TODAY is the anniversary of the start of the English Civil War
in 1642, which began when King Charles I raised his royal standard
at Nottingham. The more I have studied Charles I, the more grateful
I feel that it has not been my lot to live in the second quarter of
the 17th century. There is a sad sense, as one looks at the late
1630s and '40s, of events' spinning out of control, and in
different directions; so what might have resolved problems in
Ireland would have exacerbated them in Scotland, and so on.
In England, the unhappy relationship between the Crown and
Parliament was a significant factor in the descent into civil war.
Much is made by Whig historians of the assertion of the divine
right of kings by Charles I; but there was not a monarch in Europe
who did not believe in the divine right to some extent.
Elizabeth I and James I believed in such a right, and they both
had trouble with their Parliaments, but they were shrewder in their
dealings than Charles I.
Another, and probably more significant, problem was religion.
The year 1562, in which the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were
published, was probably the high water mark of Calvinist influence
in the Church of England. After this, there was a gradual
divergence. In academic circles, there was something of a
rediscovery of Patristics.
To read the Greek Fathers, however, is to be exposed to
ecclesiology and sacramental theology, among other things. There
was, consequently, a gradual clawing back of a more apostolic and
thus Catholic understanding of Christianity. One might think of
writers such as Hooker, Cosin, Andrewes, Taylor, and Thorndike.
Then there was the experiment in community life at Little
Gidding, which Charles I visited three times. Nor must one forget
Archbishop Laud's promotion of more reverent worship. Although it
was not directly related, the spread of the theology known as
Arminianism also undermined the Calvinistic influence.
This more Catholic view of Anglicanism, however, was only ever
the vision of a minority of more educated people. The 16th and
early 17th centuries saw the growth of more extreme Protestantism,
notably Presbyterianism, and a whole host of smaller sects.
A religious clash was probably always going to happen,
especially given the cultural and theological differences between
the English and Scottish Reformations, and with the long shadows
cast by the Thirty Years War on the Continent. It was the sad
misfortune of Charles I to find himself king at a time of
constitutional instability - in part, of his own making - and
WHILE researching Cosmo Gordon Lang in Lambeth Palace Library, I
met some fascinating historians and writers, such as Professor
Timothy Peters, a leading authority on porphyria. Professor Peters
was researching the illness of George III, and has successfully
demonstrated that the king did not have porphyria, but suffered
from Recurrent Mania (Bipolar Disorder I).
He then turned his attention to James I, who, too, was alleged
to have suffered from porphyria. Needless to say, he appears not
have had it, either. James I had several very good doctors, who
made detailed notes of his symptoms and illnesses. Professor Peters
and his colleagues studied these, and then used computer-based
diagnostics, as is currently done in specialist neurological
This suggested that James I suffered from mild Lesch Nyhan
disease. This condition is associated with Asperger's syndrome
(high-functioning autism), which describes some of the features of
Now, I am an archival church historian, not a medical historian;
so I must be cautious. Lesch Nyhan disease is, like haemophilia, an
X-chromosome disorder, and thus is not passed from father to son.
Asperger's syndrome has a genetic component, however, and is often
passed from father to son. This possibility is increased if the
mother is depressed during her pregnancy.
We know that James I and his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, did
not enjoy a happy marriage. We further know that, in 1600, when she
was five months pregnant with Charles, Anne became furious with
James when he dismissed two of her ladies-in-waiting after the
Gowrie Conspiracy. She stayed in bed for two days and refused to
Depression during the queen's pregnancy, then, cannot be
precluded, and seems quite possible. If further research shows that
Charles I inherited Asperger's syndrome from James I, this insight
would help enormously in our understanding of his life, and of the
descent into civil war.
CHARLES I was an intelligent and well-educated man; but, at times,
he saw things in black and white. Although he could be decisive, he
could also be an irresolute ditherer. Some of his decisions were
good; others were terrible, with tragic consequences.
In fairness, Charles I could also be a very kind man, especially
to his servants, which in any age is an important indication of
personality. The subject is worthy of further research.
If my hunch is correct, it reinforces a perception of Charles I
as a tragic figure, trying to do his best for his subjects
according to his lights, hampered by Asperger's syndrome, and a
large dose of bad luck, frequently getting it wrong, as events spun
out of his control.
One of the - not entirely respectable - games that historians
sometimes play is called "What if . . ." What if, in 1936, Edward
VIII had not abdicated and had married Mrs Simpson? What if, in
1914, Gavrilo Princip had failed to shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand?
Well, what would have happened in 1612 if Charles I's elder
brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, had not contracted fatal typhoid?
Prince Henry was clever, good-looking, a bit of a charmer - all the
things that Charles I was not.
It is possible that, had he ascended the throne as Henry IX,
there would have been no civil war. He might have avoided
unnecessary wars with France and Spain, although he would probably
have been tempted to interfere in the Palatinate. I have no doubt
that he would have got on better with Parliament and with the Scots
than his younger brother did.
My guess is, however, that there would have been a price to pay,
and that price would have been the Church of England. Henry's
formative boyhood years had been spent in Scotland, influenced by
the Kirk. He was an advanced Protestant, who got on well with the
Puritans, and was no enthusiast for Arminianism.
The English bishops were unpopular in the 1620s and '30s. It is
not too much of a leap of the imagination to see Henry ditching
episcopacy and turning the Church of England into an avowedly
Calvinist, Presbyterian body. Some people would have been
horrified, but most would have gone along with it. The Church of
England would have become a footnote in a history book.
The fact that this did not happen is largely due to Charles I.
He favoured the more Catholic and apostolic trend in Anglicanism.
When he was 26, he wrote a private confession of his Christian
faith. He began: "I am a Catholic Christian" - a remarkable
statement for 1626. He believed in the veneration of the Blessed
Virgin Mary and the saints, but did not seek their interces-
While believing in liturgical and sacramental worship, he denied
transubstantiation. He also rejected as "new fangles" the adoration
of images, purgatory, indulgences, and papal infallibility.
In 1632, the king described his religious policy to the Lord
Mayor of London:
It has also been our care since we came to the throne not only
to defend the true faith that we profess, but also to maintain the
Church and clergy in their proper jurisdiction, and dignity, and
professions; and with all to encourage and enable our loving
subjects, in all places to re-edify, repair and beautify their
churches, that respect and outward appearance being a good effect
and clear evidence of their zeal.
BRITISH kings and queens tend to go to church a great deal: it is
part of their job. This churchgoing means more to some monarchs
than others. Several historians have sought to trace Charles I's
religious development. Canon John Fenton, the New Testament
scholar, once said of Christianity: "You've got to feel it in your
guts." Charles I came to feel Christianity - and, in particular,
the Church of England - in his guts.
This meant that he was always going to clash with those of his
subjects who felt other sorts of Christianity in their guts:
Puritans and Presbyterians. After his imprisonment by Parliament,
the king had several opportunities to save his life and regain his
throne, but the price was always that he should consent to the
abolition of the Church of England and its replacement by
The king refused. When all else had fallen away, he still
believed that the Church of England was the purest form of
Christianity, freed from later accretions, and in tune with the
ancient Fathers. For this, he was prepared to die.
We Anglicans are very good at grumbling about the Church of
England, sometimes with cause. We are not so good at recognising
the Church's good points. On the whole, I suggest that the Church
of England has been a good thing in our country's history over the
past three-and-a-half centuries.
It has sought, with varying degrees of success, to be a
religious home for a broad range of English people, and has helped
to mould some of the good things in our national life and
We owe this, in no small respect, to Charles I's martyrdom,
which helped to ensure the restoration of the Church of England
with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The acceptance by
Charles I of a Calvinist and Presbyterian Church would have
resulted in the evolution of a very different England.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great
Bardfield and Little Bardfield, in the diocese of Chelmsford, and
the author of Cosmo Lang (I B Tauris, 2012).