THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF CHARLES I
Officers and men had come home from the war in a fierce mood, prepared to commit any violence. Colonel Pride and his musqueteers, stationed at the door of the Com-mons, excluded some hundred members and carried off nearly fifty more to prison. On January 4th, 1649, the Rump that remained, not one hundred strong, passed this resolution:
That the people are, under God, the original of all just power: and that the Commons of England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared for law by the Commons in Parliament assembled, hath the force of law, and all the people of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent of the King or House of Peers be not had thereunto.
In logical accordance with these new principles, it was voted a few weeks later that the House of Lords was 'useless and dangerous and ought to be abolished'. The King disappeared from the constitution by a yet more signal and symbolic act. 'We will cut off his head', said Cromwell, 'with the crown upon it.'
The Commons appointed a Commission to try Charles Stuart. Unless the theoretic declaration of the omnipotence of the Lower House held good by 'the Law of Nature', this Commission had no legal power. Furthermore, Charles had committed no legal crime. Law and pity, would both plead on his side. His own outward dignity and patience made his appeal to pity and law the most effective appeal in that sort that is recorded in the history of England. Law and pity were known of old to Englishmen; the new ideas ranged against these two powerful pleaders were new and strange. The sovereignty of the people and the equality of man with man in the scales of justice were first ushered into the world of English politics by this deed. Against them stood the old-world ideals, as Charles proclaimed them from the scaffold with his dying breath:
For the people (he said, as he looked out into eternity) truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whatsoever; but I must tell you, their liberty and freedom consists in having government, those laws by which their lives and goods may be most their own. It is not their having a share in the government; that is nothing appertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clear different things.
That, indeed, was the issue. Those who sought to substitute a better theory of government for that proclaimed by Charles as his legacy to England did not pause to consider that the people, for whose new-born sovereignty they struck, was heart and soul against the deed. By the side of this objection, the charge that they acted 'by no law' shrinks to insignificance. They were striving to make a law of democracy, and could not be expected to effect this by observing the old laws. But their fault lay in this, that the new law by which they condemned Charles, while it claimed to derive from the people of England, did not, save in theory, derive from that source at all. When the bleeding head was held up; the shout of the soldiers was drowned in the groans of the vast multitude.
If there was any chance that the establishment of a more democratic form of government could gradually win the sup-port of the people at large, that chance was thrown away by the execution of the King. The deed was done against the wish of many even of the Independents and Republicans; it outraged beyond hope of reconciliation the two parties in the state who were strong in numbers and conservative tradition, the Presbyterians and the Cavaliers; and it alienated the great mass of men who had no party at all. Thus the Republicans, at the outset of their career, made it impossible for themselves ever to appeal in free election to the people whom they had called to sovereignty.
It is much easier to show that the execution was a mistake and a crime (and it certainly was both) than to show what else should have been done. Any other course, if considered in the light of the actual circumstances, seems open to the gravest objection. The situation at the end of 1648 was this - that any sort of government by consent had been rendered impossible for years to come, mainly by the untrustworthy character of the King, and by the intolerant action of Parliament after the victory won for it by the Army. Cromwell had advocated a real settlement by consent, only to have it rejected by King, Parliament, and Army alike. The situation had thereby been rendered impossible, through no fault of his.
(From England under the Stuarts by G. M. Trevelyan)