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Charles I

Rubens' painting portraying the divine right of kings, Banqueting House, London

The story of Charles I is about the rule of law. Parliament thought that even the king should be subject to law. The king thought that Parliament, a human institution shouldn't be trusted with law. Law for Charles ultimately came from God, and it was his job to maintain God's law, free of the vagaries of humanity. The famous struggle between Charles I and Parliament was a tragic struggle of ideals.

Charles was born on 19th November 1600 in Dunfermline Castle, son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. He was not a strong child, suffering from weak legs, and a stammer. When Charles was three years old, Elizabeth I died, and his father succeeded as King of England. James travelled south to take up the English throne. His young son followed on a few months later, and was cared for by Robert and Lady Cary. Cary, showing admirable sense, managed to talk King James out of commencing medical "treatment" for her charge's various problems. In this way Charles escaped having part of his tongue removed, and having to wear iron boots to strengthen his legs. Even so physical problems seemed to lead to a sense of inadequacy in Charles, especially in the face of the confidence, strength and energy demonstrated by his older brother Prince Henry. Perhaps this lack of confidence led in later life to stubbornness and inability to compromise. Charles also sought solace in religious devoutness.


At the age of twelve a shy and quiet boy was pushed forward into the limelight. In August 1612 Prince Henry became ill, probably with typhoid, and died in November. James had a morbid fear of disease, so he did not have much to do with his son during his illness, and did not attend the funeral. It fell to young Charles to act as chief mourner. Charles young as he was, acted his role diligently. He would do the same during and after his mother's final illness in 1621, when once again his father kept away. There is little doubt that Charles behaved very well at these times. He was brave, self controlled, rigorously moral and believed in doing the right thing. Charles illustrates the point that people do not have strengths and weaknesses so much as characteristics which play out well or badly according to circumstance. The rigorous quality that brought Charles to his brother's and mother's side during their last illness, while James ran away, was the same quality that would leave him stubborn and unwilling to compromise in other circumstances. This serious minded boy was now heir to the throne, and immediately James put his son in a difficult position by arranging an engagement with a catholic Spanish princess. This was supposedly to balance the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine, one of the leading protestant princes of Europe. Distrust of Spain and Catholicism ran deep, and Charles' s engagement, which in the end did not lead to marriage, placed Charles in a bad light with a generally protestant public. A second trap for the future lay in King James's relationship with George Villiers. This man, originally the penniless younger son of a minor noble family, used his charm and beauty to win influence with James. From 1618 Villiers, now the Duke of Buckingham, was dominating James, the young man's incompetence and extravagance causing a serious deterioration in relations between the monarch and Parliament. Initially Charles was hostile to Buckingham, but James was besotted and insisted on a reconciliation between his son and his royal favourite. Buckingham turned on the charm and soon enjoyed the same influence over Charles as he did over the king.


St Augustine's Abbey

In 1624, Buckingham and Charles made a trip to Spain. Buckingham returned home with the idea of going to war with the country he had just visited. He was young, and thought war was heroic. There seems no other reason for his plans. Parliament was called to grant money, but only gave permission for funds to be used in defence of the kingdom, and to help the Dutch. Instead of reprimanding Buckingham for his hair brained scheme, James was furious that Parliament had been allowed to debate and decide on foreign policy. Of course faced with the Duke of Buckingham, Parliament was very likely to feel it had to intervene. At this point Buckingham was essentially running the country. Charles's closeness to the disastrous Buckingham immediately put the future king at odds with Parliament. Buckingham also put Charles at odds with the girl he finally married, fourteen year old Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France. Charles married Henrietta in May 1625 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with another ceremony at St Augustine's Church in Canterbury, Kent. The early years of the marriage were difficult, particularly as Buckingham did all he could to sour marital relations, not wanting any rival to his monopoly on royal power.

Charles was crowned King of England on 6th February 1626, following the death of his father. Meanwhile Buckingham, with influence undimmed, continued his blunder through history. In 1627 he picked a fight with France, and supposedly sailed to the relief of the protestant city of La Rochelle. This was done before La Rochelle had broken with the catholic French king, and before the city had asked for help. The English intervention only inflamed a delicate situation, with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants of La Rochelle. Then, after stirring everything up, Buckingham was of no help. In fact his forces were trapped on the Ile de Re, and had to be helped by the citizens of La Rochelle. This man was clearly a liability and Parliament wanted him out. Charles resisted. Whatever Buckingham's failings, it was not for Parliament to dictate who his advisors should be. Eventually in 1628 a renegade lieutenant decided the situation by assassinating Buckingham in Portsmouth. This eased the tension. Charles was also helped by extremism in Parliament's demands, which at this point caused Parliament a loss of public sympathy. When Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and decided to rule alone, general opinion was with him. Most did not see him as a tyrant, as is sometimes claimed. Instead Parliament was generally seen as the party which had overstepped boundaries.



Queen's House, Greenwich

The years 1629 to 1637 were the happiest of Charles's life. Without Buckingham around he was able to fall in love with Henrietta Maria. His relationship with his subjects also improved, and for these years the country was peaceful. Many of the buildings and sites we tend to associate with Charles date to this happy period. The beautiful Queen's House in Greenwich was finished in 1635, and given to Henrietta. The piazza and square which, with royal support, Inigo Jones was to turn into Covent Garden, dates to the 1630s. At Whitehall Palace, Peter Paul Rubens was hard at work creating spectacular painted panels for the ceiling of the Banqueting House. These paintings, which portrayed the divine right of kings, were installed in 1636, and can still be seen at the Banqueting House today. Trips were made to take the waters at the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and summers would be spent at Wilton House in Wiltshire. The summer of Charles's reign, however, was not to last long. Without Parliament Charles was cut off from the general run of opinion in the country, and while this was with him in 1629, by 1637 it increasingly was not. Attempts were made to raise money by extending nationwide a tax formerly levied only on port towns. Merchants in port towns might gladly pay for a navy to protect shipping, but the rest of the country could not see such an immediate benefit. Religious policy was also causing problems. In 1628 William Laud was promoted from a small bishopric to Bishop of London, and began his career as head of the Church. Laud was an opponent of the Roman Catholic Church. But ironically Laud remained rather catholic in outlook. He felt that Catholicism had gone astray, and that the true catholic tradition was, surprisingly, actually embodied by the protestant Church of England! Laud's view was a problem when there was so much prejudice against catholics in England at this time. Religious division between catholics and protestants had been a feature of life since the Reformation of the sixteenth century. On the continent the Thirty Years War was raging between catholics and protestants, and many feared such conflict might spread to England. Any suggestion of Catholicism in the government of England was going to be viewed with deep suspicion. Since 1627 there had been a catholic chapel, the Queen's Chapel at St James's Palace, used by Henrietta Maria. This beautiful building, which survives, added to a gathering fear of the king's religious intentions. Charles himself was a staunch protestant, but he believed in religious toleration, something which did not sit well with most people. Slowly the goodwill which had been given to Charles by Parliament's extremism in 1629 was being eroded.



St James's Palace

By 1637 some of the gentry were refusing to pay ship money. And an attempt to impose the pattern of English church services on Scotland was causing huge resentment. In a riot at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, a stool was thrown at a priest. By the spring of 1638 the National Covenant had been signed by Scots of all classes, swearing to resist religious innovations to the death. A reluctant army was raised to put down the Scottish rebels. Some aimless skirmishing was followed by the Peace of Berwick in June 1639. Charles had set out to give a show of strength, but managed to end up doing the opposite. Charles resolved to try again, but not being a tyrant himself he decided he needed help from someone to whom tyranny came more naturally. He called in Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Strafford's first advice was to call Parliament in 1640. This was done to raise money to fight the Scots, and also to allow the extremists a chance to discredit themselves, as they had done in 1629. But those days had gone. The national mood was now much more sympathetic to Parliament. The formidable figure of John Pym led Parliament in presenting grievances to the king. Charles had called this Parliament to raise money to fight the Scots, but Pym was clearly in touch with the Scots, and working with them. Seeing the danger Charles dissolved this parliament, the "Short Parliament", after less than a month. But with no money the campaign against Scotland was doomed. A few disorganised armed bands moved north, but were defeated at the end of August 1640. The English retreated quickly to York. The Scots, in partnership with Parliament now called for a large indemnity before they would retreat back across the border. Of course this indemnity could only be paid for with a Parliamentary grant. On 3rd November 1640 Charles was forced to face the inevitable and call another parliament. This was to be the Long Parliament, which was to sit through all the troubles of the decades ahead.



Tower of London, from Tower Hill

The crisis now gathered pace. Strafford was taken to the Tower, and Laud joined him there in December. With all his advisors in hiding Charles turned to Henrietta Maria. She advised her husband not to lose faith in his vision of the divine right of kings to govern. Charles, disastrously, listened to her. He resolved to continue the struggle against Parliament. But Parliament crucially controlled the money, and with it power. By May 1641 Charles's enemies had sealed Strafford's fate, and condemned him to death. Charles did his best to save his friend, but was fearful of what the London mobs would do if the hated Strafford was spared. Charles finally agreed to the execution, which took place on Tower Hill, on the open area in front of today's ticket offices where tourists queue up before heading into the Tower. Parliament admitted that Strafford's crime, that of treason, could not be supported legally, since the accused had never been disloyal to the king. Quite the contrary in fact. But the law was secondary to national security. The sentence had to be carried out. This was a world that Charles would never accept, where law seemed arbitrary, where loyal royal servants should somehow be condemned for treason. The world was upside down. Charles never forgave himself for allowing Strafford's execution, and in a sense saw everything that followed as a divine punishment for this failure.




Hampton Court

The situation was now desperate. Faced with the reality of revolution, even some MPs shied away, and a royal party began to form in Parliament. Some historians, Norman Davies for example, point to this split as the beginning of party politics in England. But it was not enough to hold back the momentum of events. Charles decided on a last attempt to regain control. On 4th of January 1642, after several hours talking to Henrietta Maria, the king left Whitehall and headed to Westminster to arrest five MPs identified as leaders of the opposition to him. Getting to Westminster Charles became the first king to enter the Commons chamber, and found himself struggling to pick out the men he wanted on the benches of gathered MPs: "I do not see any of them. I think I should know them."

The speaker fell to his knees in front of the king, but refused to help identify the fugitives. Charles had to look for himself, and soon discovered that Pym, Hampden, Haslerigg, Holles and Strode had all left. Charles withdrew, and demanded that the fugitives be handed over. But the mood in London meant this wasn't going to happen. On 10th of January Charles fled to Hampton Court with his family. Then they moved to Windsor Castle, and Dover, where Henrietta Maria and the younger children left for Holland taking the Crown Jewels with them. Charles rode along the white cliffs waving his hat as his family disappeared out of sight, before heading for York. The two eldest boys, Charles and James went with him. Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham Castle on 22nd of August, and this is usually taken as the beginning of the English Civil War between supporters of the king on one side, and supporters of Parliament on the other.



Merton College, Oxford

Initially things seemed to go well for Charles. The Civil War's first pitched battle took place on 23rd October 1642 at Edgehill in the Cotswolds. Even though this was an indecisive encounter an advanced guard of the royalist army still reached Thurnham Green, a few miles outside London. But instead of pressing on, Charles decided to retreat and spend the winter in Oxford, which was to be his headquarters throughout the conflict. Christopher Hibbert in his book Charles I describes Oxford during its time as the royalist centre:

"By the beginning of the new year 1643, Oxford was more like a garrison than a university town. Undergraduates, forsaking their books for spades, threw up new earth works and fortifications; scholars and professors joined the colours; noble students sought leave to put on the gleaming armour of the King's Life Guards; soldiers were drilled in the streets and quadrangles; gunners were trained in the meadows... At the same time the life of court went on as though its denizens were still in Whitehall. There were musical entertainments and plays; new sonnets and satires were published; new fashions were paraded through the streets and were copied by the citizen's wives; love affairs were conducted by the river bank and beneath the secluded walls of college gardens..." (quoted in The Life and Times of Charles I by D.R. Watson P136).

The following year brought a few indecisive battles, such as Newbury. It also brought the death of John Pym, who had done so much to coordinate Parliament's effort against the king. But before he died Pym had put in place the structure that would win the war. An efficient source of funding, via a tax on common goods, and an efficient army organisation meant that Charles began to lose ground. On 2nd July 1644 parliamentarian organisation was tested against the royalists' best general, Prince Rupert, the King's nephew. The armies met at Marston Moor near York, and after hours of hard fighting, the parliamentary army prevailed. Then after another winter the New Model Army as it was now called really showed its power. Commanded by Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, this formidable force defeated the main royal army at Naseby in June 1645. Charles was now trapped in his stronghold in Oxford. Another defeat followed at Torrington, Devon in February 1746. By May Charles realised that his position was hopeless. He escaped from Oxford and gave himself up to the Scots. He was soon turned over to the English, and in August he was taken to Hampton Court.



In the Royalist ranks at a re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, 1st June 2008

Charles could easily have come to an agreement with Cromwell. All that was required was some compromise. But Charles wasn't like that. On 11th November 1646 the king escaped from Hampton Court, where he was not closely guarded, and made for the Isle of Wight. Here he gave himself up to Robert Hammond, governor of the island. Perhaps he thought that Hammond would be sympathetic. Perhaps there was some idea of escaping to the continent from the island. Whatever Charles had in mind, the trip to the Isle of Wight ended in confinement at Carisbrooke Castle, where he continued to plot and conspire. The plan was now to try and exploit natural divisions between various parliamentary factions, between Scots and English, between the various shades of Protestantism, between Parliament and the New Model Army, which had much more extreme views than the Parliament it was meant to be serving. The result of these efforts was another flare up of the war. In May 1647 there were royalist risings in Wales, Kent, Essex and the north. Scotland also threatened to turn on its former allies in England. These rebellions, sometimes known as the Second Civil War rumbled on into 1648. With the New Model Army quickly mobilised the royalists couldn't hold out for long. Last stands took place in Maidstone, Kent at the castles of Dover and Deal, and in East Anglia at Colchester. Once resistence had finally been crushed, Cromwell invaded Scotland, replacing the governor Hamilton, who had royalist sympathies, with the more dependable Argyll. In December 1648 the army returned to London, where in a military coup, Parliament was cleared of all MPs not agreeable to the army's extreme views. The small group of MPs left after the purge was known as the Rump Parliament. It was the army who now took Charles from Carisbrooke Castle, to more secure confinement at Hurst Castle in Dorset. From Hurst there were more moves to Winchester, Windsor Castle, and finally on 19th January 1649 to St James's Palace. The king was then put on trial at Westminster Hall.

At this point the struggle over law and where it came from reached its culmination. Parliament argued that Charles had overstepped the law by ignoring the institution which represented the people. All of the people were subject to law, including the king. Charles countered by claiming that Parliament was not a court of law, and was not representative of general opinion, since all MPs with non-revolutionary views had been purged. In all this Charles was correct. Parliament might claim lofty ideals about laws to which everyone is subject, but the body creating those laws was hardly one of dispassionate objectivity. When Charles was asked to recognise that he was before a court of justice, he replied "I see I am before a power". Charles was so convincing that a number of his inquisitors started to waver. Cromwell, who by now was determined that Charles be dealt with once and for all, had to bring his forceful personality to bear in back room arguing. Eventually his view was accepted. Charles was to be beheaded. Fifty nine people signed the king's death warrant, a document which survives and is now kept at the National Archives. An iron hat worn by chief prosecutor John Bradshaw, to ward off assassination attempts, and the seat Charles sat in at the trial, are both preserved at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.



Banqueting House - the scaffold was placed beneath the lower line of windows

On a freezing day, 30th January 1649 Charles was led through the Banqueting House, stepped through one of the windows onto a scaffold built against the wall outside. He gave a speech in which he appealed for the rule of a higher law, to which he and his people were subject, an ironic counterpoint to the accusations made by Parliament that the king had put himself above the law:

""For the People, and truly I desire their liberty and freedom, as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, Sirs: that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things."

Just opposite Banqueting House is the archway of Horse Guards Parade. If you look carefully at the clock over the arch you will see a black mark on the clock face. This commemorates the time of the execution, which was 2pm.

In Charles's vision there is a higher law, beyond human vagaries, and it is a king's job to bring that law to his people. Accordingly people are most free, most secure in their rights and property, when they accept the king's special role. "A subject and a sovereign are clean different things."

Parliament did not accept this view. A subject and a sovereign were not clean different things, and both had to accept the same law. This law was not something written down by a higher power. It was rather something made by people themselves. This was of course an unnerving idea, especially when the laws are made by very human and imperfect institutions such as Parliament. Most people now accept this as the reality of life, but you could argue that the people who actually pioneered democratic law were afraid of it. Puritanism permeated Parliament, a dour, hard-line, proscriptive religious outlook. The deposition of Charles I was a revolution, but like all revolutions there was a fear of the new world, and in the absence of a God to tell people what to do, puritans came along with an ever sterner God to tell people what to do. No matter that it was Parliament who now made the laws. The impression of a strict law maker in God remained.