On this day in 1649 King Charles I met his fate. I doubt even the soldiers who guarded the scaffold could fail to be moved. Rosie Babbitt certainly was…. read on.
It was a bitter cold January day and the sky was smoke-white and heavy with the promise of snow.
There were few flashes of colour amongst the ranks of Babbitt’s troop of horse, where they lined their horses against the scaffold where the King of England was due to meet his Maker. The sprig of rosemary in Hapless Russell’s hatband. The sea-green ribbon holding Hollie Babbitt’s hair, looking even more starkly blood-red than usual against his dull plate. (The scarlet end of Luce Pettitt’s poor raw nose, despite his best efforts to keep dabbing at it surreptitiously with the back of his hand, thinking it somewhat disrespectful to pull out a handkerchief and provide His Majesty’s last moments on this earth with a trumpet accompaniment.)
“Here we go,” Hollie muttered, “stand fast.”
The rock-steady brown gelding with the unlikely name of Blossom tossed his head a little as the crowd surged forward on a wave or murmurs that sounded like the sea, but he stood still. Russell’s sensible bay Thomas put his ears back and looked very dubious indeed about the proceedings, but other than a little sideways skitter he stood. And Luce’s Samson looked deeply disapproving about the skittishness of his companions, and led by stern and handsome glossy example, as still as if he’d been carved from black marble while the people pushed and jostled about his legs.
It was odd, how so many people, could be so silent. Babbitt’s troop of horse had faced this man across a battlefield so many times over the past six years, and seen as many men, all in the one place. This was different. This was odd. There were faces here that should not have been here – avid, greedy faces, faces as lustful to watch the King’s execution as if they were watching a pretty girl, or a man they desired. Faces with silent tears streaming down cheeks. Faces with lips moving in silent prayer, and not so silent prayer. Old faces. Young faces. A woman with a child at her shoulder. A grizzled old veteran of the wars, one eye milky in a ruined socket, his feet wrapped in rags where his shoes were worn through. (Babbitt moved his horse aside to let that one through. England’s freedom. Soldier’s rights.)
“Crack on,” Russell muttered, “my feet are freezing.”
“Bet his are, an’ all.”
The King was arriving on foot. He had spent last night saying farewell to the last two children he had in England, thirteen year-old Elizabeth and nine year-old Henry, under guard at St James’s Palace. His wife was in France, in exile. Hollie had no time for the Man of Blood, no time at all, thought he had brought his own destruction on himself with his pride and his arrogance and his treachery. Hollie was also a married man with two daughters, and though he did not consider himself an imaginative man it made his throat go dry thinking of what he might say, given so few brief hours to say a farewell forever to his babies. And as for being parted from his own Het – ah, God, no, he could not have borne that. He might loathe Charles Stuart’s intriguing, but his heart ached for any man to go to his public murder so uncomforted, without even his girl’s final kiss to speed him on his way. They said Stuart was a devout man, and Hollie hoped that were true, for it would be him and his God, on the scaffold at the last, and that was a lonely place for any man to be.
The king looked almost childlike, small and thin and primly tidy, as he walked towards the scaffold. His eyes raked the crowd, moved over the soldiers who stood between him and the mass of his people whose mood, even now, was uncertain. There were people in this mob who would tear him apart, physically tear him apart, given the opportunity. Hollie didn’t think the little bugger accepted that, to this day. There was a nice irony to it, that his Royal person was being guarded from the risk of harm by any of his rebellious subjects, by – in this troop alone – one Puritan and two Levellers. (Or possibly two people who were both Puritans and Levellers at the same time, depending how zealous he and Russell were feeling.) “He’s smaller than I thought he would be,” Luce said wanly. “Close to.”
“Indeed,” the implacable Russell said, with a faint smile. “About a head shorter.”
Russell hated the King worse than he hated the Devil, which, given his puritanical leanings, took some doing. Hollie wasn’t keen, but looking down his horse’s shoulder at a man he’d only ever seen across a battlefield, he found it in his heart to pity him. He was wearing two shirts. There was a thin veil of pimpled gooseflesh across the bare skin at the base of his throat, where the pulse beat clear and fast. Het was going to ask him all of this, when he got home, wanting to hear what a king looked like, if he faced his end with courage and dignity. He thought he might make a bit up about what Charles Stuart looked like. He reckoned Het might be disappointed, if she knew he was a little, skinny, sick-looking man with a pallid indoor complexion and receding, lank hair.
The executioner was disguised. Russell tried to make a joke about that, but no one was taking him up on it, now. It just wasn’t funny any more. The crowd were beginning to stir, muttering, edgy. You couldn’t blame a man for not wanting his identity to be known, when you walked a knife-edge of public opinion. Today, the people’s hero. Tomorrow, it was your head on the block. He’d seen it happen too often in the New Model Army. Seen it happen with Colonel Rainsborough, who’d been his mate, and who’d been acclaimed by the common soldiers as their voice, and who’d ended up with a knife in his back. Say nothing. See nothing. Keep your head down. The King was speaking. He strained his ears, but he couldn’t hear a word of it. The other men on the scaffold were nodding sombrely, so presumably it was godly and decent, but he couldn’t catch it, over the murmurings of the crowd. “Step back,” he said absently to one respectable-looking citizen who was crowding forward, “move away, come on- “
Russell, at his side, put his hand on the hilt of his sword, lightly, but meaningfully.
The murmuring swelled. “Thankful, stand down,” Hollie snarled at his lieutenant, but the restlessness was none of their doing, thank God, and on the scaffold behind Hollie the King was kneeling down, setting his hands on the block, putting his lank hair behind his ears.
Stretching out his hands in signal to the executioner.
Hollie couldn’t watch. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Russell turn his horse slightly, the better to see. There was that same greedy avidity on his lieutenant’s scarred face as there was on so many of the crowd – eager curiosity, malice, self-righteousness. Luce was weeping silently, but then Luce got carried away by the gallantry of the moment at the best of times.
There was a moment’s total stillness. And then there was a sound like an ox being butchered, the sound of an axe parting flesh and bone. A great sighing moan rose from the crowd, and for a moment there was panic as the people pushed forward, crying out to dabble their handkerchiefs in the King’s blood. Scuffles breaking out around them –
“Have you not had enough blood, in Christ’s name?”
Luce pushing people back, white-faced and furious. And a heartbeat later, Russell joining him, looking sick and shaken, and nowhere near so sure of himself as he had been. Neither of those two was a green boy. They’d seen blood spilled before. But cold? Like this? Never.
“We are a commonwealth,” Hollie said faintly. “May God have mercy on us.”