Did an Irishman behead Charles 1 of England?

We all know that there was no love lost between Oliver Cromwell and the ordinary Irishman and that the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford lived long in Irish memory. Yet, strange as it may seem, almost a year before he came to Ireland, Oliver requested an Irishman to perform an act for him that he could get no English man to do, the beheading of Charles 1st.

Let us revert to the history of our own country for a few brief moments and see how things were shaping in the 1640's. Having failed to obtain by negotiation concessions of any sort from their rulers the Ulster people decided that the only way to get any sort of satisfaction was by the use of arms. Even the Catholic social elite who had been hesitant about taking up arms now realised that it was the only way and threw in their lot with the rebels. As many as 2,000 Protestant settlers were supposed to have been killed in the ensuing chaos and many more driven from their homes. What had begun as an Ulster rising quickly spread to all parts of the country and involved Catholic landowners to some degree. Whatever so called atrocities were greatly exaggerated in the telling in England and Scotland and had the people demanding that the government should take instant action about the matter in Ireland. This proved to be impossible for the government of Charles the first at the time because tension between himself and his parliment was mounting and soon broke into a bitter civil war. This should have been the time for the Irish to unite and drive the now leaderless British settlers from the country. Instead divisions appeared in their ranks and the chance was lost. The reason for the divisions is another story so let us get back to the reason an Irishman beheaded Charles 1st.

Following a long and bitter civil war the 'Roundheads' or the soldiers of Cromwell gained the upper hand. It was now that the King was accused of causing the Civil War and was put under trial by an irregular court convened by Cromwell, at which he refused to plead. Despite the urgings of members of Cromwell supporters it took five days for the court to obtain the verdict of Guilty. Charles was condemned to death as a tyrant , traitor, murderer and enemy of his country . His execution was fixed for the 30th January 1649. Even though Cromwell was now in power this verdict did not go down to well with the people and gave Oliver food for thought. His way out was that an Englishman should not execute the King. This notice was made known and the search began in Scotland, Wales and Ireland for a volunteer to perform the act. Whiter or not there were volunteers from other places we do not know,but certain it is that there were two from Ireland. Two Galway soldiers named Gunning and Dean volunteered and were sent to England. Thus it was that at 2:00pm on the 30th January 1649 Charles mounted the execution platform accompanied only by Bishop Juxon. An enormous crown had gathered in Whitehall, for this was a moment without parallel in English history.

The King received Holy Communion outside the Banqueting Hall of Whithall Palace before mounting the platform to lay his head upon the block to be beheaded by an Irishman. Gunning stood on the platform masked in black and awaiting the signal. We are told that the King said some prayers but declined the usual word of forgiveness to the executioner.

The King laid his head on the Block stretched out his hand and said the one word "Remember". Then the signal was given, the axe flashed and Charles was dead. Again we are told that the executioner stooped picked up the severed head, and held it aloft for the crowd to see. For a moment there was silence, then an enormous groan arose and so ended the chain of monarchy as rulers for a short period. Charles 1st was the last King to be regarded as having Divine Right to rule.

Now let us to go back to the Irish connection again. The beheading of Charles resulted in many pubs in England being called "The Kings Head" but it is in Ireland that a pub of that name is associated with the actual beheading, It is a plaque on the wall of a pub in Galway that tells the story of how this came about. This pub is the real "Kings Head". It is situated in a back street in Galway city and the words on the plaque are "A grateful Cromwell bestowed this building, 'The Kings Head', on Gunning on 1649". What is significant about the date is the fact that Cromwell was himself in Ireland in 1649 but there is no account of him having been in Galway or the West in that year, so the plaque was probably erected on his orders.
We referred earlier to the rising in Ulster and the exaggerated accounts of actions of the Irish against the Protestants at the time. It was these stories that had Cromwell so enraged with those whom he believed had butchered his fellow Englishmen and Protestants that following his landing in Dublin in 1649 he went straight to Drogheda and following the surrender of the garrison of that town had most of its inhibitions put to the sword. He then moved down the east coast to Wexford where he repeated the story of Drogheda. He then went along the south coast to Youghal where he spent the winter.

He had taken towns and villages on his way from Drogheda but had shown no mercy in some cases. It was in March of 1650 that he met with his general Huston at Gowran before advancing on Kilkenny. There are many stories told of the towns and places that Cromwell visited in Ireland such as Carlow, Tullow, Rathvilly etc. but the fact is that he returned to England in March of that year, either just before or just after , the taking of Kilkenny. He had two good reasons for this (1) his health was failing rapidly and (2) the Royalists were coming back to power in England. His return to England was kept secret and he died in the late 1650s. Later when Cahrles 11 came ot power Cromwell’s body was exhumed and he was beheaded. His head was placed on a pole outside a London Prison and when it was eventually blown down we are told the warder sold it to a doctor for two shillings.

So ends the story of the beheading of Charles 1st, and I suppose we could say the man who ordered it also lost his though in different circumstances.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist
September 2005