In January 1649, the English rump parliament put King Charles I on trial for treason and other high crimes. By the end of the Civil War, Charles was imprisoned in Windsor castle while the parliament discussed what to do with him. At the beginning of January the House of Commons decided to indict Charles on a charge of treason. This was instantly rejected by the House of Lords. The Lords were outraged that the Commons should suggest such a move; the Commons could not sit in judgement on their king. Undaunted by this the Commons passed an Act to set up a High Court of Justice in order to try Charles I for high treason in the name of the people of England. The Act nominated 3 judges and 150 commissioners. The Lords then turned to the Chief Justices of the three common law courts of England; Henry Rolle, Oliver St John and John Wilde, who all declared the indictment as unlawful. To avoid a deadlock, the Commons bypassed the Lords by amended the Act. They removed the judges and the members of the Lords who were intended to sit as commissioners. The amended Act appointed 135 commissioners, all of whom were members of the Commons. With no members sitting in the trial, the Lords were legally sidelined. Despite the Act having been passed with little opposition in the Commons many members were reluctant to sit in judgement on their king. Of the 135 commissioners nominated to serve only 68 attended the trial. Of the remaining 67, some refused on the grounds that they felt the legality of the procedure to be flawed, some refused on personal grounds stating family ties with the royal family or religious conscience but most did not attend claiming ill health, family emergencies or simply stayed on their estates ignoring all requests for their presence.
The trial began on 20th January in Westminster hall with John Bradshaw acting as President of the Court and John Cook, Solicitor General, leading the prosecution. Charles was accused of treason in that he had used his power as king for his own personal gain rather than for the good of the people.
“for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented”.
Charles was further charged with high crimes against the people.
“guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.”
When the charges against him were read out in court Charles was asked how he pleaded. Charles refused to pleaded and asked, “I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?” He refused to recognise the authority of the court claiming that has his kingly authority had been given to him by God then no court could have authority over a king. Moreover under the traditional courts of England, as had been shown by the judgement of the Chief Justices ,Henry Rolle, Oliver St John and John Wilde, he could not be tried by commoners and so the trial itself was illegal being held merely by force of arms not by force of law. Charles stated,
“this day’s proceeding cannot be warranted by God’s laws; for, on the contrary, the authority of obedience unto Kings is clearly warranted, and strictly commanded in both the Old and New Testament … for the law of this land, I am no less confident, that no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King, they all going in his name: and one of their maxims is, that the King can do no wrong … the higher House is totally excluded; and for the House of Commons, it is too well known that the major part of them are detained or deterred from sitting … the arms I took up were only to defend the fundamental laws of this kingdom against those who have supposed my power hath totally changed the ancient government.”
The court challenged Charles on the issues of sovereign immunity and declared that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise.”
After this exchange the court proceeding to present the indictment but many were uneasy with this battle over the court’s authority and Charles’ statement that the higher house, the House of Lords, was excluded. On the second day of the trial Charles was again asked how he pleaded and he repeated “I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?”. He repeated this again on the third day of the trial which by this time had heard no witnesses but had become bogged down on the issue of the court’s authority. The court was not sealed and rumours were starting to fly about what was happening. What had been intended to be a short two or three day trial to “deal with” the king was short 68 commissioners, still had had no plea entered and had a defendant who defied its authority. Something had to be done.
At the end of the third day the commissioners held a tense meeting and the next morning the court was reconvened and the trial continued without Charles. Over the following two day testimony was heard from over 30 witnesses and on 26th January Charles was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death. The next day Charles was brought back to a public session of the commission where he was declared guilty and condemned to death. The death warrant was signed by 59 commissioners. Charles was beheaded on January 30th.