Today was not a good date in two separate years for Charles I of England. On this date in 1642 he stormed into the House of Commons with armed guards to arrest five members he had a dispute with, and on this date in 1649 – perhaps as an anniversary present – the Rump Parliament voted to put him on trial for treason, ending in his execution. These two events can be thought of as bookends to what is generally known as the English Civil War (or Wars) even though there had been numerous civil wars previously (during the Anarchy, for example, or the Wars of the Roses).
When the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, died childless, the throne of England passed to the son of Mary Queen of Scots – James VI of Scotland – who was the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, inaugurating the House of Stuart as James I of England. Despite numerous tensions and disputes with the nobility, as well as an ongoing dispute between Catholic and Protestant lords that led to the Gunpowder Plot — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-gunpowder-plot/ — and did not end until his son James II was deposed, James I managed to hold on to his throne, and die in his bed, by being a shrewd and effective conciliator (mostly drinking heavily rather than antagonizing people). His son, Charles I, was not so lucky because he was far from being a peacemaker, but, instead, was egotistical, arrogant, and headstrong, believing firmly that kings were appointed by God and should be given the authority to rule autocratically as absolute monarchs. Parliament respectfully disagreed.
Charles’ increasing monarchic profligacy resulted in two important Acts in pursuit of the rights of Parliament and People, the Triennial Act of 1641 which gave Parliament autonomy of the monarchy, and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, which extended one of the key terms of Magna Carta to the general population, the right not to be summarily arrested by the king without due process. The increasing tensions between Charles and Parliament led the king to attempt to arrest (without warrant or just cause) five members of the Long Parliament.
Charles believed that Puritans encouraged by five vociferous Members of the House of Commons, known thereafter as the Five Members – John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Arthur Haselrig and William Strode – together with the peer Edward Montagu, Viscount Mandeville (the future Earl of Manchester), had encouraged the Scots to invade England in the recent Bishops’ Wars, and that they were intent on turning the London mob against him. When rumors reached the court that they were also planning to impeach the queen for alleged involvement in Catholic plots, Charles decided to arrest them for treason. The counterclaim was that the king had an Irish army set to reduce the kingdom.
The Speaker of the House during the Long Parliament was William Lenthall. On Tuesday, 4th January 1642, Charles entered the House of Commons to seize the Five Members, and sat in the speaker’s chair. Not seeing the Five Members and commenting “I see the birds have flown”, the King then turned to Lenthall, who stood below, and demanded of him whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were. Lenthall fell on his knees and replied: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”. However, he later consented to appear as a witness against Thomas Scot in the wave of prosecutions of the regicides in 1660 which followed the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.
This action of the king was the catalyst for the Civil War, the beheading of the king, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. After his failure to capture the Five Members and fearing for his family’s lives, Charles left London for Oxford. Most of the royalist members of Parliament joined him there, where they formed the Oxford Parliament. The Long Parliament continued to sit during and beyond the Civil War without its royalist members, because of the Dissolution Act.
Nowadays, Charles’s act is commemorated at the annual opening of parliament when the reigning monarch delivers a speech (written by the Prime Minister of the Commons) from the throne in the House of Lords. The monarch sends a representative, known as Black Rod, to the Commons chamber to summon the members of Parliament to hear the speech, and, when he approaches, the chamber the door is slammed in his face, signifying the fact that both the monarch and any representative is barred from entering the Commons. Black Rod knocks three times on the door, and the members of Parliament, after hearing Black Rod’s summons, file to the House of Lords where they hear the monarch’s speech crowded into the doorway of the House of Lords. The Commons’ chamber remains their sanctuary.
After the royalist army had been defeated, it became apparent to the leaders of the New Model Army that Parliament—then controlled by the Presbyterian faction—was ready to come to an agreement with Charles that would restore him to the throne (though without effective power) and negate the power of the Army, they resolved to shatter the power of both king and Parliament. Pride’s Purge brought Parliament to heel under the direct control of the Army; the remaining Commons (the Rump) then on 13th December 1648, broke off negotiations with the king. Two days later, the Council of Officers of the New Model Army voted that the King be moved from the Isle of Wight, where he was prisoner, to Windsor, “…in order to the bringing of him speedily to justice.” Charles was brought from Windsor to London in the middle of December.
On 4th January 1649, the House of Commons passed an ordinance to set up a High Court of Justice, to try Charles I for high treason in the name of the people of England. The House of Lords rejected it, and as it did not receive Royal Assent, Charles asked at the start of his trial on 20th January in Westminster Hall, “I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful authority”, knowing that there was no legal answer under the constitutional arrangements of the time. In fact, he offered no defense whatsoever, refusing to accept (quite correctly), the legitimacy of the court that was trying him. In consequence, he was convicted with 59 Commissioners (judges) signing the death warrant. At the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, all the living signers of the death warrant were tried and executed as regicides.
Charles was stalwart in the face of his execution on January 30th and wore two heavy shirts to the beheading block in case his shivering from cold were mistaken for fear. Prior to his execution he took a glass of claret and a piece of bread (not intentionally Eucharistic, I believe – but also not much of a final meal). The tradition of a condemned prisoner being granted a last meal request before execution is not especially old – 19th century in most countries – and is being increasingly abolished in countries that still apply the death penalty. In September 2011, the state of Texas abolished all special last meal requests after condemned prisoner Lawrence Russell Brewer requested a huge last meal and did not eat any of it, saying he was not hungry. His last meal request was for a plate of two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, a bowl of fried okra with ketchup, a pound of barbecued meat with half of a loaf of white bread, a portion of three fajitas, a meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage), a pint of Blue Bell ice cream, a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts, and a serving equivalent to three root beers.
I believe that I have asked this question before, but it is worth asking again today: “What would you order for a last meal?” I have seen this question played out on cooking competition television shows where contestants are invited to prepare “last meals” for a panel of celebrity judges. I think I’d have to go with cock-a-leekie soup, steak and kidney pudding, and apple crumble – suitably English of me, I know, and might well be replaced with locro (with tripe) and milanesa at the last minute.