To kill a king: 350 years of regicide

The execution of King Charles I in 1649 is an event unique in English history – or is it? Helen Carr explores how, centuries prior to the death of Charles I, kings and queens were executed publicly, or disposed of surreptitiously, leaving a legacy of intrigue and speculation….

The execution of Charles I in 1649.

On 30 January 1649, a vast crowd gathered at Whitehall in London. They had come to witness an extraordinary event: the public execution of a reigning monarch, who had been tried by his own parliament.

After a week-long trial by the Commons faction of parliament, King Charles I of England was charged with high treason, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy. He was condemned to death by the severing of his head from his body.

On 30 January 1649, a vast crowd gathered at Whitehall in London. They had come to witness an extraordinary event: the public execution of a reigning monarch, who had been tried by his own parliament.

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After a week-long trial by the Commons faction of parliament, King Charles I of England was charged with high treason, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy. He was condemned to death by the severing of his head from his body.

It was a freezing cold afternoon in Whitehall when the king, who wore two thick shirts to shield his frail and defeated body from the chill, laid his head on the low executioner’s block. In one swift, expert blow he was decapitated, and a vast noise rose from the crowd, described by an onlooker as “a groan as I never heard before and desire to never hear again”. The head of the king was raised by the executioner’s assistant with the cry: “Behold, the head of a traitor.”

The execution of Charles I has shaped our constitutional history forevermore. However, this was not the first time a reigning king, or queen, of England was brutally deposed. Centuries prior to the death of Charles I, kings and queens were executed publicly, or disposed of surreptitiously, leaving a legacy of intrigue and speculation.

Edward II and a real-life game of thrones

The Middle Ages is often considered to be a merciless period in history, and when it comes to its monarchical history, it is a genuine game of thrones: kings and queens were under an almost constant threat of conspiracy and deposition. It was also a period of bad kings, from the worst (arguably King John), to the not very good (Richard II), to the unfortunate (Henry VI). Only monarchs who demonstrated strength, military success, potency and charisma thrived; others slowly deteriorated, or in some cases, met a bloody end.

Edward II of England.
Edward II of England. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

One of the most savage acts of regicide that took place in the Middle Ages was the purported murder of Edward II. In September 1327, King Edward II was held as a prisoner at Berkeley Castle when he was allegedly murdered under order from Sir Roger Mortimer, the lover of Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella. Mortimer acted as a de facto king through the true heir to the throne, Edward and Isabella’s son, Prince Edward (later Edward III).

So, what happened to Edward II? There are a number of chronicle accounts that refer to the death of the king. Some state he suffered ill health and died of natural causes, others that he was murdered. The Lichfield chronicle states “iugulatus” – strangulation; Adam Murimuth (c1275–1347), author of the Continuatio Chronicarum, claims that the king was smothered to death. However, The Brut – written around six years after the event – stipulates the king was murdered by a red-hot copper poker being thrust through his innards via his backside, under personal order of Roger Mortimer. This very grisly story has endured and has become most famous alleged means by which Edward II was killed. Gruesome though it is, however, this story is unlikely to be true and was probably fabricated from the story of the murder of a Saxon king known as Edmund Ironside, who met an unfortunate end, apparently while using the privy.

The grisly story that the king was murdered by a red-hot copper poker being thrust through his innards via his backside has endured

There continues to be speculation over Edward II’s death. Was he murdered? Did he even die in 1327? Nonetheless, in 1330, Edward III (now king) seized control from Roger Mortimer. He had Mortimer tried and hanged at Tyburn, in the belief that he had committed regicide.

A depiction of the arrest of Roger Mortimer
A depiction of the arrest of Roger Mortimer. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)”

Edward III went on to have a long and successful reign. However, after the death of his eldest son, the Black Prince, in 1376, and the king’s own death in 1377, the crown fell to the Black Prince’s only surviving son and heir, 10-year-old Richard (Richard II). The final decade of Edward III’s reign had been chaotic, as he battled with the Lords Appellant – men of esteemed nobility. One of the lords was Richard’s cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (the most powerful magnate in the country and effective regent when Richard was a boy.) When Gaunt died in 1399, Richard seized his uncle’s lands and wealth, known as the Duchy of Lancaster. Furious that he was stripped of his vast inheritance, Henry of Bolingbroke returned from exile and deposed Richard, imprisoning him at Pontefract Castle. Richard mysteriously died in 1400 behind the walls of the castle that Shakespeare dubbed “bloody Pomfret”. It is possible that he eventually starved to death, murdered under the orders of Henry of Bolingbroke, now the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV.

Henry of Bolingbroke, Henry IV
It is possible that Richard II was murdered under the orders of Henry of Bolingbroke. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Henry VI

The rise of one Lancastrian king was later followed by the fall of another. More than half a century later, Henry VI was held prisoner in the Tower of London during the War of the Roses. Henry suffered bouts of mental illness, and he was also extremely pious and sensitive. This combination made him a poor king and his reign unfortunate. He was deposed by the Yorkist faction of the Plantagenet line in 1461 and Edward IV took the crown, later imprisoning Henry.

However, imprisonment would not prove enough to dissuade devoted Lancastrians from trying to manoeuvre Henry back into power. Fragile, powerless and meek as he was in his final days, Henry was still a threat to the York crown. On Tuesday 21 May 1471, Edward IV returned to London after the Lancastrian forces were defeated at the battle of Tewkesbury, in which Henry’s son had been killed. That night, Henry VI, still a prisoner in the Tower, was also killed. One source claimed that he died out of grief and melancholy over his son’s death, but another, the chronicler Warkworth, stated that the deposed king was “put to death” between 11pm and midnight. It is possible that he was bludgeoned to death (when his body was later exhumed, it was found that his hair was matted with blood).

One source claimed that Henry VI died out of grief and melancholy, but another stated that the deposed king was 'put to death'

Who was the killer? This remains a mystery. However, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the younger brother of Edward IV and later Richard III) did stay in the Tower that night, and it is almost certain that Henry was murdered under the order of Edward IV, who could no longer risk Henry’s restoration as king and another Lancastrian uprising.

Richard III

Edward IV’s reign continued undisturbed until his death in 1483, when he was succeeded by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III). However, Richard’s succession was never intended, for the crown was to be passed naturally to the king’s eldest son and heir, Edward. Shortly after the death of Edward IV, Prince Edward and his brother Richard were taken into the Tower of London and eventually disappeared. It has been widely accepted that both princes were murdered under the order of their uncle, Richard. If this is the case, then it could be that Richard, Duke of Gloucester was responsible for two acts of regicide within the Tower of London.

Richard III was eventually killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 and the crown was taken by Henry Tudor, soon to be Henry VII. He married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, ending the Wars of the Roses and joining the two houses together, thus forging the royal Tudor dynasty.

The battle of Bosworth
A depiction of King Richard III’s Yorkist troops fighting Lancastrians at the battle of Bosworth, 1485. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Henry VIII’s daughters

There were to be no more clandestine acts of regicide, but under the reigns of Henry VIII’s daughters, monarchs were challenged, deposed, tried and executed. Mary I had her cousin, Jane Grey, the nine-day queen, beheaded, while Elizabeth I had her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots executed for treason.

So when Charles I stood upon the scaffold in 1649, it was not the execution that was a revolutionary event, but the fact it was the people, the Commons and the army that put him there. With one strike of the executioner’s axe, the English monarchy was temporarily extinguished, and the country fell into a decade of republican rule, under the watchful, fierce and devout rule of Oliver Cromwell.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
Paul Delaroche’s work, ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Restoration came in 1660, when Charles II came to the throne and wreaked bitter revenge on the regicides who dared to sign the death warrant of his father, even going as far as to exhume the corpse of Oliver Cromwell. However, the monarchy had already been undone. Not by secret murder – strangulation, starvation or bludgeoning to death – but in the cold light of day, before the people, judged by representatives of the people. The crown was more precarious than ever, and henceforth, would be a heavier burden to bear.

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Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer.