block, with the executioner again tidying his hair. Thinking the man was about to strike, Charles warned, ‘Stay for the sign!’

‘Yes, I will,’ returned the executioner, still patient. ‘And it please Your Majesty.’

There was a short pause. The King stretched out his hands. With one blow of the axe the executioner cut off the King’s head.

The assistant held up the head by its hair, show the people, exclaiming the traditional words: ‘Here is the head of a traitor!’ The body was hurriedly removed and laid in a velvet-lined coffin indoors. As was normal at executions, the public were allowed to aproach the scaffold and, on paying a fee, to soak handkerchiefs in the dripping blood, either as trophies of their enemy, or in superstition that the King’s blood would heal illness.

Kings had been killed before, of course, but most typically in battle by an opposing army, or they were murdered by some ursurper using a blade or a poison. But this was the first time a nation’s government had executed a king. Would God allow that? Apparently so, and it sent a shockwave throughout Europe’s monarchies.

It also freed Oliver Cromwell to begin the episode for which he is most hated and remembered — especially by the Irish. A rebellion against the English plantation of Ireland had begun eight years earlier. With the civil war won and the king dead, Cromwell was now free to descend with Parliament’s army upon Ireland to crush the rebels. And that he did. This is where the term “decimated” comes from: It refers to Cromwell’s order for his soldiers to execute every 10th Irish rebel, and the rest were shipped to the West Indies to work as slaves or die. This is where my story begins, in Sharavogue.

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