Today is the 373rd anniversary of the execution of Charles I by his English subjects. It was one of the most significant moments in the evolution of parliamentary democracy – the day when the notion of the divine right of kings died.
And it is also the ultimate act of cancel culture, with lessons for today’s disputes about how to deal with obstreperous political opponents. (The name Donald Trump comes irresistibly to mind.)
The background to this tragedy is incredibly complicated. Charles Stuart was crowned king in 1625. He was charming, intelligent, and pious, but also scheming, self-righteous, and devious. His military expeditions overseas almost bankrupted the state, so he squeezed Parliament for funds. Parliament demanded more power and Charles’ response was to imprison some Members and prorogue Parliament.
On top of the tussle for financial and political power, there were passionate religious disputes. Charles was an Anglican but his French wife was Catholic and there were fears that he was a tool of the abhorred Papists. His most powerful opponents in Parliament were Puritans who believed in the Bible — and not much else. They opposed any kind of established church, be it Anglican or Presbyterian.
Charles was also king of Scotland, but the Scots were vehement Presbyterians and turned against him. They invaded England and humiliated Charles’ army in the Bishop’s War. Charles had to convene Parliament to ask for money to continue fighting.
This desperate ploy ended in disaster. The king was forced to sign the death warrant of his most effective minister and to make unprecedented concessions. An attempt to arrest several of his opponents sparked a Civil War in 1642 between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians which lasted until 1649. Some 200,000 people died (proportionally, as many as in World War I) and it ended with Charles as a captive of Parliament. For a while it seemed possible that he could be restored to his throne, albeit with severely truncated powers. But from his prison the king secretly intrigued with the enemies of Parliament.
That was the last straw for his enemies, notably Oliver Cromwell. Parliament put Charles on trial as a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy”. The outcome was never in doubt. He was beheaded on Tuesday, January 30, 1649.
The chief prosecutor of the trial described the outcome as follows:
“This High Court hath cut off the head of a Tyrant, and they have done well; undoubtedly it is the best action that they ever did in all their lives, a matter of pure envy, not hatred, for never shall or can any men in this Nation, promerit so much Honor as these have done, by any execution of Justice comparable to this; and in so doing, they have pronounced sentence not onely against one Tyrant, but Tyranny it self.”
Unfortunately for the Puritans, their cancellation campaign was utterly unsuccessful. Charles Stuart immediately became a martyr. The crowd dipped handkerchiefs in his blood and cut locks of hair from his head. A book, Eikon Basilike, meditations and an autobiography supposedly written by Charles, became a 17th century best-seller. It went into 36 editions in 1649 alone, despite attempts to suppress it. John Milton, a great poet but also a Puritan shill, wrote a point-by-point refutation. It was a gigantic flop.
Charles’s successor was the dour Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who styled himself the Lord Protector. He ruled as a dictator over England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland until his death in 1658. After a couple of years of confusion, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland placed the son of Charles I, Charles II, on the throne. The monarchy was back. As The Who sang, “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”
And what happened then? On January 30, 1661, the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, the Lord Protector’s body was exhumed and posthumously executed. His head was exhibited on a pike outside of Parliament until 1685.
Isn’t there a lesson in this ultimate exercise of statue-toppling, tall-poppy lopping, and cancellation? Charles was incompetent, deceitful, and intransigent; he was a very bad king. But the Puritans’ attempt to erase him from history was a failure. It led to slaughter and chaos; it didn’t work; and ten years later England ended up with — more or less — the status quo ante.
Have cancel culture devotees never heard of backlash? Perhaps they need to read more history.