Charles I, King of England and Scotland, Martyr
30 January 1649

(This is the long version; the short version is here.)

(See the Comparative Note on Royal Martyrs in the biographical sketch of Louis XVI of France.)

(You can also read a profile maintained on the British Monarchy web page, at

Charles was born in 1600, second son of James VI of Scotland (who upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 became James I of England as well). At his birth, he was not expected to live, and at the age of four, he could still neither speak nor walk. Since he had an elder brother Henry, he was not expected to inherit the throne. But just before he turned twelve, his brother died, making Charles the heir. He responded by undertaking a program of training, physical and otherwise, with the result that his speech difficulties were reduced to a slight stammer, and he could speak several languages and fence and ride and in general qualify as a suitable heir to the throne. By the time he did inherit the throne in 1625, he inherited troubles with it. His father, by arrogance and tactlessness, by a disreputable private life, by enriching his favorites at the expense of the public welfare, by an unpopular foreign policy, had largely depleted the popular good will toward the monarchy that his predecessor had accumulated. Charles inherited his father's largely unpopular advisors, an unsuccessful war with Spain, and the beginnings of an unsuccessful war with France.

The reign of Charles was largely occupied with a struggle against his Parliament, chiefly over two issues, taxation and the Church.

  1. By ancient tradition, most taxes could be levied only by Parliament. Certain fees, however, had special status. It was customary for Parliament, at the beginning of every reign, to grant the new monarch authority for life to assess and collect customs duties ("tonnage and poundage"), and the King could levy "Ship Money" for the maintainance of the Royal Navy. Traditionally, only five seacoast cities (the Cinque Ports), all with large shipping industries, and therefore all obviously benefitting from Naval protection, were subject to the levy. Charles pointed out, truly enough, that every Englishman benefitted from Naval protection, and claimed the right to collect money to support the Navy from all England. This Parliament would not concede.
  2. Parliament contained many Puritans, who wished to "purify" the Church of England by making it conformable to the practices of Calvin's church in Geneva. This meant abolishing bishops and the use of the Book of Common Prayer. This Charles believed to be wrong.
Immediately upon his accession, Charles found Parliament suspicious of him. Instead of the customary bill giving him lifetime authority to collect tariffs, they gave him a grant for two years only. Charles, who had inherited the belief that kings rule by Divine Right, responded to what he regarded as the outrageous behavior of Parliament, by confrontation rather than, as a more cunning man might have done, by manipulation. The results were not good. He finally dissolved Parliament.

Charles, by avoiding war, and otherwise reducing government expenditures, managed to run the government on customs duties and Ship Money and revenues from Crown lands, and so on, from 1629 to 1640. But in 1639 he attempted to install the English Book of Common Prayer in Scotland, and an armed insurrection followed, so that Charles, needing money to pay his troops, called what became known as the Long Parliament. This Parliament, considering that it had the King at its mercy, refused him any tax revenues unless he would agree to renounce his right to levy customs duties and Ship Money, and they took from him other immemorial royal prerogatives, and ordered the execution of some of his supporters. Charles went to the North of England and gathered an army to fight against Parliament. This was the First Civil War, which lasted about from 1642 to 1646. Charles lost. He entrusted himself to the Scottish Army, which promptly sold him to the English Parliament, which held him prisoner.

Here one of Charles's principal faults, and a disastrous one, became obvious. He firmly believed in his own God-given right to rule, and considered that in dealing with those who were trying to take his status from him by force, he had the right to make whatever promises expediency dictated, and to break them when when expedient. (Just so, many persons otherwise extremely honest, if confronted with the kidnapping of a child and consequent ransom demands, would think it quite justifiable to promise the kidnappers anything, and to break the promise by marking the bills, staking out the drop site, and so forth. They would say that it is not dishonest to thwart a robber and a potential murderer, by lies and broken promises if necessary, since you are taking from him nothing that he has a right to.) The result was, that when Charles was finally defeated and backed into a corner, he had no credibility left to bargain with. In this connection, his defenders point out that, at the end, when he was being held prisoner on the Isle of Wight, he had the opportunity to save his life by escaping, and refused it, since it involved breaking his word. He would break his promise in order, as he believed, to save his country from disaster, but not if the only thing to be gained was his personal life and liberty.

Not even his worst enemies thought Charles less than a good man in private life. Unlike his predecessor and his successor, he was faithful to his marriage vows; and his marriage (though it got off to a slow start, being a political alliance to a bride he had never seen) was remarkable among royal marriages for its happiness and mutual devotion. When his accusers wished to say something against his moral character, the worst charge they could find to bring was that he read Shakespeare.

In 1647, Charles signed a secret agreement with a group of Scots that brought about the Second Civil War, in which the Royalists were again defeated.

A war which was, in one sense, about taxation, was in another sense about religion. The Parliamentary armies were led by Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan and a military genius. (He is said to be a collateral descendant of Henry VIII's advisor Thomas Cromwell. However, a correspondent who has researched his life doubts this. He says that Oliver's family moved from Wales to England at a time when last names were not common in Wales, and adopted the Cromwell name because T Cromwell then stood high in the king's favor.) He began by opposing Charles in the name of liberty, but soon his battle cry became the Puritan faith. Wherever his troops went, they smashed stained-glass windows and pictures and statues, stabled their horses in churches, and burned vestments and Prayer Books. (The same correspondent says that this was not Cromwell's original policy, although it was that of some of his soldiers. He says that Cromwell eventually suppressed traditional Anglican usages because they were rallying points for royalists. Another correspondent, from Ely, informs me that Ely Cathedral was spared desecration when Cromwell took Ely, by Cromwell's personal command.) At the end, when Charles was Cromwell's prisoner, he was required to assent to a law abolishing bishops in the Church of England. He had previously given his consent to such an abolition in Scotland, where the Puritans were in the majority, but here he dug in his heels and declared that Bishops were part of the Church as God had established it, and that he could not in conscience assent to Cromwell's demand. His refusal sealed his doom, and it is for this that he is accounted a martyr, since he could have saved his life by giving in on this question. He was brought to trial before Parliament, found guilty of treason, and beheaded 30 January 1649. On the scaffold, he said (I quote from memory and may not have the exact words):

That is to say, one may reasonably ask of a government that it establish justice in the land; so that judges do not take bribes, so that innocent men are not convicted of crimes, while the guilty are convicted and punished, so that honest men need fear neither robbers nor the sheriff. One may further ask that taxes be not excessive, and that punishments be not disproportionate to the crime. Charles would have said, "Do not ask whether the laws were made by men whom you elected. Ask whether they are reasonable and good laws, upholding justice and the public weal." He would have invited comparison of his record in this respect with that of the Long Parliament (which sat for twenty years without an election, and whose members came to think of themselves as rulers for life, accountable to no one) and Cromwell (who eventually dissolved Parliament and ruled as a military dictator, under whose rule the ordinary Englishman had far less liberty than under Charles).

In his struggle with his opponents, Charles considered himself to be contending for two things:

  1. the good of the realm and the liberty and well-being of the people, which he believed would be better served by the monarch ruling according to ancient precedent, maintaining the traditional rights of the people as enshrined in the common law, than by a Parliament that ended up denying that it was either bound by the law or accountable to the people; and
  2. the Church of England, preaching the doctrine of the undivided Church of the first ten centuries, administering sacraments regarded not as mere psychological aids to devotion but as vehicles of the presence and activity of God in his Church, governed by bishops who had been consecrated by bishops who had been consecrated by bishops... back certainly to the second century, and, as many have believed, back to the Twelve Apostles and to the command of Christ himself.
In his Declaration at Newport, in the last year of his life, he said: In prison, Charles wrote a letter, which he gave to the Bishop of London to give to his son, the Prince of Wales. I quote a few extracts.

On the day before he was to die, Charles's two youngest children were brought to him. The Princess Elizabeth, at that time twelve years old, later wrote as follows of their meeting:

On the day of his death, he rose early and dressed with great care, saying that he was going to his Savior as a bride to a bridegroom, and must dress as befitted such a joyful occasion. He was attended by Bishop Juxton, who read to him from the Scriptures the appointed reading for that day, (Matthew 27, the Passion of Our Lord). Afterwards he was conducted to Whitehall, the place of execution. There, in the building, he received the Holy Communion from the bishop. Afterward, he was offered a meal. He refused, saying that it was fitting that the Holy Communion should be his last food. However, the bishop intervened, pointing out that he had already fasted many hours, that it would be more time yet till he was put to death, and that if he fainted his enemies would say that it was from terror. He yielded to this argument and ate and drank a little. At one o'clock, he came out to the block, and made a speech to the crowd, declaring his innocency of the charges against him, but acknowledging his guilt in that, fearing for his own life and that of his queen, he had not pardoned Thomas Wentworth when Parliament passed a Bill of Attander against him, although he believed him innocent. He declared that he forgave those by whom he was brought to death, and he offered a prayer for the people of the realm. He made a profession of faith, and then knelt at the block. He said to the executioner: "I shall make a short prayer. When I put out my hands, then strike." A minute later he was dead.

After his death, the realm was ruled, first by the Parliament, then by the Army, and then by Cromwell personally, as Lord Protector. Cromwell's military abilities held him in power for ten years, and when he died, his son Richard Cromwell inherited his post, but lacked the ability to maintain control. Within a year, the country invited the late king's son, then in exile in France, to assume the throne as Charles II. Soon after, he remarked, "I see that it is my own fault that I remained so long in exile, for since coming to England I have not met a single man that has not long desired my return." Charles II heeded his father's advice and sought no revenge on those who had put his father to death. However, the new Parliament was of a different mind, and had the principal surviving leaders of the plan to kill the king put to death for treason.

In a day when religious toleration was not widespread, King Charles I was noteworthy for his reluctance to engage in religious persecution of any kind, whether against Romanists or Anabaptists.

His attitude toward accusations of witchcraft is noteworthy. His father, King James I, had written a book on witchcraft, and considered himself an expert on the subject. Under his reign, persecutions of witches were frequent. Public hysteria brought many suspects to the stake. It was Charles's practice to have women accused of witchcraft brought before him, and in most cases, he concluded that they were old and sick or wandering in their wits, and he gave them money and sent them home.

Charles was never a Roman Catholic, and firmly refused all urgings to become one, saying that he believed the Church of England to be more truly Catholic than the Church of Rome. However, there were many Roman Catholics in his family. His mother, Anne of Denmark, had converted to Rome. His own wife, Henrietta Maria, a French princess whom he had married in what was originally a political alliance but ended as a love match, was a Roman Catholic. His oldest son, who ruled as Charles I, became a Romanist on his deathbed, and his second son, who ruled as James II, became one while still healthy, and lost his throne on account of it. It was accordingly not surprising that the Puritans accused him of being secretly disposed toward Rome, and that they regarded all his moves toward religious toleration as part of a Roman Catholic plan to seize the government.

References: Two readable accounts of the political aspects of the struggle are

  1. J. P. Kenyon, Stuart England (1978, Penguin Books), in the Pelican History of England Series
  2. The New World, being Volume 2 of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, by Sir Winston Churchill (1956, New York, Dodd, Mead & Co)
[Personal Note: Saturday (29 January 1995) I attended a Liturgy commemorating the death of King Charles. I there beheld a locket containing a few strands of his hair. Afterwards, at breakfast, I said to the man sitting next to me, "I see that you have a French missal. What country are you from?" He answered, "Rwanda." The man across the table from me said, "This gentleman is the King of Rwanda, and on the other side of you is his Prime Minister." I assume that he was the king-in-exile, but did not think it tactful to inquire directly about his status. We talked of other matters instead. I can understand that he might take a personal interest in King Charles.]

From a sermon by Ronald A Knox:

We are met, dearly beloved, to celebrate the festival of Charles, King and Martyr, who laid down his life in defence of our most holy religion in the year of grace sixteen hundred and forty-nine. Discrowned by his people, we dare not doubt that he has been crowned in heaven.... [We honor him] because he lived a life of personal holiness and devotion unexampled among the princes of his age.... We venerate him also as a martyr, because he might at the last have saved his life if he had been content to lose it by helping to destroy the order of Apostolic succession handed down to us from Augustine [first Archbishop of Canterbury]. We do not thereby necessarily assent to the policy he pursued while yet on the throne, a policy which to him, thinking with the mind of his times, seemed the only possible one for the maintainance of religion in England. It is not the Court of Star Chamber or of High Commission which we commemorate today; it is the sentence, the axe, and the block, and the royal blood staining the January snow.

Prayers (traditional language)

Prayers (contemporary language)