Testimony, Tyranny and Treason: The Witnesses at Charles I's Trial

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Abstract

The trial and execution of Charles I have been the subject of considerable historical study, especially in the last twenty years. One aspect of the trial, however, remains largely unexplored: the role of witness testimony. The witness depositions received on 24 and 25 January 1649 have sometimes been dismissed as a mere stalling tactic, intended to provide Charles with further time to consider entering a plea. In contrast, this article contends that the witnesses’ depositions shed important new light on the trial. Exploring the witnesses’ backgrounds allows us to connect individuals with the regiments of regicides such as John Hewson and John Barkstead. These connections, through the army petitions of 1648, also link the witnesses’ testimony and, in broader terms, the trial, with the radical ideas of justice embodied in the Levellers’ ‘Large Petition’. Connecting the trial with the arguments made in the petitions for justice of the autumn and winter of 1648/9 also allows us to reconsider the importance of the concept of ‘blood guilt’. This article suggests that, far from being marginal to the king’s trial, the multi-faceted idea of blood guilt not only influenced the court’s procedure (in terms of the calling of multiple witnesses) but also was central to many of the witness depositions. Finally, drawing on both historical and philosophical work on personal testimony, the article suggests that the witness depositions may be connected to the broader, non-legal purposes of ‘witnessing’ in offering narratives of personal suffering.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe English Historical Review
Early online date13 Oct 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Oct 2021

Keywords

  • Charles I
  • execution
  • treason
  • witnesses
  • trial
  • regicide

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