On January 30, 1649, England’s Charles I arose early and dressed for the chilly weather. He asked for a thick shirt, one that would stop him from shivering—and appearing frightened—as he faced the public in his final moments.
The king, convicted of treason for purportedly placing his personal interests above the good of the country, was taken to a scaffold erected in front of the Banqueting House in London. His last words—“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world”—were swallowed by the frigid air. The executioner’s axe swung. The huge crowd, though it had assembled precisely for this occasion, reeled.
“There was such a groan by the thousands then present as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again,” one witness observed.
This fall, 371 years after Charles lost his head, a remarkable relic from his final hours is set to go on view at the Museum of London. As part of an exhibition exploring the history of public executions in England’s capital, the museum will display a pale blue silk vest believed to have been worn by the king as he met his grisly end.
“This undergarment would have been a good thing to wear in January because it is knitted silk, so it would have been a warm garment,” curator Meriel Jeater tells Nicola Davis of the Guardian.
After his decapitation, Charles’ body was undressed and his clothing distributed to people who had attended the execution. The vest was presented to the Museum of London in 1925 with an authentication note explaining that the item had been given to the physician who attended the disgraced king. Today, the vest still bears visible stains on its front.
“We have had tests done on them by forensics labs to try and work out if they are blood, but they were inconclusive,” Jeater tells the Guardian.
Though scientists have struggled to precisely identify the centuries-old marks, the fact that they fluoresce under UV lights suggests they were left by body fluids like vomit or sweat.
The vest is “one of the rarest and most intriguing objects” in the museum’s collection, says the institution in a statement. Because it is so old, so rare and so important, the garment is typically kept under restricted access, but come October, it will form the centerpiece of the upcoming exhibition, aptly titled “Executions.”
The show chronicles London’s long and gruesome history of punitive killings, which were a core part of the city’s criminal justice system until 1868, when a Fenian named Michael Barrett became the last person to be publicly executed in England.
Public executions served as both a stark reminder of the power of the law and as a spectacle.
“[Witnesses] could be quite supportive to somebody who was being executed and throw flowers to them and shout ‘good luck’ and things like that,” Jeater explains to the Guardian. “Or if it was a particular[ly] horrible crime that had been committed, they could totally vilify the person who was being hanged, and throw things, and swear and shout at them and boo and hiss.”
Other items—a pair of gloves, a sash, a handkerchief and fragments of a cloak—believed to have been worn by Charles I on the day he died will also feature in the new exhibition. The execution of the much-maligned king was the culmination of a defining chapter in English history; Charles’ disastrous relationship with Parliament led to the first English Civil War and the temporary abolition of the monarchy. Additional items on view testify to the deaths of similarly high-profile figures, like Jacobite leader James Radcliffe, Earl of Derwentwater; a bedsheet he used while awaiting execution at the Tower of London is among the artifacts slated to go on display.
But many others whose names have been lost to history also lost their lives on the scaffold.
“[T]housands of ordinary Londoners were sentenced to death for many types of crime, from the most serious offences to those that we would consider minor today,” notes Jeater in a statement.
“Executions” seeks to highlight some of their stories—and to scrutinize the role of spectators who gathered at infamous spots like Tyburn Tree to watch their fellow Londoners die.
“The exhibition covers nearly 700 years, a time when public executions were more frequent in London than any other town, attracting huge crowds several times a year at locations across the capital,” says Jeater. “Public executions became embedded in the landscape and culture of London, influencing people’s everyday lives.”
“Executions” opens at the Museum of London on October 16.