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Regicide is the purposeful killing of a monarch or sovereign of a polity and is often associated with the usurpation of power. A regicide can also be the person responsible for the killing. The word comes from the Latin roots of regis and cida (cidium), meaning "of monarch" and "killer" respectively.


In the British tradition, it refers to the judicial execution of a king after a trial, reflecting the historical precedent of the trial and execution of Charles I of England. The concept of regicide has also been explored in media and the arts through pieces like Macbeth (Macbeth's killing of King Duncan) and The Lion King .


In Western Christianity, regicide was far more common prior to 1200/1300. [1] Sverre Bagge counts 20 cases of regicide between 1200 and 1800, which means that 6% of monarchs were killed by their subjects. [1] He counts 94 cases of regicide between 600 and 1200, which means that 21.8% of monarchs were killed by their subjects. [1] He argues that the most likely reasons for the decline in regicide is that clear rules of succession were established, which made it hard to remove rightful heirs to the throne, and only made it so that the nearest heir (and their backers) had a motive to kill the monarch. [1]

There is evidence that regicide and the ability of states to keep or even expand their territories are negative correlated: Firstly, elite violence hindered the development of territorial state capacity, and the killing of rulers also directly resulted in a more likely loss of territory. And secondly, state capacity, reflected by territorial state capacity, could be hypothesized to have had a restraining effect on interpersonal violence. This would be consistent with Pinker’s (2011) [2] view that modern state capacity leads to a reduction in violence, both interpersonal and in terms of military conflict. [3]


Before the Tudor period, English kings had been murdered while imprisoned (for example Edward II and Edward V) or killed in battle by their subjects (for example Richard III), but none of these deaths are usually referred to as regicide.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

The word regicide seems to have come into popular use among continental Catholics when Pope Sixtus V renewed the papal bull of excommunication against the "crowned regicide" Queen Elizabeth I, [4] for—among other things—executing Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587, although she had abdicated the Scottish crown some 20 years earlier. [5] Elizabeth had originally been excommunicated by Pope Pius V, in Regnans in Excelsis , for converting England to Protestantism after the reign of Mary I of England.

Execution of Charles I of England

After the First English Civil War, King Charles I was a prisoner of the Parliamentarians. They tried to negotiate a compromise with him, but he stuck steadfastly to his view that he was King by divine right and attempted in secret to raise an army to fight against them. It became obvious to the leaders of the Parliamentarians that they could not negotiate a settlement with him and they could not trust him to refrain from raising an army against them; they reluctantly came to the conclusion that he would have to be put to death. On 13 December 1648, the House of Commons broke off negotiations with the King. Two days later, the Council of Officers of the New Model Army voted that the King be moved from the Isle of Wight, where he was prisoner, to Windsor "in order to the bringing of him speedily to justice". [6] Then in the middle of December, the King was moved from Windsor to St James's Palace, Westminster. The House of Commons of the Rump Parliament passed a Bill setting up a High Court of Justice in order to try Charles I for high treason 'in the name of the people of England.' From a Royalist and post-restoration perspective, this Bill was not lawful, as the House of Lords refused to pass it and it predictably failed to receive the Royal Assent. However, the Parliamentary leaders and the Army pressed on with the trial anyway.

At his trial in the High Court of Justice on Saturday 20 January 1649 in Westminster Hall, Charles asked "I would know by what power I am called hither. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful". [7] In view of the historic issues involved, both sides based themselves on surprisingly technical legal grounds. Charles did not dispute that Parliament as a whole did have some judicial powers, but he maintained that the House of Commons on its own could not try anybody, and so he refused to plead. At that time under English law, if a prisoner refused to plead, he would be treated identically to one who had pleaded guilty. This has since changed; a refusal to plead is now interpreted as a not-guilty plea. [8]

Charles was found guilty on Saturday 27 January 1649, and his death warrant was signed by fifty-nine commissioners. To show their agreement with the sentence of death, all of the Commissioners who were present rose to their feet.

A contemporary print depicting Charles I's beheading The Execution of Charles I of England.jpg
A contemporary print depicting Charles I's beheading

On the day of his execution, 30 January 1649, Charles dressed in two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold, lest it be said that he was shivering from fear. His execution was delayed by several hours so that the House of Commons could pass an emergency bill to make it an offence to proclaim a new King, and to declare the representatives of the people, the House of Commons, as the source of all just power. Charles was then escorted through a window of the Banqueting House in the Palace of Whitehall to an outdoor scaffold where he would be beheaded. [9] He forgave those who had passed sentence on him and gave instructions to his enemies that they should learn to "know their duty to God, the King – that is, my successors – and the people". [10] He then gave a brief speech outlining his unchanged views of the relationship between the monarchy and the monarch's subjects, ending with the words "I am the martyr of the people". [11] His head was severed from his body with one blow.

One week later, the Rump, sitting in the House of Commons, passed a bill abolishing the monarchy. Ardent Royalists refused to accept it on the basis that there could never be a vacancy of the Crown. Others refused because, as the bill had not passed the House of Lords and did not have Royal Assent, it could not become an Act of Parliament.

The Declaration of Breda eleven years later paved the way for the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. At the time of the restoration, thirty-one of the fifty-nine Commissioners who had signed the death warrant were living. Parliament, with the assent of the new king, Charles II, enacted the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, giving a general pardon to those who had committed crimes during the civil war and interregnum, but the regicides were among those excluded from it. A number fled. Some, such as Daniel Blagrave, fled to continental Europe, while others like John Dixwell, Edward Whalley, and William Goffe fled to New Haven, Connecticut. Those regicides who could be found and arrested were put on trial. Six were found guilty and suffered the fate of being hanged, drawn and quartered: Thomas Harrison, John Jones, Adrian Scrope, John Carew, Thomas Scot, and Gregory Clement. The captain of the guard at the trial, Daniel Axtell, who encouraged his men to barrack the King when he tried to speak in his own defence, an influential preacher, Hugh Peters, and the leading prosecutor at the trial, John Cook, were executed in a similar manner. Colonel Francis Hacker, who signed the order to the executioner of the king and commanded the guard around the scaffold and at the trial, was hanged. Concern amongst the royal ministers over the negative impact on popular sentiment of these public tortures and executions led to jail sentences being substituted for the remaining regicides. [12]

Some regicides, such as Richard Ingoldsby and Philip Nye, were conditionally pardoned, while a further nineteen served life imprisonment. The bodies of the regicides Cromwell, Bradshaw, and Ireton, which had been buried in Westminster Abbey, were disinterred and hanged, drawn and quartered in posthumous executions. In 1662, three more regicides, John Okey, John Barkstead and Miles Corbet, were also hanged, drawn and quartered. The officers of the court that tried Charles I, those who prosecuted him, and those who signed his death warrant, have been known ever since the restoration as regicides.

The Parliamentary Archives in the Palace of Westminster, London, holds the original death warrant for Charles I.


Ravaillac murdering Henry IV, rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris, 1610 Death-of-Henry4.jpg
Ravaillac murdering Henry IV, rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris, 1610

Regicide has particular resonance within the concept of the divine right of kings, whereby monarchs were presumed by decision of God to have a divinely anointed authority to rule. As such, an attack on a king by one of his own subjects was taken to amount to a direct challenge to the monarch, to his divine right to rule, and thus to God's will.

The biblical David refused to harm King Saul, because he was the Lord's anointed, even though Saul was seeking his life; and when Saul eventually was killed in battle and a person reported to David that he helped kill Saul, David put the man to death, even though Saul had been his enemy, because he had raised his hands against the Lord's anointed. Christian concepts of the inviolability of the person of the monarch have great influence from this story. Diarmait mac Cerbaill, King of Tara (mentioned above), was killed by Áed Dub mac Suibni in 565. According to Adomnan of Iona's Life of St Columba, Áed Dub mac Suibni received God's punishment for this crime by being impaled by a treacherous spear many years later and then falling from his ship into a lake and drowning. [13]

Even after the disappearance of the divine right of kings and the appearance of constitutional monarchies, the term continued and continues to be used to describe the murder of a king.

In France, the judicial penalty for regicides (i.e. those who had murdered, or attempted to murder, the king) was especially hard, even in regard to the harsh judicial practices of pre-revolutionary France. As with many criminals, the regicide was tortured so as to make him tell the names of his accomplices. However, the method of execution itself was a form of torture. Here is a description of the death of Robert-François Damiens, who attempted to kill Louis XV:

He was first tortured with red-hot pincers; his hand, holding the knife used in the attempted murder, was burnt using sulphur; molten wax, lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. Horses were then harnessed to his arms and legs for his dismemberment. Damiens' joints would not break; after some hours, representatives of the Parlement ordered the executioner and his aides to cut Damiens' joints. Damiens was then dismembered, to the applause of the crowd. His trunk, apparently still living, was then burnt at the stake.

In Discipline and Punish , the French philosopher Michel Foucault cites this case of Damiens the Regicide as an example of disproportionate punishment in the era preceding the "Age of Reason". The classical school of criminology asserts that the punishment "should fit the crime", and should thus be proportionate and not extreme. This approach was spoofed by Gilbert and Sullivan, when The Mikado sang, "My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime". [14]

In common with earlier executions for regicides:

In both the François Ravaillac and the Damiens cases, court papers refer to the offenders as a patricide, rather than as regicide, which lets one deduce that, through divine right, the king was also regarded as "Father of the country".

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Bagge, Sverre (2019). "The Decline of Regicide and the Rise of European Monarchy from the Carolingians to the Early Modern Period". Frühmittelalterliche Studien (in German). 53 (1): 151–189. doi:10.1515/fmst-2019-005. ISSN   1613-0812. S2CID   203606658.
  2. Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. Penguin UK.
  3. Baten, Joerg; Keywood, Thomas; Wamser, Georg. "Territorial State Capacity and Elite Violence from the 6th to the 19th century". European Journal of Political Economy.
  4. Da Magliano 1867 , p.  631
  5. Emma Goodey (3 February 2016). "Mary, Queen of Scots (r. 1542–1567)". The Royal Family. Retrieved 25 August 2020.
  6. Kirby 1999 , p. 8 footnote 9, cites: Wedgewood 1964 , p. 44
  7. Kirby 1999 , pp. 10, 13 footnotes 12 and 17. "The record of the Trial also appears in Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials, Vol IV, covering 1640–1649 published in London in 1809. p. 995".
  8. Kirby 1999, p. 14.
  9. Pestana, Carla Gardina (2004). The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640–1661. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press. p. 88.
  10. Kirby 1999 , p. 21 § "After the trial" ¶ 4
  11. Kirby 1999 , p. 21 footnotes 12 and 35. "The record of the Trial also appears in Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials, Vol IV, covering 1640–1649 published in London in 1809. p. 1132."
  12. page 19 "History Today", February 2014
  13. Adomnan of Iona. Life of St Columba. Penguin books, 1995
  14. "The Mikado by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan". Archived from the original on 2 October 2017. Retrieved 29 April 2018.

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Further reading