It was on this day that Charles I, king of England, was executed outside Banqueting House in London.
His beheading, in 1649, was the culmination of a decades-long struggle with Parliament, years of war across the UK, and a trial where he refused to defend himself in front of a court he said was not fit to judge him.
Charles's dignity at his execution was in contrast to the character he had shown throughout his rule.
In his final speech Charles declared his innocence of treason and called himself a "martyr of the people.” Few would have agreed during his reign, but public opinion was beginning to change.
With his final words spoken, Charles laid his head on the block, waited and gave a signal to his executioner to continue. He was beheaded with one clean blow, and his head was dropped into the crowd.
History has labelled Charles as a poor king whose belief in his divine right to rule disconnected him from his people and Parliament, who imposed unfair tactics to extract money for unpopular and unsuccessful wars abroad, and whose religious beliefs were mistrusted.
Yet his execution led to his martyrdom and signalled the beginning of the end of the Puritan cause.
Many in Parliament, including those who had taken up arms against the king, were horrified by his execution, and by the Puritans' decision not to name a royal successor.
Oliver Cromwell’s strength of personality and clarity of mission dragged the country through 11 years as a republic, but on his death in 1658 Parliament began to fall apart. His son, Richard, was named successor but lacked his father’s skills, so Parliament gradually returned to the idea of having a monarch.
In 1660 Charles II, son of the former king, was invited to retake the throne.
Charles promised that he would not seek revenge on the men who had killed his father, but he quickly backtracked and those who had tried the king and signed his death warrant were forced to flee or face execution.
On January 30 in 1651, 12 years to the day after the beheading of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s embalmed body was exhumed, along with other regicides, and taken to Tyburn where they were hanged and then decapitated. Cromwell’s head was displayed on a pole above Westminster Hall for 30 years, and his body dumped in an unmarked pit.
The importance of January 30 was reinforced when the Church of England declared it a day to ‘commemorate King Charles the Martyr’, and to acknowledge God's mercy in freeing the land 'from the unnatural rebellion, usurpation and tyranny of ungodly and cruel men, and from the sad confusions and ruin thereupon ensuing.'
Charles’ move from despised monarch to martyr was complete.
Image credit: Portrait of Charles I as Martyr King, National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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