The Death of King Charles I: When Parliament Executed a King

Painting of a British man about to be executed main

British monarchs used to have a lot of power. They ruled by divine authority. The Parliament challenged this authority. They had the power to tax and demanded everyone, even kings and queens, follow the rule of law. King Charles I (1625-49) challenged their authority, resulting in a civil war between royal and parliamentary forces. Puritans, who had settled in New England, played a central role. Charles eventually lost his head. The ultimate winner was the rule of law and checks and balances. 

The Puritans 

The Puritans established the colony that eventually became the state of Massachusetts. 

They wanted to “purify” the Anglican form of Christianity. Great Britain had become a Protestant country with the members of the Church of England known as “Anglicans.”  

The Anglican Church was a state-backed religion. Puritan opposition was not just a religious dispute. It was a challenge to the state itself. The government interfered with their freedom of religion, including arresting their leaders. Puritans looked overseas for a solution. 

Meanwhile, some important events were happening back home.  

Kings vs. Parliament 

Separation of powers and checks and balances are two fundamental constitutional principles

The different branches of government (including the executive and legislative) each have specific roles. They not only “stay in their lane” but do various things to ensure other branches do not abuse their powers. English history helped inspire these principles.

The kings and queens of England used to be very powerful, unlike the ceremonial monarchs of today. The ruling monarch (usually a king) obtained their authority from God. This “divine right of kings” meant that (if taken literally) “the king can do no wrong.”  

The Parliament’s primary means of restraint was its power of the purse. If the king crossed the line, he might not get the money he wanted to carry out his wars and stuff. 

The Parliament started to win over other privileges. The Magna Carta (1215) established a principle that there was a rule of law that even the king must follow. 

The Petition of Right (1628) reaffirmed this principle. The king could not impose taxes without the permission of Parliament. There were basic rules of fairness guaranteed to those arrested and imprisoned. The king’s soldiers could not force their way into people’s homes.

King Charles (who started his reign at 24 in 1625) was not a fan of these restraints. He believed the Parliament violated his royal privileges. After (under protest) signing the Petition of Right, he refused to call a new Parliament for eleven years (1629-40).  

King Charles Makes Enemies 

King Charles refused to call Parliament into session but had various other means to raise money. Ship money was a traditional means of taxation. The monarch was allowed to obtain the money without Parliament’s permission. Ship money was a means to pay the bills in the 1630s.

The Petition of Right appeared to deny him this power. The tax burden, especially given the king’s heavy-handed policies and unpopular foreign wars, became a major controversy. Meanwhile, he also was imprisoning opponents without following due process of law.  

He also angered Puritans by demanding conformity to the religious policies they saw as too much like the hated Catholic Church. Puritans were now a powerful group.

They also rejected any “divine right of kings” that violated what the Puritans believed was demanded by the way of God. King Charles I, king or not, was accountable to a higher authority.  

King Charles Needs Money 

King Charles needed money. The Scottish strongly opposed his taxation and religious policies, leading to a rebellion against his reign. War is costly. 

The Parliament was called in 1640 to authorize some taxes. They refused to do so unless Charles abandoned his autocratic ways. Parliament also began to impeach top royal advisors. The king could do no wrong, but no one said that about his advisors. 

The Catholic majority in Ireland strongly opposed British rule. They saw the troubles brewing between the king and Parliament. In 1641, they rebelled, killing hundreds of Protestants. 

The king suspected members of Parliament were colluding with the Scottish rebels. He tried and failed to arrest five members of Parliament. The king became worried about his safety. Charles fled London and called his supporters to prepare for war.  

The Parliament (known as the “Long Parliament”) stayed in session until 1660.  

English Civil War (1642-9)

A civil war broke out between royal forces (Cavaliers) and the Parliament (Roundheads). The parliamentary forces included small landowners, the middle class, and the Puritans.  Charles had the support of the nobility, wealthy landowners, and conservative clergy members.

Oliver Cromwell became leader of the parliamentary forces, ultimately organized into a New Model Army. The Scots supported the Parliament, helping them defeat the royal forces. Charles refused to give in and tried to divide and conquer. 

The king later signed a peace treaty with the Scots. He tried to rally England on his side, supporting a series of uprisings throughout the country in 1648.   

King Charles Is Beheaded 

The Parliament decided peace was impossible as long as King Charles was alive.

The proper English thing was to put him on trial. The Tyrannicide Brief is an excellent account of the man chosen to lead the effort: radical lawyer John Cooke, whose Puritan conscience, political vision, and love of civil liberties gave him the courage to bring the king to trial. 

Charles was tried for treason, murder, and tyranny. He was convicted, sentenced to die, and beheaded. In 1649, the principle of “the king can do wrong” was abolished. 


The king’s eldest son (Charles II) continued his father’s campaign against Parliament. Oliver Cromwell’s forces defeated Charles. The parliamentary forces were now supreme.

Cromwell became the leader of England, now declared a republic. Nonetheless, Cromwell’s rule never received broad-based popular support. The people also were tired of war, including the high death toll (an estimated 200,000 English soldiers and civilians).  

Cromwell died in 1658. His son Richard now became “Lord Protector,” but soon renounced his power. Richard went into exile. The Parliament welcomed back Charles II as long as he respected parliamentary privileges. Charles II (1660-85) accepted the terms.  

The Restoration of the monarchy had begun. John Cooke, unfortunately for him, was executed for treason. Nonetheless, long-term, limited government and the rule of law won the day.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.