Charles I – above the Law?

SHOULD Charles I have been tried by a Court of Law or is the Monarch above the law? His trial – well, it wasn’t much of a trial – in January 1649 lasted three days, but not three full days; it was  a bit of a non-event actually. Basically he refused to enter a plea against the charges arguing that ‘the Court’ had no authority to charge him as he was top dog being king. Today, if you refuse to enter a plea it is assumed you are saying you are not guilty and the State (aka the Crown Prosecution) must prove you ‘done it’. In the days of Charley boy, in the 17th century, it was the reverse – if you didn’t enter a plea it was assumed you were guilty.


Charley boy (1600-1649)

The Court in question was the High Court of Justice (not the same High Court as we have today) sitting at Westminster Hall. The judges were the Parliamentary Commission and its President was John Bradshaw who did most of the talking (when the king wasn’t). Bradshaw was a barrister, called to the Bar at Grays Inn (one of the Inns of Court – see my previous blog in December on another one, Middle Temple). The prosecution was led by John Cook, also a barrister from Grays Inn, and it was his task to read out the charges. He would then have had to prove the case against Charles but that was to be unnecessary as Charles saved him the bother.

John Bradshaw (1602-1659)

The trial began on the afternoon of Saturday 20th January. Cook was continually interrupted by the king in his attempts to read out the charges. Cook: “My Lord, on behalf of the [House of] Commons of England and of all the people thereof, I do accuse Charles Stuart here present of high treason and high misdemeanours, and I do, in the name of the Commons of England, desire the charge may be read unto him.” As Cook was about to read the charges, Charles tapped him with his silver-headed cane, saying, “Hold on.” Cook declined to hold on but, instead, carried on reading the charges.  ‘Tap, tap’. Cook ignored the tapping. ‘Tap, tap’ – then the silver head of the cane fell off. Cook ignored it and continued reading. It’s a bit like a comedy show……. Then Bradshaw gave the king a telling off, insisting that the charges had to be read without further interruption. Charles obeyed like a good little king.

‘Fictitious portrait called John Cook’ by Robert Cooper

When the charges had been completed the king was ask how he pleaded to them. He simply replied, “I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful… Remember I am your King.” He rattled on a bit more but basically he was saying that this Court had no authority to try him.

Bradshaw responded, “In the name of the people of England, of which you are elected king.” Ooooops, mistake. Charles came back, “England was never an elective Kingdom, but a hereditary Kingdom for near these thousand years.” This went on awhile – same questions on authority by Charles, same answers by Bradshaw. Eventually Bradshaw called an end to the proceedings and adjourned the Court until Monday, at which time he hoped the king would answer the charges. Well, Monday came and went with the same results – the king demanding on whose authority was he being charged and Bradshaw responding with “We are satisfied with our authority…They [the members of Commission] sit here by the authority of the Commons of England.” Charles objected, “The Commons was never a Court of Judicature, I would know how they came to be so.”  Whoa, good point Charley; indeed, the House of Commons was not a Court but Parliament was (and the Commons is part of Parliament). Anyway, stalemate. So Bradshaw adjourned again to the next day to give the king one last chance. Tuesday came and Charles didn’t relent on his point of view so Bradshaw, along with his fellow judges, treated his obstinacy as a guilty plea.

Charles (sitting, wearing hat, with back to you) in ‘the dock’ at Westminster Hall

On the 27th January, the Commissioners (68 of them) reassembled to pass sentence. It was at this stage that Charles attempted to refute the allegations made against him, saying, “I would desire only one word before you give sentence; and that is that you would hear me concerning those great imputations that you have laid to my charge.” A bit late now – and Bradshaw told him so. The clerk (possibly Andrew Broughton) rose to his feet and began reading the Commissioners’ decision, “Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and public enemy, shall be put to death, by the severing his head from his body.”  Again the king tried to speak but was told he could not be heard after sentence. On the 30th January 1649 the king was executed. Regicide rules OK.

The idea of criminal law in the UK is that we are judged by our equals. Hence judgements by members of the public (generally) in the Magistrates Court (magistrates are not lawyers, they are members of the public) and likewise with juries (12 members of the public)  in the Crown Court (what do you mean you don’t know about these courts? – to be enlightened, click here). And ‘in the ‘good old days’ aristocratic peers (Lords) had to be tried by the House of Lords. So who is equal to the Monarch to try him/her? Is the Monarch above the law? Obviously not in the 17th century. It hadn’t been tried (excuse the pun) before or since.



John Bradshaw died in 1659, aged 57. Charles II came to the throne in 1660 and the following year, on 30th January, the 12th anniversary of his father’s execution, he had Bradshaw’s and Oliver Cromwell’s (he had died in 1658) remains exhumed and displayed in chains at the gallows at Tyburn where official hangings took place. The following day, their heads were put on spikes outside Westminster Hall and their bodies thrown into a common pit. Charles also had his father’s prosecutor, John Cook, put on trial for high treason for which he was found guilty and hung, drawn and quartered. There’s justice for you.


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I met my good friend Dr Armani Haberdasher the other day. He said his wife had been complaining about him going to the pub every night so she decided to join him. When they arrived he asked her what she would like to drink. Not being much of a drinker she said she didn’t know so would have whatever he was having. He ordered two whiskeys. When they arrived he knocked his back in one. She took a sipped and exclaimed, “Aaaagh, that’s horrible!”

He turned to her and said, “Well there you go. And you thought I was down here enjoying myself every night.”






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