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Parliament puts King Charles I on trial


This is an entry in the cover feature 10 trials that changed the world.

Less than 50 years after the death of Elizabeth I brought the Tudor dynasty to a close, the British monarchy, now in the hands of the Stuarts, was in serious conflict with Parliament. While Charles I, who began his reign in 1625, insisted that his power rested on divine right, an increasingly restive opposition in Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell took steps to limit that power. The English Civil Wars of 1642-51 resulted in the defeat of the Royalist forces. Charles surrendered to the Scots, who turned him over to Parliament, which decreed that he should be put on trial for treason and “other high crimes against the realm of England.”

The trial of Charles I began in London’s Westminster Hall on Jan. 20, 1649. Charles refused to recognize the legality of the court on grounds that “a king cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth.”

On Jan. 27, Charles was convicted of treason, and three days later he was beheaded in a public execution.

It was a trial born out of the legacy of the Reformation and the religious turmoil that followed. In the decade before the trial there had been two civil wars, the blame for which had been laid at the feet of the king. By February of 1649, Charles had been castigated by John Milton, a champion of the Parliamentary opposition, as “the tyrant of the people.”

Was it the staged trial of a man who believed he ruled by the divine right of kings? Were the commissioners who performed the function of a jury sitting “at the edge of providence”? Apparently they too believed that they were sitting in judgment of a ruler who had been appointed to power by God but who had sacrificed divine protection by his abuse of that power. It is remarkable that the members of the Rump Parliament should have behaved in this way, but it must be remembered that they were inspired and strengthened by their religious faith. They acted as they saw fit in accordance with God’s will; and furthermore, they conducted what they believed to be an open and fair trial.

But they acted without precedent. There was uncertainty as to how the charges should be drafted. Members of the House of Commons believed they represented the sovereignty of the people and stated that the king had waged war against them by encouraging the Scots to invade England. They attributed guilt for atrocities carried out by the Royalists during the civil wars to the king.

The king, in his disdain or refusal to recognize the authority of the “court,” refused to enter a plea. Against precedent, that was recorded as a not-guilty plea and evidence was called, albeit out of the sight and hearing of the accused. In due course, the king declined to give an account of himself before a tribunal he could not or would not recognize.

In legal terms these were dramatic departures from normal procedure. It was the first time a refusal to enter any plea led to a trial on the evidence. As Charles waited on the scaffold, his execution was delayed for hours while a statute governing the law of succession after his death was hastily drafted. At the last minute it had occurred to the commissioners that there was no means of preventing the automatic succession of Charles II without further legislation.

For today, there is still this question: Did the trial of Charles I change history by setting a precedent for the many war crimes trials that came later, or was it simply the first of them?

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