Issue 226 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'During the civil war much property had changed hands and been lost or stolen, so there was a more secular, legal need to establish who was guilty and who was innocent.'
'He hath been and is the occasioner, author and continuer of the said unnatural, cruel and bloody wars, and therein guilty of high treason, and of the murders, rapings, burnings, spoils, desolations, damage and mischief to this nation acted and committed in the said war... For all which treasons and crimes this court doth adjudge that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good people of this nation, shall be put to death by the severing of his head from his body.'
This is how the High Court of Justice formally ended the reign of Charles I.
Nearly a decade of bloody civil war had raged through England and Scotland. Sections of the old ruling classes were pitched against each other in bloody conflict, dragging wider stretches of the population into military and political action. By the end the king was dead, the royalists defeated, and Cromwell and his fellow bourgeois revolutionaries held power. They held on for another 20 years until parliamentary counter-revolutionaries installed Charles II on the throne in 1660.
Each step along the road to regicide was the result of intense political debate and struggle. Alliances and allegiances shifted with each new military and political problem that arose. By the end of 1647 the key debate, the outcome of which would determine the course of the English Revolution, was fought between the Leveller influenced army rank and file and the Grandees led by Cromwell. This was over the future constitution of England, over the way in which society would be organised politically, and who would have a say in that political set up.
October 1647 saw the first Agreement of the People, produced by the Levellers and Agitators (rank and file representatives elected by the different army regiments). Cromwell and the Grandees begrudgingly agreed in principle to the plan. This tipped the balance of power the rank and file's way. On 4 November the rank and file gained more ground when the Army Council voted-- against Cromwell-- in favour of extending voting rights to all except servants. Plans were made for a great demonstration of solidarity by Spitalfields weavers, also heavily influenced by Leveller thinking, to march in their thousands to meet the soldiers to celebrate this victory.
Cromwell had been at least momentarily outflanked by the Agitator/Leveller alliance. Since late summer Cromwell had been negotiating with the king for peace. This was widely unpopular amongst the army rank and file and sections of the general population and he was publicly pilloried for it. John Wildman of the Levellers wrote to the soldiery in October 1647 of Cromwell and his fellow conspirator and son in law Ireton, 'Take heed of crafty politicians and subtle Machiavellians, and be sure to trust no man's painted words; it being high time now to see actions, yea, and those constantly upright too.'
What put Cromwell back in the driving seat and drew the execution of the king nearer was Charles's escape and the beginning of the second civil war. Evidence suggests Cromwell may have connived at the king's escape in a desperate gamble to regain the initiative.
Whether he did or not, the second civil war allowed him to reforge the New Model Army's unity, undermine the Agitator organisation within the rank and file, condemning them as 'anarchists' and splitters, reassert his credentials as the king's implacable enemy and retake the political initiative. From this position he came to lead the movement which ended in regicide.
What were the immediate reasons for regicide? There still remained a threat, albeit relatively small, of renewed efforts by the king's supporters to put him back on the throne. The Presbyterians in parliament had already restarted talks with the king in September 1648. He also still had allies in Ireland, Scotland and in Europe. The king's death ended the threat of these forces joining and invading England.
Secondly, after the blood and general mayhem of the civil war, blame needed to be apportioned. It was important that 'that man of blood' Charles I carried the can and not parliament. Charles was identified as the antichrist. He was the 'man against whom god hath witnessed', in order to justify the execution of a man who just a few years before it had been generally accepted was descended from god.
During the civil war much property had changed hands and been lost or stolen, so there was a more secular, legal need to establish who was guilty and who was innocent. But uppermost in Cromwell's mind as he piled on the pressure to kill the king was the continuing threat of Leveller political influence. Though this had waned during the second civil war it had not disappeared. In September 1648 the London Levellers launched a petition against the renewal of negotiations with the king. Petitions in support flooded in from Leveller influenced groups giving a clear indication of their abiding and countrywide strength. Cromwell had to act to secure power or face the possibility of renewed political pressure from below. In December the New Model Army marched on London and carried out a military coup d'état, throwing out of parliament all those who opposed it. The execution of the king now would focus all power on Cromwell and his supporters.
John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, clearly saw this. In December 1648 he met a group of Cromwell's allies. They argued the regicide case with Lilburne who was appalled. Though the king was an evil man, if the army killed him and dissolved parliament 'they would devolve all government in the kingdom into their wills and swords'. Cromwell had outflanked the Levellers, making it virtually impossible for them to criticise him or the officers of the New Model Army without also insulting the rank and file in the now united regiments. Any Leveller attack on Cromwell's plans to behead the king would be seen as defending a king universally hated by the army and many others.
The king's death on 30 January 1649 secured the new bourgeoisie in political power. Even the restoration of 1660 could not disentangle the capitalist threads the new class had woven and the possibility of the return to a feudal order had gone forever. However, Cromwell's victory also set limits on the extent of the democratic gains of the revolution. These fell far short of the aspirations of its more enlightened fighters.
As the king's head plopped into the basket so did feudal rule. Unfortunately, so also did the last real hopes of a more democratic Leveller inspired English constitution.