Why Charles I Was Executed in 1649

By Coward, Barry | History Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Why Charles I Was Executed in 1649


Coward, Barry, History Review


Barry Coward grapples with a question which has become more difficult to answer as a result of recent scholarship. He finds the answer in the New Model Army, in religious passion and in Charles himself.

In his introduction to a collection of essays published in 1982 (Reactions to the English Civil War), John Morrill wrote that the question of why Charles I was executed in 1649 `has become easily the most difficult of the range of questions about Tudor and Stuart history with which the undergraduates I teach have to wrestle'. Since then this question has become, if anything, even more difficult to answer, largely because much recent historical writing has successfully demolished key assumptions on which long-accepted explanations for Charles's execution were based. As the first part of this article will show, recent research suggests that much that happened in Britain before 1649 makes the fact that Charles I was executed astonishing. The execution of the king was certainly not the inevitable climax of long-term developments in the previous century. Nor was it brought about by a wave of popular revolutionary opposition to the Stuarts or the institution of monarchy. On the contrary, Charles I was probably more popular at the moment of his execution than at any other time in the 1640s (and maybe even before that). The main part of this article, therefore, suggests that the search for the solution to the puzzle of why Charles was executed must begin by unravelling the motives that in the late-1640s drove a minority of men to take the high-risk and incredibly radical step of putting Charles Stuart on trial on a charge of having `a wicked design totally to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this realm and, in their place, to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government', of finding him guilty, and then of cutting off his head (if necessary, as one of them, Oliver Cromwell, said) with the crown on it.

Exploded theories

Twenty years or so ago this question was relatively easy to answer. Few historians questioned the fact that Charles I's execution was the inevitable climax of longterm developments that had begun in the previous century, and of the escalating radicalism of events in Britain during and after the Civil War. In the light of recent writings by historians (often labelled `revisionism') such views are now suspect. Whatever the validity of recent criticisms made of revisionism, there is no reason to think that they have undermined the contention made in the 1970s and 1980s by G.R. Elton, C. Russell and others that parliaments in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were not full of MPs anxious to `win the initiative' from the crown in the making of policy. Early Stuart politics were not primarily characterised by conflicts between the crown and parliaments. MPs were fearful of what the crown might do, but these fears did not lead them into a campaign of parliamentary aggression designed to erode the constitutional powers of the crown.

Nor were those powers inevitably threatened during the same period by the development of revolutionary Puritanism. Work by P. Collinson, N. Tyacke and others published since the later 1970s has shown that whatever Puritans were (and they did exist), they were not a revolutionary group intent on destroying the basic structure of the post-Reformation English Church. On the contrary, they were `a militant tendency' within the Church who wanted to reform but not overthrow it. Of equal importance, they were not hostile to the basic structure of a monarch-centred State.

Even before the appearance of these revisionist views, it had already become difficult to accept that Charles I was executed as the inevitable climax of another long-running development: `the rise of the gentry'. While accepting that the gentry landed elite as a whole grew and prospered during the century before 1640, it became impossible to relate that to the political crisis of the mid-seventeenth century, since in that crisis the English landed elite split down the middle.

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