The Weasel

Charles I was beheaded 350 years ago but in this dozy realm you'd hardly know it. Most people seem keener on making marmalade
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The Independent Culture
NOW HERE'S a thing. No one knows who decapitated King Charles I, an event that took place 350 years ago today, shortly after 2pm on 30 January 1649. The axeman was obviously a pro, since the monarch's head was parted from his body via a single blow to the third vertebra. However, since they were understandably wary of retribution, both the executioner and his assistant wore heavy disguise. As CV Wedgwood points out in her enthralling account The Trial of Charles I, they were not only masked but also equipped "with hair and beards that were evidently not their own". For a king to have his head chopped off is bad enough, but it adds insult to injury when the dread deed is performed by someone wearing false whiskers.

It is a classic example of British understatement that this event, surely the most significant constitutional drama since the Norman conquest, is being marked by an exhibition consisting of two small display cases in the Banqueting House on Whitehall. Charles passed his final hours in Inigo Jones's architectural gem.

A historian has noted that the condemned monarch would have heard "workmen cutting planks and driving nails" as they constructed a temporary scaffold adjoining the building. Ironically, before stepping through a window in order to reach the scaffold Charles would have passed under Rubens's ceiling allegory, which depicts Wise Government (a sultry beauty) holding a bridle over Intemperate Rebellion (a cringing wretch).

Though the exhibition is modest in scale, it merits a detour. The Archbishop of Canterbury has lent a pair of embroidered gloves worn by the monarch on the day of his execution. There is also a nicely crocheted cap which kept the regal head warm - while still attached, I hasten to add. The Society of King Charles the Martyr (still active after three- and-a-half centuries) has donated a splinter of wood hacked from the royal coffin.

But the most creepily thrilling object is the King's death warrant, allowed out of the House of Lords for the first time. It turns out to be a small piece of parchment, 8in deep and slightly wider than the page you're currently holding. Though it is much faded, it is possible to read the flowing script: "Charles Steuart Kinge of England is ...to be putt to death by the severinge of his head from his body." Third in line among the 59 signatures that follow, in large, clear handwriting, is "O. Cromwell".

Oddly enough, the last name in the list has been partially erased. According to CV Wedgwood, the signature of one Gregory Clement was half-heartedly scratched out when he was caught in bed with his maid-servant. Since his name was still legible, Clement did not escape the chop when the Regicides were hunted down following the Restoration in 1660. Cromwell himself had been dead for two years, so the Royalists had to satisfy themselves with digging up his body and displaying the Protector's head on a pole for a quarter of a century.

Of course, the dramatic event that took place on a freezing afternoon 350 years ago scarcely stirs much interest today. Or does it? This morning, the Society of King Charles the Martyr is holding its annual service of commemoration in the Banqueting House. At the same time, outside in Whitehall, a group called Movement Against the Monarchy plans to hold a "Party to Celebrate the Beheading of Charles I". Let's hope no one loses their head.

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IT'S THAT time again. Like one of the weird sisters from the Scottish play, Mrs Weasel has been hovering over a seething cauldron, while croaking strange incantations:

With orange from Seville, a pan you fill.

To help it congeal, some pectin

you steal.

Then bubble awhile with Tate &

Lyle.

This year, sad to relate, her spell went somewhat awry. Half-way through the first batch of marmalade, she rechecked her recipe and let fly an anguished shriek: "Drat it! I put the sugar in too early!" (I give a bowdlerised version.) Pressing on regardless, she bottled the result, which stubbornly refused to gel. Disconsolately, she shook a jar and the chunks of peel whirled round inside like goldfish.

I was promptly dispatched into the drizzle of south London for more preserving sugar. In every supermarket, it was the same story: an empty shelf in the sugar section, where marmalade maniacs had beaten me to it. Eventually, I tracked down a cache of seven packets in Sainsbury's hidden behind the demerara and Mrs W resumed production. This time, she burnt it. Not enough to spoil, but quite sufficient to raise her temper to the "rolling boil" specified in the recipe - though this usually applies to the marmalade rather than the cook.

Mercifully, on her third and fourth attempts, my increasingly sticky consort was more successful and the kitchen table filled with a bittersweet battalion of jars. As she pinged a rubber band to secure the cover of the 47th and final jar, their creator suddenly erupted: "If it's all that good, why don't the Spanish make it themselves?" (The strange fact is that Mrs W doesn't eat marmalade.) "Well, the Portuguese still make the quince jam called marmelada, from whence our word derives," I replied in my annoying male way, "but they don't seem to like Olde English in Seville." I thought of cracking the old one about oranges lacking appeal, but one glance at Mrs W's phy- zog told me that it was not a good idea.

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A CHERISHED illusion bites the dust on page 34 of Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of WC Fields, by Simon Louvish (Faber & Faber. pounds 14.99). Though everyone believes that the inscription on the comedian's tombstone is "It's better than playing Philadelphia" or possibly "On the whole, I'd sooner be playing Philadelphia", this lapidary mot turns out to be apocryphal. According to Louvish, the plaque on the comedian's reliquary (he requested cremation) merely reads "WC Fields 1880-1946".

But one aspect of the Fields legend is unassailable. The index of this sprawling but entertaining volume lists 21 references under "penchant for alcohol" and a further three under "hatred of water". A major pleasure of the book is Louvish's generous quotation from the great curmudgeon's dialogue. No one in cinema had a more distinctive way with a line.

You can even hear his voice in a four-word quote from the film (said to be his best) which gives the book its title. It occurs when he accidentally fires a gun near his wife: "Fields (a little eagerly): `Did I kill yer?'"

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