Regicide is the purposeful killing of a monarch or sovereign and is often associated with the usurpation of power. A regicide can also be the person responsible (i.e. the perpetrator) for the killing. The word comes from the Latin roots of regis and cida (cidium), meaning “of monarch” and “killer”, respectively.
In the British tradition, Regicide means the judicial execution of a king after a trial, reflecting the historical precedent of the trial and execution of Charles I of England, but more about that later in this paper.
A king in Shakespeare’s time was thought to rule by ‘divine right’. This meant that God had chosen that person directly to rule over others. The killing of a king was considered to be just about the worst crime that anyone could commit.
Regicide was far more common before the 13th century. The Swedish historian, Sverre Bagge, counted 20 cases between the years 1200 AD and 1800 AD, which means that the Swedes killed 6% of monarchs. Regicide was more ‘popular’ before the 7th century. Bagge counted 94 cases of Regicide between 600 to 1200 AD, which means that their subjects killed 21.8 % of monarchs. He argues that the most likely reason for the decline in Regicide is that clear rules of succession were established – this made it hard to remove rightful heirs to the throne and only made it so that the nearest heir (and their supporters) had a motive to kill the monarch.
Picture Credit: “King Charles I, his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, and two of their children” by lisby1 is marked with CC PDM 1.0
Including the Scottish monarchy, a total of 17 monarchs in the British Isles have been murdered, assassinated or executed away from the battlefield, making it a dangerous job indeed. History Answers says that the number could be raised to 19 if we also count Richard II, who was placed in Pontefract Castle and most likely murdered there, and Edward V, one of the Princes in the Tower who were suspected of being smothered to death. There are also question marks hanging over the death of William II, Rufus, who was killed by an arrow whilst hunting in the New Forest, precisely the same location where his nephew was killed three months previously.
Apart from Charles I, perhaps the most famous Regicide carried out is Edward II, supposedly murdered in Berkely Castle, Gloucestershire. The RoyalUK website describes the relationship Edward II had with his subjects:
“Edward II had few of the qualities that made a successful medieval king. Edward surrounded himself with favourites (the best known being a Gascon, Piers Gaveston), and the barons, feeling excluded from power, rebelled. Throughout his reign, different baronial groups struggled to gain power and control the King. The nobles’ ordinances of 1311, which attempted to limit royal control of finance and appointments, were counteracted by Edward. Large debts (many inherited) and the Scots’ victory at Bannockburn by Robert the Bruce in 1314 made Edward more unpopular.”
Over time, different cultures and authors have used different definitions for what constitutes the crime of Regicide. And so, it is not easy to make a definitive list of what constitutes a Regicide. If you are curious and want to know which monarchs in history were deliberately killed, look for the list of Regicides in the 4,000 years from 1962 BC to 2001 AD on Wikipedia – you’ll be surprised at just how many there are.
Today, the word Regicide can also be applied to politicians who topple a president or prime minister.
The Downfall of King Charles I
Charles was born on 19th November 1600 at Dunfermline Castle in Fife, Scotland. He was a sickly child and relatively small in stature. He could not walk or talk until he was two years of age and inherited his father’s lack of confidence and a slight speech impediment. In private, Charles was gentle and polite – and by all accounts, a loving father. But in public, his acute shyness made him appear haughty and arrogant. Not an endearing quality at all.
In 1625, Charles I succeeded his father James I as King of England and Scotland. During his reign, he frustrated his Parliament, causing the English Civil War and eventually, this led to his execution in 1649. His subjects and those closest to him generally considered him to be a foolish person.
The reign of Charles I began with an unpopular friendship with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who used his influence against the wishes of other nobility. The Duke was assassinated in 1628. There was ongoing tension with Parliament over money. In addition, Charles dissolved Parliament three times between 1625 and 1629. In 1629, he dismissed Parliament and resolved to rule alone. This forced him to raise revenue by non-parliamentary means, which added to his unpopularity. At the same time, there was a crackdown on Puritans and Catholics, and many emigrated to the American colonies. Common criticisms were:
- Charles married a Catholic – Henrietta Maria. The marriage offended many English Protestants. Charles favoured a High Anglican form of worship, and his wife was Catholic – both made many of his subjects suspicious, particularly the Puritans.
- Charles thought that God had chosen him and that he was above the law.
- He would not allow anyone except his wife to sit in his presence. This infuriated his enemies, particularly Parliamentarians.
- He would only reassemble Parliament to raise funds to finance the prosecution of expensive foreign wars.
Trial, Conviction and Execution
Although putting a king on trial was a contentious issue, on 20th January 1649, the High Court of Justice at Westminster Hall put him on trial for treason. After the First English Civil War, King Charles I was a prisoner of the Parliamentarians, who tried to negotiate a compromise with him, but he stuck steadfastly to his view that he was King by divine right. In secret, he attempted to raise an army to fight against them. It became evident to the leaders of the Parliamentarians that they could not negotiate a settlement, and they could not trust him to change his mind. The Parliamentarians reluctantly concluded that the King would have to be put to death, and on 13th December 1648, the House of Commons broke off negotiations with him. Two days later, the Council of Officers of the New Model Army voted that the King be moved from the Isle of Wight, where he was prisoner, to Windsor “to bring him speedily to justice“.
Then in the middle of December 1648, King Charles I was moved from Windsor to London. The House of Commons of the Rump Parliament passed a Bill setting up a High Court of Justice to try Charles I for high treason ‘in the name of the people of England.’ From a Royalist and post-restoration perspective this Bill was not lawful.
At his trial in front of The High Court of Justice on Saturday 20th January 1649 in Westminster Hall, King Charles asked the Court these questions: “I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful“. Given the historical issues involved, both sides based themselves on surprisingly technical legal grounds. Charles did not dispute that Parliament as a whole did have some judicial powers, but he maintained that the House of Commons on its own could not try anybody, and so he refused to plead. At that time, under English law, if a prisoner refused to plead, he would be treated identically to one who had pleaded guilty (this has since been changed since; a refusal to plead is now interpreted as a not-guilty plea).
Whilst he was incarcerated, Charles had refused to see anyone but his children and his chaplain, Bishop Juxon. The King refused to cooperate with the Court, which was rather foolish. He neither entered a plea nor recognised the legitimacy of the Court. A week after the trial, the judges returned a guilty verdict and passed the sentence of execution.
At around ten o’clock on the morning of 30th January 1649, the King was marched by soldiers across St James’s Park in London to the Palace of Whitehall. Other reports say he was carried by sedan chair. Later that day, in the afternoon, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, with one blow of his axe, the heavily-disguised executioner severed the King’s head from his body – killing him instantly.
The execution has been described as one of the most significant and controversial events in English history. Some view it as the ‘martyrdom of an innocent man’, with the Restoration historian Edward Hyde describing “a year of reproach and infamy above all years which had passed before it; a year of the highest dissimulation and hypocrisy, of the deepest villainy and most bloody treasons that any nation was ever cursed with”.
Excerpt from Charles I’s speech upon the scaffold, as recorded by Juxon/.
“[…] As for the People, truly I desire their liberty and freedom, as much as any whosoever; but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government by those laws, by which their lives, and their goods may be most their own. It is not for them to have a share in Government, that is nothing Sirs, appertaining unto them. A Subject and a Sovereign are clean different things; and therefore until that be done, I mean, until the people be put into that liberty, which I speak of; certainly they will never enjoy themselves. […]”
As a King, Charles I was disastrous (and foolish), but he faced his death with courage and dignity as a man. His trial and execution were the first of their kind. On the same day as the death of King Charles I, England was declared a Commonwealth, and the monarchy was then officially abolished. The English monarchy was replaced with, at first, the Commonwealth of England 1649–1653) and then the Protectorate (1653–1659) under Oliver Cromwell’s personal rule.
Charles II was in exile at the time of his father’s death. His attempts to take back his throne were defeated. But, after the death of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, and the ineffective leadership of his son, Parliament invited Charles II to return to England to restore the monarchy.
When Charles II, the eldest surviving child of Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, returned from exile in 1661, public opinion had swung in favour and support of the monarchy – mainly because many people were sick and tired of the sober restraints of Puritanism.
Treatment of the Regicides
At the trial of Charles I in January 1649, 59 commissioners (judges) had signed his death warrant. They, along with several key associates and numerous court officials, were the subject of punishment following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 with the coronation of the new King, Charles II. Parliament passed the Indemnity and Oblivion Act (1660), which granted amnesty to those guilty of most crimes committed during the Civil War and the Interregnum.
Picture credit: “Charles II, King of Britain” by lisby1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Of those who had been involved in the trial and execution, 104 were specifically excluded from reprieve, although 24 had already died, including Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw (the judge who was president of the Court), and Henry Ireton (a general in the Parliamentary army and Cromwell’s son-in-law). They were given a posthumous execution: their remains were exhumed, and they were hanged and beheaded, and their bodies cast into a pit below the gallows. Their heads were placed on spikes at the end of Westminster Hall. Several others were hanged, drawn and quartered, while 19 were imprisoned for life. Property was confiscated from many, and most were barred from holding public office or title again. Twenty-one of those under threat fled England, mostly settling in the Netherlands or Switzerland, although three settled in New England, in America.
Charles II would probably have been content with a smaller number to be punished, but Parliament took a firmer line, according to Howard Nenner, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Sources and Further Reading
- See: Bagge, Sverre (2019). “The Decline of Regicide and the Rise of European Monarchy from the Carolingians to the Early Modern Period”.Frühmittelalterliche Studien (in German). 53 (1): 151–189. doi:10.1515/fmst-2019-005. ISSN 1613-0812. S2CID 203606658 ↑
- Source: https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/news/the-origins-of-5-common-phrases/ ↑
- There are conflicting opinions about the murder, see: https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/the-big-debate-was-edward-ii-really-murdered/ See also: https://www.ianmortimer.com/EdwardII/death.htm ↑
- See: https://www.royal.uk/edward-ii ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regicides ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Model_Army ↑
- Source: Kirby 1999, p. 8 footnote 9, cites: Wedgewood 1964, p. 44 ↑
- The Rump Parliament was the English Parliament after Colonel Thomas Pride purged the Long Parliament, on 6 December 1648, of those members hostile to the Grandees’ intention to try King Charles I for high treason. “Rump” normally means the hind end or back-side of a mammal; its use meaning “remnant” was first recorded in the above context in English.[a] Since 1649, the term “rump parliament” has been used to refer to any parliament reduced in size from its legitimate predecessor. ↑
- The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland took place in 1660 when King Charles II returned from exile in continental Europe. The preceding period of the Protectorate and the civil wars came to be known as the Interregnum (1649–1660). ↑
- See: Kirby 1999, pp. 10, 13 footnotes 12 and 17. “The record of the Trial also appears in Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials, Vol IV, covering 1640–1649 published in London in 1809. p. 995″. ↑
- Source: https://www.hcourt.gov.au/assets/publications/speeches/former-justices/kirbyj/kirbyj_charle88.pdf ↑
- Source: Hyde, Edward (1706). The History of the Rebellion and the Civil Wars in England, Volume 3, Part 1. Oxford. pp. 273–4, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Execution_of_Charles_I ↑
- Source: Charles I (1654). “The Speech of King Charles I upon the Scaffold at the gate of White Hall; immediately before the execution. January 30”.The full proceedings of the High Court of Iustice against King Charles in Westminster Hall. London, at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A40615.0001.001 ↑
- William Juxon was Bishop of London from 1633 to 1646 and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1660 until his death ↑
- Sources: Leniham 2008, pp. 135–7 and UKP: Civ War. ↑
- Source: https://www.philippagregory.com/news/regicides-of-charles-i ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regicides_of_Charles_I ↑
- Source: Nenner, Howard (2004). “Regicides (act. 1649)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/70599. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) ↑