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The Execution of Charles I

Small and shy, Charles I provoked – or was provoked into – a vicious civil war

Small and shy, Charles I provoked – or was provoked into – a vicious civil war

The day a king died

Charles’s arrogance and long running disputes with Parliament threw the country into nearly seven years of civil war that ended dramatically with his defeat, trial and execution.

A brave king

Charles wore an extra shirt in case he shivered in the cold and his enemies thought he was frightened.

The execution of a king

On a bitterly cold winter’s day, Charles I stepped calmly out of an opening made in the wall of the Banqueting House, onto to a scaffold erected directly outside. After saying a tearful farewell to his two youngest children at St James’s Palace, he had been taken to Whitehall. There he spent the morning at prayer. Then he was led out through the galleries of the palace, across the Banqueting Hall, and out onto the scaffold.

 One of his last sights was the glorious painted ceiling by Rubens that he had commissioned to glorify the name of Stuart and his father James I. Unable to address the crowd, who were too far away to hear him, the King gave a speech to those around him on the scaffold. Then he lay down and placed his neck on the block. The executioner severed his head with one blow.

Charles I (1600-1649), The young prince wears a russet satin gown with hanging sleeves, trimmed with velvet, embroidered with gold thread and lined with lynx fur.   Sir Anthony van Dyck, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.

Charles I, just before he executioner’s axe fell

A fatal arrogance

Charles’s worst mistake was his arrogance in assuming that he could manage to rule without Parliament’s co-operation. This led to nearly seven bitter years of civil war from 1642 between his royalist supporters and the ‘Roundheads’, the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. Even when the King surrendered, very few people could imagine a peace settlement that did not include Charles as king. He was not imprisoned at the Tower, but under comfortable house arrest at Hampton Court. He promptly escaped to the Isle of Wight, but he was not free for long and soon returned to custody. On 27 January 1649 Charles was found guilty of having ‘traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present parliament …’ and sentenced to death.

Executioners axe

The usual execution block could not be found so a much lower one, normally used for dismembering traitors was used.

German print depicting the execution of King Charles I in 1649. King Charles I (1625-49) was executed outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall on 30 January 1649.

There was such a dismal universal groan amongst the thousands of people who were in sight of it ... as have never heard before and desire I may not hear again.

An onlooker at the execution, 1649

Conservator moving the Painting of Mary, Princess Royal by Van Dyck

The royal art collector

Although he made many disastrous political mistakes, Charles was a hugely important and dedicated patron of the arts. He commissioned work from great contemporary artists and architects such as van Dyck, Rubens and Inigo Jones. He amassed a remarkable collection of paintings by Italian masters, much of which was sold during the Commonwealth.

Image: Painting of Mary, Princess Royal by Van Dyck

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James I's great hall at is a superb venue for extravagant entertainment.

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Walk in the footsteps of the condemned King and stand at the spot where Charles I's execution took place, just outside Banqueting House.

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Highlights Things to see

Marvel at Sir Peter Paul Rubens' masterpiece in its original setting. Rubens' ceiling canvases are the crowning glory of Inigo Jone's Banqueting House.

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Highlights Things to see

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Packed with fascinating history and colour photographs, ‘Discover the Banqueting House’ is the essential guide to your visit.

Official Banqueting House guidebook

Packed with fascinating history and colour photographs, ‘Discover the Banqueting House’ is the essential guide to your visit.

£4.99

A fun-packed pop-up book, filled with flaps and fascinating facts about the most famous British kings and queens.

Pop-up Kings and Queens book

A fun-packed pop-up book, filled with flaps and fascinating facts about the most famous British kings and queens.

£6.99

Unique hand stitched card featuring Banqueting House, Whitehall. Hand made in  England for Historic Royal Palaces.

Banqueting House cross stitch card

Unique hand stitched card featuring Banqueting House, Whitehall. Hand made in England for Historic Royal Palaces.

£5.99