Who executed King Charles I?

It is the enigma of the executioner – we may never know the identity of the man who chopped off Charles I's head on 30 January 1649

Charles I on his way to be executed, 30 January 1649. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

No one wanted to be the man who chopped off a King’s head – following Charles’s dramatic trial and conviction for high treason amidst the British Civil Wars. Even London’s Common Hangman, Richard Brandon, turned down the job, despite lucrative offers.

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So on the fateful day, 30 January 1649, both the executioner and their assistant were heavily disguised with false hair and beards.

At the traditional moment when the head of the deceased is held up, accompanied by the cry of “Behold the head of a traitor!”, Charles I’s head was brandished in silence so the assistant’s voice couldn’t be recognised.

That didn’t stop rumours, including, somewhat ludicrously, that it had been Oliver Cromwell himself.

A popular theory held the man was French – they were renowned as the best head-removers in Europe – but, to this day, we can’t be sure who did it.

A ‘confession’ after Brandon’s death ‘admitted’ it had been him, after being paid £30, but this was likely a forgery.

Whoever did the deed was certainly a professional. When Charles’s body was exhumed in 1813, the head was found to have been severed in a single blow.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Sandra Lawrence

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This article was taken from the December 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine