Friday, July 23, 2010

Monarch Profile: King Charles I of Britain

It often seems that when it comes to anti-monarchial revolutions it is the best monarchs who end up losing their lives. It was the case with Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King Louis XVI of France, both very good, decent, God-fearing men and so it was with King Charles I of Great Britain; one of the most upright, noble and principled men to sit on the throne of the three kingdoms. He was born in Scotland, the second son of King James (VI of Scotland, I of England) and his queen Anne of Denmark on November 19, 1600. He was frail and sickly as a child but very intelligent and gifted when it came to languages. In 1612 his brother Prince Henry died and young Charles became the heir to the throne, becoming Prince of Wales in 1616. He was very short but polite, dignified and possessing a very regal bearing for his 5ft 4in.

On March 27, 1625 with the passing of his father he became Charles I, King of England, Scotland, Ireland and (nominally) France. Two months later he married Princess Henrietta Maria of France, the very religious sister of King Louis XIII. It was not love at first sight but in time they would grow to be as devoted to each other as any couple could be even though religion divided them. He sent the cohort of priests who came with her back to France and she refused to attend his formal coronation on the grounds that it was Protestant ceremony. However, in time their religious differences would grow less and less pronounced as King Charles I became known for his adherence to “High Church” Anglicanism which put more emphasis on free will and more elaborate, beautiful styles of worship which Catholics viewed as moving in the right direction at the very least.

From the outset Charles I was troubled by financial issues. Inflation had been steadily growing in England for a very long time and fixed incomes began to suffer, including the King. This, along with a combination of other factors and simple mismanagement meant that Charles I did not have the money to meet the obligations, particularly national defense, for which he was responsible. This drove the King to all sorts of inventive, but perfectly legal, means of collecting money such as cashing in the dowry of his wife, borrowing money from the wealthy elites of the country and spreading “ship money” (taxes collected in coastal areas for the navy) nationwide. Parliament, dominated of course by the wealthy elites, began to grumble more and more, especially when the wars being waged were not victorious. Greed and ambition combined with a growing religious fanaticism to create a ’perfect storm’ directed against the British Crown.

King Charles, despite his reputation, was not a rigid, intolerant man and he conceded on many of the points Parliament insisted on. When they demanded still more he dissolved Parliament and ruled alone for the next eleven years in peace and harmony. However, efforts to enforce his religious style in Scotland led to war, which did not go well, and forced him to recall Parliament. The new members refused to get down to business without first re-stating their old grievances. Charles dissolved them again but unfortunately his forces in Scotland were soundly defeated, bringing him back to square one.

Parliament was even more unreasonable than before and more religiously intolerant with not only Catholics but Anglicans and High Church Anglicans in particular being attacked as ‘insufficiently Protestant’. Again, though this often ignored, King Charles I was willing to negotiate and gave in to almost all of the demands of Parliament for the sake of peace in the realm. However, like all liberal revolutionaries, give them an inch and they demand a mile. Charles agreed to all but two of the demands of Parliament; that he should effectively stop being the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and that he give up control of the militia. On these two issues Charles I refused to negotiate but that was not enough for the radicals in Parliament who demanded all or nothing.

After failing to gain Scottish support Charles I attempted to arrest the Parliamentary ringleaders but this too came to nothing and both sides prepared for war. The start is usually dated August 22, 1642 when the Royal Standard was raised at Nottingham. With the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) controlling the majority of the wealth of the country and the most vital areas the odds were greatly stacked against the Royalists (or Cavaliers), however, they fought extremely well and King Charles himself proved that, while he may not have been a military genius, he was certainly a competent and worthy military commander with a good grasp of tactics. His strategic judgment has often been criticized, but in truth this was simply a result of his humanity. Charles I did not want to wage a ‘total war’. Opportunities were often lost because the King hated having to fight his own people, was convinced that most had simply been led astray by wicked men and that he simply needed to sting them to bring them to their senses and return them to loyalty.

In short, the Roundheads were out to destroy the King but the Cavaliers were not out to destroy anyone. Despite coming fairly close to success in 1643 the tide turned against the King who sought support in Scotland. The Scots turned him over to the Roundheads but Charles escaped, was recaptured, Scotland reconsidered and attacked the Parliamentarians but in the end Charles was captured for good, the Scots and English royalists were defeated, Edinburgh was occupied and King Charles was hauled before a rump “parliament” (no House of Lords) to be tried for “treason”. With great dignity and composure he refused to recognize the authority of the court (which made a farce of justice, refusing to allow anyone even suspected of favoring the King from taking their seat and silencing anyone who spoke in his favor) and did not speak much at all until his final statement at the time of his condemnation.

On January 30, 1649 King Charles I was executed by beheading at Whitehall Palace -and Britain would never be the same again. The gallant monarch was buried, secretly and in haste, at Windsor Castle and the Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell became dictator of Britain and Ireland for the only period in British history without a monarch on the throne. Ruling in tyrannical fashion and bringing gruesome persecution down on the people of Ireland, the British Isles were a gloomy place before the death of Cromwell allowed King Charles II to claim his father’s throne.

The Church of England eventually recognized King Charles I as a saint, a martyr for Anglicanism. However, the victory of the Parliamentary forces could not be undone, even though the monarchy was finally restored. Ever since tension has existed between Crown and Parliament, which has even been enshrined in the ceremonies of the British Parliament to this day. It would take a while longer to be fully put in place but with the defeat of the heroic King Charles I, Great Britain set out on the path toward a system effectively dominated by Parliament. Looking down from his “incorruptible crown”, what would the late Stuart King things of his countries today?


  1. It should be noted that Charles is the ONLY Saint Designated by the Anglican Church. That said, I think you hit on something when you said it seems good Kings are those who are Killed by Revolutionaries. This is because, despite all the talk of how Tyrannical and Horrible they were, they allowed the Rebellious Elements too much Latitude and when conflict broke out sought peace. A true Tyrant is seldom opposed, for popel either Fear his might, knowign he will crush you if you try, or else Praise him endlessly for reasons I have yet to understand. (Hitler, Stalin, and even Chavez all have this to their names, they were neverendingly praised, even by those not coerced or otherwise compelled.)

    It seems the lesson is to be sort of Cruel if ever you are King, else, to show Gentility, you are seen as a Tyrant and Murdered.

    On that note, I wonder if you can do a peice on my Ancestor, King James Stuart, the Father of Charles.

  2. I've said it many times before; nice guys finish last. Hitler said he would have shot Gandhi and could not understand why Britain was so troubled by him. Even amongst the ranks of monarchs, King Louis XIV or the "Iron Tsar" Nicholas I would never have gone so quietly into that dark night as their successors did. Charles did fight but had a hard time fighting to win -he cared too much. On the other side, Cromwell clearly had no qualms about killing any who dared oppose him -ask the Irish.

    You will also notice that all of these men tried to be reasonable with their enemies and gave in to one set of demands after another but it was never enough and that is why it should be clear to everyone that revolutionaries cannot be reasoned with. As for King Jamie, I have no immediate plans but I certainly will get to him at some point.

  3. In response to your question, His Majesty would cringing in horror. Consider that the Prime Minister recommends which priests are to go where (which leads to the rather odd situation of an Anglican Bishop claiming not to believe in the Ressurrection. Quite a Christian he is). Consider that the Commons now rules unopposed by any other instrument (the Lords had their veto abolished around 1911, and the Crown virtually lost its veto with the Civil War, though it does retain it in theory).

    In large part, that is why I identify as a Jacobite. I can hardly deny the reasoning behind consultation in matters of state, and representatives of the people in general (so not just the Lords) need to be given a forum in which to debate matters of importance. But I see now what democracy untrammelled reaps, and I look at it with quite some horror.

    Give me a strong Crown and a strong Lords, and I will guarantee, glory and power will follow. It's no accident that Britain went into terminal decline when the Lords lost its veto.

  4. Thanks for an interesting post!
    My adopted homestate, Maryland, is named in honor of Henrietta Maria. :)
    I enjoyed the late Sir Alec Guiness's performance as Charles I in the movie "Cromwell" in high school.

  5. I have a particular, and understandable, connection to these events. As I said I am descended from James the Sixth of Scotland and Firts of England. I am also descended from Charles the First. But in addition, I think this is the start of the whole mess we're in now. John Locke's Philosophy psurred the change in thinking from the Older Order of Monarhcy towards a Republic in his two Treietises on Government, but would never have been promenant as a Thinker in Politics with such Ideas had he not been made so under Cromwell's Republic of England.

    The Republican Ideal, and Parlamentary Supremacy, spawned all sorts of additional Political Writtings advocating very similar Views, and Locke's work became Standard, and was cited the most after the Bible by Americas Founding Fathers, for example. It also inpsired Reussau, VOltaire, and Montesque. All of there work grew formt he Seed planted by Locke.

    So I see this as the beginning of the Rise of Republicanism.

    Though as you noted elsewhere, Elizabeth the FIrts executing Mary certainly didn't help.

    So even though from England grew the perfection of Monarhcy, from England also grew the seeds of its overthrow and replacement by Republican Rule, and not only wudl British lands such as the American Colonies suffer as a Result, but Neighbouring Franc and then the world.

  6. The whole Jacobite episode does, in a way, start with Charles I because, though the monarchy was restored, the Roundheads never saw themselves as defeated and so they were still a big problem for Charles II, tried to take control of the succession, were not successful then but were finally with James II. It was this whole era, starting with Charles I, that determined whether the Crown would be left to God or Parliament to work out.

    Elisa, I did do a consort profile on Queen Henrietta Maria if you care to look her up. I was also very impressed with Alec Guiness's performance, a good man and a good actor in any event and the best part of that movie.

  7. I think the problem is when rulers try to be both "tough" and "nice". Standing firm on principle enough to make enemies, but not backing up their stand with sufficient force, they fall between two stools. Tragically, our favorite monarchs(often very appealing precisely because of their combination of nobility and gentleness) are often of this sort.

    1. One of them, I think, is George III who often gets a very bad rap these days. He wasn't a brutal tyrannical figure, but a man fond of frugality, sobriety, technology and application of knowledge.

      His great sin in the revolutionary mind was to try and reverse the trend of having a Prime Minister, to try and make the monarchy into a more executive role again. But that of course, was something neither Parliament nor the people could forgive easily. In regards to Parliament, he too tried to be both tough and nice but it didn't work out for him, as we all know.

  8. Though he gets little credit for it, I tend to place Tsar Nicholas I in that category. He was, by all accounts, a very warm and devoted family man, sincerely religious but not a man you wanted to mess with. He was tough, he was hard when he needed to be. I think it is telling that Nicholas II and Britain's Charles I are saints in their national churches (and there was an effort to have the same done for poor Louis XVI) and the qualities of saintliness are not always the qualities of a successful monarch in hard times. It reminds me of Pope St Celestine V (I think) who reigned at a time when one had to have pretty sharp elbows for the rough world of Italian politics. Celestine V was a saintly man, his soul was pure as the driven snow, but he was not the greatest Pope on the political side of things because of that and finally abdicated. I have always maintained, probably for emotional reasons, that one good man is enough, but all too often the generous and compassionate are more likely to be taken advantage of by dishonest and unscrupulous individuals.

  9. Louis the 16th Certainly deserves to be a Saint, but I fear ewith so much contempt for Monarchy in France and the prevailing Seculaism that comes along with it, this will not happen.

  10. Nice overview of the English Civil War. Keep up the good work :)

  11. Do any of you know that Diana Spencer is descended from H.M. King Charles II?

    1. > Do any of you know that Diana Spencer is descended from H.M. King Charles II?

      Twice, in fact.


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