Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

The Last Speech of King Charles I

Today is the anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. 

Charles I at his trial in 1649

King Charles I 
A portrait from the time of his trial

Image: English Heritage

A while ago I found on the Internet the text of the speech the King made on the scaffold and thought that worth sharing to commemorate the Royal Martyr.

The King begins by referring to the fact that the number of guards around the scaffold prevented the crowd hearing him ... so he addressed this to the quite large group who appear to have been on the scaffold itself:

I shall be very little heard of anybody here, I shall therefore speak a word unto you here.

Indeed I could hold my peace very well, if I did not think that holding my peace would make some men think that I did submit to the guilt as well as to the punishment. But I think it is my duty to God first and to my country for to clear myself both as an honest man and a good King, and a good Christian.

I shall begin first with my innocence.

In truth I think it not very needful for me to insist long upon this, for all the world knows that I never did begin a War with the two Houses of Parliament. And I call God to witness, to whom I must shortly make an account, that I never did intend for to encroach upon their privileges. They began upon me, it is the Militia they began upon, they confessed that the Militia was mine, but they thought it fit for to have it from me. And, to be short, if any body will look to the dates of Commissions, of their commissions and mine, and likewise to the Declarations, will see clearly that they began these unhappy troubles, not I. So that as the guilt of these enormous crimes that are laid against me I hope in God that God will clear me of it.

I will not, I am in charity, God forbid that I should lay it upon the two Houses of Parliament. There is no necessity of either. I hope that they are free of this guilt, for I do believe that ill instruments between them and me has been the chief cause of all this bloodshed; so that by way of speaking, as I find myself clear of this, I hope and pray God that they may too; yet for all this, God forbid that I should be so ill a Christian as not to say that Gods Judgments are just upon me.

Many times He does pay justice by an unjust sentence, that is ordinary. I will only say this, that an unjust sentence that I suffered to take effect*, is punished now by an unjust sentence upon me. That is, so far as I have said, to show you that I am an innocent man.

Now to show you that I am a good Christian; I hope there is [pointing to D. Juxon] a good man that will bear me witness that I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causers of my death. Who they are, God knows, I do not desire to know, God forgive them. But this is not all, my charity must go further.

I wish that they may repent, for indeed they have committed a great sin in that particular. I pray God, with St. Stephen, that this be not laid to their charge. Nay, not only so, but that they may take the right way to the peace of the kingdom, for my charity commands me not only to forgive particular men, but my charity commands me to endeavor to the last gasp the peace of the kingdom.

So, Sirs, I do wish with all my soul, and I do hope there is some here [turning to some gentlemen that wrote] that will carry it further, that they may endeavor the peace of the kingdom.

Now, sirs, I must show you both how you are out of the way and will put you in a way.

First, you are out of the way, for certainly all the way you have ever had yet, as I could find by anything, is by way of conquest. Certainly this is an ill way, for Conquest, sirs, in my opinion, is never just, except that there be a good just cause, either for matter of wrong or just title. And then if you go beyond it, the first quarrel that you have to it, that makes it unjust at the end that was just at the first. But if it be only matter of conquest, there is a great robbery, as a pirate said to Alexander the Great, that he was the great robber, he was just a petty robber. And so, sirs, I do think the way that you are in, is much out of the way.

Now, sirs, to put you in the way, believe it, you will never do right, nor God will never prosper you, until you give God his due, the King his due (that is, my successors) and the people their due. I am as much for them as any of you.

You must give God his due by regulating rightly His church according to the Scripture, which is now out of order. For to set you in a way particularly, now I cannot, but only this. A national synod freely called, freely debating among themselves, must settle this, when that every opinion is freely and clearly heard.

For the King, indeed I will not, [then turning to a gentlemen that touched the axe] Hurt not the Axe that may hurt me.

For the King the Laws of the land will clearly instruct you for that; therefore, because it concerns my own particular, I only give you a touch of it.

For the people, and truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as any body whomsoever. But I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government those Laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, sirs. That is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean, that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.

Sirs, it was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I needed not to have come here. And therefore I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people.

In truth, sirs, I shall not hold you much longer, for I will only say thus to you. That in truth I could have desired some little time longer, because I would have put then that I have said in a little more order, and a little better digested than I have done. And, therefore, I hope that you will excuse me.

I have delivered my conscience. I pray God, that you do take those courses that are best for the good of the kingdom and your own salvation.

[William Juxon, Bishop of London :]

Will Your Majesty, though it may be very well known Your Majesties affections to religion, yet it may be expected, that You should, say somewhat for the world's satisfaction.


I thank you very heartily, my Lord, for that. I had almost forgotten it.

In truth, sirs, my conscience in religion, I think, is very well known to all the world. And therefore, I declare before you all that I die a Christian, according to the profession of the Church of England, as I found it left me by my father.

And this honest man [pointing to Juxon] I think will witness it.

[Then turning to the Officers]

Sirs, excuse me for this same. I have a good Cause, and I have a gracious God. I will say no more.

[Then turning to Colonel Hacker]

Take care that they do not put me to pain. And sir, this, and it please you...

[But then a gentleman coming near the Axe, the King said]

Take heed of the axe, pray, take heed of the axe


[Then to the Executioner]

I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands.

[Then the King called to Juxon for His night cap and put it on. Then to the Executioner]

Does my hair trouble you?

[The Executioner desired Him to put it all under His cap, which the King did accordingly, by the help of the Executioner and the Bishop. Then the King turning to Juxon:]

I have a good cause, and a gracious God on my side.


There is but one Stage more, which is turbulent and troublesome, yet it is a short one. You may consider it will soon carry you a very great way. It will carry you from earth to heaven. And there you shall find a great deal of cordial, joy, and comfort.


I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.


You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown. A good exchange.

[The King then asked the Executioner]

Is my hair well?

[Then the King took off his cloak and his George, giving his George to Juxon, saying:]


[Then the King put off his doublet and, being in his waistcoat, put his cloak on again. Then looking upon the block, the King said to the Executioner:]

You must set it fast.


It is fast, sir.


It might have been a little higher.


It can be no higher, sir.


When I put out my hands this way, then.

[After having said a few words as he stood to himself with hands and eyes lift up, immediately stooping down, the King laid his neck on the block. Then the Executioner again putting his hair under his cap, the King said:]

Stay for the sign.


Yes, I will, and it please Your Majesty.

[After a very little pause, the King stretching forth his hands, the Executioner at one blow, severed his head from his body.]

* The King is referring to the execution of the Earl of Strafford in 1641

A Lively Representation of the Manner how his late Majesty was Beheaded upon the Scaffold, a Restotation print of Charles making his speech upon the scaffold.

Image: Wikipedia from a British Library pamphlet 

Wikipedia has a useful and detailed account of the events of January 30th 1649 and of the varied historiographical interpretations of the King’s death which can be read at Execution of Charles I


Image: History Today

In his speech the King maintains the case he had made at the trial in Westminster Hall as to maintaining the historic constitution, the Church of England and the rights of his subjects against the militant clique who had seized power and brought about his death. It includes two of his sayings that are often quoted, about the absolute difference between sovereign and subject and about his exchanging his corruptible crown for an incorruptible one. He spoke also of his successors as monarchs - he clearly did not see his death, or wish to imply it as signifying the end of the institution he still embodied. 

Given the circumstances under which it was given it is a recollected and balanced defence of his rights and actions. It conveys a sense of resignation to his fate but also a calm reassertion of his view of kingship and a belief in its ultimate vindication. It is in some ways prophetic of the events of the coming eleven years and of the Restoration, when Bishop Juxon, who noted down the speech in shorthand, newly promoted to the Archbishopric of Canterbury was to crown King Charles II.

The Apotheosis, or, Death of the King is a 1728 line engraving by French engraver Bernard Baron (1696-1762). It reflects the then still dominant Anglican view of King Charles I as Christian martyr. In the foreground, the King is taken to Heaven by a group of angels while Britannia looks down in shame. In the background the execution has taken place and the crowd is in an uproar.

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