‘The crowd were saying, “Kill him, kick him to death”’: what happened to the people who protested against King Charles?

Symon Hill was walking back from church on a sunny autumn Sunday when he realised his route was blocked; the roads around Carfax Tower in Oxford were closed off. It was 11 September, the day after Charles Windsor had been officially proclaimed King Charles III in London, and local events were being held nationwide. This ceremony, organised by the council, typified the pomp and pageantry. Hill is a quiet, thoughtful man of 46, but it doesn’t take much to rile him when it comes to the monarchy. He was looking forward to spending the afternoon relaxing with his housemates in their garden, and now he was stuck in a celebration he regarded as archaic and irrelevant.

Hill is a Christian, historian, pacifist, teacher, writer, activist and republican. At the start of the ceremony, which focused on the queen’s death, he was silent: “I wouldn’t interrupt somebody’s grief.” But when “they declared Charles rightful liege lord, and acknowledged our obedience to him as our only king”, Hill had heard enough. “I find this language very demeaning, and I called out ‘Who elected him?’” To his astonishment, he found himself surrounded by security, arrested and eventually charged under the Public Order Act 1986.

Hill’s arrest made the newspapers. Not because his had been an extreme or dramatic protest, but because it had been so mild. How could it have resulted in a criminal charge? On the same day, a 22-year-old woman who allegedly held a placard reading “Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy” was arrested in Edinburgh for breach of the peace. More overt forms of protest also made headlines. One young man chucked five eggs at the new king and, despite his failure to hit his target, he was also charged with a public order offence.

Perhaps the most alarming story to emerge was that of a barrister threatened with arrest after holding up a blank piece of paper outside parliament. It felt like something we might read about in China or Russia. (Indeed, a couple of months later Chinese protesters used blank pieces of paper to protest against the country’s zero-tolerance Covid policy in what people referred to as the A4 revolution.) What was happening to Britain and its much vaunted democracy? In the days after the queen’s death, as TV stations cancelled regular programming and sombre music was played on the radio, only supine monarchism seemed acceptable.

* * *

Hill and I meet in a Wetherspoon pub in Oxford where he orders a non-alcoholic beer. He bears a resemblance to Mole in The Wind in the Willows – small, bespectacled, flat-capped, scrupulously polite and kind. Hill tells me it was his childhood that radicalised him. He was born into a working-class family in the Midlands. When he was six, his mother became housekeeper to a wealthy, aristocratic couple: “We lived in what would have been called a servants’ cottage back in the day.” He admits his memories are partial, but some are still so clear – being allowed to play with the employer’s dog as if it were a treat; the benign patrician taking down a glass of wine to his mother in the kitchen and telling her not to mention it to his wife, who would disapprove. “It made me aware of inequality. As a child, you don’t understand why one woman should be a housekeeper and another should have a housekeeper. I still don’t.”

Hill’s activism has always been bound up with his Christianity, much of his objection to monarchy derived from his faith: “I don’t understand how a Christian can agree to a proclamation declaring somebody other than Jesus to be our only king. I try to live by my faith all the time,” he adds, and reddens slightly. “Obviously I often don’t manage that. But things like trying to love your neighbour is a form of activism for me.” He is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and The Upside-Down Bible.

I called out, ‘Let’s not bow down to our equals.’ Then the security guards pushed me backwards and the police rushed in

Hill had not planned to protest at the proclamation but stumbled into it. How loud was his heckle? “Loud enough for the people near me to hear. But I know they couldn’t hear it at the front because the Oxford Mail reported an indistinct heckle.” Did he say anything rude? Hill looks appalled. “A couple of people told me to shut up,” he says. He would probably have walked away and found an alternative route home if he hadn’t been stopped by security guards – or crowd management services, as the police later called them. “One told me to be quiet. I asked what authority he had to do that and he said, ‘You could be arrested for breach of the peace.’ I said, ‘I’m not doing anything illegal, I’m just expressing an opinion. If you can have somebody proclaim in favour of monarchy, I’m speaking against it.’”

Hill called out something else to make his point: “Something like, ‘Let’s not bow down to our equals.’ Then the security guards pushed me backwards. I thought they were going to knock me over. As the band started playing God Save the King, the police rushed in and said to the security guards, ‘We’ve got this’ or, ‘We’ve got him’, something like that.” Hill is fastidious about the facts to the point of pedantry. “Then the police grabbed me, twisted my arms back and handcuffed me.”

As he was led to the van, two people challenged the police. “They were both pro-monarchy, middle-class. They said, ‘Well, I don’t agree with him but surely he’s got a right to freedom of speech?’ They walked behind the police challenging them, which I really appreciated.”

Symon Hill, who was arrested for asking who elected King Charles, standing in front of a church door
‘I’d literally said a couple of sentences in the street’: historian Symon Hill, arrested for asking who elected King Charles. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

When Hill was put in the back of the van, he asked on what grounds he had been arrested. An officer admitted he didn’t know. The whole thing was a farce, Hill says. “They didn’t have a clue. It’s an important principle that if you’re going to have rule of law and democracy and human rights, you have freedom from arbitrary arrest.”

He says it was more alarming than the three previous occasions he had been arrested for protesting. In 2013, he was among a group of Christian activists charged with aggravated trespass after blocking an entrance to a London arms fair by kneeling in prayer. “We were found not guilty on a technicality because the police hadn’t read the warning in the proper way before arresting us. The second time I was not charged; the third time the charges were dropped. On all those occasions I wasn’t surprised to be arrested. This time I was gobsmacked. I don’t think I’m naive about police behaviour, but I’d literally said a couple of sentences in the street.”

Hill was then de-arrested without explanation and driven home by the police. He was later invited to a voluntary interview. He declined, but when it became apparent it wasn’t quite so voluntary, he went to the police station with his solicitor. He was told one of the security guards had alleged assault. “I was worried because assault is an imprisonable offence.” On 22 December, he was charged with breach of the Public Order Act – a charge that was dropped two weeks later, again with no explanation.

How did he feel? “A part of me was slightly disappointed I wouldn’t get the chance to make the case in court, but a much bigger part was relieved.” He smiles. “There’s a stereotype of activists that we want as much confrontation and publicity as possible. And, yes, I’m willing to make an argument in court, but I’d rather be at home with a cup of tea.”

Hill – who is considering bringing a case of unlawful arrest against Thames Valley police, with the support of human rights group Liberty – has been surprised by how much attention the incident received. “There are things I’ve done that have required far more effort and courage that have got a lot less interest.” On social media, there were thousands of incendiary comments. Conservative councillor Andrew Schrader tweeted: “To the tower with you, you dour grump.” But there has also been support, and Hill is aware that for some he represents the acceptable face of protest. “What’s been interesting is how much my Christian faith has been mentioned. They’re keen to emphasise what a normal, respectable person I am – a history lecturer in his 40s, walking home from church. But it wouldn’t have been any more acceptable to arrest anybody else.”

File photo dated 09/11/22 of police detaining protester Patrick Thelwell after he appeared to throw eggs at King Charles III and the Queen Consort as they arrived for a ceremony at Micklegate Bar in York
Patrick Thelwell is arrested after throwing eggs at King Charles. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Hill has kept tabs on other people who were arrested after protesting against the monarchy. He tells me about a 16-year-old given a dispersal notice for holding a sign saying “Abolish the monarchy” in Bolton an hour before the king visited. The boy and his friends were threatened with arrest if they returned within three hours. Hill also mentions Mariángela, the Mexican woman arrested in Edinburgh. “I’ve been in touch with her. She got quite a bit of racist abuse about it.” And then there’s Patrick Thelwell in York, who threw the eggs at Charles. “I don’t have a big problem with that, but I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s entirely non-violent. I also think it’s a waste of food.” But they have been in touch and Hill hopes to attend Thelwell’s court case in a show of solidarity.

The protesters seem to have become a close-knit family. Hill tells me he’ll go to London for the coronation, alongside the pressure group Republic, and will hopefully meet up with a few fellow protesters.

* * *

Perhaps the solemn reverence after the death of Queen Elizabeth II wasn’t surprising. She had served for a record-breaking 70 years and was globally admired, even by many republicans. The new king is a different character. Whereas she was famous for her discretion, he is regarded by many as a meddler. While her poker face remained intact throughout her reign, it took him only days to show his petulance in public, throwing two strops over pen-related incidents. There have also been questions about his judgment and integrity. Four days after the queen’s death, up to 100 Palace staff were given notice of redundancy during a thanksgiving service for her, and last November evidence about cash-for-honours allegations involving one of the king’s charities was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

In an Ipsos poll in 2016, just before the Queen’s 90th birthday, 76% of those surveyed favoured a monarchy, with only 17% preferring a republic. Now, 58% want a monarchy, while 26% prefer an elected head of state, according to a YouGov poll for Panorama of nearly 4,600 adults, published earlier this week. Most revealingly, only 32% of 18-24-year-olds polled want the monarchy to continue.

Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, believes this is significant. “The Queen is the monarchy for most people,” he said before her death last year. And now? “The institution is in serious jeopardy. It’s been reduced to two couples – Charles and Camilla, and William and Kate – and they’re not particularly inspirational figures. As we see indifference to the monarchy grow, they won’t be in a position to turn that around.” Smith thinks the generational gap can be explained by shifting cultural forces: “Identity politics, #MeToo, growing awareness of empire and slavery – all this is pushing people away.”

* * *

Patrick Thelwell and Symon Hill have a good deal in common. Both are academic, passionate about queer politics and were arrested for protesting against Charles. But while Hill is an understated pacifist, Thelwell believes in cracking a few eggs to make a republican omelette. On 9 November, he threw at least five at the king. One whistled past his arm, but that was the closest they got. His heckles, including “The king is a paedophile” (he says now he was thinking of his friendship with Jimmy Savile) were as outlandish as Hill’s had been sober.

Thelwell was arrested, pulled to the floor and taken to the police station where he signed his custody record “Fuck the king”. When we speak soon after, Thelwell, who is studying for a master’s in international relations, thinks he may be charged with treason and jailed. Does he want to be charged? “Aha! That’s a good question. Kind of. Well, I’ve got some choice words for my court appearance, that’s for sure.” Such as? “I won’t be apologising, especially if I get found guilty. I’ll be saying I don’t recognise the legitimacy of this court or this country, and I’ll probably call for a revolution, just to spice things up a bit, because that’s what we need.”

With the problems we’re facing, thinking, ‘Ooh, if we could just get Labour into power, everything would be fine’, like, no!

What form of revolution? “I’d like people to withdraw their consent to be governed by the British nation state because it’s complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity. It needs to be dissolved and its assets redistributed as reparations for climate change to the global south. In its place we’d create a federated direct democracy of local people’s assemblies and ultimately a global democracy where we’re citizens of Earth.” Blimey, I say, that’s ambitious. He giggles. “Well, yeah! Have you seen the problems we’re facing? Thinking, ‘Ooh, if we could just get Labour into power, everything would be fine.’ Like, no! Keir Starmer’s planning on keeping all the protest laws that have come into place.”

Cross Boy George with Rick from The Young Ones and you may get something approaching Thelwell. He sees himself as “a cosmocrat, a democratic federalist. The politicial philosopher I most draw on is Murray Bookchin. He was a Marxist, then an anarchist, then he thought, ‘Neither of these are enough, we need to create a different state, based on local self-governance.’” Has anywhere in the world achieved this? “Yes, Rojava in northern Syria. Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish resistance leader, built on Bookchin’s work and moved towards creating a stateless direct democracy. About three million people live under it and you’ve got a huge network of different tribes and towns and villages.” In the Observer, Kenan Malik praised Rojava as a brave experiment in democracy and equality, saying it would be a “tragedy” if it were crushed by President Assad.

When Thelwell, 23, is not studying or plotting the revolution, he works as an ecological gardener. He makes it clear he is no protest virgin. “It wasn’t my first rodeo,” he says of the egg-throwing incident. In 2020, he was one of 26 Extinction Rebellion activists who blockaded two British printing plants, disrupting the distribution of newspapers including the Murdoch-owned Sun and Times. Thelwell glued himself to the roof of a van and was convicted of obstructing the highway and aggravated trespass. He was also, like Hill, arrested at the arms fair in London, though his protest was more physical. “I jumped a fence and climbed on an Apache helicopter. I sat on the rotors and drummed on it for two hours.” He pauses, then adds proudly: “I’ve no sense of rhythm.” He wasn’t charged on that occasion.

Patrick Thelwell, a student at York University who in November 2022 threw eggs at King Charles and the Queen Consort whilst they were visiting York in North Yorkshire.
‘We need a revolution’: student Patrick Thelwell, whose egg-throwing resulted in a charge of threatening behaviour. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

“There’s nothing that compares to taking an action,” he says. It gives him a buzz? “It’s not a buzz, it’s being aligned with the kind of world we want to create. You feel you’re doing something inherently right, that transcends your ego. People say it’s narcissistic, but it’s not about you, it’s about your message.”

None of Thelwell’s direct actions met with the vitriol that egging the king did. He thought he was going to be lynched by the crowd: “They lost their minds. They were saying things like, ‘Kill him, kick him to death.’” Since then, he says, he’s received death threats. “People have tried to get into my accommodation block. I’ve had emails saying, ‘We’re outside, we’re going to put your head on a spike.’ It’s not safe for me to walk around York by myself.” He reads out an Instagram post: “What a prick you are. Embarrassing. If you’re not careful you’ll get your head taken off, you little muppet.” Beheading is a common theme in the trolling and though others have treated him as a hero, it’s been a challenging time for Thelwell, who has ADHD and suffers with anxiety. “I feel quite ungrounded. There was my life pre-egg and now it’s post-egg. I need to focus on a bit of self-care.”

In early December, Thelwell was charged with threatening behaviour. As part of his bail conditions, he was banned from carrying eggs. What does he think will happen in court? “I think I’m going to prison, partly because of what I will say in court. I’m going to say, ‘Fuck the king, this court is an illegitimate authority.’”

* * *

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 will make the arrest of protesters at next week’s coronation easier and more likely. The stop and search powers of police have been extended to allow officers to target people and vehicles if they suspect they might be carrying anything that could be used in protests. The home secretary now has the power to ban marches and demonstrations they believe might be “seriously disruptive”, including being too noisy. But the controversial policing of monarchy-related protests is nothing new.

In 1952, 26-year-old Anthony George was fined 20 shillings for insulting behaviour after failing to observe the two minutes’ silence at King George VI’s funeral because he objected to its commercialism. PC Eric Rolfe told Guildhall magistrates court that George had made “unnecessary noise with his feet”. Half a century later, during the Golden Jubilee, 23 activists staging a protest in Tower Hill with the banner “Execute the Queen” were arrested. They later received £80,000 in damages from police in an out-of-court settlement. In 2011, protesters dressed as zombies were arrested during the wedding of Prince William and Kate. Police justified the arrest as pre-emptive, with the European court of human rights ruling eight years later that there had been no breach of the protesters’ right to liberty.

* * *

I meet barrister Paul Powlesland at Garden Court Chambers in mid-November, a couple of months after he was threatened with arrest for holding up a blank piece of paper in Parliament Square. Powlesland had read about the arrest of protesters exercising their rights to freedom of speech and was dismayed at the one-note coverage of the queen’s death. “It felt over the top and mawkish. I don’t want to say it was akin to North Korea, but it did not feel like a free, vibrant democracy in terms of different opinions being expressed. When I heard about the arrests, I thought, this is outrageous.”

Powlesland had never given the royals much thought, but he’d given plenty to freedom of speech: “The protest was initially more about that.” Protesting with a blank piece of paper was purely practical. “I couldn’t get arrested because I had a case next day. Holding up a ‘Not my king’ sign is not unlawful, but they can still arrest you and I didn’t want to let my client down.”

Powlesland, 36, wears a brightly coloured jacket over his smart suit, has a ponytail and speaks with a plummy accent he says is misleading. He grew up in Addlestone, Surrey, to working-class parents (his father worked as a window fitter for 45 years) but “Addlestone gave me an accent that makes everyone assume I’m a public schoolboy.” Only two people in his school year went to university, and he got into Cambridge.

What politicised him? He looks embarrassed. “I don’t know if I want this confession in the Guardian. I started out as Tory.” There’s more. “I voted Ukip in 2004 because I was a massive Eurosceptic.” Is he still? “No. I try not to think about Brexit. I voted remain in the end.”

Just having something someone else finds offensive is not a criminal offence because then pretty much anything could be

Powlesland lives on a boat in east London and is an activist around protecting rivers. He has six children through sperm donation, none of whom he has met. Like Hill and Thelwell, he is not a stranger to direct action. During the 2012 Olympics, he was involved in a bike ride protest. The police ruled the cyclists couldn’t ride north of the Thames; Powlesland did, was charged and convicted, and then given a conditional discharge.

The other incident involving police was terrifying, he says. “I got arrested three years ago in a dawn raid involving 10 officers smashing my door down. I was asleep, they handcuffed me, searched my entire boat and took me to the police station. It was like being kidnapped by a criminal gang.” Powlesland was accused of rioting at the London Stock Exchange. The only evidence was footage of a masked, hooded rioter wearing leggings, which Powlesland was known to wear at demonstrations. He soon proved he was in chambers at the time: “I gave them a dossier of evidence, but they still couldn’t say, ‘We’re sorry, we got it wrong.’”

Barrister Paul Powlesland, who was threatened with arrest for holding up a blank piece of paper
‘Even monarchists were outraged’: barrister Paul Powlesland, threatened with arrest for holding up a blank piece of paper. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

On 12 September, Charles addressed parliament as king for the first time. The Metropolitan police called in reinforcements in case of protests. Powlesland, who works nearby, walked from Parliament Square to Downing Street and back with his blank piece of paper. “Then a guy from Norfolk police came up and spoke to me, and that was the video that went viral.” Powlesland recorded the encounter on his phone. “He asked for my details, I asked why and he said, ‘I want to check you’re OK on the Police National Computer.’ I said, ‘I’ve not done anything wrong, so I’m not giving you them.’ I wanted to test it without getting arrested. So I asked, ‘If I wrote “Not my king” on the paper, would I get arrested?’ and he said, ‘Probably, because it would be a breach of the Public Order Act; it would be offensive.’” Was he right? Powlesland laughs. “No! Just having something someone else finds offensive is not a criminal offence because then pretty much anything could be.”

The video has been watched by more than 1.5 million people and the protest was widely reported. That night the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner, Stuart Cundy, issued a statement verging on the apologetic: “We’re aware of a video online showing an officer speaking with a member of the public outside the Palace of Westminster earlier today. The public absolutely have a right to protest and we have been making this clear to all officers.”

Was Powlesland surprised his protest received so much publicity?“Yes, and that even monarchists were outraged. There was definitely a sense of the police pushing back on alternative forms of expression and by doing something so ridiculous, it forced them to admit they were wrong and freedom of speech is allowed.”

The next day Powlesland returned to Parliament Square with friends. “We had different things written on pieces of A3: ‘Not my king’, ‘Down with the monarchy’.” The police walked past. No arrests were made.

* * *

Friday 14 April. It’s early morning and a queue has formed outside York magistrates court – a mix of journalists and Thelwell’s supporters carrying placards featuring eggs and saying “Did you vote for him?” and “Justice for Patrick, justice for all”. Thelwell wears a large hooped earring containing an image of the Earth; an Earth symbol is tattooed on his right hand and “Love” on his left. He is skinny and tiny, even in the platform heels he says he wore on the day to see Charles through the crowd. He is cheeky, likable and nervous.

Thelwell, who has chosen to defend himself, admits to low-level violence in throwing the eggs. He tells senior district judge Paul Goldspring: “If that amounts to unlawful violence, then the violence carried out by the British state is at such a severe level, I can’t be held accountable for my crime while the crimes of the state go unpunished.” The violence was lawful, he says, and he acted out of necessity because government policy in relation to the health service, asylum seekers, the arms trade and the climate is killing countless people. As promised, he tells the court he does not recognise its legitimacy because the prosecutors work for the crown. It’s a bravura performance – by turns ingenious, comic, ridiculous and noble. At one point Goldspring tells him: “We don’t need grandstanding. We’re not in a theatre.”

Related: ‘We won’t stay silent any longer’ – 13 protest photographs that changed Britain

But the judge is kindly and gentle. He acknowledges Thelwell’s ADHD and that he is strapped for cash, and tells him early on he will not go to prison: “Do you want to say anything about that? Or are you are just relieved?”

“Yes,” Thelwell says with a nervous laugh.

The judge asks him why he had stopped his studies. “Because I thought I was going to prison,” he says.

“What is the chance of you finding a job in six weeks?” the judge asks.

“Do you need any gardening doing?” Thelwell says.

“Surprisingly not,” the judge replies.

Thelwell is found guilty of threatening behaviour. The judge says it is an “unprovoked, targeted and pre-planned use of violence against what was, after all, a 74-year-old man”, yet he sounds as if he’d like to give Thelwell a hug and tell him not to throw away his life. He is given a 12-month community order with 100 hours of unpaid work and ordered to pay costs of £600 and a £114 surcharge at a rate of £5 a week.

He doesn’t get to say “Fuck the king” in court, but he does say pretty much everything else he had planned. He remains polite and thanks the judge for his leniency, before emerging from court triumphant but a little chastened.

When we speak a couple of days later, I tell him I left court thinking it was a victory for humanity – everyone came off well. “I thought so, too,” he says. Was he surprised he was allowed to read out his statement in court? “One hundred per cent. I got lucky with the judge.”

* * *

With the coronation imminent the Met are preparing for what is expected to be one of the biggest operations in their history. This month, secretary of state for culture, media and sport Lucy Frazer told the Sun it would be “extremely disappointing” if activists targeted the event. Meanwhile, Hill, Powlesland and Thelwell hope to be there, exercising their democratic right to free speech. “I’ll be protesting,” Hill says. “I want to speak out against being told to submit to somebody because of an accident of birth. It is really important we’re not intimidated into not speaking out.”

Republic’s Smith is looking forward to the big day. Will there be much protest? “We’re bringing 1,000-plus people to Trafalgar Square. We’re not planning anything illegal, and it’s only going to be disruptive in terms of noise and a sea of placards. When Charles comes past, we expect chants of ‘Not my king’ and booing. We’re going to make sure we can’t be missed or edited out.”