The Week in Radio

Click to follow
A FRENZY of execution mania swept across Britain a week ago on the anniversary of Charles I's public beheading in Whitehall. His pointy- bearded Majesty was given the chop on 30 January 1649, but 350 years later it seems that some people are still prepared to draw swords over the matter. There was talk of "high crimes and misdemeanours and much blood" on the Today programme (Radio 4, Saturday) as the latter-day Roundhead Jack Emery got himself nicely worked up about Charles's undoubted guilt. Goaded on by John Humphrys he got stuck into the Royalists, at the same time taking the opportunity to indict ex-president Pinochet of Chile and also demand the abolition of the House of Lords. There was no question for Mr Emery that the execution was justified; the only problem was how to make the charges stick. "We had to put together the machinery by which Charles could be tried," he declared at one point during the discussion. By "we", of course, he meant Cromwell and the Republicans, but it was an interesting slip. Shame he had to miss the trial really. He'd probably have enjoyed being there.

Instead he contented himself by writing Justice or Murder: The Death of Charles I (Radio 4, Saturday), a 90-minute drama documentary in which some of the great events of those times were reconstructed. We heard the radical Colonel Rainborow (Brian Glover) haranguing the army leaders in the Putney Debates, and the high, whining tones of Dr Hugh Peters (Anton Lesser) as he encouraged the regicides from his pulpit. In January 1649 the king sat at his trial in Westminster Hall as Judge Bradshaw, Solicitor Cook and Cromwell himself began proceedings against him. There were some fine moments as Charles (John Rowe) refused to recognise the court and reminded them with quiet certainty that: "I am your King."

This was the main flaw in the prosecution's case. Yet there's something else that people tend to forget about Charles Stuart. He may have been a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy (the charge that finally did for him), but he was without a doubt much more interesting than most other monarchs, and for that deserves at least a nod of recognition. By all accounts his personal conduct on the scaffold was exemplary. Drowned out by the beating of army drummers, he tried to make a final address to those near him, but few heard. Then, after asking if the block could be higher (it couldn't), he went to meet his maker. Even when heard on the radio, the blow of the axe was not for the squeamish.

Until only last week the penalty for treason remained death. As Marcel Berlins pointed out during Law in Action (Sunday, Radio 4), there still exists a set of gallows still in full working order, but when Jack Straw signed the Sixth Protocol of the European Human Rights Convention the death penalty was at last abolished.

Unfortunately things were different in the 17th century. After the fall of the republic, Charles II was restored to the throne and reprisals soon began. Solicitor Cook saw himself as a "good Commonwealth man" but this didn't save him from being hanged, drawn and quartered. Neither was Hugh Peters spared.

"His execution was very popular," remarked a contemporary. "It delighted the crowds."