In January 1649 Charles I, King of England, was found guilty of treason against his own people, and, on the 30th day of the same month, he was executed at Whitehall. Upon the scaffold he turned to his companion, Dr William Juxon, and uttered the word: ‘Remember’.
He was not the only figure who perceived the importance of controlling the memory of this momentous event. Almost as soon as the axe fell, there began a fierce debate over what, exactly, was the most appropriate way to remember the death of a king at the hands of his own subjects. This debate endured throughout the decade of republican rule, into the Restoration period and beyond.
Here Dr Imogen Peck explores some of the struggles that occurred in early modern England over the commemoration of that most difficult of anniversaries: the execution of a King.
Here’s Five Ways England tried to mark the Regicide of King Charles I.
1. Don't do anything
In the immediate aftermath of the execution there was a flurry of publications that sought to establish the former King as a martyr. The most famous of these was Eikon Basilike - which translates roughly as ‘Royal Portrait’. A combination of the King’s reflections, supposedly penned by Charles I himself while in prison, and prayers and psalms, it presented the recently deceased king not as a blood thirsty tyrant, but as a martyr for his church and his country.
This powerful counter narrative of the King’s actions in life and death posed serious problems for the fledgling republican government. In fact, in November 1649 the authorities sought to suppress the republication of Gilbert Mabbott’s account of the King’s trial – a text which had been produced and printed with the express permission of the parliament only nine months earlier. In the changed political realities of the later part of the year, not least the success of Eikon Basilike, and the flood of other martyrological texts, it had become clear that royalists were utilising the King’s stoicism at his trial for their own ends, to buttress the ‘king as martyr’ interpretation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this fraught political context, when the first anniversary of the King’s death came around the government made no effort to formally mark the occasion. Royalists, however, were not so willing to let date of the death of the monarch pass unremarked. In a sermon given in 1649 the royalist divine Henry Leslie had argued that the 30 January was to be a day ‘for ever to be noted with a black coale’ and on the first anniversary the royalist press didn’t disappoint. The newsbook The Man in the Moon referred to the occasion as, variously, the ‘Regicides Holliday’ and ‘St Traytors Day’, and printed several imaginary accounts of the way the government may have marked the day in the company of Satan.
2. Use the date to recognise something else
The following year, in 1651, the government chose to designate the 30 January as a day of national thanksgiving. The orders for this day, however, were telling. This was to be an occasion to give thanks ‘for the wonderful mercies and signal salvations’ of the previous year, and particularly the recent victories at Ayre and Edinburgh. Any reference to the King’s death was conspicuous only by its absence. Between 1649 and 1660 the republican regimes ordered 25 thanksgivings, including days for the victory over Charles II and the Scots at Worcester, their military successes against the Dutch, and the thwarting of several Royalist plots. The choice of the 30 January as the date for this particular thanksgiving, however, is intriguing, and seems unlikely to have been entirely coincidental.
The poet George Wither certainly did not think so. In the foreword to a series of hymns produced to celebrate the day, Wither suggested that it was because the anniversary of the regicide was, in effect, also the anniversary of the birth of the republic that it was worthy of memorialisation, just as the anniversary of a monarch’s ascendance was inevitably – though somewhat less controversially – also the date of their predecessor’s death.
3. Consider marking an alternative anniversary
Wither’s suggestion that the 30 of January should be made an ‘everlasting Anniversary’ was not heeded, and the 1651 thanksgiving was both the first and the last official commemorative event to be held on this day until after the Restoration.
In September 1651, when a motion was brought before Parliament to establish a permanent memorial day celebrating the outcome of the Civil Wars, the date that was proposed was not 30 January but 3 September, the anniversary of the republic’s victories over the Scots at Dunbar and Worcester.
Ultimately, even this proposal was eventually abandoned. Constrained by the twin pressures of resistance and reconciliation, the republican governments shied away from establishing an annual day that marked the execution of the King, the establishment of the republic, or their God-given victory in the Civil Wars for the duration of the 1650s.
4. Reinstate a King and commemorate both dates
In May 1660, following months of institutional instability, the English Parliament wrote to Charles II inviting him to return and reclaim his throne. Charles had apparently commemorated the anniversary of his father’s death throughout his time in exile, and now he had returned, the 30 January was enshrined as an annual day of fasting and humiliation to serve as ‘a lasting Monument’ to the ‘villainous and abominable Fact’ of regicide. Shops were shut, fasts observed, and sermons that sought to blame a treacherous Puritan faction for the bloody events of the previous decade were preached
But the government also added another commemorative occasion to the national calendar – the 29 May, the date of Charles II’s Restoration. Known as Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day this was to be a day of thanksgiving and celebration ‘for our redemption from tyranny and the King's return to his Government’. This occasion was also marked with sermons, the favoured theme being a story of divine deliverance and national liberation, the moment when God had chosen to save England from the tyranny of the republics.
The spring date and celebratory tone also made it amenable to other kinds of celebration – across the country incidences of bell ringing, feasting and May pole dancing were recorded, as was the tradition of wearing oak leaves on one’s lapel, akin to the contemporary tradition of wearing silk flowers or ribbons as a sign of remembrance.
5. Keep debating
As the years wore on, the day of humiliation on 30 Janauary became increasingly politicised even among those who did observe it. During the 1670s and 1680s, Protestant fears about the accession of Charles’ brother, James II, a devout Catholic, led to a shift in the tone of many sermons given on this date. Where previously the Puritans had been the main villains of the piece, blamed for both the Civil Wars and regicide, during this period of anxiety the Catholics joined them at centre stage, as preachers hostile to James’ succession used the sermons to feed people’s fears about the dangers of popery. On the other side of the coin, his supporters gave sermons that emphasised the need for loyalty to the Stuart dynasty as a whole – and by extension to James - warning of the dangers of disloyalty which the regicide so clearly demonstrated. The anniversaries, then, became as much political tools as they were commemorations.
The regicide story tells us a great deal about the way governments have attempted to commemorate and forget events in the past; about the ways people could resist the government’s efforts at commemoration; and about the challenges that remembering Britain’s revolutionary past posed for the authorities.
In many ways, these are challenges that continue to confront states in the present day: in post-conflict societies, governments still face a dilemma over how far the duty to remember can be balanced with attempts to foster reconciliation. It might perhaps also encourage us to think about the meaning and origin of some of our own contemporary, commemorative occasions.
We still annually commemorate some wars, but not necessarily others. Commemorations continue to be fraught with double meanings, political and religious messages and controversy – and very much the same was true in early modern England.
Dr Imogen Peck is an historian of early modern Britain, with particular research interests in memory, the experience of civil war and post-conflict societies, and social and cultural history.
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