The Stuarts: Charles I & The English Civil War (1625-1649)

When James VI left Edinburgh to become King James I of England, his frail young son, Charles, was left behind in Scotland. “Baby Charles” was a sickly child who had unfortunately inherited his father’s lack of confidence. He was never supposed to be king. Instead that honor was conferred upon Charles’s elder brother, Prince Henry, a vigorous and confident young man who was embraced as an ideal successor to the crown. However, Henry tragically died of an illness in 1612, leaving Charles next in line to the throne. Charles was further isolated when his older sister, Elizabeth, departed England to marry the King of Bohemia in 1613. At that point all eyes turned toward Charles for the succession of the crown. To fulfill his solemn duty, Charles grew into a proud, pious, and ultimately pathetic figure. He continued his father’s delusions about the “divine right of kings” and exacerbated hostilities between King and Parliament, as well as Church and State. His failures and stubbornness ultimately led to a civil war which culminated in his own trial and execution. To this day, he is the only King of England to ever have his head chopped off. Like the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras before him, Charles’s reign is known to us as the Caroline era.


Shortly after James I’s death, Charles was crowned King at Westminster Abbey on February 2, 1626. He was 24 years old upon assuming the crown. Among his first acts as King, Charles sought to rid his court of his father’s frivolous courtiers. Unlike his lax and libertine father, Charles hoped to maintain a sense of gravitas and decorum.

Charles was a small man standing at 5 feet four inches, and he suffered with a stutter. He was slightly more trim and athletic than his father, though that is hardly saying much. He maintained a less debauched court than James I. He was a lover of art and architecture. He viewed kingship not as pleasure or privilege, but as gloomy and grim duty.

Charles and his father’s “favorite” George Villers attempted a quixotic Spanish adventure to wed the Spanish infanta, Maria Anna of Spain, however the trip was a disaster from the start. The two Englishmen surprised the Spanish court when they arrived unannounced requesting the infanta’s hand in marriage. In response, King Philip III requested that Charles convert to Catholicism, demanded an alliance with England, and prevented Charles from visiting with the princess without the presence of a chaperone. In a frivolous attempt at a romantic gesture, Charles sought to visit the princess alone. One evening, he hopped over a fence into the princess’s garden, however the poor frightened child ran away in fear when she spotted Charles. Dejected, Charles and Buckingham returned to England and began to call for war with Spain. While James I still lay on his deathbed, Buckingham orchestrated Charles’s marriage to the Catholic princess of France, Henrietta Maria. A Catholic Queen of England was unacceptable to many Englishmen, particularly the Puritans who had now gained power in Parliament. She was called the “popish brat of France.” Nevertheless the marriage proceeded as planned but it was ill-fated. She reportedly burst into tears upon first sight of her future husband. Henrietta found Charles cold and inhibited and he found her sulky and spoiled, but in time their affections apparently grew warm, though she seems to have always regarded her husband as a weak and impressionable man.

Charles was a remarkable art collector and patron. Perhaps the most famous artist under the patronage of Charles was Sir Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish painter from the Spanish Netherlands known for his courtly portraits. Below is the famous triple portrait of the king.

Charles I In Three Positions by Sir Anthony van Dyck

Winston Churchill characterizes the mood of England at the time: “The English people felt that their survival and their salvation were bound up for ever with the victory of the Reformed Faith, and they watched with straining, vigilant eyes every episode which marked its advance or misfortune” (291). Parliament saw its cause as advancing the Protestant movement at home and abroad. Charles saw his opportunity to stitch together the English religious schism.

Charles first summoned Parliament in May 1625. The Commons was filled with “Low Church” Puritans who were skeptical of Charles’s “High Church” Anglicanism. They feared his marriage to a practicing Catholic as a betrayal to the country. They were also skeptical of his war with Spain and his relationship with the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke of Buckingham had persuaded the young king Charles to expand a naval war with Spain off the coast of Cadiz, as part of the Thirty Years War on the Continent, but without sufficient funds from Parliament, the war was an abject failure and it needlessly cost the lives of more than a thousand Englishmen. Additionally, Buckingham orchestrated an attack on coastal France in La Rochelle -an attempt to protect and defend the Protestant Huguenots, but this too failed. It was a crushing personal loss for Charles. English naval support to France had been a condition of his marriage to Henrietta Maria. Buckingham now drew the ire of many in Parliament. He was viewed as a traitor and a weakling -a feeble relic of the Jacobean era. In 1626 Parliament threatened to impeach Buckingham or as Winston Churchill puts it, “…Parliament resolved to unseat the glittering, profuse, incompetent Minister” (293). Instead of dismissing Buckingham, Charles dissolved Parliament. The Duke of Buckingham was then assassinated. He was surprised at a pub while attempted to orchestrate yet another ill-fated military campaign, and was repeatedly stabbed by a disgruntled army officer. Upon hearing the news of Buckingham’s death, the English public loudly rejoiced while Charles collapsed into a pool of his own tears. The King was inconsolable for two whole days.

Desperate to raise funds but unwilling to deal with an unruly Parliament, Charles sought to bypass Parliament by raising funds via a tonnage and poundage “forced loan” -or what we might call a tax in every way except in name. Charles took a step too far when the penalty for not paying the tax was imprisonment. This affected some of the members of Parliament who were land-owning businessmen. When he was compelled to summon Parliament again in 1628 the new Parliament was irate. It drew up the Petition of Right, an extraordinary legal document that sought to limit the king’s power by making it illegal for taxes not to be approved by Parliament, and other demands like forced imprisonment at the behest of the king. Charles initially acquiesced to Parliament’s demands believing a compromise could be made, but they were only just beginning. Before the close of business, members forcibly held the Speaker down in his seat until rules could be approved against Catholicism, Arminianism (an anti-Calvinist ideology most closely associated with Richard Montagu -one of Richard’s controversial ecclesiastical appointments), and the tonnage and poundage taxes of Charles. This was all too much for the king. Charles dissolved Parliament again in 1629 for a fourth time and he attempted to rule without it in what has been called Charles’s “Personal Rule” or the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny.’ He retaliated by ordering five members of Parliament arrested and imprisoned without trial. The unfortunate effect in the eyes of the public was in painting the Parliamentary men as martyrs standing up to a despotic king.

Despite the Petition of Right, Charles unilaterally instituted another new tax to pay for the money which was unsupported by Parliament. For this he dug back into rare feudal tax levies not enacted in centuries, particularly “ship money,” a tax to fund the navy during times of war. It was a widely unfavorable move.

Charles drew further ire among the gentry when he appointed his close associate William Laud to the see of Canterbury. Archbishop Laud was viewed with suspicion, perhaps even as a covert Catholic. His rigid enforcement of the “Prayer Book” (The Book of Common Prayer) and other “High Church” orthodoxies led to the so-called Bishops War. In Scotland there were riots against the “Episcopal” rule of bishops and uniform prayer books. The formerly moderate Protestant Presbyterians were radicalized. They signed the National Covenant which opposed Charles’s impositions by 1637 (and henceforth they were known as “Covenanters”). The “High Church” Anglican formalities were banned. Charles badly needed funds and supplies as the conflict with the Scots turned violent. He was urged by Archbishop Laud and Thomas Wentworth earl of Strafford (his two closes advisors) to summon Parliament. The Scottish rebellion needed to be crushed and Charles was forced to reconvene Parliament in April 1640 -the so-called “Short Parliament” but funds were refused. Furious, Charles dissolved Parliament a mere three weeks later. When the Scots invaded England and claimed large swaths of Northumberland, Charles was forced to reassemble Parliament yet again before the end of the year, the so-called “Long Parliament”.

By now the leader of the anti-royal Puritan faction in Parliament was John Pym, a Puritan leader who believed Charles was part of a Catholic conspiracy to subvert the country. Pym had no intention of contrition with Charles. With the threat of war with the Scots on his doorstep, Charles swallowed his pride and acquiesced to Parliament’s demands. They abolished his ship money tax, any other illegal taxes, made it law that Parliament should be summoned every three years, and should not be dissolved without consent. The most fateful of their demands was for the arrest of the unpopular advisor to the king, the earl of Stafford. Feeling his hands were tied, Charles reluctantly gave up Strafford to his enemies, eventually reluctantly signing the death warrant for Stafford “Black Tom” in 1641. The Bill of Attainder for Stafford ordered his execution. Of this betrayal Winston Churchill says “This was the agony of Charles’s life, to which none of his other sufferings could compare… Charles made the surrender which haunted him to the last moment of his life “ (308). It was a decision Charles would come to believe he would be punished for. The whole of the Tudor system which the Stuarts had inherited was shaken to its core. How could one of the highest ranking noblemen fall victim to the whims of Parliament? The events were shocking. Charles’s betrayal of Stafford lost him support in Ireland as well.

After the drama with Stafford, Parliament issued the Great Remonstrance which detailed a list of abuses of the king. They threatened to take over the army and impeach Charles’s wife. By now Henrietta Maria was urging Charles to respond to a Parliament run amok. Charles hit back with accusations of treason against five members of the Commons, among them John Pym and John Hampton. Charles demanded the arrest of certain members of Parliament. Charles attempted a coup of Parliament in January 1642 with some 400 cavaliers but by then his enemies had fled the floor. They had been covertly warned in advance of the king’s arrival. Looking around the room Charles muttered, “I see that the birds are flown.” It was an unprecedented situation, no English monarch had ever entered the House of Commons before. When he departed, Charles feared for his family’s life, Charles arranged for his queen to be exiled in Holland after Parliament threatened to impeach the queen. Pym enlisted an army, the first army ever conscripted by Parliament, and Charles built up his forces against the ‘traitorous’ Commons. It was the start of war.


The English Civil War
Both sides gathered -Parliamentarians and Royalists. The king left London, a city which had become a growing hotbed of anti-royalism. As the mobs in London became insufferable, Charles and his family escaped to Hampton Court. He would not see London again until his trial and execution. Pym and others in Parliament returned to London, triumphantly escorted by several thousand swordsmen. There were now effectively two governments: Pym, the Parliamentarians, and the Puritans who ruled with dictatorial control from London while they controlled the north and west; and Charles and the Royalists who broadly controlled the south and east. There were several skirmishes throughout the country but the civil war officially began at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642 when Charles raised his standard at Nottingham. Charles was mounted on his Flemish horse and he expected a confident victory. His cousin Prince Rupert of the Rhine was one of his chief strategists in the battle. Much to his chagrin, the battle ended without a clear victory. Per Winston Churchill, “…when the alignment of the parties on the outbreak of Civil War is surveyed no simple divisions are to be found. Brother fought against brother, father against son. The Royalists’ appeal was negative, but none the less potent. Against loyalty to Parliament they invoked loyalty to the Crown; against Puritan ardour Anglican unity. On both sides men went into the fight doubtfully, but guided by their belief in high-souled ideals” (313).

Over the next two years battles were fought all over England with little gained. The bloodiest of them was the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 near York where a united front of English Parliamentarians and Scottish Presbyterians defeated Royalist forces. From this point on the king lost his footing in the north of the country. The tide of war turned against Charles at the defeat of the Battle of Naseby in 1645. At the battle, the Parliamentarians effectively outnumbered and annihilated the Royalist forces. Charles was found playing chess when news came of his capture. He went obligingly believing it was a mere matter of time before he would be returned to his kingship.

The roughshod military victor on the side of the Parliamentarians was a country squire from Cambridge transformed into a military commander with a zealous belief in his own salvation. His name was Oliver Cromwell. He was the hero of all obscure Protestant sects -he encouraged truth to conscience above all else. He was an indirect descendent of Thomas Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell sought to fight for the true religion, law, peace, and liberty of the kingdom. He was tall, bony, slightly awkward, unscholarly, and fervent. The Parliamentarian army, known as the New Model Army, was a meritocratic system and Cromwell quickly rose among the ranks. His leadership in the military and Parliament posed a new path forward for English politics.


The Trial and Execution of Charles I
At any rate, after the Battle of Naseby Charles was turned over to the Presbyterian Scots in 1646 believing he could negotiate his way out. However, the Scots struck a deal with Parliament and they promptly exchanged the king for money. Charles was forcibly seized by the New Model Army which was increasingly at odds with Parliament. Amazingly, Charles escaped to the Isle of Wight where he attempted a frivolous partnership with the Scots to invade England and reinstate himself, but it was never to be. Charles was recaptured by the Parliamentarians and the Scots were resoundingly defeated at Preston in August 1648.

Charles I at his trial. His barber was dismissed by Parliament hence his hair and beard grew long.

Charles was taken to Windsor. The army purged the Long Parliament for any lingering Royalist sympathies. What remained was the aptly named “Rump Parliament” which passed an Act to establish a trial of Charles “that man of blood” for high treason and other offenses. The trial began in London at Westminster Hall on January 2, 1649. Charles refused to comply claiming that monarchs are answerable only to God. Members of Parliament were stunned to see their king in all his frailties: his grey hair and sunken eyes. His refusal to issue a plea was taken as an admission of guilt and he was sentenced to death by Parliament. When the verdict was announced Charles let out a chuckle. He foresaw an end coming he was convinced that his death would make him a martyr for the royalist cause. He hoped it would ensure a transfer of the kingship to his son Prince Charles.

His execution was to take place outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall on January 30, 1649. A scaffold was erected just for the occasion. It was difficult to locate a proper executioner as few had the courage to kill a king. It was justified when Parliament proclaimed him a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and enemy of the Commonwealth.

Charles was allowed to see his family one last time before his death. On the night before his execution he got very little sleep. At dawn he arose early and announced the work he had before him that day. He drank a glass of claret and ate some bread. It was a cold morning and he wore two shirts lest anyone should mistake his shivering for cowardice. He was led out to the scaffold where he gave a short speech which professed his innocence (and acknowledged his punishment from God for allowing the earl of Stafford to be executed by Parliament). He removed his Order of the Garter jewel of St. George and handed it to one of his attendants, asking it to be given to the Prince of Wales with the addition of one word: “remember.” He spent a short time in prayer, then he helped the executioner push his hair up under his cap. His last words were: “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbances can be, no disturbance in the world.” He then knelt down, stretched out his hands, and lay his head upon the block. With one fell swoop the king’s head was sliced off. Parliament had successfully usurped a king. A contemporary diarist Samuel Pepys wrote “there was such a groan by the thousands then present… as I never heard before and desire may never hear again.” The executioner held aloft the head of the king. It was later sewn back onto his body for burial. Charles I is buried in St. George’s Chapel Windsor.

Rather than a butchery, Winston Churchill likens the killing of Charles I to a solemn ceremony or a sacrifice. A long and brutal war was exacted and it necessitated a satisfying conclusion for the people. The fault ultimately lay at the feet of the king. Following Charles’s execution came eleven years of Parliamentary dictatorship under the iron fist of Oliver Cromwell. It was to be a prologue or perhaps prelude to future events -the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon. After flirting with Republicanism the civil war would only end when England ultimately acknowledged the need for its king after all.

Winston Churchill summarizes the reign of Charles I as follows:

“A strange destiny had engulfed this King of England. None had resisted with more untimely stubbornness the movement of his age. He had been in his heyday the convinced opponent of all we now call our Parliamentary liberties. Yet as misfortunes crowded upon him he increasingly became the physical embodiment of the liberties and traditions of England. His mistakes and wrong deeds had arisen not so much from personal cravings for arbitrary power as from the conception of kingship to which he was born and which had long been settled custom of the land. In the end he stood against an Army which had destroyed all Parliamentary government, and was about to plunge England in a tyranny at once more irresistible and more petty than any seen before or since” (332).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion: The History of England From James I To The Glorious Revolution.

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