At two o’clock on the bitterly cold afternoon of Saturday 30 January 1649, King Charles I stepped out from the balcony of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, and onto the executioner’s scaffold …
A few minutes later, the masked axeman held up his bloody trophy for all to see. In the words of one observer, there went up in the crowd ‘such a groan as I have never heard before and desire I may never hear again’.
The execution of Charles I marked a profound, indeed unique, moment in the constitutional history of this island: a statement in blood about the nature of authority, sovereignty and the law; an unforgettable public declaration of the basis for a justly governed society.
Why didn’t Oliver Cromwell and the other signatories to the King’s death warrant have Charles quietly murdered like so many of his royal predecessors? Why go to all the trouble of capturing him, recapturing him after he had escaped, putting him on trial, and going through a legal process to find him guilty – then decapitating him in plain sight for all to see?
That was the very point. In Cromwell’s view justice must be seen to be done. Charles claimed that there was no legitimate ground for arraigning him (‘I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority’) since he ruled by Divine Right and answered to no one but God. His Parliamentarian opponents argued otherwise – that there were limits to royal power, that kings had a duty to their subjects, and that, by ‘traitorously and maliciously’ instigating civil war, Charles had betrayed his sovereign responsibility.
The trial began on the 20th of January. It took place, significantly, in the ancient hall at the very heart of the Palace of Westminster. The man who presided over that court was Judge John Bradshaw. It was he who declared Charles guilty of being ‘Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and a Public Enemy’. It was he who pronounced the fatal sentence: the King must die.
Other, more distinguished lawyers had declined to preside at the trial, either on grounds of principle or for fear of retribution. Bradshaw was not deterred; but he was acutely aware that he was a potential target, and for this reason took to wearing body armour beneath his scarlet judicial robes, and a steel-reinforced, wide-brimmed, velvet-covered, bullet-proof hat to protect him against would-be assassins.
You can see his hat to this day, the metal bands poking through the leather – another treasure of the Ashmolean. And next to it you can examine the patched leather shoe of John Bigg, who some say was Charles’s masked executioner.
Oxford was at the very centre of the Civil War story. It was a town Charles knew well and liked, and it was defensible. More immediately, it was a safe distance from the hostile London mob. So the decision was taken to relocate the entire royal entourage further up the Thames valley. From 29 November 1642 onwards Oxford was the seat of royal power and authority in the land, the royal residence, the royal headquarters, and the heart of the royalist cause.
For one thousand two hundred and forty-five days – until the King’s silent departure on 27 April 1646 – Oxford was the cavalier capital and focus of national affairs, its streets filled with the clamour of courtiers, soldiers, horses and alarums as the royal cavalcade came and went.
Christ Church became the King’s headquarters: Parliament was convened in its Great Hall. The Queen and her retinue were housed at Merton College. Prince Rupert and the royal children made St John’s their base. The towers of Bodley’s Upper Schools became munitions stores, while the Lower Schools were converted into warehouses for the storage of essential foodstuffs and soldier’s uniforms. The cloisters of New College echoed to the sound of local gunsmiths and metal workers repairing arms and equipment. A mill was built at Wolvercote for the sharpening of sword blades forged at Gloucester Hall. The ancient mill at Osney was set to work grinding gunpowder rather than flour. Troops drilled on Christ Church meadow. Cannons were mustered in Magdalen Grove. A gibbet was set up in Carfax.
The Royal Mint was established at New Inn Hall, on the present site of St Peter’s College. A remarkable coin, known as the Oxford Crown – the work of the official ‘Graver of Seals, Stamps and Medals’ – captures the scene. King Charles sits on his royal charger, sword in hand. In the background is the unmistakable, carefully realised, outline of Oxford’s cityscape. According to the Ashmolean Museum, where the coin is on display:
Other cities have been alluded to in a stylised fashion on English coinage, but a detailed representation such as this is without parallel. In the forefront is the city wall, and, from the left, Magdalen College Tower, the spires of All Saints Church (now Lincoln College library) and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, and the roof and tower of the Bodleian Library.
There are remarkably few traces of the Civil War in Oxford today. The town was besieged three times but, mercifully, never slighted. The defensive ramparts and embankments which were constructed around it, so clearly identifiable on maps and paintings of the time, have long since dissolved into the ground – with one exception, still visible in the garden of Rhodes House. In a corner of Port Meadow there is an area known as King Charles’s racecourse, where he and Prince Rupert are said to have continued their equestrian sport. The statue of the Virgin and Child above the porch of the University church bears the mark of Parliamentarian bullets. Outside Oxford there is, in the village of Old Marston, a dwelling known as Cromwell’s house (though in fact it was the base for General Sir Thomas Fairfax). And the Civil War story is contained in the naming of North and South Parade – or so urban myth would have it. These few signs apart, however, there is little to which one can point, which is extraordinary given the scale of devastation wrought by the conflict in other parts of the country.
Over a quarter of a million people died, nearly one in ten adult Englishmen. Of all the Oxford objects reflecting this tragic and tumultuous history – the silver coins minted from melted-down college plate, the spurs supposedly worn by King Charles, Cromwell’s death mask (warts and all), Jan Wyck’s painting of the Siege of Oxford – none is stranger or more curiously evocative than Bradshaw’s Hat.