The Trial of Charles I by Dame Veronica Wedgwood (1964)

22 September 2012

I own about 50 books on the Civil Wars and am a member of the Cromwell Association, have attended lectures and visited battlefields and key Civil War sites. But if you asked me what to read on the subject I would unhesitatingly recommend the ageing but brilliant trilogy of books by Dame Veronica Wedgwood (1910-1997) – The King’s Peace (1955), The King’s War (1958), and The Trial of Charles I (1964).

The reason is simple. All the other books I’m aware of are either high-level overviews of the entire period (from the 1630s or earlier to the Restoration in 1660) or specialist books by professional historians arguing a particular thesis or interpretation. Wedgwood’s books are the only ones I know of which give a straightforward chronological account of what happened on an almost daily basis. This level of detail about the helter-skelter of day-to-day events, the rush and pressure of unpredictable crises and alarm, is crucial to understanding the decisions the key players made as they struggled to understand and control events.

Ten fateful weeks Wedgwood concentrates on the 10 weeks between Cromwell’s Army, on 20th November 1648, laying before a reluctant Parliament their demands that the king be brought to trial – and the execution of the king January 30 1649.  First she sketches in the background and the key political groups which had emerged during the Civil War:

  • The Royalists Mostly in exile or hiding after the failed rising or ‘second civil war’ in the Spring and Summer of 1648 which had been convincingly crushed by the New Model Army. Royalists throughout the land were being repressed and, if they’d helped in the uprising, often had their land and money confiscated.
  • The Army Under its brilliant commander Sir Thomas Fairfax the army had emerged victorious in the second civil war, defeating all Royalist forces. This battle-hardened army was to go on to occupy Scotland and then storm through Ireland. But the Army was divided into two parts:
    • The Levellers During the war there emerged from the common troops, formerly uneducated men who had found a voice and confidence through their success and solidarity, a group nicknamed the Levellers, who demanded a comprehensive overhaul of the English State, starting with free elections on the basis of universal male suffrage to form a new House of Commons with a mandate to review Common Law, abolish the Church of England, abolish tithes and so on.  Their most effective leader was the young, impassioned John Lilburne, once whipped through the streets of London at Charles’s order for slandering the Court.
    • ‘The Grandees’ the Levellers’ nickname for the landed gentry and aristocrats who led the Army, who opposed the king on legal or religious principle, but had not the slightest interest in reordering Society, who were convinced that would lead to anarchy. They formed a small Council of the Army, dominated by the ruthless workaholic Henry Ireton, who happened to be son-in-law to Cromwell.
  • Parliament
    • The House of Lords Heavily biased towards the king, most of the Royalists were abroad in exile, in hiding or dead. In the leadup to the trial sometimes as few as six Lords attended some sessions.
    • The House of Commons Claiming to represent the people of England, the Commons was already diminished by up to 200 of the original members of the 1642 House. Even so it was still dominated by the Presbyterians, so-called moderate Puritans who desperately wanted to reach agreement with the king. It was these moderates that Charles had been stringing along since 1647 while he hoped against hope for further uprisings or help from a foreign government to free him.
    • The Army MPs Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and some 20 others combined leadership positions in the Army with membership of the House of Commons and used their position repeatedly to get the Army’s way.

Pride’s Purge When the Presbyterian majority in the Commons delayed debating the Army’s demand for a trial, events took a dramatic turn. On December 5th Colonel Pride stood outside Westminster Hall and as each MP arrived, he let through the ones favourable to the Army, took into custody all those opposed. Only 45 MPs were let in. It became known as ‘Pride’s Purge’. It was in effect a military coup, ensuring that the Parliament Cromwell and the others took up arms to defend in 1642, now consisted of few if any Lords, and only a hard core of MPs favourable to the Army’s wishes.

The Commission This reduced ‘Rump’ was persuaded to set up a Commission with 135 members to administer the trial and decide the king’s guilt. Of this hand-picked group rarely more than 60 attended any of the sessions. Wedgwood gives a brilliant, day by day of the trial and the central clash – between the obscure lawyer John Bradshaw chosen to run the court, who repeatedly tried to get Charles to enter a plea – and the dignified king who knew the law inside out and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court.

The conflict Charles I was convinced he had a God-given duty to preserve not only the laws and traditions of England, but the rights and prerogatives of the Crown, as handed to him by his father, in order to hand them on to his son. The religious zealots in the Army were convinced that Charles’s defeat in the first and second civil wars showed beyond doubt that God had decided against him, that he was guilty of starting the war in the first place, and therefore was the ‘Man of Blood’ as they called him, and deserved to die. More practical roundheads like Henry Ireton probably Cromwell just simply realised there was no dealing with this king. One way or another they had been trying to negotiate with him since 1640 and it had led to nothing but bloodshed, political collapse, economic depression, while the king endlessly prevaricated and endlessly schemed, trying to get the Scots to invade, to raise an Irish army, to persuade the French king to aid him.

Wedgwood’s account brilliantly conveys why both sides were convinced God was on their side, and how the different interpretations of what that meant led to complete stalemate. The only way to break the stalemate was to remove one of the players.

Reactions to the execution The execution of the king was very unpopular. Even within the Army there were protests. The Presbyterian interest in London and beyond opposed it. It prompted the Presbyterian Scots to declare war on England. Royalists sincerely considered it the most heinous act since the Crucifixion of Christ, to which it was immediately compared.

Cromwell War in Scotland and Ireland took up Cromwell’s time over the next few years while the Rump Parliament gained a damning reputation for corruption until, in April 1653, Cromwell ejected it by force. Leaders of the Army offered Cromwell the crown. He refused but accepted the title Lord Protector in December 1653 and set about instituting the godly, fair and just government he had hoped for. But the various experiments in democracy, nominated Parliaments, and rule by military Governor-General all failed. Cromwell died in September 1658, almost ten years after he’d led the men who executed Charles I.

The Restoration Within a year his regime had unravelled, the Protectorate collapsed, and the strongest surviving military figure, General Monk, bowing to popular demand and political realism, invited Charles II to return to Britain and take the throne.

The disappearance of Christian belief As Wedgwood concludes, the strongest element in these events, the devout and sometimes fanatical Christian belief of all the players involved, is the one that has most faded from contemporary view, becoming almost inaccessible from our modern perspective. We fill the gap with Marxist or mercantilist or psychoanalytical, with political or biographical interpretations. But it was upon the rock of a shared Christian faith, reflected through vastly different interpretations, that all four nations in the British Isles came to bloody grief for 20 long years.

‘Cromwell before the Coffin of Charles I’ (1849) by Hippolyte Delaroche

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