Charles’s beheading was scheduled for Tuesday, January 30, 1649. Two of his children remained in England under the control of the Parliamentarians: Elizabeth and Henry. They were permitted to visit him on January 29, and he bade them a tearful farewell. The following morning, he called for two shirts to prevent the cold weather causing any noticeable shivers that the crowd could have mistaken for fear: “the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.”
He walked under guard from St James’s Palace, where he had been confined, to the Palace of Whitehall, where an execution scaffold had been erected in front of the Banqueting House. Charles was separated from spectators by large ranks of soldiers, and his last speech reached only those with him on the scaffold. He blamed his fate on his failure to prevent the execution of his loyal servant Strafford: “An unjust sentence that I suffered to take effect, is punished now by an unjust sentence on me.”
He declared that he had desired the liberty and freedom of the people as much as any, “but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having government … It is not their having a share in the government; that is nothing appertaining unto them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” He continued, “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”
At about 2:00 p.m., Charles put his head on the block after saying a prayer and signalled the executioner when he was ready by stretching out his hands; he was then beheaded with one clean stroke. According to observer Philip Henry, a moan “as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again” rose from the assembled crowd,some of whom then dipped their handkerchiefs in the king’s blood as a memento.
The executioner was masked and disguised, and there is debate over his identity. The commissioners approached Richard Brandon, the common hangman of London, but he refused, at least at first, despite being offered £200. It is possible he relented and undertook the commission after being threatened with death, but there are others who have been named as potential candidates, including George Joyce, William Hulet and Hugh Peterrs. The clean strike, confirmed by an examination of the king’s body at Windsor in 1813, suggests that the execution was carried out by an experienced headsman.
Cromwell was said to have visited Charles’s coffin, sighing “Cruel necessity!” as he did so. The story was depicted by Delaroche in the nineteenth century.
It was common practice for the severed head of a traitor to be held up and exhibited to the crowd with the words “Behold the head of a traitor!” Although Charles’s head was exhibited, the words were not used, possibly because the executioner did not want his voice recognized. On the day after the execution, the king’s head was sewn back onto his body, which was then embalmed and placed in a lead coffin.
The commission refused to allow Charles’s burial at Westminster Abbey, so his body was conveyed to Windsor on the night of February 7. He was buried in private on February 9, 1649 in the Henry VIII vault in the chapel’s quire, alongside the coffins of Henry VIII and Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. The king’s son, Charles II, later planned for an elaborate royal mausoleum to be erected in Hyde Park, London, but it was never built.
The execution of Charles I had been carried out by the Rump Parliament. The Rump was created by Pride’s Purge when Colonel Thomas Pride forcibly removed from the Long Parliament all those members who supported the King and were not supporters of the Grandees in the New Model Army and the Independents. Many historians consider called it a coup d’état.
Just before and the execution of King Charles I, the Rump Parliament passed a number of Acts of Parliament creating the legal basis for the republic. After the execution of Charles I, the House of Commons abolished the Monarchy, the Privy Council and the House of Lords, and declared the people of England “and of all the Dominions and Territories thereunto belonging” to be henceforth under the governance of a “Commonwealth”, effectively a republic. The House of Commons now had unchecked executive and legislative power. The English Council of State, which replaced the Privy Council, took over many of the executive functions of the monarchy.