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Tyrant, victim, or martyr?

27 January 2017

Charles I is still a troubling figure, says Adrian Leak


Before the war: Charles I by Van Dyck (1637)

Before the war: Charles I by Van Dyck (1637)

CHARLES I (1600-49) was born in Dunfermline Castle, the second son of King James VI of Scotland (and, after 1603, James I of England).

On the death of his elder brother Henry, he became heir to the English, Scottish, and Irish thrones, to which he succeeded in 1625.

He married a Bourbon princess, Henrietta Maria, and with her established one of the most glittering courts in Europe. Under his patronage, art, architecture, poetry, and music flourished — as did commerce and trade.

His relations with Parliament were less happy, leading to the disastrous civil war, which culminated in his trial and execution in 1649. The Church commemorates him on the anniversary of his death, 30 January.


AFTER King Charles I was beheaded, his body was hurriedly buried at Windsor, without ceremony or monument. In 1678, 29 years later, Parliament, by whose authority he had been executed as “a traitor to the people”, met to “consider of the manner of a more decent and solemn interment of his late sacred majesty of ever blessed memory”.

Christopher Wren’s design for the royal mausoleum envisaged a domed 140-foot-high rotunda, at a cost of £70,000. The national panic set off by the Popish Plot that year, however, forced Parliament to postpone its plans, until a more propitious day should dawn. It never did.

We might well ask why Parliament planned such a grandiose monument to a King whose reign had ended in failure, and why it marked the anniversary of his execution with a solemn fast and day of humiliation. Many of us now find the description of King Charles as a martyr, and his inclusion in the calendar of saints, questionable.

But, then, we fail to take into account the mood of the country at that time. There was a deep revulsion at what had happened on 30 January 1649, even among those who had supported the Parliamentary cause in the Civil War. This called for an act of national penance.

It is possible at this distance in time to take a more balanced view of such a troubling figure. Without taking a partisan position, we can celebrate his achievements, and acknowledge his faults.

His court had been the envy of Europe. As Prince of Wales, he had been impressed by the decorum of the Spanish court: mannered, sumptuous, sophisticated — a welcome change from his father’s. The Puritan Mrs Hutchinson reported that the young king was “temperate, chaste and serious, so that the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court grew out of fashion”.

He was a discerning patron of the arts. Rubens called him “Le prince le plus amateur de la peinture qui soit au monde.” He had encouraged playwrights, architects, and musicians. His courtiers were expected to play an instrument, and at the royal masques to sing and join the dance.

He was well informed and supportive of commercial enterprise. The historian C. V. Wedgwood writes: “In the halls and embrasures of his palaces, he settled a huge number of technical questions relating to taxation, to industry, manufacture and shipping. Through these he learnt a good many things about the manufacture of salt, soap, pins, and beaver hats.”

The achievements of peace were, however, destroyed by a civil war for which he must bear much of the blame. He had become a victim of his own intransigence. At a time when many of his subjects were Calvinist at heart, he sought to impose by force a High Anglican doctrine. His support of Archbishop Laud’s unbending policies was ill-judged in England, and disastrous in Scotland.

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, he never understood the limitations of the English monarchy. Instead of finding an accommodation over the need for funds, he chose to dispense with Parliament altogether for 11 years. His autocratic rule came to an end only when he had to recall Parliament when the money ran out.

Later, his attempt to browbeat it ended in humiliation when he entered the House of Commons and tried to arrest five MPs, only to be met with the refusal of the Speaker.

The civil war that ensued ended in his defeat and capture. By the time he had been brought to trial, however, public support for his accusers had almost vanished. Where his enemies saw a failing tyrant, his supporters now saw a victim. His kingship was redefined as martyrdom. People now recalled the words that David spoke when he spared the life of the tyrant Saul: “Who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Samuel 26.9).

At the scene of his execution, the crowd remained silent, until they saw the axe rise. When it fell — an eyewitness later recalled — there arose “such a groan as I have never heard before, and desire I may never hear again”. The diarist John Evelyn wrote that the execution “struck me with such horror that I kept the day of his martyrdom a fast”.

Others — Presbyterian as well as Anglican — began spontaneously to keep the anniversary as a day of solemn remembrance. In 1660, Parliament designated it as an annual fast-day, and a special Office for the day was annexed to the Book of Common Prayer.

The mood of the prayers was penitential. The collect prayed: “Lay not the guilt of this innocent blood to the charge of the people of this land.” The purpose of the occasion was to be “a day of fasting and humiliation” on which to ask divine forgiveness for a national crime.

The public beheading of King Charles remains, after three-and-a-half centuries, a stain on our nation’s story. Perhaps he was not strictly a martyr, but, as the axe fell, the crowd knew instinctively that a great evil had been done.


The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in Surrey.

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