On 30 January 1649, Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, was led to the scaffold, which had been set up in front of the Palace of Whitehall in London. There he made his final speech to the assembled crowd, before being beheaded. It was the culmination of events that had begun almost a decade earlier with the English Civil War. For the very first time, a King of England had been tried and sentenced to death.

In 2015, the State Library received the most significant donation of rare books in its 160 year history. The John Emmerson collection, generously donated to the Library by his family, comprises around 5,500 works, mostly printed in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

John Emmerson has been described by eminent book historian Nicholas Barker as one of the “great book collectors of our time”[i]. Born in Melbourne, and schooled at Geelong Grammar, he went on to study nuclear physics at Oxford in the late 1960s, before turning to the law, a profession he practised for the rest of his life.

Half length portrait of a John Emmerson in a suit and tie

John McLaren Emmerson QC (1938–2014)

Between 1968 and his death in August 2014, John assembled one of the great private libraries of early English books in the world. One of the great strengths of his collection is material relating to the reign of Charles I and the English Civil War.

John was first introduced to book collecting during his Oxford days by his friend Bent Juel-Jenson. Having been shown a volume of contemporary news sheets describing the trial and execution of King Charles I, John later recalled: “The book seemed to take me straight to the heart of the seventeenth century. I had never seen anything that gave such a vivid sense of the past”[ii].

Inside page of a book featuring Charles I image

Portrait of King Charles I from Mercurius civicus: Londons Intelligencer London, Thursday May 30 – Thursday June 6, 1644

John dated his time as a book collector to 23 October 1968, when he purchased a small volume containing several tracts, including A Perfect Narrative of the Whole Proceedings of the High Court of Justice in the Tryal of the King and the pamphlet King Charls his Speech made upon the Scaffold at Whitehall-Gate immediately before his Execution. Both pamphlets were printed in January 1649, and described in detail these momentous events at the time that they occurred.

Detail of a book with text

A Perfect Narrative of the Whole Proceedings of the High Court of Justice in the Tryal of the King …. London, January 23, 1648 [ie. 1649]

The trial of King Charles began on 20 January 1649, at Westminster Hall. A king of England had never before been placed on trial, and a special High Court of Justice had been established for the purpose of the trial.

At the outset of the trial, Charles refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court; even going so far as to refuse to remove his hat, a sign of disrespect. Of the 135 Commissioners nominated to sit in judgement, less than 70 were present – others stayed away, refusing to sit in judgement of a King.

Image of an illustration of Charles I on trial

A True Copy of the Journal of the High Court of Justice for the Tryal of K. Charles I London, 1684

Charles was tried for treason against England. The charge held him “guilty of all the Treasons, Murthers, Rapines, Burnings, Spoiles, Desolations, Damage and Mischief to this Nation, acted or committed in the said Wars, or occasioned thereby”

Charles’ defence was a simple one. Given his right to rule had been given to him by God, then what mortal had the right to try him?

For the first three days of the trial, Charles refused to plead, stating over and again: “I would know by what power I am called hither… by what Lawful Authority…?”

At one point in the trial, the silver tip of the King’s cane came off and rolled to the floor. The earliest accounts record: “That as the Charge was reading against the King, the head of his staff fell off, which he wondered at, and seeing none to take it up, he stoops for it himself”. Later commentators have suggested that this incident marked a turning point in Charles’ fortunes. A King of England, after all, had never before been required to pick anything up – that’s what subjects were for.


Detail from A Perfect Narrative of the Whole Proceedings of the High Court of Justice in the Tryal of the King …. London, January 23, 1648 [ie. 1649]

At the end of the five day trial, Charles was declared guilty, and on 27 January 1649, he was present in the courtroom when the sentence of death was read out: “this Court doth adjudge, Tthat he the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murtherer and a publike Enemy, shall be put to death, by the severing of his Head from his Body.”

It was at this moment that Charles demanded to speak; however, the Lord President, John Bradshaw, refused to allow him to speak after the sentence had been read out:

King: Will you heare me a word Sir

Lord President: Sir, you are not to be heard after the sentence

King: No Sir

Lord President: No Sir, by your favour Sir. Guard, with-draw your Prisoner

King: I may speake after the sentence.

By your favour Sir, I may speak after the sentence ever.

By your favour (hold) the sentence Sir…

I say Sir I do…

I am not suffered for to speak, expect what Justice other people will have.

His death warrant was signed by 59 of the Commissioners who stood in judgement of Charles, with Oliver Cromwell’s signature appearing third from the top.

Death warrant

Charles I death warrant, showing Oliver Cromwell’s signature (facsimile)

Image of a document with signatures and seals

Detail from Charles I death warrant, showing Oliver Cromwell’s signature (facsimile)

Just three days later, on 30 January 1649, Charles was led to the scaffold, where he made his final speech, before being beheaded. It was there that he uttered his famous words: “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.”

The earliest printed accounts of the execution record that:

And after a very little pause, the King stretching forth his hands, the Executioner at one blow, severed his head from his body.

That when the Kings head was cut off the Executioner held it up, and shewed it to the Spectators.

And his body was put in a Coffin, covered with black Velvet, for that purpose.

In March the same year, Parliament met to pass an act to abolish the office of Kingship in England and Ireland. Henceforth, England was ruled by Parliament, until the Restoration in 1660, and the reign of Charles II.


An Act for abolishing the Kingly Office in England, Ireland and the Dominions London, 19 March 1648 [ie. 1649]

Toward the end of his life, John Emmerson reflected back upon his earliest days as a book collector: “Looking back to that time, I think that what impressed me most was that [these] books were not merely about the events that they describe, nor even that they were contemporary reports of those events but rather that their production and distribution were, in a sense, part of those events. One was seeing and handling part of the seventeenth century”[iii].

Image of John Emmerson's book label

John Emmerson’s book label

As well as the donation of his books, John Emmerson left a significant financial bequest to the Library. These funds will enable us to continue to develop his collection; and already, in the past year, we have acquired, via auctions in London and New York, over 50 rare pamphlets relating to the English Civil War. This bequest allows us to build on John’s extraordinary legacy, and ensure that others can experience first-hand something of the wonder John himself felt when he first encountered these rare 17th century accounts.


[i] Nicholas Barker, ‘John Emmerson’ in The Book Collector Volume 63, no. 4, Winter 2014

[ii] John Emmerson, ‘The early education of a book collector’ in The Book Collector Volume 63, no. 3, Autumn 2014

[iii] ibid

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