The trial of Charles I: an early modern show trial?

To begin our day-by-day retelling of the trial of Charles I over on twitter, Philip Baker, Research Fellow on the 1624 Parliamentary Diaries project, discusses the circumstances behind the trial and its later interpretation…

The trial of King Charles I – which began on this day in 1649 – remains arguably the most dramatic and famous trial in English history. Monarchs had been deposed, and even murdered, before, but Charles was the first to be placed on public trial for his life by his own subjects, charged with waging war against the English people in a bloody civil war. His court, which served as both judge and jury, was a specially commissioned high court of justice of 156 civilians and soldiers, of whom – no doubt due to the status of the accused – only 101 attended any sessions of the trial. The most conspicuous absentee was Thomas, Lord Fairfax, general of the victorious New Model Army, whose wife, Lady Anne, allegedly cried out during the trial from the gallery that her husband ‘had more wit than to be there’ and that ‘not half, nor a quarter of the people of England’ supported the proceedings.

If a somewhat apocryphal story, the sentiments behind it were true, with the vast majority of English people, and even many parliamentarians, standing opposed to the trial. Often regarded as the design of a vengeful clique intent on the fulfilment of divine retribution against a ‘man of blood’, modern historians have thus frequently regarded the outcome of the proceedings as a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, the view that it was a mere show trial, with only a single possible verdict and sentence, has recently been challenged. On this alternate reading, the trial was the very final attempt to reach a political settlement with the militarily defeated king.

None of this is to deny that there were indeed those who very much wanted to see Charles dead. But did the army’s more general demand for ‘justice’ against the king – the core theme of its famous Remonstrance of November 1648 – equate to a demand for his head? Could it not mean that he be brought to trial and, if found guilty, suitably punished and perhaps deposed? Similarly, the repeated efforts to get Charles to plead, the open reporting of the trial and its public staging in the grandeur of Westminster Hall all suggest that it was about more than simply the fate of one man. For if Charles had entered a plea, he would thereby at least tacitly acknowledged the supremacy of the House of Commons, which had pushed through the legislation for the trial without the House of Lords, and thus essentially accepted a reapportionment of the constitutional basis of legitimate political power in England.

But if that was the core purpose of the trial, the king’s opponents misjudged him badly. By reaffirming his commitment to God to uphold the ancient laws of the land, Charles had much the better of its proceedings, which thereby turned into a public relations disaster for its backers and perhaps left them with no alternative but to convict and execute him.

All this should make us question – not least in the light of President Putin’s recent comparison of Oliver Cromwell and Joseph Stalin – the old adages that Charles I faced a kangaroo court and that the proceedings were a show trial in the Stalinist model. Indeed, it may now be time to view the trial of Charles I as another in the long line of attempts to resolve the constitutional crisis instigated by the English Revolution.


To mark the anniversary of the trial of Charles I, from today until 30 January we will be tweeting extracts from the proceedings and related material. So please do follow us – using the hashtag #CItrial – to find out more about one of the most iconic events in English history

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