Why kings fall

17 January 2014

SOMETIMES, when people get disillusioned with their politicians, they cut off their heads. And we are approaching one such anniversary.

King Charles I stepped on to the scaffold at 2 p.m. on 30 January 1649 - a freezing Tuesday in London. He had been allowed a last walk in Hyde Park that morning, with his pet dog. He spoke before his execution in Whitehall, explaining to the crowd that he did not believe in shared government: "A subject and sovereign are clear different things."

There followed a spiritual exchange with William Juxon, Bishop of London, who said that it was now a short if "turbulent and troublesome" journey to his crown of glory. And then came the King's instructions to the executioner: "I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands. . ."

No country easily kills its king. It is a decision of some magnitude. One eye-witness recorded that the execution was met with "such a groan as I have never heard before, and desire I may never hear again", while a Restoration bishop later claimed that no king "ever left the world with more sorrow: women miscarried, men fell into melancholy".

But, removed from the protective bubble of his self-perception - that of a man with the divine right to govern as he chose - Charles appears as slippery and vain, and an untrustworthy figure; a man who drew his kingdom into two brutal civil wars that traumatised the nation and are reckoned to have cost proportionately more lives than the Great War of 1914-18.

But the wars were not about monarchy - they were about leadership. With the King defeated, Cromwell had had no plans to lead; and still argued for a settlement with His Majesty. Charles was a compulsive intriguer, however, and only after his escape from Hampton Court did Cromwell finally give up on him, although not on the idea of monarchy. Even after the regicide, he talked of bringing back Charles's son to the throne. But it had to be good kingship; as the republican Edmund Ludlow wrote, the monarch must rule "for the good and benefit of his people", and Charles was felt to have fallen short.

Disillusionment with politics is as rife now as it was then; perhaps more so. If governance is for "the good and benefit of the people" - and it still seems a sound ideal - then why do our present rulers make the rich richer and the poor poorer?

Pay differentials that would have shocked even greedy Victorian industrialists are now declared good economics; while the smart-suited political élite prepare for their lucrative lecture tours and cosy directorships; divine right by another name, surely? We won't execute them - it is impolite, and we do not share that 17th-century passion. But we may not vote, which is the killing of democracy.

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