Why Charles I had to die

When Charles I was put on trial in January 1649, ordering his execution was unthinkable for many of his enemies. Yet, within a matter of days, those same enemies had sent him to the scaffold. Leanda de Lisle chronicles the brinkmanship, the bloodletting and the plots that persuaded parliament that it had no choice but to kill a king

Marked man: Charles I shown in a detail in Anthony van Dyck's famous portrait. In his final days, the king's attempts to play his enemies against one another backfired spectacularly. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

The Painted Chamber in the Palace of Westminster was a wonder of the 13th century. But the faded images were now obscured by tapestries; the medieval world barely intruded into the new on 8 January 1649, when men in military buff coats or plain Puritan suits sat at trestle tables and debated the fate of their king.

Two days earlier a high court had been established that would for the first time try a king of England. Six years into a series of civil wars between forces loyal to the king and their parliamentary enemies, this was justified on the practical grounds of preventing Charles from raising further “commotions, rebellions and invasions”. It was also a matter of principle: that the king should have no impunity from the law.

The 135 judges who had been appointed by the House of Commons were mostly army officers and radical MPs. Fifty-three attended this meeting, including the leading parliamentarian general Thomas Fairfax and his subordinate Oliver Cromwell.

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