The impeachment trial that ended in judicial murder

The defendant was denounced as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy

REMEMBER THE momentous three weeks which began one January day when, in Westminster Hall, London, the Sergeant-at Arms proclaimed that the House of Commons would transform itself into a "high court of Justice" for the trying and judging of the Head of State. The first problem was to decide who should preside over such a trial.

The Lord Chief Justice refused to have anything to do with the idea; nor would his senior colleagues. Even eminent lawyers friendly to the Government advised moderation. In the end a junior judge who, two years earlier had publicly described the Head of State as "worse than Nero" was appointed.

The jury was in effect 135 members of the House of Commons, called commissioners for the purpose. Members of the House of Lords were excluded because of their opposition. It was early decided that only the presiding judge and counsel would be allowed to speak. The commissioners would have to stay silent. They could pass such questions as they might have to the presiding officer.

By mid-month, the authorities had become thoroughly alarmed about security. Everybody remembered serious incidents not many years before. They decided that the Head of State would be accommodated close to Westminster Hall and would be guarded by 200 soldiers; a further 1,000 men would be constantly on duty. All entrances would be under military control.

The most difficult problem, however, was to draw up the charges. They were finally settled on the day before the trial began. It was claimed that the Head of State had attempted to "erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power, to rule according to his will and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people". Many alleged examples were given and the defendant was finally denounced as "a tyrant, traitor, murderer and a public and implacable enemy".

No doubt the framers would have liked to have included charges relating to religious policy, but they forbore to do so.

On the morning before the trial was due to commence in the afternoon of 20 January, the commissioners were so nervous that they held a private session to rehearse "forms and methods". What, they wondered, would be the demeanour of the Head of State? Would he be insolent or contemptuous?

More seriously, if the court was asked by what authority it was established, what answer should be given? No wonder the presiding judge asked that two lawyers should be seated close to him to provide advice. Then, when the trial finally began, it was found that only 68 of the 135 commissioners were present. Absence was a form of mute protest.

There was trouble immediately. When a roll call of the commissioners was taken, there was an interruption from the public gallery. The wife of the first person named called out that her husband had more sense than to be present. Then the Head of State was brought in. Nothing in his expression showed any interest in what was going on, nor any recognition of those present.

But when he was required to answer the charges, he asked the question the commissioners had feared. "By what power am I called... let me know by what lawful authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer".

The judge then gave the reply which had been worked out in the morning, saying "in the name of the people." The Head of State responded that he saw no presence from the House of Lords, which would be necessary to form a Parliament. The exchanges continued until the presiding judge, brow-beaten but, nontheless, truculent, adjourned the court. As the prisoner was escorted away, he saw a weapon on the Clerk's table. "I do not fear that," he remarked.

The next day, both the prosecution and the defendant, in their different ways, raised the stakes. Although contrary to the principles of English law, counsel for the prosecution stated that a refusal to answer the charges would be taken as an admission of guilt. In reply the Head of State widened the argument he had previously deployed. If he could be so treated, all citizens would be likewise at risk from the exercise of arbitrary power.

Overnight it was decided that the Head of State be given one more chance to answer the charges. But at the next day's sitting the result was the same and the court was adjourned once more. The Commissioners decided to call and examine witnesses but deferred until the next day consideration of exactly how this was to be done. In the end 30 witnesses were examined privately on 24 January.

Contrary to accepted legal procedure, the defendant was given no opportunity either to hear or to cross-examine people who testified again him.

By now the trial of the Head of State had got as far as it could with even a pretence of legality. The Commissioners proceeded to debate what sentence should be passed - whether removing the Head of State from office would be sufficient or whether the death sentence was required. Nonetheless a committee was formed to prepare a written draft of the sentence with a blank for the "manner of death".

The next sitting of the court, on 27 January, saw a repetition of the arguments of the previous sittings. The Head of State used his chance to speak before sentence was passed to maintain his assertion that the trial had no legal authority. Finally the judge blurted out the sentence: for engaging in treasons and crimes, for behaving as tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy "to the good people of this nation" - death.

This was the trial of Charles I. On 30 January 1649, the King was taken to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, designed and built during his reign, and which survives to this day with its ceiling painted by Rubens. The scaffold had been erected level with the first floor windows. When he stepped onto the planks, Charles gave his Garter insignia to Bishop Juxon, saying "remember". What did he mean by this injunction? Juxon took it as a reminder that he should give the medal to the King's heir, the future Charles II. I take it to mean - remember, this is judicial murder, the most heinous crime that states can commit.

I am indebted to two books: `The Trial of Charles I' by C V Wedgwood, published by Collins, 1964, and `The Last Days of Charles I' by Graham Edwards, published by Sutton Publishing, 1999, price pounds 19.99

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker