Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Parliament Intends "To Take Away the King's Life": Print and the Decision to Execute Charles I

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Parliament Intends "To Take Away the King's Life": Print and the Decision to Execute Charles I

Article excerpt

In the last days of January 1649, a terrible fear swept through the British Isles. This terror centered on one horrifying possibility: that the army and Parliament would order the judicial execution of King Charles I. Men from all backgrounds expressed it. On 23 January the Presbyterian members of Parliament, who had been purged by the army, proclaimed that "wee finde ... [parliament's] desires are to take away the Kings life." (1) Ralph Josselin, a former army minister living in Essex, believed that Parliament would not only kill the king, but would do so by 27 January. (2) On 25 January, a pro-Parliament pamphleteer assured readers that Parliament had the ability to "Execute the King." (3) The Royalist newsbook Mercurius Pragmaticus was so certain of the king's fate that all it could do was warn the Parliament-men that "Thou mayst be hang'd when Charles is dead." (4)

Most historians of the trial and execution of Charles I would probably agree that, by the end of January, Charles's days were numbered. Pushed beyond endurance by Charles's support of the Second Civil War, and his continual refusal to negotiate meaningfully some sort of true power sharing arrangement with them, key leaders of Parliament and the army reluctantly ordered his trial and eventual execution on 30 January. After doing so, they established a commonwealth, the first English experiment with republican government. (5) Scholars have usually followed S.R. Gardiner's view that there was great reluctance amongst the officers in the army and the leading Parliament-men to try and execute Charles. Indeed, the most important figure in English politics at this time, Oliver Cromwell, was not eager to do harm to the king's person. Yet in late December 1648 Cromwell and his fellow army officers and members of Parliament realized that Charles would never concede to their demands. By 28 December the leaders of both bodies had decided to go forward with a trial which would lead to Charles's death. (6) Major historians of Charles's trial since Gardiner, including C.V. Wedgwood, David Underdown, Blair Worden, and Austin Woolrych, have reaffirmed the point that, during the last week of December 1648, Cromwell and the other key figures in Parliament and the army realized that Charles would never negotiate With them in good faith, and that the only means of dealing with this stubborn sovereign was to remove him. So prevalent was this view that the only challenge to it, from Underdown, appeared in a footnote, in which he argued that Cromwell decided to kill the king in late January. With this small hint aside, the historiography pointed in one clear direction. (7)

Recent scholars, however, have taken a much more open stance against the canonical version of Charles's trial. John Adamson asserts that a preoccupation with Charles's army still at large in Ireland shaped the proceedings at Whitehall in December 1648 and January 1649. It was the Parliament-men's fear of Charles's ability to command his Irish army that encouraged the army and Parliamentary leaders to try him in late December. Further, when news came of the alliance of the various factions in Ireland under Charles's flag in late January, the Parliament-men decided that they had to execute him in order to prevent him from ordering his forces in Ireland to attack England. (8) Even more strikingly, Sean Kelsey has argued that the decision to try Charles was not actually intended to start a chain of events that would lead to the king's death. Kelsey suggests that Gardiner, Wedgwood, and Underdown are mistaken in their assumptions that the decision to try the king was the moment when the leaders of the army and Parliament realized that they could never negotiate with him. Rather, Kelsey asserts, the trial was only another round of negotiations with the king, aimed at forcing him to agree to limited powers. Kelsey maintains that every day of the king's trial was an offer by Parliament to the king to continue negotiations, answered by his steadfast refusal to do so. …

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