On 30th January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded in public outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. He had been found guilty of treason for attempting to ‘uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people.’
When I was taught about this, as a child in an English school, the period that followed was always described as The Interregnum – a gap between Kings – as if the return of the monarchy to England was inevitable. It was never described as the birth of The Commonwealth, nor was any time spent on analysing how that Commonwealth met its demise, largely at the hands of the nobility who had capitulated to it. Instead, I was taught myths about the brave escape of the young Prince Charles and told stories of his sojourn abroad while he waited for the inevitable restoration of the monarchy.
I see now that the most effective propaganda is the stuff we present to children as the truth. It’s absorbed unchallenged and even when it’s written off as boring, it shapes what we take for granted as adults, in this case, that England has always been a monarchy, except for a brief period when it wasn’t, and that blip was smoothed out when Charles II stepped back from the interpretation of the Divine Right of Kings that had been part of what cost his father his head.
I’m not an historian, but I know storytelling when I see it.
It’s easy to shrug and say, ‘It was more than 300 years ago. Who cares how the story is told? Move on.‘
Except that, in England, we teach children to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ execution for treason in 1605, forty-four years before the execution of Charles Stuart for the same crime. To this day, we burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes and teach our children to sing:
Remember, remember! The fifth of November, The Gunpowder treason and plot;
Although, these days, we tend not to get to the anarchic violence and threat at the end of the poem:
A stick and a stake For King James's sake! If you won't give me one, I'll take two, The better for me, And the worse for you. A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, A penn'orth of cheese to choke him, A pint of beer to wash it down, And a jolly good fire to burn him. Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
Nor do we dwell on the violent mobs of anti-Catholic Bonfire Boys that drew upon the Guy Fawkes ‘history’ to fuel their cause in Sussex and across the South in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
Instead, we reassure ourselves that England is a place where order is never long disrupted by the actions of the seditious against the powerful.
Except, perhaps, when a King who saw his absolute power as being granted by God found himself executed for treason by the people he tried to exercise that power over. If we spend too long thinking about that, who knows what wild ideas might be sown?
Nothing disturbs the English establishment more than English people asking questions about why things are as they are and how they could be changed.
One of the few pieces of history that made me wake up at school was a rhyme from the Great Revolt of 1381 where the peasants protesting against the poll tax being imposed by feudal Lords who also claimed to draw their authority from God asked:
'When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?'
Now that’s a rhyme worth teaching to our children.
So, today we don’t celebrate the birth of the English Commonwealth and the overthrow of a tyrannical King by the people he oppressed. We don’t focus on the thousands of lives lost in the Civil War the King fought and lost. We don’t put up plaques on National Trust properties to identify which noble families gained wealth and power by appearing to support the Commonwealth while working to bring back the son of the man they had allowed to be executed.
We do what the English do best, we ignore uncomfortable facts, avoid divisive analysis and move on to more important things like who will win the very British Bake Off to create the cake for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee.