Heads Will Roll – The Beheading of Charles I

There was a chill breeze blowing as Charles stepped out onto the execution scaffold on that cold, gray afternoon of January 30, 1649.

Charles had requested two shirts to lessen the chance that he would shiver, and that the crowd might mistake it for fear.

The season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.

Only those on the scaffold could hear Charles’s last words.

I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.
An executioner's block in tHe Tower of London. Image credit John Morris, flickr
An executioner’s block in tHe Tower of London. Image credit John Morris, flickr

It was two o’clock in the afternoon and Charles knelt to put his head on the block.
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Normally, execution blocks were about 2 ft high, which meant the accused could kneel. But the block used for Charles was only 10″ high, and he had to lie prone, exacerbating the humiliating experience. [Source: A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I].

The executioner lined up the axe, and Charles stretched his arms out in front of him to signal he was ready. Back went the axe and then down it came, slicing clean through Charles’s neck in a single stroke.

Contemporary German print of Charles I’s beheading vs what really happened.

A moan rose from the crowd, “as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again”, according to observer Philip Henry.

In one sense, Charles had been lucky, for it only took one pass for his head to come clean off. Quite often, the block bounced under the axe’s impact and the executioner would have to adjust his aim and take another swipe.

The execution of Charles I is unique in British history. It symbolized the death of the divine right theory that a monarch has the right to rule directly from the will of God. It was the birth of constitutional politics.

What is the last thought that passed through his mind before the axe fell? I hope for the unfortunate Charles, it was memories of a happier time.

An Episode in the Happier Days of Charles I by Frederick Goodall – 1853.

Charles I Trivia

  • Out of 135 judges, only 68 turned up for his trial. Most did not want to be associated with regicide (the killing of a king).
  • The persecutors allowed Charles to take a last walk in St James’s park with his dog.
  • He ate bread and wine at his last meal.
  • The chosen executioner refused to perform the deed and others had to be bribed £100 (about $10,000 today) and allowed to wear masks to hide their identity.
  • Spectators paid to dip handkerchiefs in his blood in the belief that it would have healing powers.
  • When his son returned to become king of England as Charles II in 1660, anyone still alive who had signed his father’s death warrant was tried and executed for regicide.

Additional Reading


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David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.