The trial of Charles I

Charles I on trial
The trial of Charles I, which took place on 20 January in 1649, was incredible for many reasons. It was the first time a British monarch had been tried and condemned to death. Despite packing Parliament with supporters, Cromwell only just managed to win the vote for the trial to proceed. Fewer than half of the 135 judges turned up. And Charles I refused to defend himself. This was an extraordinary point in British history.

After defeat in the Civil War that had raged across Britain, Charles I was put on trial at Westminster Hall. 

England had no laws in place to allow Parliament to try a monarch, so a Dutch lawyer was drafted in to write the order. He based his argument on an ancient Roman law that said a military body had the legal right to overthrow a tyrant. 

But Parliament, which has been hostile to the king for decades, was still divided on its right to try the king. Oliver Cromwell was determined to proceed. To ensure MPs agreed he only allowed 46 of the most supportive to vote on taking the king to trial. 

Despite stacking the odds in his favour, only 26 voted in his favour. 

Now that the trial had been set, finding judges to hear the case was just as difficult. They were equally divided on whether they had the right to try the king, and many feared for their safety.

135 judges were chosen to hear the trial. Only 68 turned up. 

None would accept the position of Chief Judge, so a lawyer called John Bradshaw was handed the role instead. 

Bradshaw feared for his own life and wore a hat reinforced with metal to protect his head in case of attack.

Charles was charged with tyranny and treason, "out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people of England."

Charles appeared in the court four times, but he refused to defend himself against the charge. He had an unwavering belief that a king was anointed by God, and so his peers did not have the right to try him. 

In addition to refusing to take part in proceedings, Charles also refused to remove his hat. To the judges, this showed that even when on trial for his life, Charles remained arrogant and unable to recognise his faults. They felt this was proof he would always be a danger to Parliament and the country. 

The outcome was never in doubt. Bradshaw read out the court's judgement: "Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good of this nation, shall be put to death by severing of his head from his body.

He was executed just a few days later.

Image credit: The trial of Charles I, unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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