Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Charles I and the Whig Interpretation of History

Charles I

On January 30 1649 Charles I was executed by being beheaded and since then there has been a persistent tendency to make his death somehow "progressive". This is done by either excusing his execution, i.e., finding the reason solely or largely in the Kings own behavior or by arguing that since in the long term all of this help to lead to constitutional government in England it was somehow a "good" thing.

Part of this pattern is to see in Charles a "Tyrant". For example The Tyrannicide Brief, Geoffrey Robertson, Pantheon Books, London, 2006, which is about John Cooke the Lawyer who served has prosecutor at his trial. Mr. Robertson attempts to justify the trial and verdict and makes a mess of it.

To talk about the Trial on the most basic level of procedure; lets see. The House of Commons was purged before the trial and the House of Lords was not involved. The verdict was decided before hand and the presence of the army ensured a "correct" verdict. John Cooke basically functioned as head prosecutor in a show trial. This trial was nothing more than a dress rehearsal for the Great Purge trials in Russia. Cooke serving in a position similar to Vyshinsky the infamous Chief Prosecutor in the Moscow Trials.

Cromwell and his associates had purged Parliament before the proceedings and, along with the army, were ever present during the Trial and the verdict was discussed and decided before even th first words were spoken during it. The whole thing was a ludicrous, murderous farce. And it appears that several of the "commissioners" were directly coerced into both the guilty verdicts and signing the death warrant. Of course the process by which those "commissioners" were appointed was frankly illegal. (The lords being dismissed by the army and the House of Commons being purged, of at least 1 / 2 its members). Over half of the "commissioners" didn't even bother to show for the trial, even though they were pre-selected by Cromwell and his cronies. In comparison the Trial of Louis XVI during the French Revolution was a model of fairness.

The only proper description of this travesty is Judicial Murder. But wait it gets "better"!

The charges against Charles were shall we say "defective", although "shabby" and "contemptible" are better words. For example, Charles:

... out of a wicked design 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, yea, to take away and make void the foundations thereof, and of all redress and remedy of misgovernment, which by the fundamental constitutions of this kingdom were reserved on the people's behalf in the right and power of frequent and successive Parliaments, or national meetings in Council; he, the said Charles Stuart, for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented, ... 1

Its debatable to say the least who "levied" war against who first in the English Civil war and a case can be easily made that Parliament did so first. And this ignores the fact that just what "Parliament" is being talked about, after all over 40% of the Commons and a even higher percentage of the Lords joined the King and sat at Oxford during the English Civil War.2 The Parliament in London in effect "levied" war against itself.

As for "tyrannical" acts one can make a very long list of the tyranny's of the Parliament in London and of its usurpations. It seems to be incontestable that it was Parliament that was claiming authority without precedent or basis, unpleasant has it is to the Whig interpretation that in Charles' conflict with Parliament over the use of his "prerogatives" Charles' was frankly in the right and Parliament's claims had no lawful basis. As for specific acts of tyranny lets see; The judicial murder of Stafford and the Judicial murder of Archbishop Laud by Parliament are just some of the acts of tyranny to lay on Parliament. Also the various judicial murders of Roman Catholic priests also by Parliament. Mass confiscations of Royalist property etc.

Parliament's claims were revolutionary and based not on legal precedent or law but on force. Such claims by Parliament as control of the Militia, the right to force the King to accept Ministers acceptable to Parliament were revolutionary claims with virtually NO legal basis. Further Parliament did not accept limitations on its own power. So that Parliament's ability to trample down the rights of others was every bit, if not more, unlimited than any claim by Charles' for royal power.

For example Charles is condemned, rightly in my opinion, for the use of violence and coercion to enforce his idea of proper religious practice. This is not a edifying story. But it should be remembered that it was, at the time, considered sound practice to enforce religious uniformity in Europe and violent means were considered perfectly reasonable. In fact religious diversity was looked upon with horror generally. Further Parliament did not oppose this at all, in fact Parliament approved of such methods. What Parliament opposed was the nature of the Religious settlement imposed by Charles. Parliament wanted to impose its own religious settlement, by the same means of course, and regarded toleration with total horror. After all neither Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, or James I had done much differently. Nor had any of those rulers been anything less than as absolute as Charles I.

Here is the end of the Charge sheet against Charles:
All which wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation, by and from whom he was entrusted as aforesaid.

By all which it appeareth that the said Charles Stuart hath been, and is the occasioner, author, and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel and bloody wars; and therein guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.3
The same accusations can be made against Parliament. This is show trial justice and simply not fit to be taken seriously. Aside from the rather absurd matter that Charles was basically being accused of treason against himself, along with being charged retrospectively with breaking a law that had not existed when he committed the alleged crimes.

In subsequent years as the army made and unmade Parliaments, by coup after coup, and Cromwell became in effect dictator. With a wave of Witch burnings, other executions and terror the English people learned that personal and legislative tyranny are both very unpleasant. The very arbitrary and brutal nature of "Republican" government eventually brought forth a reaction that produced, amidst massive public rejoicing the return of the Monarchy in 1660. Finally for all of Charles' alleged excesses nothing he ever did even approached for brutality or sheer tyrannical excess the Cromwellian settlement in Ireland, which already in 1641 was much favoured by a large section of Parliament.

In the end the English Civil war helped to develop ideas of freedom and constitutional government,4 but such developments were revolutionary and Charles' whatever his faults, which were many, was no tyrant.

John Cooke was in some respect an admirable man, certainly his belief in some form of "legal aid", the rights of the common man etc., are attractive but those attractive ideas do not change the fact that Charles' trial was a judicial farce. As a trial it is worthy only of contempt. The fact that in the end Charle's trial did help the idea that even rulers were subject to the law does not change that, for the trial also helped set the stage for the modern show trial.

The book The Tyranncide Brief, makes much ado about John Cooke's rather grisly execution. Accusing Charles II, Charles I son, of being vindictive and cruel. Histororical facts say differently. Yes drawing and quartering5 are pretty horrible methods of execution, but then regicide was considered a truly horrific act at the time, worthy of severe punishment of the most extreme sort. Further after the first few executions the remaining regicides who were tried just had their heads chopped off. Charles II was not a vindictive monarch. His clemency when he came to power was clear and amazed at, only a very few suffered punishment of any kind. Charles II contemporaries realized that if Charles had chosen to be vindictive the number of his victims for whom he could, with good cause, have punished would have been very large. Charles also forgave a great many of the regicides who had signed his father's death warrant. In the end less than 30 people alltogether were executed. Charles II has a vindictive man is simply an attempt to heroize John Cooke. It doesn't wash.

Historians should avoid post - hoc justifications because they favour the cause that committed the act.

1. The Charge against the King, Here

2. It is of interest that very little historical work has been done about the doings of this Parliament.

3. See Footnote 1.

4. The idea of at least some degree of Religious tolerance, Catholics excluded, was advocated by Cromwell and the Independents over the opposition of Parliament, and then imposed by force.

5. Drawing and quartering involved hanging someone until they were nearly dead, castrating them, disembowelling them, then burning the entrails in front of them, then cutting out or stabing them in the heart to finally kill them. Every effort would be made to keep the person alive and concious until the end. It was reserved for the most horrible of crimes, like regicide and treason, but even so it was frequently changed to a simple beheading or the person was hanged until they were dead before the mutilations out of simple mercy.


The Trial of King Charle I - Defining Moment for our Constitutional Liberties, Michael Kirby, January 22, 1999, Here

Civil War, Trevor Royle, Abacus, London, 2004.

Tudor and Stuart Britain 1471-1714, Second Edition, Roger Lockyer, Longman, London, 1985.

The King's Peace 1637-1641, C. V. Wedgewood, Collins / Fontana Books, London, 1955.

The King's War 1641-1647, C. V. Wedgewood, Fontana Books, London, 1958.

Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment