Today in 1642, King Charles of England sent soldiers to arrest members of Parliament which led his country into civil war and ultimately to his execution on January 30, 1649. Now WE know em


King Charles I of England by van Dyck

King Charles suspected, probably correctly, that some members of the English Parliament had colluded with the invading Scots. On January 3, 1642, , King Charles directed Parliament to give up five members of the Commons – Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, William Strode and Sir Arthur Haselrig – and one peer – Lord Mandeville – on the grounds of high treason. When Parliament refused, it was possibly Henrietta Maria who persuaded King Charles to arrest the five members by force, which Charles intended to carry out personally. However, news of the warrant reached Parliament ahead of him, and the wanted men slipped away by boat shortly before Charles entered the House of Commons with an armed guard on January 4, 1642. Having displaced the Speaker, William Lenthall, from his chair, the king asked him where the MPs had fled. Lenthall, on his knees, famously replied, “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” Charles abjectly declared “all my birds have flown”, and was forced to retire, empty-handed. The botched arrest attempt was politically disastrous for King Charles. No English sovereign had ever entered the House of Commons, and his unprecedented invasion of the chamber to arrest its members was considered a grave breach of parliamentary privilege. In one stroke, King Charles destroyed his supporters’ efforts to portray him as a defense against innovation and disorder. Parliament quickly seized London, and King Charles fled the capital for Hampton Court Palace on January 10, 1642, moving two days later to Windsor Castle. After sending his wife and eldest daughter to safety abroad in February, he traveled north, hoping to seize the military arsenal at Hull. To his dismay, he was rebuffed by the town’s Parliamentary governor, Sir John Hotham, who refused him entry in April, and King Charles was forced to withdraw.

First English Civil War

By mid-1642, both sides began to arm. King Charles raised an army using the medieval method of commission of array, and Parliament called for volunteers for its militia. Following futile negotiations, King Charles raised the royal standard in Nottingham on August 22, 1642. At the start of the First English Civil War, King Charles’s forces controlled roughly the Midlands, Wales, the West Country and northern England. He set up his court at Oxford. Parliament controlled London, the south-east and East Anglia, as well as the English navy. Over the next four years as the civil war progressed, the military balance tipped back and forth before decisively turning in favor of Parliament in early 1646. This was followed by a series of defeats for the royalists.

The Siege of Oxford

Then in April of 1646, King Charles narrowly escaped disguised as a servant during the Siege of Oxford. The king put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army besieging Newark, and was taken north to Newcastle upon Tyne. After nine months of negotiations, the Scots finally arrived at an agreement with the English Parliament: in exchange for £100,000, and the promise of more money in the future, the Scots withdrew from Newcastle and delivered King Charles to the parliamentary commissioners in January of 1647. Parliament held King Charles under house arrest at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.

Second English Civil War

Then on December 26, 1647, King Charles signed a secret treaty with the Scots. Under the agreement, called the “Engagement”, the Scots undertook to invade England on King Charles’s behalf and restore him to the throne on condition that Presbyterianism be established in England for three years. The royalists rose in May 1648, igniting the Second Civil War, and as agreed with Charles, the Scots invaded England. Uprisings in Kent, Essex, and Cumberland, and a rebellion in South Wales, were put down by the New Model Army, and with the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Preston in August 1648, the royalists lost any chance of winning the war. King Charles’s only recourse was to return to negotiations, which were held at Newport on the Isle of Wight. On December 5, 1648, Parliament voted by 129 to 83 to continue negotiating with the king, but Oliver Cromwell and the army opposed any further talks with someone they viewed as a bloody tyrant and were already taking action to consolidate their power. Hammond was replaced as Governor of the Isle of Wight on November 27th, and placed in the custody of the army the following day. In Pride’s Purge on December 6 and 7, the members of Parliament out of sympathy with the military were arrested or excluded by Colonel Thomas Pride, while others stayed away voluntarily. The remaining members formed the Rump Parliament. It was effectively a military coup. King Charles was moved to Hurst Castle at the end of 1648, and thereafter to Windsor Castle to stand trial. The trial began on January 20, 1649 in Westminster Hall. King Charles was accused of treason against England by using his power to pursue his personal interest rather than the good of the country. An estimated 300,000 people, or 6% of the population, had died during the English Civil Wars. On January 26th, the king was brought before a public session of the commission, declared guilty and sentenced to death. Fifty-nine of the commissioners signed King Charles’s death warrant.


King Charles’s decapitation was scheduled for Tuesday, January 30, 1649. At about 2 p.m., King Charles put his head on the block after saying a prayer and signaled the executioner when he was ready by stretching out his hands; he was then beheaded with one clean stroke.

Contemporary German print depicting King Charles I's decapitation

Contemporary German print depicting King Charles I’s decapitation


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.

It was common practice in England 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 when Charles’s head was exhibited, the words were not used.

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 7th.

He was buried in the Henry VIII vault in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in private on February 9, 1649.

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.

With the monarchy overthrown, England became a republic or “Commonwealth”.

In 1660, the English Interregnum ended when the monarchy was restored to Charles’s son, Charles II.

Now WE know em  


One response to “Today in 1642, King Charles of England sent soldiers to arrest members of Parliament which led his country into civil war and ultimately to his execution on January 30, 1649. Now WE know em

  1. Pingback: Roger Mickelson’s History Today 1/20/14 | Sandia Tea Party·

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