King Charles I

King Charles I

Charles was born in Dunfermline, the son of James I and Anne of Denmark, was born in 1600. He was made the Duke of York at the age of five and the Prince of Wales in 1616.

When James I died in 1625, his son Charles became king. Later that year, Charles married Henrietta Maria, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Henri IV of France. As Henrietta Maria was a Roman Catholic, this marriage was not very popular with the English people. The Puritans were particularly unhappy when they heard that the king had promised that Henrietta Maria would be allowed to practise her religion freely and would have the responsibility for the upbringing of their children until they reached the age of 13.

The couple had six children, Charles (1630-1685), Mary (1631-1660), James (1633-1701), Elizabeth (1635-1680), Henry (1640-1660) and Henrietta (1644-1670).

At this time King Louis XIII was involved in a civil war against the Protestants (Huguenots) in France. Parliament wanted to help the Huguenots but Charles refused as he did not want to upset his wife or brother-in-law. Eventually it was agreed to send a fleet of eight ships to France. However, at the last moment Charles sent orders that the men should fight for, rather than against, Louis XIII. The captains and crews refused to accept these orders and fought against the French.

Parliament was very angry with Charles for supporting Louis XIII. When he asked for taxes of £1,000,000 they only gave him £150,000. They also asked Charles to sack his chief minister, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, as they thought he was guilty of giving the king bad advice. Charles refused and instead dissolved Parliament.

Charles now had a problem. He was very short of money, but under the terms of the Magna Carta taxes could not be imposed without the agreement of Parliament. Charles tried raising money in other ways. For example, he gave orders for Spanish treasure-ships coming from South America to be robbed.

This venture was not very successful, and in 1626 he was forced to summon his second Parliament. The Members of Parliament were still unwilling to grant the taxes Charles wanted. Instead they complained about the illegal methods that Charles had been using to raise money. Parliament also demanded a meeting with the king's ministers. Charles refused, declaring that Parliament had no right to question his ministers. Once again he dissolved Parliament and imprisoned critics such as Sir John Eliot.

In 1635 the king faced a financial crisis. Unwilling to summon another Parliament, he had to find other ways of raising money. He decided to resort to the ancient custom of demanding Ship Money. In the past, whenever there were fears of a foreign invasion, kings were able to order coastal towns to provide ships or the money to build ships.

Charles sent out letters to sheriffs reminding them about the possibility of an invasion and instructing them to collect Ship Money. Encouraged by the large contributions he received, Charles demanded more the following year. Whereas in the past Ship Money had been raised only when the kingdom had been threatened by war, it now became clear that Charles intended to ask for it every year. Several sheriffs wrote to the king complaining that their counties were being asked to pay too much. Their appeals were rejected and the sheriff's now faced the difficult task of collecting money from a population overburdened by taxation.

In 1637 John Hampden was prosecuted for refusing to pay the Ship Money on his lands in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. He appeared before the Court Exchequer and although he was found guilty, the publicity surrounding the case made him one of the most popular men in England.

Charles found other ways of raising money. Another scheme involved selling monopoly rights to businessmen. This meant that only one person had the right to distribute certain goods such as bricks, salt and soap. This policy was unpopular as it tended to increase the price of these goods.

In an attempt to improve his popularity with Parliament, Charles sent some soldiers to help the Huguenots in France. However, when he called his third Parliament, they still refused to grant him the taxes that he wanted. The king sent a message for Parliament to be dissolved. The Speaker (chairman) tried to close proceedings but a small group of MPs stopped him by holding him down. The doors were locked to keep the king out and the MPs continued with their debate. Charles was so angry when he found out what had happened that he had the MPs involved sent to prison.

In the first five years of his reign Charles summoned and dissolved Parliament three times. Charles now tried to rule England without Parliament. For the next eleven years no Parliaments were held.

The king's main adviser was William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud argued that the king ruled by Divine Right. He claimed that the king had been appointed by God and people who disagreed with him were bad Christians. Laud believed that Church reforms had gone too far. Anglicans tended to support the policies of Laud but the Puritans strongly disagreed with him. When Laud gave instructions that the wooden communion tables in churches should be replaced by stone altars. Puritans accused Laud of trying to reintroduce Catholicism.

Laud also upset the Presbyterians in Scotland when he insisted they had to use the English Prayer Book. Scottish Presbyterians were furious and made it clear they were willing to fight to protect their religion. In 1639 the Scottish army marched on England. Charles, unable to raise a strong army, was forced to agree not to interfere with religion in Scotland. Charles also agreed to pay the Scottish war expenses.

Charles did not have the money to pay the Scots and so he had to ask Parliament for help. The Parliament summoned in 1640 lasted for twenty years and is therefore usually known as The Long Parliament. This time Parliament was determined to restrict the powers of the king.

The king's two senior advisers, William Laud and Thomas Wentworth were arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Charged with treason, Wentworth's trial opened on 22nd March, 1641. The case could not be proved and so his enemies in the House of Commons, led by John Pym, Arthur Haselrig and Henry Vane, resorted to a Bill of Attainder. Charles I gave his consent to the Bill of Attainder and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was executed on 12th May 1641.

Parliament then passed a law that gave members control over the king's ministers. Charles I was furious and decided it was time to retaliate. On 4 January 1642, Charles sent his soldiers to arrest Arthur Haselrig, John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles and William Strode. The five men managed to escape before the soldiers arrived. Members of Parliament no longer felt safe from Charles and decided to form their own army. After failing to arrest the Five Members, Charles fled from London. Aware that Civil War was inevitable, Charles began to form an army.

Religion was an important factor in deciding which side people supported. The king's persecution of Puritans meant that most members of this religious group supported Parliament, whereas most Anglicans and Catholics tended to favour the royalists. Large landowners often persuaded their workers to join their army. Landowners living in the north and south-west of England and Wales tended to side with the king, whereas people living in London and the counties in the south-east of England mainly supported Parliament.

On 22nd August, 1642, the royal standard was raised at Nottingham. This started three years of bitter fighting. The war effectively came to an end with the defeat of the Royalist forces at Naseby. The battle was a disaster for Charles. About 1,000 of his men were killed and another 4,500 of his most experienced troops were taken prisoner. After Naseby, Charles was never able to raise another army strong enough to defeat the parliamentary army in a major battle.

Charles continued to rally support from his base in Oxford. In January 1647, Charles fled to Scotland where he was captured and handed over to the parliamentary army. Charles was imprisoned in Hampton Court, but in November 1647 he escaped and managed to raise another army.

This time Charles was able to persuade the Scots to fight on his side. In August 1648 Cromwell's parliamentary army defeated the Scots and once again Charles was taken prisoner.

In January 1649, Parliament decided to charge Charles I with "waging war on Parliament." It was claimed that he was responsible for "all the murders, burnings, damages and mischiefs to the nation" in the Civil War.

The jury included members of Parliament, army officers and large landowners. Some of the 135 people chosen as jurors did not turn up for the trial. For example. General Thomas Fairfax, the leader of the Parliamentary Army, did not appear. When his name was called, a masked lady believed to be his wife, shouted out, " He has more wit than to be here."

This was the first time in English history that a king had been put on trial. Charles believed that he was God's representative on earth and therefore no court of law had any right to pass judgement on him. Charles therefore refused to defend himself against the charges put forward by Parliament.

Charles pointed out that in December 1648, the army had expelled several members of' Parliament. Therefore, Charles argued, Parliament had no legal authority to arrange his trial. The arguments about the courts legal authority to try Charles went on for several days. Eventually, on 27 January, Charles was given his last opportunity to defend himself against the charges. When he refused he was sentenced to death. His death warrant was signed by the fifty-nine jurors who were in attendance.

On the 30 January, Charles was taken to a scaffold built outside Whitehall Palace. Charles wore two shirts as he was worried that if he shivered in the cold people would think he was afraid of dying. Troopers on horseback kept the crowds some distance from the scaffold, and it is unlikely that many people heard the speech that he made just before his head was cut off with an axe.

Primary Sources

(1) Statement sent by Charles I to Parliament (1626)

I must let you know that I will not let any of my ministers be questioned by you... hasten my supply (taxes) or it will be worse for yourselves; for if any ill happen, I think I shall be the last to feel it.

(2) Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution (1961)

The soap monopoly, which promised the King £20,000 a year in the 1630s, was attacked not only because it doubled the price and its inferior product blistered the hands of the washerwomen, but because the monopolists were Catholics.

(3) Pamphlet published in 1640.

People are forced to purchase goods from a monopoly, at a dear rate... Witness the soap business.

(4) Petition signed by twelve members of the House of Lords (1640)

That your majesty's sacred person is exposed to hazard and danger in the present expedition against the Scottish army, and by occasion of this war your revenue is much wasted, your subjects burdened with coat-and-conduct money, billeting of soldiers, and other military charges, and divers rapines and disorders committed in several parts in this your realm, by the soldiers raised for that service, and your whole kingdom become full of fear and discontents.

The sundry innovations in matters of religion, the oath and canons lately imposed upon the clergy and other your majesty's subjects.

The great increase of popery, and employing of popish recusants, and others ill-affected to the religion by law established in places of power and trust, especially in commanding of men and arms both in the field and in sundry counties of this your realm, whereas by the laws they are not permitted to have arms in their own houses.

The great mischiefs which may fall upon this kingdom if the intentions which have been credibly reported, of bringing in Irish and foreign forces, shall take effect.

The urging of ship-money, and the prosecution of some sheriffs in the star chamber for not levying of it.

The heavy charges of merchandise to the discouragement of trade, the multitude of monopolies, and other patents, whereby the commodities and manufactures of the kingdom are much burdened, to the great and universal grievance of your people.

The great grief of your subjects by the long intermission of parliaments, in the late and former dissolving of such as have been called, without the hoped effects which otherwise they might have procured.

For remedy whereof, and prevention of the dangers that may ensue to your royal person and to the whole state, they do in all humility and faithfulness beseech your most excellent majesty that you would be pleased to summon a parliament within some short and convenient time, whereby the causes of these and other great grievances which your people lie under may be taken away.

(5) Diary entry of Henry Slingsby, a MP from Yorkshire (1642).

We have lived a long time.... without war... We have had peace when all the world has been in arms... It is I say a thing most horrible that we should engage ourself in war with another.... with our own venom... we will destroy ourself.

(6) H. Arnold-Forster, History of England (1898)

At the beginning of King Charles' reign it would never have crossed the mind of any Englishman that England could be governed in any other way than by a king... It is well to remember these things, because they prove to us how many and great must have been the faults which Charles committed to have driven the English people into open war against him.

(7) Thomas Macaulay, The History of England (1848)

Charles I was an intelligent and well educated gentleman... His taste in literature and art was excellent, his manner dignified... his domestic life without blemish.

(8) V. Renouf, British History (1926)

Charles managed to govern for eleven years without assembling Parliament. During this time he raised his revenues by illegal taxes, and imprisoned, without proper trial, the members of the House of Commons who had opposed him.

(9) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Charles I was a handsome man with cultivated tastes... but he was unfit for the position of king... He was too stupid and cold-hearted to understand or sympathise with the feelings of the people, and events were to prove that he was hopelessly obstinate, self-centred, and untrustworthy.

(10) G. Warner, British History (1923)

Charles was an Anglican and because of his wife was inclined to tolerate the Roman Catholics; Parliament was Puritan and anti-Catholic... Parliament wanted, rightly or wrongly, a greater control of the government; Charles, rightly or wrongly, was unwilling to concede it.

(11) Lucy Hutchinson wrote an account of Charles I's trial. Her husband John Hutchinson was one of those who signed the king's death warrant.

In January 1648, the king was brought to his trial... When he was charged with the blood spilt in the war... he smiled...

His looks and gestures suggested that his only sorrow was that all the people that opposed him had not been killed... Mr. Hutchinson... addressed himself to God by prayer... God did not signal his favour towards the King...... it was therefore his duty to act as he did.

(12) Charles I made a short speech before he was executed. Later, the speech was printed in a news-sheet and distributed all over England.

I never did begin the war with the two Houses of Parliament... They began war upon me... if anybody will look at the dates of what happened... they will see clearly that they began these unhappy troubles, not I... therefore I tell you I am the martyr of the people.

(13) John Lilburne, who was one of the leaders of the Levellers, wrote a pamphlet attacking the execution of Charles I (1649)

I refused to be one of his (Charles I) judges... they were no better than murders in taking away the King's life even though he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with... it is murder because it was done by a hand that had no authority to do it.

(14) Extract from a pamphlet on the execution of Charles I that was published soon after his execution.

The King... looking upon the block, said to the executioner... "It might have been a little higher"... The executioner replied, "It can be no higher Sir"... When the King's head was cut off, the executioner held it up and showed it to the spectators.

(15) John Rushworth was one of the fifteen men on the scaffold when Charles I was executed. Later he wrote an account of what happened.

The scaffold was hung round in black... the axe and block was in the middle of the scaffold... "I shall be very little heard by anybody here," began the King, speaking from notes on a small piece of paper he had taken from his pocket... He protested his innocence of beginning the war... Then turning to Colonel Hacker, he asked, "Take care that they do not put me to any pain"... Then the King took off his cloak... the King, stooping down, laid his neck upon the block; and after a little pause, stretching forth his hands, the executioner at one blow cut his head from his body.