A beheading executed with dignity

By Graham Stewart (THE TIMES, 06/01/07):

There is no decorous way to execute a fallen head of state. However, the failure to prevent the circulation of film footage of Saddam Hussein being taunted as he contemplated the noose has probably aided his pretensions to Sunni martyrdom.

It is unfortunate that some of the more successful dispatches of deposed rulers — from King Edward II to Benito Mussolini and Nicolae Ceausescu — were squalid affairs, carried out with minimal attention to due process of law. In contrast, going through the motions of formally trying Charles I and Louis XVI prior to public execution succeeded only in highlighting their dignity rather than demonstrating their guilt.

Yet, while Edward II’s death sentence was carried out behind closed doors — leading to lurid stories about how he came a cropper — prints were soon published of the demise of Charles and Louis. The abused corpses of Mussolini and Ceausescu were photographed and widely publicised.

At least the Roundheads made some attempt to strike a balance between according their enemy dignity at his execution while still making it a public event. Security was tight and the crowd that gathered in Whitehall on January 30, 1649, was not permitted to get within spitting distance.

Among the 15 witnesses surrounding Charles I on the scaffold were his choice of chaplain, Bishop Juxon, the executioner and his assistant (both disguised by masks, false hair and beards), a few soldiers, including John Harris, the Leveller journalist and two or three shorthand writers. Although the crowd was too far back to hear him, a reasonably full account was made of His Majesty’s speech. He was not cut short from protesting his innocence, his Anglican faith, his forgiveness of “the chief causers of my death” and his assurance that “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown”. Nobody barracked him.

A scaffold rail draped in black material prevented the crowd gathered below seeing the moment of death. However, according to one eyewitness, when Charles’s severed head was held aloft as proof that he had not cheated fate, the popular response was “such a groan as I have never heard before, and I desire may never hear again”.

Parliament was keen to avoid his grave becoming a place of pilgrimage. But he was spared the unceremonious dumping meted out to many executed rulers. St George’s Chapel, within the high walls of Windsor Castle, fitted the bill perfectly as somewhere fitting but relatively out of reach. So he ended up, embalmed and with his head stitched back on, in an unmarked vault next to Henry VIII.

The only comfort that those fearing a Baath Party restoration can take over recent events is that Saddam is now interred alongside his inglorious sons.