The execution of Charles I took place on a cold January morning in 1649. It is generally accepted that the identity of the executioners of Charles I will never be known. The story goes that the regular executioner, Richard Brandon, wanted nothing to do with the execution of a man who was king by divine right and that officials had to delay the execution while they roamed London for someone to do it. This idea of no involvement in the actual execution would also fit in with the fact that many of those appointed to judge Charles I never turned up for the trial. The lack of judges was such that the chief judge, John Bradshaw, was not the man initially appointed to this position – in fact, he was absent when he was finally appointed by Parliament.
Various theories have been put forward in terms of naming the man who executed Charles I. One is that the executioner was Richard Brandon. Instead of refusing to carry out the execution as history books would lead you to believe, it is thought that Brandon made it publicly known that he would refuse to behead Charles but, in fact, did so simply because it was his job.
However, Brandon’s name is not the only one put forward. In 1660, William Hulet was put on trial for carrying out the deed. One witness, Richard Gittens, claimed at the trial of Hulet that he was at the execution and recognised Hulet’s voice after Hulet had asked Charles to forgive him. However, for his defence a number of witnesses claimed that Richard Brandon had privately admitted on a number of occasions after January 1649 to beheading Charles. One of the defence witnesses, William Cox, claimed that he had heard Brandon at a later execution in the Palace Yard at Westminster, admit to one of those about to be executed, Lord Capel, that it was he who had beheaded Charles. According to Cox, he heard Brandon admit that he did it, as he was to be paid £30 for carrying out the execution – a considerable sum of money then to someone from the lower classes. Hulet was found not guilty at his trial and released.
The case against Brandon developed following his death in June 1649. ‘The Confession of a Hangman’ stated that Brandon had admitted that he did execute Charles for £30 paid in half-crowns and that he was paid less than 60 minutes after the execution. In this ‘confession’ Brandon also stated that he took a silk handkerchief off the corpse while it was being carried away. It also stated that the city sheriffs feared an outbreak of disorder when his coffin was carried to a church in Whitechapel with the gathered crowd shouting ‘hang him, the rogue’ and ‘bury him in a dunghill’. Clearly the local City population believed that Brandon had been the executioner – though a posthumous ‘confession’ and possible bragging does not mean that Brandon did actually execute Charles.
The executioner’s assistant is also unknown as, like the executioner, he wore a mask. However, there are some who believe that it was a Parliamentarian named George Joyce. He made his name by seizing Charles at Holdenby House and bringing him to Newmarket, almost certainly with Oliver Cromwell’s support and knowledge.
The principal evidence against Joyce came from an astrologer called William Lilly. Before a Parliamentary committee, Lilly described a dinner he attended. At the same dinner was Robert Spavin, Cromwell’s secretary. Lilly claimed that the sole discussion at the dinner was the execution of Charles – something that had occurred just over a week before this dinner. One of those at the dinner claimed that the executioner was “the Common Hangman” (a reference to Richard Brandon’s official title). However, Spavin made the claim that the executioner’s assistant was Lieutenant Colonel Joyce and that at the time no one knew his identity except Cromwell, Ireton and Spavin himself.
After this announcement, the arrest of Joyce was ordered. However, he and his family fled to the Netherlands before he could be arrested. This could indicate his guilt but it could also be that Joyce believed that he might be made a scapegoat regarding the execution and that he would be found guilty regardless and pay the price. Therefore he fled the land before he could be arrested. To some at the time this was indicative or his guilt but this cannot be confirmed, as the only source naming him was Spavin.