On 30 January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded, having been found guilty of being “a tyrant, traitor and murderer, and public enemy to the Commonwealth”.
The execution sent shivers through the royal palaces of Europe.
Charles, the Stuart monarch of what since 1603 had been the united kingdoms of England and Scotland, was tried by a specially-convened English court.
After the execution, the new regime in England abolished monarchy and the House of Lords. It declared England to be a Commonwealth, or parliamentary republic, and went on by military conquest to incorporate Scotland and Ireland in a new unitary state.
The revolutionary forces that had defeated Charles’s army in the civil wars of the 1640s had divided aims: radicals pushed for deeper-going social and political reform, while conservatives sought a new compromise with the monarchy, nobility and church hierarchy.
Oliver Cromwell, who had led the New Model Army that fought for parliament, was made head of state, and in 1653 was declared Protector, or virtual dictator.
Cromwell’s death in 1659 triggered a political crisis. After his eldest son Richard had ruled as Protector for a few months, the English parliament invited the executed king’s eldest son, who was crowned king of Scotland in 1649 and been in exile on the continent since then, to return to London as King Charles II.
The restoration of the monarchy after the republican decade did not put out the flame of anti-royalism. The divine right of kings to rule with unlimited authority was buried with Charles I. Charles II often sought compromise on matters of state and religion – and presided over a court in which one courtier, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, could get away with writing:
Monsters which knaves “sacred” proclaim,
And then like slaves fall down before ’em.
What can there be in kings divine?
The most are wolves, goats, sheep or swine.
Then farewell sacred majesty,
Let’s put all brutish tyrants down;
When men are born and still live free,
Here every head doth wear a crown.
I hate all monarchs and the thrones they sit on,
From the Hector of France to the cully [good mate] of Britain.
There is no need to take Rochester, an aristocratic playboy and libertine opponent of the Puritanism of Cromwell’s time, too seriously. But republicanism was characteristic of the times. It was understood as a serious option in England, a century before the French revolution. In 1650, John Milton, for many the greatest English poet after Shakespeare, had published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a much-read and popular justification of regicide.
And absolute monarchy was finished for good. In 1685, Charles II’s brother, a devout Catholic, succeeded him as James II. He sought to rule more as Charles I had done – and the ruling elites in 1688 found a way to replace him with William of Orange, a Dutchman. He had hereditary legitimacy through his Stuart wife, but was a Protestant, amenable to a constitutional settlement based on compromise between king and parliament.Read the rest of this entry »