King Charles I


Charles I was born in Fife on 19 November 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland (from 1603 also James I of England) and Anne of Denmark.

He became heir to the throne on the death of his brother, Prince Henry, in 1612. He succeeded, as the second Stuart King of England, in 1625, upon the death of his father, James I.

Controversy and disputes dogged Charles throughout his reign. They eventually led to civil wars, first with the Scots from 1637 and later in England (1642-46 and 1648). The wars deeply divided people at the time, and historians still disagree about the real causes of the conflicts, but it is clear that Charles was not a successful ruler.

Charles was reserved (he had a residual stammer), self-righteous, and had a high concept of royal authority, believing in the divine right of kings. He was a good linguist and a sensitive man of refined tastes.

He spent a lot on the arts, inviting the artists Van Dyck and Rubens to work in England, and buying a great collection of paintings by Raphael and Titian (this collection was later dispersed under Cromwell).

His expenditure on his court and his picture collection greatly increased the crown's debts. Indeed, crippling lack of money was a key problem for both the early Stuart monarchs.

Charles was also deeply religious. He favoured the high Anglican form of worship, with much ritual, while many of his subjects, particularly in Scotland, wanted plainer forms.

Charles found himself ever more in disagreement on religious and financial matters with many leading citizens. Having broken an engagement to the Spanish infanta, he had married a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, and this only made matters worse.

Although Charles had promised Parliament in 1624 that there would be no advantages for recusants (people refusing to attend Church of England services), were he to marry a Roman Catholic bride, the French insisted on a commitment to remove all disabilities upon Roman Catholic subjects.

Charles's lack of scruple was shown by the fact that this commitment was secretly added to the marriage treaty, despite his promise to Parliament.

Charles had inherited disagreements with Parliament from his father, but his own actions (particularly engaging in ill-fated wars with France and Spain at the same time) eventually brought about a crisis in 1628-29.

Two expeditions to France failed - one of which had been led by Buckingham, a royal favorite of both James I and Charles I, who had gained political influence and military power.

Such was the general dislike of Buckingham, that he was impeached by Parliament in 1628, although he was murdered by a fanatic before he could lead the second expedition to France.

The political controversy over Buckingham demonstrated that, although the monarch's right to choose his own Ministers was accepted as an essential part of the royal prerogative, Ministers had to be acceptable to Parliament or there would be repeated confrontations.

The King's chief opponent in Parliament until 1629 was Sir John Eliot, who was finally imprisoned in the Tower of London until his death in 1632.

Tensions between the King and Parliament centred around finances, made worse by the costs of war abroad, and by religious suspicions at home. Charles's marriage was seen as ominous, at a time when plots against Elizabeth I and the Gunpowder Plot in James I's reign were still fresh in the collective memory, and when the Protestant cause was going badly in the war in Europe.

In the first four years of his rule, Charles was faced with the alternative of either obtaining parliamentary funding and having his policies questioned by argumentative Parliaments who linked the issue of supply to remedying their grievances, or conducting a war without subsidies from Parliament.

Charles dismissed his fourth Parliament in March 1629 and decided to make do without either its advice or the taxes which it alone could grant legally.

Although opponents later called this period 'the Eleven Years' Tyranny', Charles's decision to rule without Parliament was technically within the King's royal prerogative, and the absence of a Parliament was less of a grievance to many people than the efforts to raise revenue by non-parliamentary means.

Charles's leading advisers, including William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Earl of Strafford, were efficient but disliked.

For much of the 1630s, the King gained most of the income he needed from such measures as impositions, exploitation of forest laws, forced loans, wardship and, above all, ship money (extended in 1635 from ports to the whole country). These measures made him very unpopular, alienating many who were the natural supporters of the Crown.

Scotland (which Charles had left at the age of 3, returning only for his coronation in 1633) proved the catalyst for rebellion. Charles's attempt to impose a High Church liturgy and prayer book in Scotland had prompted a riot in 1637 in Edinburgh which escalated into general unrest.

Charles had to recall Parliament. However, the Short Parliament of April 1640 queried Charles's request for funds for war against the Scots and was dissolved within weeks.

The Scots occupied Newcastle and, under the treaty of Ripon, stayed in occupation of Northumberland and Durham and they were to be paid a subsidy until their grievances were redressed.

Charles was finally forced to call another Parliament in November 1640. This one, which came to be known as The Long Parliament, started with the imprisonment of Laud and Strafford (the latter was executed within six months, after a Bill of Attainder which did not allow for a defense), and the abolition of the King's Council (Star Chamber), and moved on to declare ship money and other fines illegal.

The King agreed that Parliament could not be dissolved without its own consent, and the Triennial Act of 1641 meant that no more than three years could elapse between Parliaments.

The Irish uprising of October 1641 raised tensions between the King and Parliament over the command of the Army. Parliament issued a Grand Remonstrance repeating their grievances, impeached 12 bisops, and attempted to impeach the Queen.

Charles responded by entering the Commons in a failed attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament, who had fled before his arrival. Parliament reacted by passing a Militia Bill allowing troops to be raised only under officers approved by Parliament.

Finally, on 22 August 1642 at Nottingham, Charles raised the Royal Standard calling for loyal subjects to support him (Oxford was to be the King's capital during the war). The Civil War, what Sir William Waller (a Parliamentary general and moderate) called 'this war without an enemy', had begun.

The Battle of Edgehill in October 1642 showed that early on the fighting was even. Broadly speaking, Charles retained the north, west and south-west of the country, and Parliament had London, East Anglia and the south-east, although there were pockets of resistance everywhere, ranging from solitary garrisons to whole cities.

However, the Navy sided with Parliament (which made continental aid difficult), and Charles lacked the resources to hire substantial mercenary help.

Parliament had entered an armed alliance with the predominant Scottish Presbyterian group under the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and from 1644 onwards Parliament's armies gained the upper hand - particularly with the improved training and discipline of the New Model Army.

The Self-Denying Ordinance was passed to exclude Members of Parliament from holding army commands, thereby getting rid of vacillating or incompetent earlier Parliamentary generals. Under strong generals like Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, Parliament won victories at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645).

The capture of the King's secret correspondence after Naseby showed the extent to which he had been seeking help from Ireland and from the Continent, which alienated many moderate supporters.

In May 1646, Charles placed himself in the hands of the Scottish Army (who handed him to the English Parliament after nine months in return for arrears of payment - the Scots had failed to win Charles's support for establishing Presbyterianism in England).

Charles did not see his action as surrender, but as an opportunity to regain lost ground by playing one group off against another; he saw the monarchy as the source of stability and told parliamentary commanders 'you cannot be without me: you will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you'.

In Scotland and Ireland, factions were arguing, whilst in England there were signs of division in Parliament between the Presbyterians and the Independents, with alienation from the Army (where radical doctrines such as that of the Levellers were threatening commanders' authority).

Charles's negotiations continued from his captivity at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight (to which he had 'escaped' from Hampton Court in November 1647) and led to the Engagement with the Scots, under which the Scots would provide an army for Charles in exchange for the imposition of the Covenant on England.

This led to the second Civil War of 1648, which ended with Cromwell's victory at Preston in August.

The Army, concluding that permanent peace was impossible whilst Charles lived, decided that the King must be put on trial and executed. In December, Parliament was purged, leaving a small rump totally dependent on the Army, and the Rump Parliament established a High Court of Justice in the first week of January 1649.

On 20 January, Charles was charged with high treason 'against the realm of England'. Charles refused to plead, saying that he did not recognise the legality of the High Court (it had been established by a Commons purged of dissent, and without the House of Lords - nor had the Commons ever acted as a judicature).

The King was sentenced to death on 27 January. Three days later, Charles was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London.

The King asked for warm clothing before his execution: 'the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear. I would have no such imputation.'

On the scaffold, he repeated his case: 'I must tell you that the liberty and freedom [of the people] consists in having of Government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in Government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the Power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here, and therefore I tell you ... that I am the martyr of the people.'

His final words were 'I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.'

The King was buried on 9 February at Windsor, rather than Westminster Abbey, to avoid public disorder. To avoid the automatic succession of Charles I's son Charles, an Act was passed on 30 January forbidding the proclaiming of another monarch. On 7 February 1649, the office of King was formally abolished.

The Civil Wars were essentially confrontations between the monarchy and Parliament over the definitions of the powers of the monarchy and Parliament's authority.

These constitutional disagreements were made worse by religious animosities and financial disputes. Both sides claimed that they stood for the rule of law, yet civil war was by definition a matter of force.

Charles I, in his unwavering belief that he stood for constitutional and social stability, and the right of the people to enjoy the benefits of that stability, fatally weakened his position by failing to negotiate a compromise with Parliament and paid the price.

To many, Charles was seen as a martyr for his people and, to this day, wreaths of remembrance are laid by his supporters on the anniversary of his death at his statue, which faces down Whitehall to the site of his execution.

Charles I was born in 1600, the second son of James I and Anne of Denmark. After several unsuccessful attempts at arranging a marriage, Charles married the 15 year-old daughter of France's King Henry IV, Henrietta Maria. Three years of coldness and indifference ensued, but the pair finally became devoted to each other, producing four sons (Charles [who died as a teenager], Charles [who became Charles II], James and Henry) and five daughters (Mary, Elizabeth, Anne, Catherine and Henrietta Anne). Charles I was executed for treason in 1649.

Charles ascended the throne at the age of 25; after a weak, sickly childhood, he became an excellent horseman and a strong-willed king. His strong will, however, proved to be his undoing: mismanagement of affairs (in the tradition of his father) forced a showdown with Parliament, which culminated in civil war and the king's execution.

Charles inherited the incessant financial problems of his father: the refusal of Parliament to grant funds to a king who refused to address the grievances of the nobility. George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (and alleged homosexual friend of James I), exerted undue and unpopular influence over Charles in the first years of Charles' reign; Buckingham's assassination in August 1628 came amid shouts of joy from the nobility. Three times summoned and three times dissolved through 1625-1629, Parliament went the next 11 years without being summoned, as Charles financed his reign by selling commercial monopolies and extracting ship money (a fee demanded from towns for building naval warships). Charles' marriage to the devoutly Catholic French princess further incensed the increasingly Puritan nobility, as her Catholic friends flooded into the royal court. She was a meddlesome woman who put her wants (and those of her friends) above the needs of the realm.

A problem in Scotland brought an abrupt end to Charles's 11 years of personal rule and unleashed the forces of civil war upon England. Charles attempted to force a new prayer book on the Scots, which resulted in rebellion. Charles's forces were ill prepared due to lack of proper funds, causing the king to call, first, the Short Parliament, and finally the Long Parliament. King and Parliament again reached no agreement; Charles foolishly tried to arrest five members of Parliament on the advice of Henrietta Maria, which brought matters to a head. The struggle for supremacy led to civil war. Charles raised his standard against Parliamentary forces at Nottingham in 1642.

Religious and economic issues added to the differences between the supporters of the monarchy (Cavaliers) and the supporters of Parliament (Roundheads). The lines of division were roughly as follows: Cavalier backing came from peasants and nobility of Episcopalian roots while Roundhead backing came from the emerging middle class and tradesmen of the Puritanical movement. Geographically, the northern and western provinces aided the Cavaliers, with the more financially prosperous and populous southern and eastern counties lending aid to the Roundheads. The bottom line is that the Roundheads, with deeper pockets and more population from which to draw, were destined to win the battle. Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army at Naseby soundly routed the Cavaliers in 1645. Scarcely a year later Charles surrendered to Scottish forces, which turned the king over to Parliament. In 1648, Charles was put on trial for treason; the tribunal, by a vote of 68 to 67, found the king guilty and ordered his execution in 1649.

Charles's advancement of his father's failed policies and his wife's Catholic friends divided the realm and caused civil war. The opposing forces in the conflict were assessed in the satire, 1066 and All That: "... the utterly memorable struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive)." Edward Hyde, author of the History of the Great Rebellion, acknowledged Charles's faults, but offered this intuitive observation: "... he was, if ever any, the most worthy of the title of an honest man - so great a lover of justice that no temptation could dispose him to a wrongful action, except that it were so disguised to him that he believed it to be just." Many of these temptations occurred during the reign of Charles I.

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