The Trial of King Charles I

The trial of King Charles IKing Charles faces his accusers

On 1 January 1649, the Rump Parliament passed an ordinance for the trial of King Charles I. He was charged with subverting the fundamental laws and liberties of the nation and with maliciously making war on the parliament and people of England. In a reversal of the traditional definition, Parliament declared that it was treason for a king to wage war upon his own subjects. When the House of Lords refused to give its assent to the ordinance, the House of Commons declared itself to be the supreme authority in the land with powers to pass laws without the consent of the King or the Lords.

A High Court of Justice was specially convened for the trial, which was held in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster. A total of 135 commissioners were nominated to sit in judgement of the King, but around fifty refused to participate and several more withdrew once the proceedings had begun.

Although the commissioners of the High Court were anxious that the trial should be seen to be open and public, stringent security measures were enforced. Soldiers were stationed to control the crowds, guards were posted on the roofs, cellars were searched. President Bradshaw wore a steel-lined bullet-proof hat in case of an assassination attempt.

The trial opened on the afternoon of 20 January 1649, with further sessions on the 22nd and 23rd. With quiet dignity the King exasperated the Commissioners by refusing to answer the charges against him. He did not recognise the jurisdiction of the High Court and challenged the basis on which the purged House of Commons could claim to represent the people of England. Each session ended with Bradshaw ordering the soldiers to remove the King—thus emphasising the overriding presence of the Army in the proceedings and underlining the King's claim that the present administration was a worse threat to the liberty and welfare of the people of England than he had ever been.

On 24 January, thirty-three witnesses against the King were heard by a sub-committee of the High Court and the following day their depositions were read out in a public session. The depositions proved the King's personal participation in the wars, gave evidence of his approval of various atrocities and demonstrated his intention of stirring up and continuing the wars. On 26 January, the commissioners drafted the sentence, condemning Charles Stuart as a "tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the Commonwealth of England".

The final session of the trial was held on 27 January. Bradshaw's 40-minute address to the prisoner asserted that even a king was subject to the law, and that the law proceeded from Parliament. Furthermore, Charles Stuart had broken the sacred reciprocal bond between king and subject. By making war on his own people, he had forfeit his right to their allegiance. Declaring Charles guilty of the charges against him, Bradshaw ordered the sentence of death to be read out. To his great dismay, Charles was not allowed to speak and was abruptly led away from the court to await his execution.


Graham Edwards, The Last Days of Charles I, (Stroud 1999)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iv (London 1894)

Howard Nenner, Regicides (act. 1649), Oxford DNB, 2004


The charge against the King

Excerpts from contemporary accounts of the trial