Charles I: Killing a King – BBC 4


Can you put a head of state on trial?  When deciding whether to do so, bear in mind that you may end up with a religious extremist running the country.  I’m referring, of course, to the events of December 1648 and January 1649.  The trial and execution of Charles I (neither of which should ever have happened) are such a huge turning point in English/British history, so this should have been absolutely fascinating … but it didn’t half drag on.

Lisa Hilton’s quite interesting to listen to, but it could all have been fitted into one hour, never mind three. She must have spent over five minutes talking about how Charles had lost a diamond out of his watch, and his servant was looking for it. And I didn’t really need to know that Charles wondered if you could grow melons in Wimbledon, although it was more interesting than hearing in quite so much detail about how Parliament couldn’t get the wording of the charges against him right, so the paperwork kept going backwards and forwards. Enough!!

The key lesson from it all was that religion, red tape and the refusal of silly men to compromise cause more trouble between them than anything else.  Some things never change.  But it really needn’t have taken quite so long to say so.

It didn’t really get interesting until we actually got to the trial, and that was right at the end of the second hour. Until then, it was … well, religion, red tape, and the refusal of silly men to compromise. Cromwell & co thought God was on their side – complete with visions from some woman who thought she was some sort of visionary. Charles thought he was an anointed monarch with a divine right to rule. Well, to be fair, he was an anointed monarch.  (Not just a common or garden head of state, like … er, a certain other person who may shortly be going on trial.)  And the court had no authority: he was quite right about that. But I thought the divine right stuff was overplayed. OK, it was what Charles thought … but this is England. I’m saying “England” because the Scots weren’t consulted about all this, and were justifiably very narked about it. Monarchs had been overthrown before.

But there hadn’t been all this legal stuff before. And that was really the point of what the BBC 4 were saying. It’s terribly English, isn’t it? Everything has to be done legally. I mean, this is England, where Parliament abolished purgatory! It’s very interesting in its way, and you can argue about it until the cows come home, both over Charles I’s execution and over the Glorious Revolution. I tie myself in knots about it: I still can’t reconcile it all in my head, even after all these years of thinking about it. Rightful kings, social contracts … you go round in circles with it all. But it’s best in small doses. I’m sure someone enjoys reading books like Leviathan and Two Treatises of Government, but they really are horribly boring!   Small doses, BBC 4.  Small doses.

If Charles I had agreed to some sort of compromise, then maybe it could all have been different.  Executing a king was such a huge step to take, and I don’t think it was one that anyone set out to bring about.  Elizabeth I would never in a million years have got into that sort of mess.  But the Stuarts were pretty good at getting into messes.  There were a few bits about Charles’s personal life, and they broke up the legalistics a bit, but not much.  I appreciate that the legal issues were very important, and continue to affect Britain, and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world, today.  But it just went on a bit – and it is not like me to say that a history series “went on”!

A bit less legal stuff and a bit more human interest, though, and this could have been far more watchable. Early on, Lisa was talking about the terrible human cost of the war. All those families who’d lost breadwinners, men who’d been left permanently disabled, women who’d been sexually assaulted by soldiers, people who’d lost their homes. There was a fascinating petition from a man in Leicester, saying how his son had been killed and his wife had lost her mind through grief. Very sad, but interesting to hear. And there was also a brief reference to the miserable old Puritans wanting to do away with Christmas. No dancing. No singing. No exchanging presents. The risk of a 55 shilling fine – 55 shillings, in 1648!! – if you broke their rules. All those stories about Cromwell banning football and mince pies get people talking every time!

All in all – I’m glad that the BBC are giving this attention (this is a follow-up to Downfall of a King, which was shown in July) to such an important period in our history, but it just moved too slowly.  And it didn’t even mention mince pies!