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Ceremony for King Charles I

January 30th marks the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I in 1649 at Whitehall, London. The date is normally marked by a short ceremony in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, however this year the ceremony will not take place there due to the fact that the Banqueting House is the subject of a major conservation programme. That bitter winter morning in 1649, the King was led at 10 a.m from St. James’s Palace and walked in procession to Whitehall, wearing two shirts lest onlookers should think that his shivering betrayed cowardice at the prospect of his imminent death. The scaffold had been erected outside, the King had only to step from a window in the Palace in order to mount it. With a majestic irony, the King would have passed underneath the great Rubens ceiling of the Banqueting Hall, which extols the apotheosis and royal authority of his father James I, for whom the Banqueting House was built. It was also an allegorical celebration of his own birth in 1600. He was dressed in black and wearing the insignia of the Garter, which he removed, instructing it to be given to Charles, Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, with the singularly poignant word, “Remember”. The King’s last spoken words to Bishop Juxon were, ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.‘ His head was struck off with a single blow, by an executioner who will forever remain anonymous. It was two o’clock in afternoon.

It is interesting in this connection to mention the attributed ‘relics’ of the King which have at various times, been in existence.  At Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, contained within the historic apartments of Charles I’s paternal grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, are a remarkable array of Stuart ‘relics’, among which may also be found fragments of cloth said to be marked with drops of blood of the beheaded king and a few strands of his beard. The latter was cut from his head when Sir Henry Halford, President of the Royal College of Surgeons and Physician to George III and to the Prince Regent, opened the King’s coffin in St. George’s Chapel in 1813 at the order of the Prince, when ‘relics’ were taken before it was resealed, including a piece of neckbone, fragments of his beard and a tooth. The Prince Regent retained a certain sentimentality for his Stuart forebears, however it is important to state that the opening of the King’s coffin was also necessitated by the need to verify the authenticity of his remains. It was on examination of the King’s head – which had been re-sewn back onto his body – together with the likeness of the King’s features to that of his Van Dyck portraits and a lead ribbon which bore the name of the King – that those in attendance decided that these remains were indeed those of Charles I, the head bearing signs of the trauma of a blow from an extremely sharp instrument.

The coffin of Charles I had been laid to rest there at night on 7th February 1649, and placed alongside the tombs of Henry VIII and his third queen, Jane Seymour. The coffin had been discovered in the vault of Henry VIII; the memorial stone in St. George’s Chapel recording the location of Charles I’s tomb, was placed there at the order of William IV in 1837. It also records that an infant child of Queen Anne was interred in the same vault. The ‘relics’ removed by Halford were later presented to Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, in an ebony casket. It was the later wish of the Prince of Wales to return these relics to the vault from which they had been removed, which was duly carried out in 1888. However, several ‘relics’ attributed to Charles I have remained in existence, for example, those in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge also preserves a gold locket containing hair of Charles I, which was cut from his head when the grave was opened in 1813; this particular lock of hair had been given by the Prince Regent to the Duke of Cumberland, who then presented it onwards as a gift.

Today, the Banqueting House is maintained by the independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces, enabling the visitor to experience both the Banqueting Hall and the approximate level of the first floor window from which King Charles I would have stepped out onto the scaffold, which had been erected expressly for his execution. The actual window from which the King stepped out onto the scaffold no longer exists – the glass having been removed especially for the event – but corresponds roughly to the window which is today above the main visitor entrance. Today’s visitor enters the Banqueting House through a small door, above which is a bust of Charles I, with an inscription in the King’s memory, to mark the event of his execution. This bust was found as one of three by a member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, a Mr. Hedley Hope-Nicholson, who discovered them in a builder’s yard in Fulham. Beneath the bust an inscription reads: ‘ His Majesty King Charles I passed through this hall and out of a window nearly over this tablet to the scaffold in Whitehall where he was beheaded on 30 January, 1649’.

According to the websource ‘London Remembers’, the clock in the archway of the Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall,  opposite the Banqueting House, carries a black mark on its face at 2pm; which it is said, commemorates the execution of King Charles I, although the truth of this tale cannot be substantiated and could simply be an uncanny coincidence. However, the service that normally takes place at the Banqueting House on the anniversary of his execution, features the celebration of Mass and the presentation of certain ‘relics’ owned by the Society, in the very space across which the King traversed to meet his death. The ceremony is also joined by a choir, usually from King’s College, London. It is attended by the members of the Society of King Charles the Martyr and by non-members alike.

Fittingly, when looking back up in the direction of Charing Cross, the fine equestrian statue of Charles I by the sculptor Hubert Le Sueur may be seen facing down towards Whitehall. The statue shows the King on horseback in armour, not unlike the famous equestrian portrait that was made of him by the artist Van Dyck between 1637-1638. It is an observation both moving and appropriate, with the statue facing towards the former site of the scaffold.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.