King Charles I

King Charles I

King Charles I

Charles I was born in 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland and Anne, daughter of Frederick II of Denmark. His father succeeded to the English throne as James I in 1603 and Charles became heir on the death of his brother Henry in 1612. His father’s favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, also cultivated Charles and in 1623 they went to Madrid together to arrange a marriage between Charles and the Infanta Maria Anna, daughter of Philip III. That would have been an unpopular match in England and there was great rejoicing when, on their return, Charles reneged on the agreement made with the Spanish court.

Charles succeeded his father in 1625, at the age of twenty-four, and a few weeks later married Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV of France. She played an influential role at court after the assassination of Buckingham in 1628. Charles was a family man, genuinely fond of his wife and children, and his court was decorous and orderly. By nature he was a private person who found it difficult to communicate easily with others, was inclined to be inflexible once he had formed an opinion and lacked a sense of humour. He favoured authority and dignity and embraced his father’s belief in the divine right of kings. In ecclesiastical matters his views were those of the high-church Arminian element and he distrusted the Puritans; in 1633 he appointed the leading Arminian cleric William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles was a discerning art collector, a patron of the architect and designer Inigo Jones, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, and the artists Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens.

Charles's difficulties with the early Parliaments of his reign encouraged him to rule without a Parliament after 1629, governing through the Privy Council. This policy inevitably produced difficulties in raising revenue and the fiscal devices adopted were resented; when the legality of Ship Money, a new tax to pay for the Royal Navy, was challenged by John Hampden in the courts the government only narrowly won the case. But for much of the 1630s it did raise sufficient funds, partly because it followed a peaceful foreign policy. Its apparent success raised fears that the crown would be able to continue to govern without Parliament.

The 1630s also saw changes to the form of worship that reflected the king’s beliefs. The Puritans found them objectionable, but they were implemented none the less. However, an attempt to impose the use of the Anglican prayer book in church services in Scotland, which was largely Calvinist, met with determined opposition. Failure to achieve an agreement prompted the government to mobilise armies to restore royal authority there by force, a strategy which failed in the two Bishops’ Wars in 1639 and 1640. The financial consequences were such that the king called a Parliament in 1640. This, the Short Parliament, he quickly dissolved, but when no solution to the government’s problems was found, he called another, which came to be known as the Long Parliament.

Its MPs were seething with discontent over constitutional and legal aspects of the years of personal rule and they had much popular support. They set about righting the wrongs which they believed had occurred during Charles’s personal rule, and executed the Earl of Strafford, his principal minister, with Charles’s reluctant consent, which he later bitterly regretted. Most of Parliament’s initial demands were met. The king visited Scotland to achieve a compromise there and was feasted by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London on his return.

But a new crisis was precipitated by a violent rebellion that erupted in Ireland in the autumn of 1641, against the policies of his reign. Issues arose over the raising of an army to suppress the revolt and the selection of its commanders. Charles was insistent on his right to make those appointments and that the royal prerogative should not be diminished. Meanwhile, control of the City’s government passed to his opponents after elections to the Common Council on 21 December, and large-scale demonstrations at Westminster showed the depth of opposition to the court and the bishops. He attempted to recover lost political ground by a show of force, entering the House of Commons to arrest his leading opponents and intimidating the Londoners by taking control of the Tower. When those efforts failed, in January 1642 he and the queen abruptly left the capital.

During the summer both sides began to enlist troops and acquire weapons. Charles raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642, signifying the start of the Civil War. So far as he was concerned, this simplified a complex political situation by creating a stark division between those supporting him and those opposing him, who could be branded as traitors. He was able to generate enough support to enable him to wage war for over four years, but at the cost of delaying the search for a political solution; peace talks at Oxford in 1643 and at Uxbridge in 1645 failed. As commander-in-chief of the royalist armies he took part in several campaigns. His armies had some notable successes, but the royalist war effort was dogged by rivalries among the senior commanders, politicians and courtiers that the king was unable or unwilling to suppress, and which contributed to military defeat and the collapse of the cause. In 1646 Charles surrendered to the Scottish army at Newark and the Scots later handed him over to Parliament.

Aware of his own crucial importance, the king wove a complex political web after the end of the First Civil War, hoping to further divide the factions among the parliamentarians and Scots. He would not agree to any arrangements that diminished the royal prerogative or, in terms of a religious settlement, which had risen to be high on the agenda, the abolition of episcopacy. Although he prevaricated when offered terms by the parliamentarian leaders in 1647, he came to an agreement with the Scots. This led in 1648 to the Second Civil War, with sporadic uprisings by English royalists and the invasion of England by a Scottish army. The New Model Army, an increasingly powerful element in the equation, defeated the Scots at Preston and crushed the uprisings, but so bitterly resented the renewed bloodshed that the Second Civil War greatly worsened the king’s position.

Charles had developed a reputation for dissimulation and insincerity, characteristics which now damned him as someone with whom it was impossible to agree terms, when a constitutional settlement was desperately needed. Worse, he had made war on his own subjects four times and was held responsible for the lives lost and the destruction and devastation caused. Negotiations failed, no effective diplomatic or domestic support for him was forthcoming, and the army and its allies in Parliament acted decisively. In January 1649 he was put on trial. He refused to recognise the authority of the court or to enter a plea, and so was found guilty and condemned to death. He was executed outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall on 30 January 1649; the monarchy was abolished on 16 March. No other English monarch has been tried and executed by their subjects.