The Tyrannicide Brief #
King James I, the father of Charles I, was a Stuart who succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, staunchly believing in the Absolute Power of Monarchs and the Divine Right of Kings.
This is his speech to parliament on 21^(st) of March 1610:
Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes of God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a King. God has the power to create and destroy; make or unmake at his pleasure; to give life or send death; to judge all and to be judged, nor accountability to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure. And the like power have Kings.
Henry IV of France called him “the wisest fool of Christendom”. When his noted lawyer/advisor, Sir Edward Cook, suggested there were limitations to the King’s prerogatives, King James thundered “So then I am under the law. It is treason to say that!” Sir Edward Cook threw himself flat on all fours in terror and obeisance at the royal rage.
Despite Thomas Fuller, identifying with the Royalists, he declared, *‘Be ye never so high, the law is above you.’ *Shortly after King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, another learned maintained: “*The King must not be under man but under God and under the law, because the law makes the King”. *
Yet 38 years later King James’ son, Charles I lost his head upholding the same principle.
Both William Shakespeare and John Donne lived and wrote under the rule of this Absolute Monarch. Each makes some denigrating references about the King and yet somehow survive and even prosper. In Donne’s case it was his holy sonnets, his religious tracts and his sermons so impressed King James that Donne was ordained a priest and eventually became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the highest offices of the Church of England. In 1615, Donne published an argument that Catholics could support James I without compromising their loyalty to the pope.
Most of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies were written and performed during the reign of King James I with many scholars finding subtle suggestions about his serious concerns of responsible governance. There is documentary evidence that King James attended some of Shakespeare’s performances. There are few indications of his reactions.
**Macbeth **may have subtle cautionary messages to James I about his obsession with witchcraft and the limitations of a monarch, while King Lear has some clearer warnings regarding flatterers in court and how they can undermine the King’s real power.
After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the Stuarts James I and Charles I, re-introduced sectarianism, resulting in one of history’s most bloody civil wars, ending with Charles I losing his head in 1649.
This civil war was one of the most devastating and traumatic in British history as its pitted neighbors and families against each other costing thousands of lives. The causes are many and varied stemming from strains of feudal structures decaying, resulting in financial stress and religious tensions and divisions by moves to further the reforms of the Church of England away from Catholicism. The fact that Charles’ wife was a practicing Catholic with her own private priests, didn’t help. The rise of the Puritans with increased demands of reforms added to discontent.
The main and immediate cause was constitutional reform. Charles resisted all reform with the conviction of his divine right and absolute power. Anyone who opposed him was guilty of treason. His overween arrogance is on display here:
*Remember that Parliaments are altogether in my power in calling and sitting and dissolution. Therefore, if I find the fruits of them good or evil; I determine if they are to continue or not. If you persist in your errors you make them greater and irreconcilable. *
When Parliament refused to fund his ventures, Charles prorogued it and ruled without Parliament for 11 years from 1629 – 1640, called “the eleven years of tyranny.
When the Scots rioted against Charles’s high-handed attempt to impose the Book of Common Prayer on the Presbyterians of Scotland, his two disastrous, failed wars against it left the country bankrupt.
Forced to reconvene Parliament to raise money resulted in further conflict when it impeached two of Charles’ closet advisors, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles termed it “legalized murder”.
It was the Irish rebellion of 1641 against the migration of English protestants into Ulster, and Charles foiled attempt to arrest 5 ring leaders in Parliament that forced the two camps to weaponize their followers. Parliament’s militia outnumbered the King’s and he was forced to flee to York.
After several years of fighting the King was arrested and tried by Parliament for treason.
Geoffrey Robertson’s paper, Ending Impunity: How International Criminal Law Can Put Tyrants on Trial tells the story of how Cromwell’s lawyers produced the first trial of a Head of State – that of Charles I. It traces the memorable career of John Cooke, the radical barrister and visionary social reformer who had the courage and intellect to devise a way to end the impunity of sovereigns, published in the 2005 Cornell Law Journal (issue 3, Volume 38).
The charge of high treason against the King Charles I read:
That he did engage in war against the commons of England in a wicked design to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people and that he did traitorously and maliciously levy a war against Parliament. He was a tyrant and a traitor to the people”.
Was this the first time the public interest test was applied? There is a distinction between the public interest and what the public can be induced to be interested in, through dog whistling.
Charles, refused to concede, claiming divine right; arguing that all authority came from God through 1000 years of heredity. “It is not for the King to be subject to the freedom of his peoples”.
In his last speech to the court King Charles asserted:
“The freedom and liberty of the people consists in having government and laws by which it shares in goods and laws can be mostly owned. It is not to have a share in government – it is nothing to them. The subject and sovereign are clear and different things.
Charles claimed to be a martyr of the people. “Ignore and deplore”!
Later, in 1658, after Cromwell died, the restoration reinstated Charles II and the Royalists, who sought revenge. A new trial by jury in 1660, of the King’s killers was conducted under the premises that no one could argue that the King was justly condemned as” *a King can do no wrong and whoever sheds men’s blood will by men’s blood be shed”. *
While the court could not try every one complicit, they proceeded under the motto: “The few shall stand trial for the many”.
“It is a truth wearily demonstrated by history that acts of tyranny condoned against some will finally become a tyranny visited on all.”* ** ***Richard Flanagan**
As the Guardian has Geoffrey Robertson tell it, Cooke was the first to assert the accused’s right to silence, the first to advocate legal aid, even a national health service, and other legal and social reforms that would become this country’s democratic hallmarks. Tough on crime, this Roundhead was also tough on its causes, among which, he was the first to argue, is poverty.
Cooke’s acceptance of the brief to prosecute King Charles I, required as much courage as craft. Made solicitor-general for the Commonwealth, he was charged by parliament with devising a means by which neither divine right nor sovereign immunity could afford Charles impunity for oppressing his people. Cooke came up with a charge of high treason based on the King’s ‘tyranny’: depriving his subjects of their civil rights and mass murder on a scale that would now be called ethnic cleansing.
Cooke’s landmark prosecution led to more than the execution of a monarch with supposedly divine protection; it secured parliamentary supremacy and upheld the rule of law, affirming the independence of judges and opening the brief republican era in which were forged many of the democratic ideals still cherished by most of the modern world.
Any rational people, as Robertson points out, would take pride in ‘this critical moment for ideological progress’. Instead, it has been ‘the British way’ to ‘ignore or deplore’ Charles’s trial, rewriting history to date liberty from the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, ‘a milksop affair’, in truth, ‘neither glorious nor revolutionary, which merely retrieved from the fall of the Stuarts some of the gains made in 1649.'
One of Robertson’s central points, as he painstakingly corrects centuries of bigoted historical misrepresentations, is that Cooke’s prosecution of the King set the precedent for trials of such recent heads of state as Pinochet and Milosevic, ‘who attempt [just like Charles I] to plead sovereign immunity when arraigned for killing their own people’. Bush and Blair, as he suggests, might ‘more credibly’ have based their case against Saddam on ‘the right to punish a tyrant who denies democracy and civil and religious liberty to his people’.
When Charles’s son was restored to the throne, soon after the death of Cromwell, his father’s trial was seen as an act of treason and his legal execution as murder. Cooke’s prosecution for these crimes was rigged; Robertson paints it as a Stalinist show trial of grotesque proportions.
Henry Martens, reputed as rather than leading a regiment of horses preferred a regiment of whores, asserted that Parliament had the authority to try a King in the name of the commons through a Parliament reassembled by the good people of England. This did not wash.
Thus, in a new court in 1661, John Cooke was tried and found guilty of high treason for his part in the 1649 trial of King Charles I, even though as solicitor-general he was simply doing his job. John Cooke, with 8 more regicides, was hanged, drawn and quartered, his privates cut off on 16 October 1660 at Charing Cross.
John Cooke urged that having acted only as counsel, he was not answerable for the justice or injustice of the cause he had managed; that being placed in that station by a public command, it could not be said he acted maliciously or with a wicked intention…. — Edmund Ludlow.
Shortly before his death, Cooke wrote to his wife Mary:
We were not traitors, heretics, fanatics or murderers, but Christian and good commonwealth men, fixed, and constant to the principles of truth and mercy. We fought for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation, if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom.
*It’s tyranny we often seek – with rather more zeal than we like to imagine. “Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence.” ** ***Richard Flanagan
Hugh Peters, a passionate Puritan preacher, was sentenced to prison where he went insane and died twenty years later.
Charles II became a harmless King and things settled down until his death in 1685 when is son, James II, a devout Catholic, inherited the throne. Immediately religious, and constitutional conflicts rose again. Parliament deposed him and invited his daughter, Mary, a Protestant and her husband William of Orange to a joint throne on the condition of a several constitutional principles, including the right for regular Parliaments, free elections and freedom of speech in Parliament and a Bill of Rights in 1689. This became known as the Glorious Revolution, where principles that govern the cornerstone of the system of Westminster Constitutional Monarchy became established.
There can be no doubt that our western freedoms were hard won by the blood and sacrifice of many courageous martyrs over hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson warned, “*The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. *(unknown origin).
The French Revolution followed much the same trajectory. The initial overthrown of the establishment was followed by a reign of terror by desperate and disparate radicals under the mob rule of Robespierre, followed by the enlightened despostism of Napoleon, the *“turning back of the clock” *after 1815, followed by a lack lustre and uninspiring restoration of Louis-Phillipe leading to the 1848 Revolution, which spread across Europe like wild fire. The remnants of Royalism and Feudalism took a long time to stomp down.
Russia, from 1905, followed a similar pattern, with perhaps longer time spans.
Europe’s experiment with democracy followed a roller coaster for many years, with clear demarcations between East and West. Bismarck, with his mindset of the State as the life-force, demanding total, individual, submission, loyalty, allegiance and sacrifice, contrasted with the Western rationalist state which saw the state as the citizen’s creation, not its master. The social contract insisted sovereignty lay in the hands of the citizen’s with inalienable rights and that the state existed for the benefit of the individual.
Bismarck’s famous edict: “the great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and resolutions, but by iron and blood”, illustrates the contrast. Hitler and Mussolini, ability to tap into nationalistic sentiments of the state as a divine force to be worshipped, allowed them to deprive their citizens of individual freedoms, setting up supreme, authoritarian and totalitarian governments.
If the second world war was a contest between the will and resolve of free and subjected peoples, then it merely repeated the contest of the Crimean War, where some 90,000 British, French and Turkish soldiers, freely motivated by esprit des corps, defeated 300,000 Russian serfs on their own soil, who merely followed orders with no individual consent, purpose or motivation.