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?