Trial and Execution of King Charles

Execution of Charles I

A vote was taken in Parliament on 5th December 1648, when the majority of MPs voted to continue negotiating with the King. However, Oliver Cromwell and the army opposed further talks and demanded action. In what was effectively a military coup, Cromwell’s soldiers removed Members of Parliament who supported continuing talks with the King, by standing outside the House of Commons and arresting or intimidating them. Consequently, only half of the men nominated to the High Court of Justice to try the King actually attended its proceedings, some of whom claimed that undue pressure had been brought to bear from Cromwell. The way was now paved to formally accuse King Charles of treason against England and of using his power in his own interest rather than that of his country.

…for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented.

Charles refused to plead and quoted the Divine Right of Kings, insisting the trial was illegal. After three days, Charles was removed from the court and witness statements against him were taken in his absence. He was found guilty of treason and, on 26th January 1649, he was sentenced to death. Fifteen Yorkshire-men were among his judges.

On Tuesday 30th January 1649, King Charles was taken from St James’ Palace to the scaffold, which had been erected at the Palace of Whitehall. At about 2 pm, he put his head on the block and it was severed “with one clean stroke”. He was buried in private in the Henry VIII vault alongside the coffins of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 9th February 1649.

Oliver Cromwell with the coffin of King Charles

Political Consequences

England was ruled under the “Commonwealth”, with Cromwell as Lord Protector. On his death in 1658, he was briefly succeeded by his son, Richard Cromwell. But the monarchy was to be restored with the invitation to the throne of Charles II, in 1660…though the Civil War had marked the end of the absolute power of the monarchy.

The Civil War also strengthened the army and allowed a new class of people to come into government. Protestantism now prevailed as the main religion of the country.

Thomas Lord Fairfax

Known as a “man of honour”, Sir Thomas Fairfax succeeded his father as Lord Fairfax on Ferdinando’s death in 1648. Also know as “Black Tom” because of his dark complexion, he was one of the most important commanders of the Civil War and became a local hero to the people of Yorkshire.

Thomas Lord Fairfax (AKA Black Tom), a portrait painted after 1648. Painted to show his left hand side, it shows scarring to his left lower face and a gloved left hand, hiding the damage caused by being shot through the wrist.

He fought many battles and was wounded several times. In 1645, Parliament voted to appoint him Commander-in-Chief of the newly-formed New Model Army. Under his leadership, the New Model Army won every battle and siege.

Fairfax sat as MP for Yorkshire and opposed military rule. He did not attend the King’s trial and, after the death sentence was passed on King Charles, Thomas Fairfax attempted to postpone the execution, which he did not support. Fairfax also declined to take part in Cromwell’s invasions of Ireland and Scotland.

In 1650, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief and afterwards led a quiet and private life on his Yorkshire estate. Increasingly he suffered from arthritis and gout and by his fifties, Fairfax’s wounds gradually confined him to a wheelchair, which is now displayed at the National Civil War Centre, Newark. He died at Nunappleton on 12 November 1671.

Infrastructure: Slighting of the Castles

Three days after its final surrender, Parliament ordered that Pontefract Castle should be slighted. “Slighting” was totally or partially demolishing the castle and its fortifications, so that it could not be reused in war, and to punish the ruling elite. During the Civil War and afterwards, more than 100 British castles and fortified houses were slighted by both the Parliamentarians and Royalists, preventing them from being used against them in the future. Most of the destruction was in Wales, the Midlands, and Yorkshire.

Skipton Castle from an old postcard

In West Yorkshire, the Parliamentarians also slighted the castles at Skipton, Sandal and Sheffield. At Skipton, Lady Anne Clifford was allowed to rebuild the castle after the war, providing that the new building work was cosmetic and not defensive, so the walls and towers were built too weak to support cannon. At Sheffield, so extensive was the slighting that no trace remained of what had once been one of the largest castles in Yorkshire.

Those castles which lay on the coast were spared as they may be required during an invasion.

Social Consequences

As a direct consequence of the English Civil War, it has been estimated that about 180,000 people died in England from fighting, disease and deaths from injuries. That was about 3.6% of the population, compared to about 2.6% in World War 1. However, thousands more died in Scotland and tens of thousands more in Ireland. In total, it has been postulated that about 13% of the population of the British Isles may have died during the Civil War period, compared to 3% in World War I.

Although the total death toll on the battlefield was low by the standards of World War I, it was easy for relatively minor wounds to become infected and lead to death from blood poisoning and gangrene. Some would have died from infections and some from their treatment, as amputation was treated by cauterisation with a red hot poker and musket wounds were treated with boiling oil…all administered without anaesthetic. The shock and pain would have been horrific.

The cramped conditions and lack of hygiene of the camps were a breeding ground for dysentery or cholera, scarlet fever and plague. Accounts from soldiers in Holles’ Regiment of Foot indicate that soldiers drank “stinking water”…they were “filthy and infested with lice”, and lice could carry deadly disease. It is quite possible that the spread of the plague was facilitated by a much higher occurrence of movement of goods and people between towns, as the soldiers moved from one location to another. See article on the plague. Typhus decimated several sections of the army and would be transmitted to the local population. Outbreaks of smallpox were also reported.

The effects of war would be generally higher in those places where the battles were actually fought and soldiers garrisoned. As soldiers moved into communities, the commanders would take over the best houses for their headquarters. Other soldiers would be billeted in the houses of the community or live in tented encampments. Both sides of the conflict took horses, food and other supplies for their armies. Families were subject to starvation when there was nobody to tend crops or else their produce was plundered by hungry soldiers. Taxes went up to pay for the war, so little money was available to buy produce, even if it was available. The main aim of ordinary people, each day, would be to find the next meal for their families.

In addition to the effects of malnutrition and deaths from direct involvement in the wars, persecution of some parts of the community took place. During the civil war, Catholics suffered at the hands of some of the most puritan of the Parliamentarian soldiers, who claimed to be fighting a crusade against Papists. In Parliamentary declarations, the House of Commons stated that Popery was a major issue and that it (Parliament) was acting ‘”to maintain and defend the true reformed Protestant religion against all Popery and Popish innovations”…consequently Catholics suffered more at the hands of the Parliamentarians than most other Royalists and resentment against Catholicism was to rumble on for centuries

However, once the wars ended, most people would try to return to their normal everyday lives…though religious differences continued and in West Yorkshire, they led to the Farnley Wood Plot, which is the subject of the next article.

© Christine Widdall May 2019


  • Short memorials of Thomas Lord Fairfax written by himself. Fairfax, Thomas Fairfax, Baron, 1612-1671, Fairfax, Brian, 1633-1711 London: Printed for Ri. Chiswell 1699.
  • A Contemporary account of the Defence of Bradford and capture of Leeds (1642) Edited by Thomas Wright, Trinity College Cambridge.
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  • Yorkshire from AD 1000; David Hey.
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  • The Battlefields Trust.
  • Historic UK: The Battle of Marston Moor.
  • The Business of Yorkshire, The English Civil War in the West Riding of Yorkshire. 1642 – 1645
  • Nuffield Health, Guildford Hospital.
  • The Use of Cannon in the Civil War with Particular Reference to Derbyshire by R Hayhurst
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Life of William Duke of Newcastle.
  • The National Library of Scotland (maps).
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  • (Thornhill Hall)
  • (chronology)
  • The Halifax Cavaliers and the Heptonstall Roundheads; David Shires with Sheila King; Puritan Press.
  • Wikipedia (Principle characters and battles).
  • Wikimedia Commons (images).

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