At two o'clock on the afternoon on this day in 1649, Charles I, King of England stepped upon a scaffold outside the banqueting hall at Whitehall Palace in London. A few moments later he was beheaded by executioner Richard Brandon and England was without a king. His death brought to an end the Civil War between the king and his parliament. It was just four years after the King's royalist forces lost at Naseby to the army led by the Parliamentarian's Oliver Cromwell.
Charles had offended a large majority of his subjects by refusing to accept accountability to Parliament, flirting with Catholicism, and continually raising tax rates. He went so far as to dissolve Parliament on several occasions for several years at a time. The struggle between the Parliament and the Crown erupted in a war in which Charles was opposed by well-trained Roundhead and Cavalier forces. After several contentious battles, Charles surrendered to a Scottish army in 1646. He was convicted of treason in 1648 and finally executed in 1649.
Cromwell was afterwards named Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth—though he repeatedly refused to accept Parliament’s offer of the Crown. The monarchy was restored in 1660 when Parliament invited Charles II to return from exile in France to assume his father’s throne.
The whole tragic episode was fraught with difficulty, controversy, and dissension. Even so staunch a supporter of the cause of constitutional freedom in England as the Anglican bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle (1816-1900), could not approve of the regicide. He noted in his book, Light from Old Times,, "It is a vulgar error to suppose, as many do, that the whole Parliamentary party are accountable for that wicked and impolitic act. The immense majority of the Presbyterians protested loudly against it." It was, in fact, the army that took the lead. Ryle was particularly anxious to make it clear that the Puritans "were entirely guiltless of any participation in the trial and death of the King." Nevertheless Ryle admitted that as much as the civil war was to be regretted, "we must in fairness remember that we probably owe to it the free and excellent Constitution which we possess in this country."