Charles I and The Execution Window

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Whitehall: a packed Saturday afternoon.

I emerged from the Westminster tube station into the hubbub of this favourite tourist trap and turned my back on Parliament.. The Parliamentarians had a lot to answer for. And I strolled up this busiest of tourist highways, straight past the place I had come to see without even noticing it.

Charles did not seem offended. He watched me amble past, and get distracted by the baubles and trinkets in Trafalgar Square. One Nelson’s Column later I concluded that I must have missed my mark, and turned round and pottered back, past the horseguards sitting patiently on parade amongst the throng.

Oh, there it was.

The Banqueting House in Whitehall. And there was a sign on the door. Closing at 12 today, it said. I checked my watch. 12:09.

I was not going away without having seen The Banqueting House, and that was final. I had come a long way today. Time for some blagging.

I made theatrical eye contact with the security man standing behind the glass and began mouthing my message . I gesticulated wildly at my watch and mimed joke-penitent. “Can I come in? It’s only nine minutes after time…”

His level gaze did not falter when faced by this eccentric vision of Middle England playing Marcel Marceau at the door.

“Are you a member?” he asked silently.

I scrabbled for my purse and waved my card. He gestured for me to open the door.

“You can go straight upstairs now,” he intoned with Jeevsian fix-itness.

I gasped my gratitude and clattered up the stairs, which are Victorian, for all you temporal snobs out there, and were nowhere to be seen when Charles I walked to his death.

And everywhere – in every conceivable place – there were flowers. Men were passing me on the stairs with shoulders full of daffodils, whole window boxes of Spring. Today there was a sumptuous wedding planned, and Festive was on the menu.

The hall itself is a masterpiece, with a Rubens ceiling to gawp at for hours and decor which manages to be both Royal and tasteful, a tricky balance not always achieved by the dynasties which have ruled England.

And the undercroft is a series of ancient graceful cellars which stretches beyond this building: Phil has toured some of the others in Whitehall, and I am left wondering if they stretch all the way up the street?

But I was not after the hall, or the cellars. No: I wanted the stairs, because before they were there, something momentous happened in front of hordes, tens of thousands, of onlookers, standing just outside. Samuel Pepys was there; he had skipped school to watch.

For this is where Charles I walked out of a window and onto a platform where he was beheaded.

The nice lady in the shop tells me he walked from his private chambers, through the great hall, to a place about where the stairs were, where a platform was rigged outside the window. And wearing lots of thermals to stop him shivering and seeming weak, and with incredible dignity, he allowed his head to be put on a chopping block and greeted eternity.

His likeness surveys Whitehall gravely from his perch, there where it happened. A memory of a grim business which has long since ceased to leave a nasty taste in the mouth and instead has been crystallised as history and folklore.

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29 thoughts on “Charles I and The Execution Window

  1. Wonderful reminder of London for someone, like myself, who has be absent for a long time. I still feel happier seeing it in pictures. Speaking of pictures – that Rubens ceiling is breathtaking. Your posts have saved me so much foot slogging:)

    1. ..and a stiff neck, Roger, staring upwards. The ceiling is very beautiful. I should have appreciated it for longer but elation at cheating the closing time had gone to mt head a little. I spent most of my time standing on the stairs, gazing fixedly at a bit of wall where the window used to be.

  2. You go, girl ~ love that you mimed your way past security to secure access.

    Pretty hall for a wedding especially with all those gorgeous flowers about. Did you manage to sample the menu? My miming that you were the event planner? 😉

  3. Kate, I never knew one could tour Whitehall. I noticed it on my first visit and always walk past. That ceiling alone is worth a look inside. I am glad the guard let you in. An extra birthday present, perhaps.

  4. Those were such cruel times, Kate, I can’t bear to think of how someone about to be hanged or beheaded must have felt. And the onlookers smiling and cheering as if at the theatre. Ugh!

    1. If it’s any consolation – which it was not to Charles – the crowd were a mixed bunch, full of Charles’s sympathisers. When his head fell it is said a great groan went up from the crowd.

  5. Another place to add to my list of things I want to see and do when I next visit. (As if.) After seeing so many references to Whitehall in literature, it’s a treat to get this close.

  6. Wow, that must have hurt, but at least it was quick. Kate, I would have paid to not see his head chopped off.

    I particularly appreciated this observation: “… decor which manages to be both Royal and tasteful, a tricky balance not always achieved by the dynasties which have ruled England.”

  7. What a beautiful building, just oozing history! I felt shivers reading about the bravery of Charles’ beheading. And I’m enjoying your engagement with Pepys as he seems to help guide your field trips. And another good example of membership having its privileges…so glad you didn’t miss out!

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