Happy Birthday Charles I

Today in 1600, a young prince was born to King James I and his wife Anne of Denmark. This prince, the couple’s second son, would go on to become one the most famous monarchs that England had ever known – King Charles I. He would go on to declare war on Parliament in 1642 and would eventually be executed for treason on 30th January 1649. Charles has long fascinated me and during my University days I spent much of my time researching the English Civil War and the role that the Royalist army played, eventually concentrating solely on the Battle of Cheriton in 1644. For my sins I was also a part of the Sealed Knot and “fought” for the Royalist regiment, Henry Tilliers Regiment of Foote.

Charles I is an interesting character in many respects, not only for his role in the English Civil War. He was never supposed to become King in the first place, that was the role meant for his elder brother Henry Stuart. Sadly though, Henry died in 1612 and the young Duke of York became heir to the throne. Poor little Charles wasn’t exactly the most healthy child, he was sickly and had problems walking, and apparently had a speech impediment too. He had spent his childhood in the shadow of his brother Henry, who he loved and tried his best to emulate but unfortunately as a child could never really live up to his brother. In fact, little Charles did not start walking properly until he was at least four years old thanks to the weakness in his legs. At the age of 16 it is recorded that he suffered from “green sickness”, a rather odd illness for an adolescent young man to suffer from as it was normally said to affect young ladies! However by the time he reached his early 20’s he seems to have left most of his physical illnesses behind although he apparently never really had the intellectual capacity of other young men of his age.

Charles also became bosom friends with his fathers supposed paramour George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. In George, Charles found a surrogate older brother who encouraged Charles to start looking at women (and noticed that Charles was very slow on the uptake with romance!), and even took the young heir incognito to Spain to woo the Spanish Infanta. When James I died in 1625, Charles married Henrietta Maria if France yet held Villiers above her in his affections. It wasn’t until Villiers was assassinated in 1628 that Charles began to take decent notice of his wife and the two of them ended up falling head over heels in love with each other.

Charles never really had a very good relationship with parliament, and ended up taking personal rule of the country from 1629. The next eleven years were known by parliamentarian supporters as the “eleven years tyranny”. In 1640, Charles recalled parliament – he needed money to fight the second bishops war. Less than a month later, this parliament was dissolved by Charles because he wasn’t going to listen to their ideas for reform. In November that year, Charles again called Parliament, again needing more money and this became known as the Long Parliament. In this one, tensions soon rose when Parliament wanted to impeach various members of the court and they also passed an act to prevent the King from dissolving parliament. In March 1641 they impeached Lord Stafford and he was placed on trial for High Treason. Charles however refused to sign the bill of Attainder but in parliament this bill went unopposed and Charles signed the bill in fear for his family’s safety. Stafford was executed. In May of the same year parliament made ship money and various forms of taxation illegal – all of which had proven unpopular when the King had forced these taxes previously.

All of this lead to Charles and Parliament fighting for control – Charles believed that as King of England he should have control, Parliament believed that the King should work with them or not at all. Charles then tried to have five prominent members of parliament arrested on 4th January 1642 when he tried to take parliament by force of arms. The five men had already left. And this was the beginning of the end for Charles Stuart – Parliament seized London and in January 1642, Charles fled London.

Civil War was declared in August 1642 and Charles raised an army. Parliament did the same and it lead to a bitter 7 year period of fighting. The best known part of the civil war lasted until 1646 when Charles was arrested and imprisoned by Parliament. The second civil war was fought in 1648-9, finishing with the execution of King Charles I in January 1649 and the third civil war lasted from 1649-51 and was fought between parliament and supporters of Charles II. Following Charles I’s execution in 1649, the country was run by Oliver Cromwell and the interregnum lasted until the death of Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard – leading to the Restoration of Charles I’s son Charles II as monarch.

If I’m honest, the life of Charles I deserves much much more than this super brief overview. His life was really very interesting and he did so much in his reign – not all of it clever! Though that seems to be a bit of a pattern with Stuart monarchs (maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated with them, really they just seemed to make life difficult for themselves). One of these days I’ll do a series of posts on this most fascinating monarch, but I hope this overview has given you all something to mull over. And to finish off – Happy Birthday Charles I!

Further Reading

Frederick Holmes – The Sickly Stuarts
Dianne Purkiss – The English Civil war: A People’s History
Katie Whitaker – A Royal Passion
C.V Wedgwood – A King Condemned
Tristram Hunt – The English Civil War At First Hand
David Starkey & Christopher Hibbert – Charles I: A Life of Religion, War and Treason

"What Idiot Wrote A Letter?"

Guy Fawkes by Cruikshank
Remember, remember! 
 The fifth of November, 
 The Gunpowder treason and plot; 
 I know of no reason 
 Why the Gunpowder treason 
 Should ever be forgot!
I’ve never really been a fan of fireworks. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my dog used to get really frightened of them and shake in the corner of our kitchen whenever he heard them going off. But even as a small child when I was taken to watch the bonfire and firework displays, I would always be morbidly fascinated by the ‘Guy’ that was on top of the bonfire and how the crowd would watch him burn. It was my grandfather who told me why we did it, and whilst his story made me shudder inside, I thought it was all kinds of awesome. Maybe in a way, hearing my grandfather tell me the story of the Gunpowder plot is what sparked my interest in the Seventeenth Century. But what I find amazing is that even today we celebrate the fact that Guy Fawkes and his conspirators tried to blow up our parliament. Only in Britain eh?
But why do we do it?
In the early hours of the morning on November 5th 1605, a magistrate and gentleman of the Kings Privy Chamber (Thomas Knyvet) were sent to search the vaults beneath Parliament. King James I was incredibly suspicious of any plot to murder him and even more so after Lord Monteagle showed him a letter. This letter had been sent to Monteagle by one of the conspirators, warning him not to be in Parliament on November 5th as the place would be blown up. 
As Knyvet and the Magistrate searched the vaults they discovered Guy Fawkes making his way out of a room. He was fully dressed with his boots on, and thinking it slightly suspicious Knyvet had him arrested. As Fawkes was hauled away, Knyvet’s men discovered 36 barrels of gunpowder and wooden faggots. It became glaringly obvious what had been planned and what had been so close to being successful.
Guy Fawkes was imprisoned and interrogated. Yet Fawkes refused to give away the names of his fellow conspirators, and his fortitude actually impressed his interrogators. Faced with a barrage of questions he admitted he had recently been to Flanders and when the reason why was demanded he retorted that he had gone to sight see and pass the time! The real reason was of course to try and get help for the conspiracy. When he spoke plainly, and it wasn’t often, he expressed his dislike of the Scottish King but other than that he refused to give any other answers. It was only on 7th November, likely after torture, that he gave the interrogators his name and that was only after a letter addressed to him was found in his pockets. At the same time, thanks to being tortured that he implicated his fellow torturers. Fawkes however was the only conspirator to suffer torture, and once King James had the answers he wanted, the torture was stopped. 
Four of Fawkes’ co-conspirators perished in a skirmish at Holbeach House in Staffordshire as the army tried to arrest them. The remaining 8 men were captured and imprisoned, and they were kept in the Tower of London until January 1606 when they were all tried for treason. On 27th January 1606, they faced trial in Westminster Hall, although the verdict was already a foregone conclusion although all but Sir Edward Digby pleaded not guilty. On 30th January, four of the men were executed in St Paul’s churchyard and the following day it was the turn of Winter, Ambrose, Rookwood, Keyes and Fawkes. They were hung, drawn and quartered in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster.
And the reason we still light bonfires today? King James I ordered that bonfires should be lit every year on November 5th in celebration of his lucky escape from the treasonous plotters. And until 1859, prayers of thanksgiving for the King’s escape were still being read. Indeed, the celebrations kept on going as well due to the country’s dislike of Catholicism and popery at the time and the plot was seen as one of the most horrific catholic conspiracies ever committed. Indeed the Puritans kept on the tradition well into the reign of Charles I’s reign as a stand up to the Catholicism that was feared to be creeping into the royal court. James II’s court tried to ban the celebrations in the early years of his reign (as James was a catholic) but the idea fell flat on its face, especially after William of Orange landed in England and took the throne from James.
Although these days the country is open to religious toleration, the celebrations of November 5th still go on. It seems it is ingrained into the minds of the English, and we still celebrate the downfall of the notorious plotter Guy Fawkes. For the most part, the celebrations are just that, celebrations although in some parts of the country there are still some towns which stay with the traditional anti catholic tradition; not only with their bonfires and fireworks but also parading with an effigy of the Pope which then gets burned on the bonfire. An excellent example of this is Lewes in Sussex.
The traditional ‘anti catholic’ 5th November celebrations in Lewes, Sussex
Whatever you are up to tonight; whether you are going to watch a bonfire and fireworks display or staying in, do stay safe. And try not to forget the reason why we still light bonfires on 5th November.
Further Reading

Mark Nicholls, ‘Fawkes, Guy (bap. 1570, d. 1606)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9230, accessed 5 Nov 2012]