Historical events of seismic importance are often most tangible when we can visit the streets and buildings in which they unfolded. Who can imagine the revolutions in France, North America and Russia without conjuring images of the Place de la Bastille in Paris, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg? Nestled among the grandiose government buildings in London’s Whitehall, is a comparable, if perhaps surprising, ‘site of memory’.
Here, on 30 January 1649, at the Banqueting House, the climax of the British Revolution came with the execution of King Charles I. A new era of republic, which is unprecedented in Britain’s history of kings and queens, was ushered forth.
The Banqueting House formed the centre-piece of the sprawling, and now almost entirely lost, Palace of Whitehall. The building was designed in 1619 as a representation of royal authority, and this is encapsulated in Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ resplendent painted ceiling, which depicts Charles I’s father, James I.
The building became synonymous with Charles I’s confidence that his right to rule derived not from the people, but from God alone. But the catastrophic events which befell Britain in the 1640s rendered this confidence a fatal delusion. In 1642, rising tensions between Charles and his parliament boiled over into a series of devastating civil wars which, it is estimated, killed a higher proportion of the English population than the First World War. Despite parliament’s triumph over Charles’ ‘Cavaliers’ in 1646, desperate attempts to reach a settlement for peace dominated the months which followed. When civil conflict resurfaced in 1648, negotiations broke down, leading a vocal minority of radicals to call for Charles I to be tried as a ‘man of blood’ who had wrought little else but death and destruction upon his subjects.
The propulsion to power of this radical faction in late 1648 allowed the once-unthinkable to happen. Between 20 and 27 January 1649, Charles I was summoned before a ‘High Court of Justice’ at Westminster Hall where he was charged as ‘a tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England’. Found guilty, he was marched to his Banqueting House on the cold morning of 30 January, where, quite deliberately, he was forced to walk below Rubens’ painted ceiling and out of a first-floor window onto a scaffold which was erected for his execution. Following his fateful final speech, Charles’ head was severed from his body, a moment which hundreds of onlookers craned their necks to witness. Four months later, in a nation no less divided than before Charles’ death, the English Republic (or the ‘Commonwealth’) was proclaimed.
For the opponents of the British Revolution, Charles’ death constituted martyrdom, and souvenirs of the events of 30 January, such as rags which had been dabbed in the blood which pooled on the executioner’s scaffold, took on powerful political meaning in the 1650s.
In the spring of 1660, following the collapse of the English Republic, Charles’ exiled son, Charles II, was warmly invited to return to England to reign over his kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland. From this point onwards, the opinion that his father’s execution was anything other than a sin of the deepest dye became (quite literally) unutterable. Such views persisted nonetheless and the radical George Cockayne was provoked in 1663 to declare that ‘the old K[in]ge did deserve to be beheaded’, asking ‘why should he not be beheaded as well as another[?]’
In contrast to the enforced (but not always observed) silence of the supporters of the British Revolution, the image of Charles I as a martyr was allowed to flourish after the Restoration of 1660. From 1661 onwards, 30 January was marked by a state-sponsored ‘anniversary day of Fasting and Humiliation, to implore the Mercy of God’ for the execution of Charles I. While strict observance of the anniversary has long since died out, the Society of King Charles the Martyr continue to hold a commemorative mass at Banqueting House on 30 January.
Like the Place de la Bastille, Independence Hall and the Winter Palace, the Banqueting House is the home of a revolution – a radical, transformative moment in the history of the world. That the memories of 30 January 1649 have not always favoured those who wielded the axe against Charles I should not lead us to forget it.