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Charles I

King of England and Scotland, 1625-1642, whose "Divine Right to Rule" sparked repeated disputes with Parliament and ended with his execution

Charles I

Charles was born in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, on November 19, 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland (James I of England) and Anne of Denmark. Created Duke of Albany at his baptism (December 1600) and Duke of York in 1605, he was placed in the care of Lord and Lady Fyvie until the age of four, then moved to England where he was brought up in the household of Sir Robert and Lady Carey. As a child, Charles suffered from weak ankle joints, which slowed his physical development, and was slow in learning to speak. He outgrew both defects, except for a slight stammer which he never overcame. His education was overseen by Thomas Murray, a Scottish Presbyterian who later became Provost of Eton. A serious student, the young prince excelled at languages, rhetoric and divinity.

Charles became Crown Prince upon the death of older brother Henry in 1612, was created Prince of Wales in 1616, and assumed the throne as King Charles I of England and Scotland upon the death of his father on March 27, 1625; he was formally crowned on February 2, 1626.

His Reign

On May 11, 1625, King Charles was married by proxy to Henrietta Maria of France (a Roman Catholic) in front of Notre Dame in Paris. Many members of Parliament opposed the marriage because they feared that Charles would lift restrictions on Roman Catholics and undermine the Church of England. Although he promised Parliament that he would not relax restrictions on those who refused to join the Church of England, his secret marriage treaty with Louis XIII of France had promised the exact opposite. That same treaty also promised English aid to France in the suppression of Protestant Huguenots at La Rochelle, reversing England's long-held position of sympathy toward the Huguenots. Charles and Henrietta were formally married at Canterbury on June 13, 1625. Due to the controversy surrounding the marriage, Henrietta was not at her husband's side when he was formally crowned at Westminster Abbey on February 2, 1626. The couple ultimately had seven children, six of whom (three sons and three daughters) survived infancy.

Early Problems With Parliament

Charles's primary concern during the first years of his reign was the war with Spain that his father had declared shortly before his death. The Parliament of 1625 refused to vote the money Charles wanted for the war, knowing how badly it was being carried on by the king and the Duke of Buckingham. Parliament was also concerned that Charles's marriage to Henrietta would prevent him from enforcing the laws against Catholics. Charles responded to both concerns by dissolving his first Parliament. Despite not having parliamentary authority to do so, Charles funded the war by collecting special customs duties.

Still needing money to continue the war with Spain, in 1626 Charles called his second Parliament, which immediately began attacking Buckingham, blaming him for the disastrous failure of the attack on Cadiz, Spain. Parliament was also furious that English ships had been sent to France to help that nation put down an uprising of Protestants at La Rochelle. Parliament, under the leadership of Sir John Eliot, began proceedings to impeach Buckingham and, on June 26, 1626, informed Charles that it would not authorize any money for the war until he dismissed Buckingham. Charles responded by dismissing Parliament. He then tried to raise the money he needed through a "forced loan," a tax levied without parliamentary consent, provoking unrest in England. In November of 1627, the King's Bench (the British equivalent of a Supreme Court) ruled that the king had the right to imprison without trial anyone who refused to pay the "loan," provoking even more unrest.

On May 26, 1628, the third Parliament to be called by Charles adopted a Petition of Right, calling upon the king to acknowledge that he could not levy taxes without Parliament's consent, impose martial law on civilians, imprison them without due process, or quarter troops in their homes. Charles grudgingly assented to the petition, but continued to assert that he had the right to collect customs duties without authorization from Parliament. The assassination of Buckingham on August 23, 1628 effectively ended the war with Spain, but did not end the quarrels between Charles and Parliament over taxation and religious matters. In 1629, Charles dismissed Parliament for the third time, imprisoned several of his leading opponents, and declared that he would rule without a Parliament.

The King's Personal Rule

Also known as the "Eleven Year Tyranny," the first years of Charles's rule without Parliament were generally successful. He made peace with both Spain and France, trade and commerce grew, and by 1635 his finances were stable. The stabilization of finances allowed Charles to commission major works of art by Rubens and Van Dyck, and to build up the Royal Navy. Without parliamentary authority to collect taxes, however, he had to raise money by obscure and unpopular means, including forced loans, the sale of commercial monopolies, and the collection of special taxes from coastal towns in exchange for the posting of ships for defensive purposes. These unconventional means of raising revenue, combined with his religious policies and his extensive use of secret court proceedings to prosecute and imprison opponents, alienated many traditional supporters of the Crown, including powerful noblemen and wealthy landowners.

In religion, Charles favoured the elaborate and ritualistic High Anglican form of worship. In 1633, he appointed William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud insisted upon strict compliance to the established tenets of the Church and vigorously supported the King's Divine Right to Rule. He also used the two most feared and arbitary courts in the land, the Court of High Commission and the Court of Star Chamber, to suppress opposition from Puritans, who regarded the High Anglican liturgy as dangerously close to Roman Catholicism. English Protestants were also upset because Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria was allowed to practice her religion openly and freely while other non-Anglicans were not. The combination of Charles's taxes and Laud's policies led many "non-conformists" to leave England and establish colonies in America.

Despite widespread discontent against Charles's taxes and religious policies, life was generally peaceful in England during the first years of Charles' personal rule. That changed when Charles attempted to impose his religious policies in Scotland. Although born in Scotland, Charles had not visited that part of his realm since being crowned as its king in 1633. In 1637, without consulting either the Scottish Parliament or the Church of Scotland (the Kirk), he ordered the use of a new Prayer Book in Scotland that was almost identical to the one Laud had implented in England. Although the move was supported by the Scottish Bishops, it was resisted by Scottish Presbyterians, who saw the new Prayer Book as a way of forcing Anglicanism on Scotland. Spontaneous unrest erupted throughout the Scottish Church, and the public began to mobilize around rebellious nobles in the form of the National Covenant against government interference in religion. When the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland abolished Episcopalian government (governance of the Church by bishops) in 1638, replacing it with Presbyterian government (governance by elders and deacons), Charles saw the action as a rebellion against his authority

When the First Bishops' War broke out in 1639, Charles raised an army without approval or money from Parliament. He never fully engaged the "rebels" miliarily, however, because he believed his forces were significantly outnumbered, although he did engage in, and lose, a few minor skirmishes. Charles only regained his Scottish fortresses by allowing both the Scottish Parliament and the General Assembly of the Scottish Church to convene for the purpose of settling the religious questions amongst themselves.

Charles's concession to Scotland was simply a way for him to gain time before launching a full-scale military campaign against the "rebellion," but a serious lack of funds for such a campaign meant that he would have to recall Parliament into session, which he did in 1640, ending his Personal Rule.

The Short Parliament

Charles collectively summoned both English and Irish parliaments in the early months of 1640. In March, the Irish Parliament approved a subsidy of 180,000 and promised to raise an army of 9,000 by the end of May. Charles's dealings with the English Parliament in April quickly reached a stalemate, however, and Charles dissolved it in May.

The Second Bishops' War

By the time Charles dissolved the "Short Parliament," Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, had become Charles' right hand man and was prepared to resume the military campaign against Scotland. Having trained up a large army in Ireland in support of the king and seriously weakened the authority of the Irish Parliament, he had also been instrumental in obtaining an independent source of both royal revenue and forces within all three kingdoms England, Ireland, and Scotland). In the fall of 1640, the Scottish Parliament sent an army into Northumberland, and Strafford was sent north with an English force to meet it. The Scots, under James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, met virtually no resistance until reaching Newcastle, where, at the Battle of Newburn on August 28, it successfully took control of the entire region, which also happened to be the source of all of England's coal.

On September 24, Charles took the unusual step of summoning the Peers of the Realm, who recommended that he make peace with Scotland and recall Parliament. On October 26, Charles grudgingly signed the Treaty of Ripon, under the terms of which Scotland would continue to occupy Northumberland and Durham and be paid 850 per day, until peace was restored and the English Parliament recalled.

The Long Parliament

What became known as the Long Parliament convened on November 3, 1640. Of the 493 members in the House of Commons, 399 were on record as opposing the king, and Charles had no guarantee of support from the majority of the other 94.

On December 18, Parliament impeached and convicted Archbishop Laud of high treason and had him imprisoned. To prevent the monarchy from dissolving it at will, Parliament then passed the Triennial Act, to which the Royal Assent was granted on February 15, 1641. The Act required that Parliament be summoned at least once every three years, and that if the monarch failed to issue the proper summons the members could assemble on their own. On March 22, 1641, Parliament put Strafford on trial for high treason. On April 21, the House of Commons passed a bill declaring Strafford guilty and sentencing him to death, which was subsequently passed by the House of Lords. Fearing for the safety of his family, Charles signed the bill on May 10, and Strafford was beheaded two days later. During its session, the Long Parliament also passed bills outlawing many of the means Charles had used to raise funds, abolished the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, and specified exactly what kinds of taxes and duties could be legally collected. The House of Commons also attempted to pass a number of bills attacking bishops and episcopalianism in general, but each was defeated in the House of Lords.

The Irish Rebellion

While Charles was engaged with the English Parliament, the Irish Parliament was also locked in a battle, but this one was between members loyal to the Crown and those who were not, as well as between Catholics and Protestants. The success of the trial against Strafford significantly weakened Charles's influence in the Irish Parliament, but increased the level of anxiety amongst Catholics, who feared invasion by anti-Catholic forces of the English Long Parliament and the Scottish Church. The Irish Rebellion began in October of 1641, when a group of Irish Catholic landowners attempted to take over Dublin Castle and force the English administration in Ireland to force concessions for the Catholics living under English rule.

News of the Irish uprising reached Parliament in November, sparking a crisis over whether the King or the Parliament should control any army sent to quell the rebellion. In the midst of this crisis, Charles heard rumors indicating that Parliament intended to impeach Henrietta Maria because she was a Catholic. In response, Charles directed Parliament to surrender six members he suspected of high treason. When Parliament refused, Charles decided to arrest the members by force, personally. When, on January 4, 1642, he entered the House of Commons with an armed guard, Charles found that the five men he sought had managed to slip away just prior to his arrival. When the Speaker refused to tell him where the men had gone, Charles backed down and left the chamber empty-handed. By January 10, Charles and Henrietta had been driven out of London.

The English Civil War

Charles and Parliament spent the spring and summer of 1642 appealing for support from the people and trying to gain control of the armed forces. Charles raised his standard at Nottingham Castle on August 22, and established his court and military headquarters at Oxford. He then raised an army by offering a commission to any nobleman or officer who raised forces on his behalf. The first battle of the war was fought at Edgehill on October 26, but it was inconclusive. The war continued indecisively through 1643 and 1644, until the Battle of Naseby, fought on June 14, 1645, tipped the military balance in favor of Parliament. A series of Parliamentary victories led to the Siege of Oxford, from which Charles did not escape until April of 1646.

Charles subsequently surrendered to the Scottish army rather than to Parliament under secret terms negotiated by Cardinal Mazarin's envoy Jean de Montereul, who hoped to influence a settlement between England and Scotland that was favorable to French interests. Charles attempted to exploit divisions between the Parliamentarians and the Scots, continually involving himself in plots and intrigues with the exiled Henrietta Maria in the vain hope of gaining military help from Ireland and France. The Scots handed Charles over to Parliament in January of 1647, and the Parliamentary Army, which was itself in disagreement with the Presbyterian faction in Parliament, secured him in April.

Held at Hampton Court Palace, Charles continued to play off the Army, Parliament and Scots against one another. He hoped that the Monarchy would be seen as a beacon of stability amongst the political turmoil, but his tactics only served to alienate him from those who wanted to negotiate a real swttlement. Believing that there was a plot to murder him, Charles escaped from Hampton Court on November 11, 1647. Ignoring advice from the Earl of Lauderdale to go north to Berwick, where the Scots would support him, Charles went instead to the Isle of Wight, where he expected Governor Colonel Robert Hammond to provide him transport to France. Torn between loyalty to the King and his duty to Parliament, however, Hammond instead confined Charles at Carisbrooke Castle.

From Carisbrooke, Charles continued to try to bargain with the various parties. On December 29, 1647, he signed a secret treaty with Scotland in which the Scots agreed to invade England on Charles's behalf and restore him on the throne in exchange for the establishment of Presbyterianism for three years. Forces sympathetic to Charles began rising in England in July of 1648, and the Scots invaded England at about the same time. Most of the local uprisings were put down by Parliamentary forces easily, but uprisings in Kent, Essex, and Cumberland, the rebellion in Wales, and the Scottish invasion proved much more difficult to stem. The defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Preston (August 17-19, 1648) finally ended any chance of Charles's supporters winning the war.

Having defeated Charles militarily, the Long Parliament still hoped a peaceful settlement could be reached that would end the civil war once and for all. On December 1, 1648, Charles's terms for reforming the government as proposed by Parliament were accepted by the House of Commons. Because these terms allowed for the King's restoration, albeit with very limited power, they were opposed by many Army officers and members of the House of Lords. Opponents of the King's restoration managed to purge Parliament of Presbyterian moderates and sympathizers. and the remaining members of Parliament convened a High Court of Justice and charged Charles with high treason.

The King's trial formally began on January 20, 1649. Charles refused to plead, claiming that the High Court had no authority to try him since it had been established without consent from the House of Lords. The Court dismissed Charles's arguments, however, and, on January 27, found him guilty of all charges. King Charles I was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall on January 30, 1649.


British Civil Wars
History of the Monarchy
Royal Family History

See Also

James I

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This page was last updated on January 04, 2019.