Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.
This edited article about King Charles I originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 115 published on 28 March 1964.
The last day but one in January, 1649, was particularly cold in London. The Thames was frozen over and snow-filled clouds threatened the earth with another fall.
Outside the Palace of Whitehall a small crowd had gathered around a hastily erected scaffold. Mounted militiamen kept the people at several yards distance from the raised platform, and the general murmuring was from time to time interrupted by harsh commands from the soldiery that was forming guard near the scaffold steps.
Suddenly the voices dropped to a whisper as a drum-roll announced the arrival of a procession.
A few moments later a well-drilled squad of pikemen marched briskly towards the platform, followed by a solitary man, dressed in black, with his hands behind his back. Behind him came another group of soldiers and a number of dignitaries of the law and the church.
The soldiers lined up in ranks as the lone man walked calmly up the scaffold steps, leading the lawyers and clerics on to the dais.
A drum roll was beaten and the guards sprang to attention. The large, heavily-masked man on the dais fingered the blade of his axe, and adjusted the position of the block. Another execution was about to take place.
But this was an execution with a difference. No common criminal was to meet the reward of his felonies: a king was about to die.
Charles the First had waged war against Parliament and the people and he had lost. The penalty for defeat was death. Throughout his reign he had acted with weakness and arrogance, had betrayed some of his best friends, and had trampled on the very rights and liberties of the people. Now that he faced death, he behaved with the greatest personal courage and dignity, such that many of the crowd “were wont to wipe the tears from their faces.”
Charles smiled at the executioner, and then turned to one of the clerics, Bishop Juxon. Taking a heavy ring off one of his slim, artistic fingers, he handed it to the bishop. Then he turned to the crowd and spoke for a few minutes.
Firmly he laid his head upon the block and removed the muffler from his neck. The executioner raised the axe and swiftly brought it down. With one stroke the King’s head was severed from his body.
Who was the executioner of Charles the First? This question has baffled historians ever since that fateful year in the story of British monarchy, and the mystery has not been satisfactorily solved.
The common hangman of the day was one Richard Brandon, and this was the story to which he adhered throughout many questionings.
Early in the morning of January 30, a Colonel Axtell had sent his brother with a guard of soldiers to Wapping to escort Brandon, with his tackle to Whitehall. When they reached the Palace, Brandon mounted the scaffold but then refused to handle the axe.
Neither bribes nor threats would change his mind, so he was arrested and kept in confinement until the execution was over. He was then sent home with five pounds in his pocket. Six months later he was dead.
Shortly after his death one of the Parliamentarian newspapers, the Kingdom’s Weekly Intelligence, reported that on Wednesday, June 20 (1649) Brandon died, having previously confessed to being the executioner of the King. The story added details of Brandon’s great remorse and stated that he had on the day “fallen a-trembling and hath ever since continued in the same.”
As a result of this report some historians have stated that Charles was executed by Brandon in his capacity as the common hangman.
Was Brandon the executioner? He was not. That newspaper report was put out by the Parliamentarians to hide the real identity of the culprit.
To begin with, in 1660, the year of the restoration of Charles’s son, Charles II, to the English throne, a William Hulet was put on trial charged with being the late King’s executioner, which proves that the Royalists accepted Brandon’s own story. Hulet’s defence was that Brandon had performed the task, but he declined to call as a witness on his behalf Brandon’s widow, who was still alive.
Hulet’s story was that he had been a sergeant in Colonel Hewson’s troop which was on duty in Whitehall on the execution day. Together with several other sergeants from various regiments he had been summoned by the government that morning, sworn to secrecy and asked to volunteer for the job. He had refused, and as a result had been kept a prisoner in Whitehall until the evening.
This is all very similar to Brandon’s story, which was known to nearly everybody in the country. Similar – except that Hulet’s account was not supported by a number of witnesses.
Earlier in the day on which Hulet stood trial, Colonel Axtell, who had brought Brandon to Whitehall, was also being tried for his part in the execution of the late king. Evidence was given by a Colonel Nelson, second-in-command of a regiment in Ireland, that Axtell had told him Hulet was one of the men on the scaffold. Axtell denied this, but it was proved that he had been “one of those who had the managing of the affair.” At Hulet’s own trial later in the day, Nelson repeated his testimony.
To support Nelson’s evidence the Crown brought Richard Gittens, a fellow-sergeant of Hulet’s, as a prosecution witness. Gittens testified that a few days before the execution Colonel Hewson had summoned about forty sergeants and asked if any of them would undertake the duty. They were offered one hundred pounds and some promotion in the army.
“We refused, every person,” said Gittens. “We thought Hulet did refuse. After all refused, it seems he did undertake to do the deed.”
Why should Gittens say that? Because immediately after the execution Hulet was promoted a Captain-Lieutenant!
Hulet strongly denied Gittens’s evidence, but his case was further weakened by evidence from a Captain Toogood, who said:
“I was in 1650 in Dublin Castle about some business with Colonel Hewson. Captain Hulet came into the room and talked with Colonel Hewson a little while. I asked Hewson what he was. He told me he was his captain-lieutenant of horse. He said he had made him so from a sergeant, and a very mettled fellow he was. It was he that did the King’s business for him on the scaffold.”
Other witnesses gave evidence of a similar nature, and eventually the jury pronounced Hulet guilty. Unfortunately, nothing further is known and there is no record of Hulet’s execution or alternative punishment. He disappears unnoticed from the history of the times.
The question of who executed the king arose from time to time during the trials of other leaders concerned with the King’s death, but no conclusive proof emerged.
Yet despite the strong evidence against Hulet, Brandon is still widely regarded as the person who wielded the axe at Whitehall Palace. But if Brandon were really guilty, why should the Royalists bother to fix the charge upon another man eleven years later?
One thing is clear. The Parliamentarians, having secured a verdict against the King at his trial and having obtained a considerable number of important signatures for the death-warrant, were yet unable to find an executioner willing to cut off the king’s head, without resort to bribes and threats.
Moreover, when at last a willing party was found, he must have been of some rank for the Parliamentarians to have gone to such lengths to obscure his identity.
The verdict of history recognizes the justice of the Parliamentary cause in the Civil War and the events which followed, but it must be said that the manner of the disposal of the King was at best a shameful chapter.