(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 http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page76.asp.)
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.
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):
In his struggle with his opponents, Charles considered himself to be contending for two things:
The best government and highest sovereignty you can attain to is to be subject to Him, that the sceptre of his word and spirit may rule in your heart.
The true glory of princes consists in advancing God's glory, in the maintainance of true religion and the Church's good; also in the dispensation of civil power, with justice and honor to the public peace.
Above all, I would have you, as I hope you are already, well grounded and settled in your religion, the best profession of which I have ever esteemed that of the Church of England, in which you have been educated; yet I would have your own judgement and reason now sealed to that sacred bond which education hath written, that it may be judiciously your own religion, and not other men's custom or tradition which you profess.
In this I charge you to persevere, as coming nearest to God's word for doctrine, and to the primitive examples for government, with some little amendment which I have otherwise expressed, and often offered, though in vain. Your fixation in matters of religion will not be more necessary for your soul's than your kingdom's peace, when God shall bring you to them.
When you have done justice to God, your own soul and his Church in the profession and preservation of truth and unity in religion, the next main hinge on which your prosperity will depend and move, is that of civil justice, wherein the settled laws of these kingdoms, to which you are rightly heir, are the most excellent rules you can govern by, which by an admirable temperament give very much to subjects industry, liberty, and happiness; and yet reserve enough to the majesty and prerogative of any king who owns his people as subjects, not as slaves, whose subjection as it preserves their property, peace, and safety, so it will never diminish their rights, nor their ingenious liberties, which consist in the enjoyment of the fruits of their industry and the benefit of those laws to which themselves have consented.
Your prerogative is best showed and exercised in remitting rather than in exacting the rigour of the laws; there being nothing worse than legal tyranny.
I have offered acts of indemnity and oblivion....
I would have you always propense to the same way, whenever it shall be desired and accepted, let it be granted, not only as an act of state policy and necessity, but of Christian charity and choice.
It is all I have now left me, a power to forgive those that have deprived me of all; and I thank God I have a heart to do it, and joy as much in this grace, which God hath given me, as in all my former enjoyments; for this is a greater argument of God's love to me than any prosperity can be. Be confident (as I am) that the most of all sides, who have done amiss, have done so, not out of malice, but misinformation, or misapprehension of things.
The more conscious you shall be to your own merits upon your people, the more prone you will be to expect all love and loyalty from them, and to inflict no punishment upon them for former miscarriages; and you will have more inward complacency in pardoning one, than in punishing a thousand.
I do require and entreat you, as your father and your King, that you never suffer your heart to receive the least check against or disaffection from the true religion established in the Church of England.
I tell you I have tried it, and after much search and many disputes, have concluded it to be the best in the world, not only in the community, as Christian, but also in the special notion, as reformed, keeping the middle way between the pomp of superstitious tyranny, and the meanness of fantastic anarchy.
Nor would I have you to entertain any aversion of dislike of Parliaments, which, in their right constitution with freedom and honor, will never hinder or diminish your greatness, but will rather be an interchanging of love, loyalty, and confidence, between a prince and his people.
Nothing can be more happy for all than, in fair, grave, and honorable ways, to contribute their counsels in common, enacting all things by public consent, without tyranny or tumults. We must not starve ourselves, because some have surfeited of wholesome food.
I know God can--I hope he will--restore me to my rights. I cannot despair, either of his mercy, or of my people's love and pity.
At worst, I trust I shall but go before you to a better kingdom, which God hath prepared for me, and me for it, through my Saviour Jesus Christ, to whose mercy I commend you, and all mine.
Farewell, till we meet, if not on earth, yet in Heaven.
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:
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
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)