Charles I  1600 - 1649

Charles I  1600 - 1649

Charles was the second son of James I and Anne of Denmark. He ascended to the throne in 1625 following the early death of his elder brother Henry. Charles was a delicate boy with a speech impediment that lasted throughout his life and although he grew to be a keen huntsman he was a sensitive and virtuous man.

portrait of CharlesI
Charles I

In 1625 Charles married Henrietta Maria of France, then aged sixteen. The marriage was a successful one and Charles was to become a devoted husband and father whose standards of family and court life were high and dignified, in sharp contrast to those of his parents. However it was to prove unfortunate for both England and the young King that the two people in whom he placed his complete trust, the Duke of Buckingham and his Queen, were politically unpalatable to his subjects. Buckingham had been a favourite of James and was an arrogant monopolist of patronage whilst the Queen was a devout Roman Catholic. Both were extremely unpopular.

Charles was ill equipped for Kingship. He lacked his father's intelligence and cunning and much of his principled exterior hid slow wits and confusion. He did attract loyalty although he was incapable of its manipulation. Archbishop Laud said of his master that he was “a mild and gracious prince who knew not how to be, or be made, great”. Charles was indeed a man of very limited abilities. He was inflexable and lacking the ability to compromise, evasive in defeat and unfeeling in victory.

A staunch Anglican of the Arminian school, Chales believed in his Divine Right to rule. This was to set him at odds with a powerful and growing group of his subjects from the start. The landed and mercantile classes which had adopted Puritan opinions had already made clear their intent to make use of the House of Commons to press their policies. Charles’ unshakeable faith in his God given position meant inevitable conflict.

The trouble began almost immediately. The first Parliament of Charles’ reign was called to grant money in 1625. They offered only a fraction of what was requested and openly attacked the King's advisors and foreign policy. Charles dissolved the Parliament without agreement. The bad blood between monarch and assembly was to continue until 1629 when Charles took the unprecedented step to rule alone without resorting to Parliament in anything. The Parliament for its part objected to the King's unconstitutional attempts to raise money through dubious taxation and forced loans with inprisonment for defaulters. Even the murder of Buckingham in 1628 could not heal the wounds. Charles was too bitter at the public rejoicing over the assassination of his favourite.

Charles' continued efforts to raise funds, notably Ship Money, and suppress Puritans together with the attempt to impose the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots resulted in unpopularity in England and open rebellion in Scotland. Having no cash to raise troops to stop the invading Scots, Charles was forced to summon Parliament. Over the period of a truce with the Scots the “Short Parliament” refused to grant funds without redress of its grievances and was summarily dissolved. The truce expired and the Scots invaded the north. Charles had no option but to call a second Parliament and meet its demands.

The “Long Parliament” called in November 1640 ended the so-called “Eleven years' Tyranny”. Having united his enemies against him Charles was forced to accept sweeping reforms to the constitution and to sacrifice many of his key remaining supporters. However, religious differences in the Commons and a conservative backlash at the reforms began to bring the public opinion back over to the King in 1641. In January 1642 Charles felt bold enough to return to his old style and attempted to arrest his five principle enemies within Parliament at the head of a body of soldiers. War was inevitable.

The causes of the English Civil War were more complex than the bickering of King and Parliament. In a very real sense Charles was a victim of circumstance, caught up in the upheaval simply because he was King. However his behaviour and beliefs did much to fan the flames and prevent a negotiated peace.

Charles was not a natural soldier, and though he did fight with great personal bravery in the field, when he held the strategic initiative in the first year of the war he failed to capitalise on it. Ultimately Parliament's control of the wealth and power of London and most of the national armouries together with its alliance with the Scots and the military genius and ruthlessness of Cromwell tipped the balance against the King. After 1643 Charles was unable to effectively control his commanders in the north and west, or stop his armies fragmenting in defeat. The Scottish successes of Montrose were not supported and Charles' attempts to raise Irish troops made his cause all the more unpalatable.

In May 1646 when a defeated Charles surrendered himself to the Scots, he was still in a strong position. Few people wanted an end to the monarchy and there were animosities between Parliament and its armies. It seemed that Charles believed he could utilise his enemies' differences to meet his own ends and recover everything that he had lost on the battlefield through duplicity in negotiation. His complete lack of political judgement was to prove fatal.

Charles delayed negotiations with the Scots for so long that in 1647 they handed him over to Parliament. He was soon seized by a mistrustful Parliament army, wary of Parliament's plans to disband them without paying their arrears of wages. Again Charles temporised. Then in November he escaped to Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight and signed a secret pact with his Scottish supporters in December for an invasion to restore him to his throne and establish Presbyterianism in England. The Second Civil War erupted in 1648.

Parliament had had enough. Cromwell destroyed the Scots at Preston that August and all those in favour of negotiation in Parliament were excluded in “Pride's Purge”. Only the “Rump”, the independent minority was allowed to sit in the House of Commons. In January 1649 they set about trying the King in a special court. Charles refused to acknowledge its authority but the result was a foregone conclusion.

On 30th January 1649 Charles I was executed by public beheading on a scaffold set up outside the banqueting Hall of the Palace of Whitehall.

Charles had shown himself to be an inept and untrustworthy monarch during his lifetime but in death he proved himself a man of small stature but great dignity and outstanding courage. Like so many of his subjects on both sides of the Civil Wars he died for the principles in which he believed.