For a very long time, Charles I has been a man who has fascinated me greatly. Not only for his rather ostentatious moustache but also for the fact that he was King during a time of great darkness in England, and he fought for keeping tradition in England. Unfortunately his belief in the Divine Right of Kings would see him brought to the block charged with treason.
Charles was the son of James I (VI of Scotland) who became King after the death of Elizabeth 1 on 24th March 1603. Charles was never supposed to be King, he was the spare heir but when his brother Henry died in 1612 Charles became the heir – a story that sounds rather similar to how Henry VIII became heir to the English throne! Charles became king on 27th March 1625
Charles married Henrietta Maria on 11th May 1625, by proxy at Notre Dame in Paris – many members of parliament were opposed to the marriage due to Henrietta Maria being Catholic, so Charles married her before parliament could meet and ban the marriage. Parliament feared that if Charles married a Catholic, he would lift the restrictions on Roman Catholic religion and change the Church of England. Charles promised to his parliament that he would not do this and the laws would stay in place, however he then promised to the French King Louis XIII that he would do exactly that and a secret marriage treaty was arranged. Charles and Henrietta Maria were married in person on 13th June 1625 at St Augustine’s Church in Canterbury. Charles was crowned King at Westminster Abbey shortly after, on 2nd February 1626 however his wife was not there due to the controversy of their marriage.
Charles caused a stir even early on in his reign with his friendship to George Villiers who ended up being assassinated in 1628. There was also huge tension between King and Parliament due to the huge cost of wars abroad, and Charles needing money to support these wars – for instance with the 30 years war which was raging in Europe, and unrest with both Scotland and Ireland. Religion of course also caused problems between King and Parliament – not only did Parliament dislike Charles’ marriage with the Catholic Henrietta Maria, but Charles himself favoured a high Anglican approach to religion which, although a form of protestantism leaned more towards the beliefs and practises of Catholicism. This made many suspicious and caused friction in Parliament, particularly amongst those with a more Puritan leaning. After so much friction, Charles dissolved Parliament three times between 1625 and 1629, before dissolving Parliament once more in 1629 and resolving to rule alone. This period of personal rule meant that he could not rely on Parliament to provide money when he needed it, thus meaning he had to find other methods of raising money which made the King more and more unpopular. In particular, and the method that is always mentioned, was the Ship Money – this tax was normally only levied on coastal times at times of War, however to raise funds Charles imposed the tax on everyone and it caused a lot of opposition with many refusing to pay it. The Ship Money, along with the issues of religion and Charles’ deep belief in the Divine Right of King all contributed to the English Civil War.
Tensions in Scotland were caused by Charles introducing a new prayer book which was met with hard opposition. This put and end to Charles’ era of personal rule as he was forced to call Parliament as he needed money to fight the Scottish. In 1641 tension rose even more with disagreements between King and Parliament over who should command the army and suppress uprising in Ireland. All of this lead to Charles attempting to have 5 members of Parliament arrested (which failed, the got wind of this and escaped) – war was on and the King raised his standard in Nottingham in August 1642. The English Civil War had begun.
The English Civil War was a brutal time for England, and often split families right down the middle. Often sons fought their own brothers and fathers – there is a rather harrowing story in Tristram Hunt’s “The English Civil War at First Hand” showing just how this happened:
“The most tragic case of family warring took place during a battle at Wardour Castle. As he lay dying from his wounds the Roundhead soldier, Private Hillsdeane, confirmed that it was his own Royalist brother who had fired the fatal shot”
When you mention the English Civil War most people know that Parliament were the victors and can name a few of the big battles such as Marston Moor and Edgehill. However to start with the Royalists had the upper hand – however this changed after the advent of the New Model Army in February 1645. The NMA was the first professional army that England ever had, and it changed the tide of the War. After 1644, the Royalists began to lose their grip on the War, and Parliament had the upper hand.
In 1646, Charles surrendered to the Scots and he was handed over to Parliament and thus was imprisoned. He tried many plucky escape attempts, and managed to escape from the Isle of Wight in 1647. Thus began the Second English Civil War and Charles convinced the Scots to help him. It was over within a year, the Royalists yet again being defeated. Charles was a prisoner again and put on trial for treason
The trial began on 20th January 1649. Charles refused to enter a plea, stating that they had no right to put their monarch on trial for treason. After all, treason was a crime against the King so how could he be guilty of it? He was convinced that he was given the right to rule by God himself and no man had the power to overturn that and thus insisted that the trial was illegal. It was in truth a kangaroo court, and the outcome was already decided – Cromwell and Parliament wanted rid of the King and they would get their way. Over the week of the trial Charles refused to enter a plea three times and at that time it was normal to take refusal to plea as an admission of guilt. On Saturday 27th January 1649 Charles was declared guilty and sentenced to death.
On 30th January 1649, Charles I was executed on a scaffold outside of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. It is often told that he wore two shirts because of the cold weather and he didn’t want the watching crowds to think he was shivering out of fear. Charles stepped out of a window onto the waiting scaffold, separated from the crowds by a line of soldiers. In his final speech he spoke of how he only ever wanted the liberty and health of his people, and how due to his previous agreement to execute an innocent man (The Earl of Strafford – executed in 1641 he was a long time advisor to the King, who at first refused to sign his death warrant). Also in his speech he spoke of how he never tried to subvert the religion of the Church of England. In short he was reminding those watching, and Parliament of his innocence. At 2pm, the King knelt before the block, telling the executioner that he would say but very short prayers before thrusting out his hands as a sign he was ready to die. He also asked the executioner whether his hair troubled him, and then with the help of the Bishop with him and the executioner was placed all under a nightcap. Just before the axe fell, Charles spoke a few words which never fail to bring a slight tear to my eye:
“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”
After a short pause, Charles thrust his arms out and the executioner removed the King’s head with one swift blow. The typical words of the executioner following an execution were “behold the head of a traitor” whilst holding up the head of the condemned. However, although Charles’ head was displayed the words were not spoken, instead the executioner and crowds were silent.
Following his execution, Cromwell allowed the head of Charles to be sewn back on and the body given to his family for burial. Charles was buried in a secret ceremony at Windsor Castle on 7th February 1649. He was interred in the same vault as Henry VIII and his Queen Jane Seymour.
Charles I lead a remarkable life and fought hard for what he believed in. He fought for the traditions of the English and inspired loyalty from those who fought with him. His death was a tragedy, thankfully Charles’ son Charles II extracted revenge on those who signed his fathers death warrant after he became King in 1660. Even Cromwell could not escape, despite already being dead and buried. The body of Cromwell was dug up, put on trial for regicide and beheaded at Tyburn. Despite the fact that Charles I reigned during an exceptionally dark period in English history, he is one of the most colourful characters in the country’s varied history and a man who certainly did not deserve the end that he received.
Braddick, M, 2008, Gods Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil War, The Penguin Group: London
Hunt, T, 2002, The English Civil War at First Hand, Penguin: London
Purkiss, D, 2006, The English Civil War: A People’s History, Harper Perennial: London
Wedgewood, C.V, 1964, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I, Tauris: London
Charles I Equestrian Portrait by Van Dyke, http://hoocher.com/Anthony_Van_Dyck/Equestrian_Portrait_of_Charles_I_King_of_England_1635_40.jpg (accessed 24th March 2012)
Charles I: http://catherinedelors.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Van-Dyck-portrait_de_Charles_1er-web.jpg (accessed 24th March 2012)
Henrietta Maria: http://www.historicalportraits.com/ArtWorkImages/Van%20Dyck%20studio%20Henrietta%20Maria%20M.jpg (accessed 24th March 2012)
Execution of Charles I: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/09/future-history-schools (accessed 24th March 2012)
Charles I Grave: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=1443 (accessed 24th March 2012)