St Albans and the killing of a king

St Albans Abbey before restoration. Where the Army Council met.

St Albans Abbey before restoration. Where the Army Council met. - Credit: St Albans Museum + Gallery

About 2pm on January 30 1649 an event took place which astonished Europe. Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was publicly beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London.

Each year, on the Sunday closest to January 30, the event is commemorated by re-enactors from the English Civil War Society. After a gap of several years due to Covid, 2022 is the 50th year they have marched in London to commemorate the king’s execution.

Charles I had been found guilty of treason against England by using his power to pursue his personal interest rather than the good of the country. This had culminated in two civil wars in which, it is claimed, 300,000 people, the equivalent of 6% of the population, died.

He has been described as the worst king Britain has had since the Middle Ages. The reaction to his arbitrary rule led to fundamental debates about democracy and the need to curb the power of the executive. The true costs of his disastrous reign will never be known, but what is irrefutable is that his trial and execution resulted from a military coup which had its origins in a meeting held in St Albans in November 1648.

The civil wars had already greatly impacted St Albans. The citizens’ sympathies, after years of Charles’ misrule, lay with Parliament. This meant the inhabitants not only provided recruits for the army, but also paid the high levels of taxation imposed on them to fund the Parliamentary war effort.

Some local royalists were imprisoned; others had their estates seized. By 1643 the only remaining route for the Royalists to capture London, and win the war, was via the Aylesbury Gap. This meant St Albans had to be fortified and defended with troops who were quartered on the local population. The medieval Tonman ditch was redug and additional fortifications in the form of forts and redoubts were built.

At key stages during the war not only did Parliamentary armies move through St Albans – imagine the crimes perpetrated as 10,000 troops marched through a town of perhaps 3,200 people - but St Albans many times was the headquarters of the Parliamentarian army High Command. All its leading generals, including Sir Thomas (later Lord) Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, visited St Albans

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 In July 1648 Royalist cavalry having been defeated near Kingston on Thames fled through St Albans hotly pursued by Parliamentarian cavalry.

After the ending of the Second Civil War in August 1648, elements in Parliament’s New Model Army petitioned their commanders to put the King on trial. This was also the view of some influential leaders including the diplomatist and preacher Hugh Peters and the ‘brains’ of the army Colonel Henry Ireton, who was Cromwell’s son in law. Fairfax, head of the New Model Army called a meeting of its Army Council to take place in our abbey. He and his officers stayed in the town with troops billeted in the surrounding area. The meeting began on November 7 and, with intermissions, ended on  November 18.

We know what happened from letters and pamphlets produced. Peters and others preached sermons. The issue of the army not being paid and having to be quartered on civilians was debated over two days and then the attendees started to debate the future state of the nation and the position of the king. It was agreed that Parliament would be asked to put the king on trial. A document was produced called the Remonstrance. The wording was finalised by Fairfax and Ireton in their rooms at The Bull on Holywell Hill.

The Army Council approved the Remonstrance in the abbey and the document was sent under military escort from St Albans to Parliament. It is entered in the House of Commons records as “The humble Remonstrance of his Excellency the Lord General Fairefax, and his General Council of Officers, held at St. Albans, Thursday the Sixteenth of November 1648”. The Remonstrance proclaimed the sovereignty of the people under a representative government. It stated that Divine providence would prove the righteousness, or

otherwise, of a government’s actions and would thwart unjustified rebellion. It claimed that Charles’ refusal to accept his defeat in the First Civil War, and his subsequent defeat in the Second Civil War, showed he had broken the sacred covenant with his people by attempting to place himself above the law. He should therefore be brought to trial.

Parliament’s refusal, first to debate the Remonstrance and then to approve it, led to troops from the New Model Army surrounding the House of Commons. Army officers prevented many of those MPs who did not want the king to be tried from taking their seats – arresting some of them.

The purged House of Commons, now containing a higher proportion of MPs who believed the king should be tried, agreed to placing him on trial.

Although some Parliamentarians, such as Fairfax, believed Charles I, if found guilty, should be forced to abdicate, and then be imprisoned or exiled, others who met in the Abbey already believed that the killing of the King was the only way a lasting peace could be achieved.

Less than three months after the meeting in St Albans, Charles was dead.

Places in St Albans associated with the events of 1648:

St Albans Cathedral and Abbey Church - where the New Model Army Council of officers met.

St Albans Market Place – where fleeing Royalists in July 1648 tried to persuade the townspeople to join them.

St Peters Church - where captured royalists from the second civil war were held on their way to Bristol for transportation as white slaves to Barbados.

Sumpter Yard – The route used by Fairfax and Ireton between the abbey and The Bull.

The Samuel Ryder Hotel, Holywell Hill - The site of The Bull where Fairfax and Ireton stayed and finalised the Remonstrance.

Interested in the history of St Albans and district? Then why not join St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society which has 630 members? John Morewood is giving a talk on St Albans and the British Civil Wars on February 15.