Sean Kelsey reconsiders the events of January 1649 and argues that the trial was skilfully appropriated by the Rump politicians in paving the way for the new Commonwealth
The trial of Charles I stands out as probably one of the most remarkable, certainly one of the most dramatic events in the early modern history of the British Isles. It is best known as the gripping first scene of the fifth act in the tragedy of a doomed king. Charles was notoriously shy of the public arena. Yet in this, his darkest hour, he turned in the finest performance of his entire career. Famously, he overcame a life-long speech impediment to castigate his accusers in tones which ring down the ages: `I do stand more for the liberty of my subjects than any that come here to be my pretended judges,' he declared.
Contemporaries compared the King's tribulations with Christ's suffering at the hands of the Pharisees. Newsbook accounts produced at the time, even official versions, whatever else they tell us about the events of that fateful week, certainly convey a morbidly idolatrous obsession with the royal actor. By a singular curiosity of grammar, even the High Court's own record preserves a living image of the King's first appearance before his judges. The past-tense narrative gives way momentarily to the present and Charles lives once more in the recollection of that Saturday morning, January 20th, 1649, when he was brought to the Bar and,
... after a sterne lookeing uppon the Court and the People in the Galleries
on each side of him he places himselfe in the Chaire [set for him, and]
presently riseth upp againe and turnes about.
The King's `martyrdom' continues to transfix the English historical imagination. Although generations of historian have remained mesmerised by the exchanges between Charles and the tribunal's chairman, John Bradshaw, in essence, all accounts of the trial implicitly assert that this was a form of royal masque, just like any other -- it would be nothing without the presence of the king.
But as we commemorate the 350th anniversary of the trial, it is worth remembering that it was also the first scene in another, far less highly-regarded drama -- the story of the English Commonwealth, the parliamentary republic which ruled England between 1649 and 1653. The trial was a first-class piece of political drama and spectacle, and although not without mishap, it is rarely remarked just how carefully and thoughtfully that spectacle was orchestrated and choreographed.
The trial did not just condemn a king. It also gave England's civilian political order a much-needed shot in the arm by restoring some of the civic sheen so badly tarnished in the tumultuous opening scene of the Commonwealth, the military coup of early December 1648 known as Pride's Purge. The trial provided an opportunity to make a number of assertions about the location of legitimate authority, and the direction in which the revolutionary settlement was headed. Careful calculation went into decisions about the venue, the mounting of suitable spectacle, the conduct of ceremonial and the preservation of the dignity of proceedings. Indeed, looking at it another way, one might say that the trial of Charles I was merely the pretext for a spectacular exercise in managing political appearances. It demonstrated that the civilians had once again taken command of the wheel-house of state.
By the end of 1648, such an outcome had seemed desperately uncertain, as the sword re-entered politics and the army seized control. The King, defeated in one civil war, had connived at another. He had picked up support in Ireland with the defection of Lord Inchiquin to the royalist cause. His partisans in England and Wales stirred up widespread royalist and counter-revolutionary insurrection on land and by sea. Finally, having made an alliance with the Duke of Hamilton, Charles pinned his hopes on a Scottish invasion of England. …