Call us on: 0115 9704908

This week long ago: Quit when you are [with] ahead

The English Civil War is, certainly when you live as close to Newark as we all do, a big part of  known history. The puritans with their apparently gloomy bear outlook, and the party too hard Stewart kings are well known to schoolchildren in the UK (particularly those who’ve done GCSE history).

The shorthand version is of course that King Charles I was a profligate spendthrift with a French wife, the parliamentary members began to get disgruntled, and the Puritans felt the king was shaming God. They all disagreed, went to war, mildly agreed, people broke agreements, war again, king was separated from his head. Naturally things were not quite that straightforward, and January 20th 1649 saw the start of the most unlikely trial of its age.

Tricky Dicky and Bill should probably be grateful they weren’t on seventeenth century thrones…

When people in the 60s and 70s spoke of putting Nixon on trial, and again in the 00s with Bill Clinton, these seemed enormous acts. Rebellious and challenging. Despite that these were elected to their posts, and few but the most dedicated of supporters would argue any president or prime minister was in role thanks to any godly hand. Kings though, particularly at a time when religion was such a significant part of English life, were regarded as being so. The divine right of kings was accepted and revered. Parliament was in itself almost a challenge to this, and the Magna Carta (which established the parliamentary system) had ran quite close to threatening this. So putting the king on trial, a trial that was going to end up with someone dying, was a grave rebellion indeed.

Van Dyck’s portrait of the unfortunate King Charles I

The Rump Parliament had been discussing the potential of trying the king since December, but they were not quorate with their decision until January, and after they had removed potential sympathisers to the crown, they chose the court president (John Bradshaw) and set about taking the king to court.

John Bradshaw

By all accounts Charles I did not engender a spirit of mutual respect with those trying him. On the first day he repeatedly attempted to interrupt the charges as they were being read, and in his efforts quite forcefully clobbered the Solicitor General. He refused to make a plea, the court, in his opinion being insufficiently qualified to charge him, and citing that his rights were divine probably didn’t help his case.

The court trying Charles

However, it was frankly not the fairest of trials. Not only had they removed any potential sympathetic parliamentary members, but Charles was not allowed to question witnesses, and in the absence of an actual plea the commons decided that he had plead guilty.

The Palace of Whitehall then, not the civil servant filled place it is now

His guilt and sentenced were announced on the 27th of January, and being efficient types (and possibly a feared of reprisal) the execution was on 30th January.

The Banqueting House of the Palace (photo by ChrisO on wikipedia), outside which he was executed.

The king-less throne led to a period of interregnum, and yet another civil war (apparently civil wars are like Pringles, once you start…) The country then moved into being a commonwealth, and then a protectorate, which for many was almost indistinguishable from a monarchical system, before Charles II came to take the throne back.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector

Though Charles II was cautious in some respects, headloss is not something you want running in the family, he was in others far more profligate and with a considerably more liberal roving eye. The great rebellion had changed the relationship between crown and parliament, but had not significantly changed England as a whole. The Church and the landowners still had the most power, and the lives of ordinary people were not much changed. Do you play in this period? Is the English Civil War on your 2012 plans list (playing it that is, not starting a new one)? Let us know in the comments.