‘Are you certain this is what you want?’ I asked as I draped a protective arm around her. Our breath was visible on the air. Elizabeth drew her cloak around her, resting her head against my shoulder.
‘I have to see if it’s true,’ she said, giving me a sly wink.
‘That they’re really going to do it.’ She pointed to a stage set for an execution. The officials were dressed differently, looking more like plague doctors with masks that covered their faces. Perhaps they were ashamed. I slid my hand down her face. She took my wrist and kissed me on the fingers.
‘I just want you to be safe,’ I said. Close to the Banqueting House, crowds gathered, a large group of Parliamentarian soldiers forming a protective ribbon round the scaffold.
‘I appreciate that but there’s no need to be so protective.’ She squeezed my hand tenderly. I lifted her chin with my finger and looked into her eyes. Any man could lose himself in her beauty but only I could love her. ‘I can look after myself.’
‘Stephen...’ She hooked her arm in mine and pressed me close. People of all ages squeezed into the space, some of them boys from St Paul’s School. Whether or not the school was closed, I hadn’t heard but for the sake of the boys, I hoped it was. The masters would have had the boys caned. The chatter of groups of family or friends rose like a swarm of angry bees, making it impossible to hear. From all sides, people pushed to get the best view, almost crushing us. We stood and waited in the bitter January air, hoping we would not have long to wait. The voices hushed as a man in a black mask emerged to a slow drum beat.
After what felt like a long time standing, a prisoner took the stage, flanked by Roundheads. He seemed small and vulnerable yet did not appear to shiver in spite of the cold. His shirt hung loose over his breeches and his hair was tucked inside a nightcap. He was led out from the palace but the soldiers below the scaffold made it harder to see. His Majesty turned to another man and pointed to the axe and block in the middle of the scaffold. From what I could see, the block appeared to be the right height for a child but not a grown man.
He turned to his guard and indicated the crowd. The soldiers who packed the areas around King Street and Charing Cross listened intently as the King spoke.
‘Unjust sentence and he’s an innocent man,’ one soldier taunted. ‘And he loves his people and wants their liberty.’ The soldier laughed as he waited for the next remark from King Charles. I squeezed Elizabeth’s hand as the soldier listened for the King’s next words. ‘He goes from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.’
I assumed he failed to forgive his executioners what they were about to do. Elizabeth gasped, her hand covering her mouth. I cuddled her as she bit her nails. Christ’s blood, they were going to do it. He laid his slender neck on the block and stretched his arms towards the crowd.
The final blow was delivered. Elizabeth clung to me like a scared child as the King’s head was displayed like a trophy. The crowd was stunned into silence. No cheers but some people held out handkerchiefs. There was no one to touch for the King’s Evil.
As the crowd dispersed, Elizabeth’s face seemed paler than it was when we left the house. Her hand trembled, so I held her tight. As we walked home, shocked that we had just killed our own King, I stopped at Charing Cross and stroked her face.
‘Are you all right?’ I asked as I placed my hand under her chin. For the first time since I married her, she looked scared. This was not the Elizabeth I knew.
‘Yes, Stephen,’ she replied, taking my hand and squeezing it. ‘I’m glad we made the effort, even though it was hard to hear what His Majesty said.’
‘There’s something else.’
‘You know me too well.’ She pressed me close and kissed me with a passion I had not experienced since our wedding night. ‘I haven’t had my terms for the last couple of months.’
‘I’m with child.’ My mood lifted and I gathered her in my arms, my heart light with happiness.