Keeping his head whilst all about are losing theirs…
Mel Stride reports on Bovey, Heathfield and a very uncivil war.
On 30th January 1649, on a sharp and chill morning, Charles I took the short walk from St James’s Palace to Whitehall, then being a vast complex which had stood as a royal residence since the time of Henry VIII. Charles wore two shirts so as to keep out the cold and to spare himself from shivering which he worried might be misconstrued as a shaking with fear. His destination was the Banqueting House which still stands as one of the last remaining parts of the original Whitehall Palace (the rest having been consumed by fire in 1698). This was to be his last walk - he was on his way to his own execution.
He’d stayed the night at St James’s rather than Whitehall so as to avoid being disturbed by the sound of the execution scaffold being erected outside the first floor windows of the Banqueting House. The crowd was vast yet stilled as Charles stepped out to face them. He stood at a little over 5 feet, diminutive yet proud and he was about to deliver what must surely be one of the greatest exit lines of all time. There are various accounts of his last utterance but my favourite version is that he signed off with a simple word. Raising his head high and casting out beyond the sky-turned throng as if to some far off and superior place he simply intoned the single word, “remember”. Shortly after, and at his sign, the axe fell and according to a contemporary diarist “there was such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again.”
In death Charles was to achieve a dignity which, during his lifetime, had largely eluded him. He had been the second eldest son of James I whose suspected homosexual tendencies (in sadly less enlightened times) and some dubious personal habits (including relieving himself into his britches whilst on horseback) had raised more than the odd eyebrow. Charles’s sexual inclinations and bladder control had been rather different to his father’s but he did pick up one of his traits. His virulent belief in the Divine Right of Kings. This was the idea that the King, as God’s representative on earth, is infallible. This rather stark notion had caused an ongoing tussle with Parliament with Charles himself famously bursting into the Commons chamber in order to arrest five of its members who had already fled, occasioning his dry remark “I see my birds have flown.”
The Civil War which followed Charles’ raising of the Royal Standard at Nottingham in 1642 was to end in personal disaster and a part of that war was to be played out here in the South West. Which modern local road interchange is named after an important war encampment?
The answer is Drumbridges on the A38 just outside Bovey which takes its name from the Headquarters set up by Lord Wentworth the Parliamentarian army commander who led Cromwell’s men at the battle of Heathfield. Wentworth’s HQ was known then as his ‘drum’.
The Heathfield battle resulted in a comprehensive rout of the Royalists and pretty much put an end to their resistance in the South West (the last defeat for Charles in Devon was at Torrington). Wander around Heathfield and you will recognise that most of the street names relate to the engagements and personalities of the Civil War. Local legend has it that shortly before the battle a group of Royalists were surrounded in a house in Bovey (now a B&B) by a detachment of Roundheads and managed to escape by throwing money out of the windows which caused the poorly paid Parliamentarians to take their eye off their prey.
Cromwell’s Republic which was to follow Charles’s death lasted a mere 11 years and on the return of Charles II in 1660 Cromwell’s body was dug up from its resting place in Westminster Abbey and spitefully hung in the manner of a common criminal at Tyburn. Cromwell’s head was then stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall until it blew off 20 odd years later in a storm. It was then presumed lost forever until it re-emerged in the 18th century. It was finally bequeathed to Cromwell’s old Cambridge college, Sydney Sussex in 1960 where it is buried in an unmarked and secret spot. Charles’s head found its resting place alongside his body in the vault at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Spare a thought for him as you sail down the A38 or at least “remember” as he himself once requested.