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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Distinguished publisher of History books, Martin Sheppard makes a couple of pithy points – and a request:

Bradshaw’s refusal to remove his hat in the presence of the King was a political statement in itself. Charles I’s refusal to remove his hat during the trial was a sign that he did not recognise the court trying him.

Please investigate Charles I’s beard brush ­– one of Keble College’s great treasures.

We did as requested. At an Evensong ceremony in Keble College to mark the execution of King Charles ‘The Martyr’ 375 years ago, the beard brush was set on the altar for all to see:
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Mention of coins featuring King Charles reminds us that Martin Jennings, who lived in Oxford for 39 years and sculpted the statue of John Radcliffe, had another commission recently. You can see his superb work here, and watch the captivating video.
Tim Tatton-Brown, consultant archaeologist at Westminster School and Lambeth Palace, adds an interesting architectural footnote:

Did you know that, in the wake of the King’s trial, Bradshaw acquired the Deanery of Westminster Abbey, and built an observation chamber above it?! – TTB

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Professor Roger Crisp lives in Old Marston, in the building now known as Cromwell’s House, from where he writes:

I presume the house was first named in honour of Cromwell some time after the old Mansion House (built in 1622 by the rich lawyer and parliamentarian supporter Unton Croke) was split in two, following a fire in the mid-nineteenth century. Strictly speaking, therefore, General Sir Thomas Fairfax, who commanded the third siege of Oxford and signed the peace treaty, was based not just in our house, but also no.15 next door, now called Manor House  – and sometimes misleadingly ‘The Manor House’, which it isn’t, as there is no manor. The census of 1901 refers to Cromwell’s Cottage. I believe that at one time it was also called Cromwell’s Castle, which in a way is more accurate.

Previous inhabitants in the past century include the classicist E.R. Dodds who lived here from 1947-79, and, in the 1920s, Sir George Clark, the eminent historian of the seventeenth century who went on to become general editor of The Oxford History of England.

Richard Aylmer, who lived here after Dodds, kindly left me a few interesting historical documents, which may reveal more info. of interest. The house also contains a large bone which we found hidden in the roofspace above the back door, probably to ward off evil spirits. – RC

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Who knew that Bradshaw and Cromwell shared a secret Oxford connection?

After the execution of Charles I, Bradshaw quickly became president of the Commonwealth’s council of state and head of the party that rivalled Oliver Cromwell for control of the new government’s direction. Cromwell wanted the regime to put the regicide behind it and to woo those moderate parliamentarians who had been alienated as a result of the king’s overthrow. Bradshaw, committed to the sovereignty of the House of Commons, wanted to celebrate the memory of the regicide and confine power to its supporters.

In 1650-1 the two men, in pursuit of that conflict, competed for the vacant Chancellorship of Oxford University. The Commonwealth could not afford an open contest between its two most prominent leaders, and the struggle, rather than coming to a vote, was silently and secretly resolved at Whitehall in favour of Cromwell (who as Chancellor went on to win admiration and respect by defending the university’s scholarly and institutional traditions against utopian and sectarian demands for reform).

The two men were brought together again a decade later – posthumously. Following the Restoration, their bodies were exhumed, decapitated, and their heads put on public display for all to see. – Blair Worden

Dr George Southcombe of Wadham College reminds us of the famous occasion when King Charles had the temerity to cross Bodley’s librarian.

My favourite Oxford Civil War anecdote centres on a royal book request. The then Vice Chancellor of the University, the formidable Samuel Fell (in whose Deanery at Christ Church King Charles I was lodged at the time), wrote a note to John Rouse, Bodley’s Librarian, requesting the delivery of a book:

December 30, 1645 
Deliver under the bearer hereof, for the present use of his Maiesty, a Book intituled Histoire Universelle du Sieur D’Aubigné: and this shall be your warrant.
His maiestyes use: is in commaund to use.
S Fell Vice Can.

Rouse adamantly refused, on the grounds that the Bodleian was not (as it still is not) a lending library. The King’s request had to be withdrawn.

It would seem that the Divine Right of Kings could only extend so far. – GS

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What became of Samuel Fell, the thwarted Vice Chancellor? Former Regius Professor of History, R. J. W. Evans has written an impeccable account of the village of Sunningwell, four miles south of Oxford, from where he writes:

A little local footnote about the execution. It concerns Samuel Fell, formerly Dean of Christ Church and close ally of King Charles.

In 1619 Fell became a canon of Christ Church, his old college in Oxford. In the fashion of the time, he also acquired several other ecclesiastical offices, one of them that of Rector of Sunningwell. But he operated mainly at the University, where he became Professor of Divinity and in 1638 Dean (i.e. head) of Christ Church. Preferment was smoothed by his advocacy of King Charles’ controversial religious policies. When those policies led to civil war, the King made his headquarters in Oxford and ran his business from the deanery at Christ Church, cheek by jowl with his faithful servant Fell, who was duly appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Once Charles had lost, Fell’s days in Oxford were numbered. He refused to budge voluntarily from Christ Church and had to be evicted by the incoming parliamentarians. Now, for the first time maybe, he could appreciate Sunningwell, close at hand but remote enough that no one thought to deprive him of the living. He died here just three days after his king was beheaded – from shock it is said. His tombstone lies immediately to the left of the church altar with the single word ‘DEPOSITVM’ [laid down, i.e. buried], the initials ‘S.F.’, and the date. Not for nothing does his tomb also display a skull as a memento mori.Bob Evans

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Professor Ronald Hutton recalls a story about the fortification of Oxford:

When I was a young don at Magdalen College I discovered that, at the opening of hostilities in August 1642, the King sent an officer to lecture the heads of houses on how to fortify the city in his cause. The meeting was held in an upper room of the Star Inn, where the grizzled army veteran strode up and down talking about bastions, hornworks, counterscarps, ravelins and palisades while the aged clergymen around him took notes. The President of Magdalen brought these back to be submitted to the Governing Body, which duly listened to them and then voted to have some rocks taken up the Great Tower to be dropped on enemies passing underneath. After further discussion, it was agreed that the bill for this should be sent to the city council. Thus secured, the college settled down to await the outbreak of the Great Civil War …

The name of the President of Magdalen at the time (who had been raised in, and turned against, a Puritan family) was Accepted Frewen. – RH

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