High Court of Justice for the trial of Charles I

High Court of Justice for the trial of Charles I

The High Court of Justice is the name given to the court established by the Rump Parliament to try King Charles I of England. This was an ad hoc tribunal created specifically for the purpose of trying the king, although the same name was used again for subsequent courts.


Following the second civil war, the army and the Independents in Parliament were determined that the King should be punished, but they did not command a majority. Parliament debated whether to return the King to power and those who still supported Charles's place on the throne, mainly Presbyterians, tried once more to negotiate with him.

Furious that Parliament continued to countenance Charles as King, the army marched on Parliament and purged the House of Commons in an act later known as "Pride's Purge" after the commanding officer of the operation. On Wednesday December 6, Colonel Thomas Pride's Regiment of Foot took up position on the stairs leading to the House, while Nathaniel Rich’s Regiment of Horse provided backup. Pride himself stood at the top of the stairs. As MPs arrived, he checked them against the list provided to him. Troops arrested 45 Members of Parliament (MPs) and kept 146 out of parliament.

Only 75 were allowed in, and then only at the army's bidding. On 13 December 1648, the "Rump Parliament", as the purged House of Commons came to be known, broke off negotiations with the King. Two days later, the Council of Officers of the New Model Army voted that the King be moved to Windsor "in order to the bringing of him speedily to justice". ['Historical preface: 1647-49', Charters and Documents relating to the City of Glasgow 1175-1649: Part 1 (1897), p. CDLXXV-DXIX. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=47918. Date accessed: 12 March 2007.] In the middle of December, the King was moved from Windsor to London.

Establishing the court

After the King had been moved to London, the Rump Parliament passed a Bill setting up what was described as a High Court of Justice in order to try Charles I for high treason in the name of the people of England. The bill nominated 3 judges and 150 commissioners who were empowered to try the King. Among the commissioners was Oliver Cromwell. The Solicitor General John Cooke was appointed prosecutor.

Though the House of Lords refused to pass the bill and the Royal Assent naturally was lacking, the Rump Parliament referred to the ordinance as an "Act" and pressed on with the trial anyway.

The intention to place the King on trial was re-affirmed on 6 January by a vote of 29 to 26 with "An Act of the Commons Assembled in Parliament". [Graham Edwards, "The Last Days of Charles I"] Nenner ODoNB citing Wedgwood, p. 122.] At the same time, the number of commissioners was reduced to 135 – any twenty of whom would form a quorum – when the judges, members of the House of Lords and others who might be sympathetic to the King were removed.

The commissioners met to make arrangements for the trial on 8 January when well under half were present - a pattern that was to be repeated at subsequent sessions. On 10 January, John Bradshaw was chosen as President of the Court. During the following ten days, arrangements for the trial were completed; the charges were finalised and the evidence to be presented was collected.

Trial and execution

At the first session of the trial proper, on Saturday 20 January 1649 in Westminster Hall, Charles asked "I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful [authority] ". [ [http://personal.pitnet.net/primarysources/charles.html The opening speech of Charles I at his trial] ] Charles maintained that the House of Commons on its own could not try anybody, and so he refused to plead. Thirty witnesses were summoned, but some were later excused. The evidence was heard in the Painted Chamber rather than Westminster Hall. King Charles was not present to hear the evidence against him and he had no opportunity to question witnesses. The court proceeded as if the king had pleaded guilty ("pro confesso"), as was the standard legal practice in case of a refusal to plead. The witnesses were heard by the judges for 'the further and clearer satisfaction of their own judgement and consciences.' [Robertson, G., "The Tyrannicide Brief", Chatto & Windus, London 2005, p. 173.]

The King was declared guilty at a public session on Saturday 27 January 1649 and sentenced to death. To show their agreement with the sentence, all of the 67 Commissioners who were present rose to their feet. During the rest of that day and on the following day, signatures were collected for his death warrant. This was eventually signed by 59 of the Commissioners, including 2 who had not been present when the sentence was passed. [ [http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199899/ldparlac/ldrpt66.htm House of Lords Record Office The Death Warrant of King Charles I] ]

King Charles was beheaded on a scaffold in front of the Banqueting House of the Palace of Whitehall on January 30, 1649.


Following the execution of Charles I, there was further large-scale fighting in Ireland, and England, known collectively as the third civil war. A year and a half after the execution, Prince Charles was proclaimed King Charles II by the Scots and he led an invasion of England where he was defeated at the Battle of Worcester. This marked the end of the civil wars.

The High Court of Justice during the Interregnum

The name continued to be used during the interregnum. James Earl of Cambridge was tried and executed on 9 March 1649 by the 'High Court of Justice'.

In subsequent years the High Court of Justice was reconstituted under the following Acts.

* March 1650 An Act for Establishing an High Court of Justice.

* August 1650 An Act giving further Power to the High Court of Justice

* December 1650 An Act for Establishing an High Court of Justice within the Counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Huntington, Cambridge, Lincoln, and the Counties of the Cities of Norwich and Lincoln, and within the Isle of Ely.

* November 1653 An Act For The Establishing An High Court of Justice.

On 30 June,1654, Peter Vowell and John Gerard were tried for High Treason by the High Court of Justice sitting in Westminster Hall. They had planned to assassinate Oliver Cromwell and restore Charles II as king. The plotters were found guilty and executed.


After the Restoration in 1660, all who had been active in the court that had tried and sentenced Charles I were targets for the new King. Most of those that were still alive attempted to flee the country. With one exception, those that were captured were executed or sentenced to life imprisonment.


* [http://personal.pitnet.net/primarysources/charles.html The opening speech of Charles I at his trial]
*Nenner, Howard. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Regicides
*The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG " [http://www.hcourt.gov.au/speeches/kirbyj/kirbyj_charle88.htm The trial of King Charles I – defining moment for our constitutional liberties] ", to the Anglo-Australasian Lawyers' association, on January 22 1999.
* February 1649 An Act to prevent the printing of any the Proceedings in the High Court of Justice, Erected for Trying of James Earl of Cambridge, and others, Without leave of the House of Commons, or the said Court
* [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.asp?pageno=13&pubid=606 British History online ]

Further reading

* [http://home.freeuk.net/don-aitken/ast/c1b.html#210 Full text of the Act erecting a High Court of Justice for the Trial of Charles I January 6, 1649]
* [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=56301 Full text of the same Act, different source]
*T. B Howell, T.B. "A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason other crimes and misdemeanors from the earliest period until the year 1783" Volume 12 of 21 Charles I to Charles II: [http://books.google.com/books?id=eZhJ3I2ik5UC&pg=PP511&dq=The+Trial+of+Charles+Stuart The Trial of Charles Stuart, King of England; Before the High court of Justice, for High Treason]
* [http://home.freeuk.net/don-aitken/ast/c1b.html#211 Full text of the Sentence of the High Court of Justice upon the King, 27 January, 1649]
* [http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur084.htm Text of the sentence]
* [http://home.freeuk.net/don-aitken/ast/c1b.html#212 Full text of The Death Warrant of Charles I, 29 January, 1649]
* [http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199899/ldparlac/ldrpt66.htm House of Lords Record Office: The Death Warrant of King Charles I]
* [http://home.freeuk.net/don-aitken/ast/cp.html#214 Full text of the Act abolishing the Office of King, 17 March, 1649]


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