Why was Charles I executed?

Why was Charles I executed?
By Keir Martland 

Today is the 368th anniversary of the execution of the Anglican Martyr King Charles I. 368 years ago, Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall following two Civil Wars, also known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Charles had lost both Civil Wars and had failed to reach a settlement with the Scots, Parliament, or the Army, and eventually the latter took the initiative to break the deadlock, put him on “trial” following a royalist defeat in the Second Civil War, and murdered him. But why did this happen?

Traditionally, historians have taken a ‘High Road to Civil War’ view of the early Stuart period and have therefore tended to answer questions such as “Why was Charles I executed?” in a broad, sweeping, and long-term fashion. Macaulay, for example, explained much of the conflict of this period in terms of a struggle over the ancient customs of the realm and the rights and liberties held by subjects since time out of mind. For Macaulay, the fact that Charles was willing to do such things as attempt to arrest the Five Members – “in flagrant violation of the Great Charter” – meant that he put himself firmly at odds with the majority of the population and certainly his parliaments by not giving due deference to the ancient constitution which was supposedly “engraven on the hearts of Englishmen.” Charles was therefore an absolutist whose clash with Parliament and whose eventual downfall was inevitable. To be fair, recent historians such as Sommerville have also tried to stress the importance of long-standing differences of viewpoint among the major players in early Stuart politics as being crucial in generating conflict, with James and Charles’ absolutist views profoundly alien to England, whether borrowed from Scotland and the Continent, or whether entirely abstract as opposed to the legal positivism and historicism of the parliamentarians and common lawyers. According to this view, the other views represented in the political nation were various shades of contractual theories of government and “mixed” or “balanced” theories. Furthermore, this idea of the inevitability of a violent clash between king and parliament is found in Tory as well as Whig traditions. If Macaulay and Gardiner et al are sympathetic to parliament, then the Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc is sympathetic to Charles. For Belloc, a long-term decline in the fortunes of the monarchy due to inflation and encroachments on the royal forest by a ‘rising’ gentry signposted the end of monarchy itself. According to this interpretation, the rise to prominence of families such as the Russells and the Cromwells after the Reformation saw parliament become a tool of “the wealthy classes” whose interests were hostile to those above and below them. On this view, the abortive Scottish Revocation was an early turning-point in Charles’ reign symbolising the power of the gentry, represented by Oliver Cromwell by the late 1640s. There is a kernel of truth in all of these traditional arguments.charles-comm6460-correction

But the long-term views of the reasons why Charles was executed, whether of the political, ideological, or economic kind, remain ultimately unconvincing. To take the idea of the end of monarchy being inevitable because of long-term political strife first: The fact remains that while debate in the Commons was heated, it was never once suggested that the king should be executed. Indeed, what can be seen from the Long Parliament’s conception of misgovernment is that they viewed it as a temporary tyranny that could be addressed with legislation in order to restore the ‘ancient constitution.’ With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to ignore the co-operation between the parliaments of James and Charles with the monarch, and instead focus on the conflict. It may also be a product of the longstanding Anglocentrism which Pocock identified to talk of the Civil Wars and thus Charles’ demise as arising only out of conflict within the English political institutions. Indeed, it would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the National Covenant in reaction to Charles’ religious policies as a spark to any conflict in England after 1637, before which Charles’ had embarked on a successful period of Personal Rule. Civil War itself – partly as a result of parliament’s insistence on a redress of grievance before granting a subsidy for the Bishop’s War – cannot therefore be said to have been ‘inevitable’, but rather a result of an interplay of factors. In Morrill’s words, “there was a civil war in England in the 1640s because Charles I misgoverned Scotland and Ireland.” This again lends itself to a more accidental, rather than inevitable view of the outbreak of the Civil Wars.

The argument that the nation was being torn apart by rival ideologies which had developed over the preceding generation is also shaky. While the essentially cynical and factional view of conflict put forth by Sharpe may be too simplistic, that of Sommerville may at the same time be too idealistic. Instead, Christianson’s more recent work has shown that while there were indeed ideological differences in the early Stuart period, these were essentially over differing conceptions of the “ancient constitution” with three mainstream positions: constitutional monarchy created by kings; constitutional monarchy bound by the common law; monarch, parliament, and subject each having rights and privileges since time out of mind. Furthermore, all political players used the language of Sir John Fortescue, of Sir Edward Coke, of constitutional monarchy, and the ancient constitution, including James and Charles, and thus there was a solid consensus in political thought for the early Stuart period until very shortly before 1649. Blair Worden particularly stresses that the parliamentarians were most emphatically not republicans.

As for the economic determinism of Tawney and Belloc et al. with regards to the ‘rise of the gentry’ thesis as a way of arguing that Charles’ fortunes were bad from the start, this is at least a matter of considerable contention and there are questions surrounding not only the extent to which the gentry did increase in wealth during later Tudor and early Stuart period, but also whether ‘the gentry’ has been properly defined. Certainly, the numbers of ‘gentry’ in the Commons increased by 10% in this period, but this means nothing; this class did not act uniformly, as the Cromwell family itself shows. Indeed, it was not parliament – which Belloc labelled as the “tool” of “the more yokel of the squires” – but the Army which was the undoing of Charles! Thus it seems clear that these long-term, teleological views are not without their faults.


This being said, there was certainly a growth in radical belief of the kind which Morrill explains which helped lead to the Civil Wars. And there was a growth during the Civil Wars in the numbers of people advocating radically different views of church government and the nature of the state, with the privations of war seemingly providential. Yet it was not this radical religious belief alone which caused the execution of Charles I. For one, it was by no means the case that this growth in radicalism would necessarily be only anti-Charles. While Morrill argues that some saw opposing Charles as a “religious imperative” and some believed that allowing Charles to rule after the Civil Wars would have been “a betrayal of God”, the economic downturn caused by the Civil Wars was as much the fault of parliament and the Army as that of the King, and the radicals knew this. The growth of radicalism was a cause for concern among the Presbyterian moderates in Parliament and the attempt to disband the Army in 1647 was motivated by a desire to both relieve the poor of the crippling taxation which paying the soldiers’ wages required and a desire to check the Army. The impossible position of Parliament was, when the Army refused, to return to negotiations with the King. In such dire circumstances, negotiations cannot have been carried out with very much enthusiasm.  Furthermore, even where we might expect to see a radical consensus, there was anything but. The Putney Debates demonstrate that there was a range of opinion in the Army, even following discussion of The Agreement of the People. Neither ideology nor religious belief alone was enough to lead to the execution of Charles.

Of enormous importance in leading to his execution was Charles’ own behaviour and personality. Charles’ very strategy in his negotiations was not actually to secure a good deal, but to prevaricate and delay the reaching of any deal so long that all of his opponents would gradually either fight amongst themselves or capitulate. However, this strategy proved ineffective, for “To put it mildly, [negotiating] was not Charles’s strong suit.” (Young) His dismissive yet devious attitude to propositions can be seen in the first set of terms for political settlement: the so-called Newcastle Propositions of July 1646. Having rejected the Newcastle Propositions out of hand privately within a few days, Charles gave a non-committal reply which he allowed to stand for eleven months before offering some actual concessions. Ultimately, all of Charles’ negotiations failed. For the most part, this was due to his poor skill at developing good political relationships, with Holmes arguing that Charles was untrustworthy and Durston arguing that he was a man of “chronic duplicity.” In January 1648 in a debate in the Commons, as Charles rejected yet another proposal, Sir Thomas Wroth exclaimed, “from Devils and Kings, Good Lord deliver me!” Eventually the Army – and even the Army had been willing to tolerate monarchy as late as November 1648 in their Remonstrance, even if as little more than a figurehead – lost their patience with him. Charles’ negotiations with the Army in the previous summer saw the most honourable terms yet offered to him and yet Charles, remaining convinced that his opponents still needed him, continued his waiting game. The creeping republicanism of Ireton et al, seen in the transition from the Heads of the Proposals through the Remonstrance of the Army to the Agreement of the People, took hold as they lost trust in the king and as the Army also grew tired of the Presbyterians for wanting to deal with the king, “that man of blood” because of his complicity in the Second Civil War. The Second Civil War was for many a turning-point. At a prayer meeting in April 1648 at Windsor, soldiers wept, cursed themselves for ever having trusted the King, and agreed to bring him to ‘justice.’king-charles3

However, in addition to the breakdown in negotiations, a nascent radicalism was important and the Levellers were of particular importance almost at the last minute. This gradual frustration of the different factions led to new alliances and to Ireton and Cromwell eventually coming to borrow ideas from the Levellers, especially that of radical constitutionalism and bringing the king to justice. This can be seen in the declaration by the Rump Parliament after Pride’s Purge that, “the people are, under God, the original of all just power.” Indeed, ‘The Agreement of the People’ was the title the Levellers had used for their own scheme for settlement in 1647. This combined with an already present providentialism, which was continually reinforced by Charles’ behaviour, with parallels often drawn with tyrants of the Old Testament. With the Second Civil War again proving to be a turning-point, it is in November 1648 that Cromwell is first seen, in a letter of his, as being absolutely certain of God’s purpose for him, “to oppose and fight against the king.” Charles’ death only became likely when he double-crossed the Army after turning down their generous offer of a settlement in 1647 and after having started the Second Civil War with the Scots in 1647-8. By double-dealing in this way, and then negotiating with Parliament, Charles caused the Army to distrust both him and Parliament. This meant that the Army had to put its own house in order and then decide just what it believed. This was what gave Leveller views the room to make their way into the Army. In other words, the reason behind the experimentation with new ideas within the Army was the king’s intransigence and the Commons’ and Lords’ continued willingness to deal with him.

Thus there clearly were some longer-term factors at work laying the foundations and creating a veritable tinderbox from the outset. Indeed, Cromwell was a member of the gentry and a Puritan and thus on the face of it his own rise to power may be seen as the result of his class and his religious views both being in the ascendant, but as pointed out above this is not necessarily the case. There certainly existed radical religious views in the country and in the Army and in a minority of those in the Commons as ‘Independents.’ But was Cromwell determined to kill the king from the outset as Belloc thinks so? No, the decision to put Charles on trial for his life was made in the last months of 1648. These and many other longer term factors would not have come to the fore without the assistance of events and circumstances.charles

Charles was executed because of a breakdown of trust between the four major players after 1646: the king; the scots; parliament; and the Army. Thus the reason for Charles’ execution is to be found in the short-term. Charles was offered a number of generous settlements by his captors and for much of the time he was conscious of the fact that he was needed alive. Initially, as a prisoner of the Scots and parliament, Charles was unlikely to be put on trial and executed. Further to this, Charles’ life was secure even in the initial stages of his time as a prisoner of the Army. What changed the situation so radically was his double-dealing with the Scots. The result of Charles’ complicity in the Second Civil War was to cause the Army and parliament to distrust the Scots and once parliament restarted negotiations with Charles, to sow the seeds of distrust between parliament and the Army. This break between parliament and the Army gave the latter a sense of political purpose and moral indignation which was expressed by soul-searching debates, ultimately borrowing from the ideology of the Levellers, putting him on trial, and executing him after a show trial. Thus the breakdown in trust led to the end of the solid consensus based around the ancient constitution; perhaps counter-intuitively, it was the breakdown in trust that caused political, ideological, and religious differences to become real, rather than long-standing and irreconcilable differences of paradigm leading to the breakdown of trust.  In short, the execution of Charles, King and Martyr, was due to a series of tragic events and unfortunate circumstances.

Further Reading:

Baker, P. ‘The Franchise Debate Revisited: The Levellers and the Army’

Belloc, H. A Shorter History of England.

Christianson, P. ‘Royal and Parliamentary Voices on the Ancient Constitution

Durston, C. Charles I.

Holmes, C. Why was Charles I executed?

Kishlansky, M. ‘Charles I: A Case of Mistaken Identity’

Macaulay, T.B. History of England.

Morrill, J. Stuart Britain: A Very Short Introduction

Morrill, J. (ed.) The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor & Stuart Britain

Morrill, J. ‘The Religious Context of the English Civil War’

Smith, D. The Double Crown

Worden, B. The English Civil Wars.


  1. I believe that King Charles passed up numerous opportunities to escape, and even that the parliamentarians wanted him to mistake. A wonderful society I used to be a member of is the Society of King Charles the Martyr – http://skcm.org/

  2. Charles was executed because he could not be trusted to keep his word. Had he dropped his adherence to the divine right of kings and agreed to formal restrictions on his powers he would have been able to come to a settlement with Parliament which would have left the monarchy with far more power than Charles II enjoyed. But he would not countenance such a state of affairs and worst of all his belief in the divine right of kings also made him believe that any agreement he made with Parliament could be broken because such an agreement was, in his eyes, made under duress. This meant that after years of bloody civil war and a great deal of prevarication on his part, he started the second civil war. At that point Parliament had little choice but to execute him because they could have no trust in Charles keeping to any agreement which might be made to let him remain on the throne. By executing Charles thee Parliamentarian side were preserving their own necks.

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