If Charles was given a chance to go back in time, I'm sure he would have chosen not to walk into the camp of the Scots army in 1648 after his resounding defeat by Cromwell.
In his anxiety, he had forgotten Drogheda, Newburn and Berwick. He’d also forgotten the tax he’d imposed on Scotland’s church as well as his insistence that they discard their own bible and use the English book of Prayers. In his mind, all he could think was that he was a Scotsman by decent and they would support their own.
It is hard to imagine how one mistake in judgement would catapult Charles headlong into disaster. He was so sure that he would be welcomed with open arms and you can understand his reasoning. He was Scottish after all. Born in Scotland of a Scottish king, James VI. His blood was their blood and he was so sure they would support him. What could possibly go wrong?
It was all very dramatic when Charles confidently appeared in the camp of the Scots army, his smile wide and his teeth gleaming white against his olive skin. Instead, the Scots stared back at him in chilly silence. He would have looked around at the grim faces staring back at him and hope must have drained from his heart. I would have been the first inkling that he’d committed a colossal blunder. When he was forbidden to leave the camp, he knew for certain.
By November, Charles knew he needed to escape but by then, it was way too late. By August the following year, it was all over. There had been some sort of effort made at negotiations but it had all failed miserably. Before Christmas, the Scots had handed Charles over to Oliver Cromwell in exchange for £100,000 and by January 1649 Charles was standing in Westminster Hall listening to charges being brought against him.
By rights, there should have been 135 judges to decide if Charles was guilty or not. In fact, only 68 turned up at all on the first day. The others were less than happy about being associated with the trial and there were plenty who did not want a trial at all. The number of judges allowed into Parliament was reduced even further when Cromwell would only allow those he thought supported him to enter through the front door. That left only 46 men. Of these, only 26 voted to try the king. Regicide, they argued, was a huge risk and they risked alienating England from the rest of Europe if they went ahead with it.
As Cromwell and the judges walked into the packed hall, soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder trying to hold back the jostling crowd. Voices rose to a deafening crescendo as the Chief Justice Bradshaw, who even had the foresight to make himself a special hat lined with metal to protect his head against an attack, walked to his seat and turned to face them.
When everyone was seated, Judge Bradshaw read out the charges. The King was charged with ‘accomplishment of designs and protecting himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices……’ Charles was told he had traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament and invented entitlement for himself and his family against ‘public interest, common right, liberty, justice and the peace of the people of the nation.’ He was also being held accountable for the 300,000 people who had lost their lives during the wars.
After the announcement, a lot of talk about God erupted. Charles claimed that he had a trust committed to him by God and that God would call those trying him to be accountable for their actions. In turn, those trying Charles proclaimed themselves the instruments of God's justice. They called on God for guidance, and they spoke of God's will being done.
After their speech, Charles eyed the judges with scorn and an uneasy murmur rippled through the assembly. Perhaps they expected him to beg for mercy or at least show a little contriteness. What they received was a heated response that did little to help his situation. He told them that it was they who were committing treason and that no court had jurisdiction over a monarch.
On the third day, they refused to listen to him anymore. To the low whisper of ‘God save the king’, he was removed from court after being refused permission to speak any further. As he walked out, surrounded by soldiers, he straightened his back and held his head high as he caught the eye of Cromwell. He noticed that Cromwell did not have the look of a man who wanted his enemy beaten. He had the look of a man who wanted his enemy dead. As for Charles, if there was one quality he had shared with his father, it was his family’s absolute refusal to concede defeat, no matter what the consequences. He defiantly turned his eyes forward and shrugged off the soldier’s hands that were holding him as he defiantly walked out the door.
Over the coming days, 30 witnesses were called and on January 26th 1649, Cromwell simply declared Charles guilty as charged without waiting for the final vote. Together, he and his commissioners signed Charles’ death warrant and the beheading was scheduled for four days time.
As the scaffold was being built, England held their breath, sure that this was just a terrible threat and Cromwell would suspend the execution to life in prison.
At the same time, the Scots looked on in horror. When they’d handed Charles over to Cromwell, they had never imagined what he’d had in mind. This was, after all, regicide and it was something that had never been done to a King of England before in all of history.
From France, in an attempt to save his father’s life, Charles Prince of Wales had signed a carte blanche in a desperate attempt to spare his father’s life. Alongside Charles stood his distraught mother as well as his younger brother James and his even younger sister Minette. They were the only ones who remained in France after Cromwell’s men had captured their baby brother Henry and sister Elizabeth eight years ago, both still imprisoned in the Tower. But nothing was going to stop Cromwell from performing what he saw as his duty.
On the day before the execution, Parliament allowed Charles to see his two children. In their final moments together, Henry aged 9 and Elizabeth aged 13 sobbed ashen-faced on their father’s knees. They had seen the boiled heads driven on spikes on London Bridge and the thought that their father’s head would join them frightened the children until they were both trembling with grief.
Charles kissed them both then took Henry onto his lap and held his face as he stared into his son’s eyes.
From Elizabeth’s diary, a wrenching account of his words was found among her possessions.
'He bid us tell my mother that his thoughts had never strayed from her, and that his love would be the same to the last. Withal, he commanded me and my brother to be obedient to her; and bid me send his blessing to the rest of my brothers and sisters, with communications to all his friends. Then, taking my brother Gloucester on his knee, he said, 'Sweetheart, now they will cut off thy father's head.' And Gloucester looking very intently upon him, he said again, "Heed, my child, what I say: they will cut off my head and perhaps make thee a king. But mark what I say. Thou must not be a king as long as thy brothers Charles and James do live; for they will cut off your brothers' heads when they can catch them, and cut off thy head too at the last, and therefore I charge you, do not be made a king by them.' At which my brother sighed deeply, and made answer: 'I will be torn in pieces first!'
With one final kiss to each of them, he allowed the guards to take them away, shrieking for their father with their arms outstretched. It would be Charles’ last sleepless night.
People say that when you know your life is ending, you reflect on your past. I’m sure as he sat in the golden light of a candle staring out of his icy windowpane, he would have been going over everything in his mind. Had he wished he’d had a glimpse of the future when he accepted the throne 24 years ago? Did he wish he’d had a quick flash of what lay ahead? If he’d known what was coming, could he have avoided certain choices and selected a different fork in the road? Could he have changed his future? If he only knew, he could perhaps have exercised discretion and restructured his life accordingly. No one will ever know what Charles was thinking in those last few hours.
A light shower of snow fell icy and wet from a grey, winter sky on 30th January as the morning dawned bitterly cold. By mid afternoon, when the weather had still not improved, Charles called for two shirts to prevent the chill from causing shivers that could be mistaken for fear. He walked briskly through the snow under guard from St James’ Palace to the scaffold that had been erected in front of the Banquet Hall in Whitehall.
With his head held high, he merely proclaimed his innocence and wished that God would forgive his executioners. There was a shadow in his eyes and his breath was heavy as if a huge weight was bearing down on him. He took a long deep breath, summoning up his courage, then he knelt down, ready to lay his head on the executioner’s block. He said a silent prayer then signalled to the executioner with his hand. In the utter silence, his head was severed with one blow. As his head was held up, the huge crowd let out a terrible groan.
This was not just the killing of a king. It was the killing of a king who, at the time, had the support of almost the whole of Britain by his side, even though, through his arrogance, self-righteousness and unscrupulous behaviour, some said he had brought it all on himself. He had a tendency to make bad decisions and those dubious decisions began the moment he ascended the throne after the death of his father. They had led the country into civil war, the abolition of the monarchy and ultimately it had cost him his life.
But they knew his mistakes hadn’t come from a personal need for power. He had truly believed it was his divine right, given to him by God, to rule as he saw fit. And many had agreed with him.
To most of Europe, at the moment the axe severed the head of Charles from his body, his eldest son became King Charles II and within six days, the Scots proclaimed Prince Charles the King of England, France, Scotland and Ireland.
In exile across the sea, young Charles did not hear the news immediately. When he did, he was addressed as Your Majesty. When those two words sank into his brain, it proved too much for the young man. Grief tightened his throat and his eyes suddenly blurred before he ran from the room in tears. Henrietta Maria, now a widow, was almost catatonic with shock. But there were none more shocked by the execution than his sister Mary, who had married Prince William of Orange.
In his room, Prince Charles slowly went from shock to anger. He had neither army to back him nor money of his own at the moment, but that could wait. Revenge would be all the sweeter for the wait.