363 years ago today, on a cold wintry morning, Parliament gathered in London to kill its King. A lengthy Civil War had divided the country, until on 30th January 1649 the defeated Charles I was led to his place of execution in Whitehall.
Though some were delighted, because it meant they could inflict a decade of joyless puritanism on the British people, others held a torch for the monarchy and awaited its restoration. King Charles II eventually swept back into power on a tide of national rejoicing, elevating his father to the position of Charles the Martyr. His statue still stands in Trafalgar Square, on a traffic island where once stood the original Charing Cross, and from which point all distances from London are officially measured. And it's here, every year on the last Sunday in January, that a wreath-laying ceremony kicks off a most unusual act of royal remembrance.
The English Civil War Society engage in a number of reenactments and displays annually, of which The King's Army Parade is their largest central London event. Only the Royalist divisions turn up - all the Parliamentarians either stay at home or dress in hi-vis tabards and act as stewards. Soldiers gather at the foot of The Mall in their 17th century finest, a few on horseback, most on foot. They sport a variety of costumes in matching coloured fabrics, mostly tunic and boots, plus headgear that ranges from broad-brimmed hats to metal helmets. Some carry pikes which they wield in formation like a display team [photo], others wave muskets or beat drums, but most are more ordinary footsoldiers or historical hangers-on. It has to be said that the majority of the King's Army are over the age any recruitment officer would normally accept, and several have waistlines that could never tackle an assault course. But the assembled gathering makes a marvellous historic spectacle, both for those who've come to spectate deliberately and bemused tourists who just happened to be passing.
At the designated signal they set off from St James's Palace, eight horsemen at the front, and each individual division following behind. They move at stately pace, which means it's quite easy to watch the entire parade walk by, walk briskly up to the front and then watch everyone pass by again. The soldiers are taking this very seriously, staring forward, obeying their commander's orders, while some of the floppy-hatted non-combatants chat occasionally or smile at a friend in the crowd. Before Admiralty Arch everyone turns right, ignoring the traffic lights, and then they file onto Horseguards Parade. The gathering used to be allowed through onto Whitehall, to stand outside the Banqueting Hall where Charles's execution took place. No longer, because that would disturb London's traffic, so instead everyone lines up out of the way on the gravel of Horseguards. Tourists scatter, then reassemble, intrigued to see what happens next. [photo]
It's not a historical reenactment, this, so no regal figure with a wispy beard gets sliced. Instead the King's Army assemble for a brief ceremony of remembrance, standing in a large rectangle around a commemorative wreath. It begins when Big Ben strikes twelve with a mournful pipe and drum, then the society's chaplain steps up and booms at the crowd. He introduces what's going on, then reads from a 17th century book of Common Prayer. He's mostly loud enough to hear, unlike some of those who step up afterwards to read citations and present long-service medals. They have to compete with the noise of tourists wandering across the gravel behind with pushchairs, or taking phonecalls, which isn't something that army generals used to have to worry about. But the assembled army hears and cheers on cue - "Huzzah! Huzzah!" - and the ceremony swiftly draws to a close. [photo]
Proceedings are rounded off with a final "God Save The King!", which is ironic really, because poor Charles was the the only British King that God completely abandoned. And then everyone troops off back to The Mall, horsemen first, footsoldiers behind, for a last salute of the King's Standard. Everyone that is except for three officers with one final task across the road. They pick up the commemorative wreath, which all departing participants have marched past, and carry it slowly through Horseguards' central low arch. There's heavy traffic to negotiate across Whitehall, and then (with a short speech) they hang the wreath from the metal railings outside the Banqueting House. The precise anniversary of Charles's execution will go unmarked this morning, but this leafy ring will bear witness to that frosty day many winters past when Parliament consented to bloody regicide.