1902 Encyclopedia > Charles I, King of Great Britain and Ireland

Charles I
King of Great Britain and Ireland (from 1625)

CHARLES I (1600-1649), king of England, born at Dunfermline on the 19th November, was the second and favourite son of James I. By the death of his brother Henry, he became Prince of Wales in 1612, but the first public matter of importance in which he was concerned was the Spanish marriage. At first he was quite indifferent to the affair, and in 1622 he was full of a dream that he would lead an army into the Palatinate, and set his dear sister upon her throne. But, by the beginning of the next year. Buckingham had filled him with the romantic notion of setting off, in defiance of all policy, on a private visit to Spain. His conduct while at Madrid displays the weakest side of his character. He took a violent fancy fro the Infanta, whom he seriously alarmed by leaping over the wall of the garden in which she was walking, in order that he might enjoy the private conversation which Spanish etiquette refused to permit. With a mixture of infatuation and duplicity, he bore with repeated insults: he allowed his chaplains to be excluded from the palace, and his retinue to be sent back to England, and gave way to each of the ever-growing demands of the Spanish favourite Olivarez. He promised what he knew he had no power to fulfill, the abrogation of the penal laws against the Catholics within three years; he listened respectfully to the arguments of the Spanish theologians, and promised to listen whenever the princess should require it; he addressed to the Pope a disgraceful letter, which, while binding him to nothing, gave rise to the greatest expectations; and thus he held out hopes of a conversion which, according to his own subsequent declaration, he believed would never take place. At last the Spaniards made up their minds to the match; but, though immediately before leaving Spain Charles swore to carry out the marriage, his ardour had cooled and Buckingham was throwing cold water on the dying embers. James was persuaded to demand the restoration of the Palatinate to the elector Frederick as an essential preliminary; the match was broken off; and in 1624 Buckingham had arranged a marriage with Henrietta Maria of France. Not the least dishourable part of Charles’s conduct in connection with this affair was his treatment of the earl of Bristol, the English ambassador to Spain. This only too faithful servant of the Crown he was mean enough to subject, at the instigation of his favourite, to a persistent and illegal persecution. On the summons of the second parliament of his reign he commanded that Bristol’s writ should be withheld; he sought to punish him in an underhand way by forbidding his attendance; and when the earl continued to insist on his rights, and, after two years of confinement to his house, laid the king’s letter before the Lords with a request for leave to impeach the duke, he even accused him of high treason, and employed his personal influence against him. The reason of all this was that Bristol had offended Buckingham; and the faults which were laid against him were really chargeable to his accusers. In the first place, he had been too well deceived by Charles’s acting, had imagined that he was really inclined to Catholicism, and had offered, if this were so, to keep the matter secret; and, secondly, he had sought to preserve his country’s honour by striving to prevent the capricious rupture of the treaty which had been completed with Spain.

In March 1625 Charles came to the throne. The excited joy with which he had been welcomed home from Spain had given way to suspicion as fuller reports of his conduct spread abroad, and there was now prevalent an anxious dread of the growth of Catholicism. The first Parliament sent Montagu to the Tower for preaching the doctrines of divine right an the real presence; and, as difficulties arose concerning the old method of levying tonnage and poundage, it refused to grant the impost for more than a year. From a paper of Sir John Eliot’s, [Footnote 404-1] it would seem that this was intended merely as a temporary measure; but to please the duke of Buckingham, Charles dissolved the Parliament, and tool a pitful revenge by making Montagu royal chaplain.

The king was now at the disposal of his favourite, who was full of great and warlike schemes. All were, however, doomed to failure. The English sailors refused to fight against the Huguenots of Rochelle; the expedition against Cadiz was mismanaged from first to last; and, worst of all, the pawning of the crown jewels brought in but a very small sum. It was necessary to summon another Parliament.

But this Parliament was not less determined than the first. The House of Lords vindicated its independence by acquitting the earl of Bristol. The Commons, led by the ardent and eloquent Sir John Eliot, ventured on the bold step of exhibiting eight articles of impeachment against the duke of Buckingham. His majestry replied with a haughty message that the duke had acted only at his direction, threw Eliot and Sir Dudley Digges into prison, and finally dissolved the Parliament again, without any improvement of his finances. Forced loans were resorted to; the common people who refused to pay were pressed for the navy; the gentlemen were summoned before the council, or committed to prison per speciale mandatum Regis. At this inopportune moment Buckingham provoked a war with France, and led an expedition against Rhé, which proved an utter failure. In 1628 Charles was compelled to call a third Parliament.

The House of Commons which now assembled was remarkable alike for the social standing of its members and for their wealth, which was three times that of the House of Lords. But equally with the other two which had met in this reign, it was determined to obtain redress of grievances. Its first act was to draw up the Petition of Right, which declares the illegality of forces loans, of martial law in time of peace, and of the billeting of soldiers on private houses. Characteristically, Charles at first attempted an evasive reply—"The king willeth that right be done according to the laws and customs of the realm." When, however, the Commons proceeded to censure Buckingham, he have the regular formal assent. Yet such was his insincerity that he caused 1500 copies of the Petition to be distributed with the first answer attached. The Commons now made known their readiness to vote tonnage and poundage, provided that the king would admit that his arbitrary levy had been illegal; and Hollis and Valentine held the speaker in the chair while Eliot read a protest against Arminians and Papists, and against the irregular levy of tonnage and poundage. A few weeks before, Buckingham had fallen by the dagger of a disappointed officers. But the king’s policy was unchanged. The usual plan of dissolution was resorted to; and Eliot, Hollis, and Valentine were heavily fined, and so strictly imprisoned that, though Eliot’s health gave way, his petitions for a temporary release were repeatedly refused by Charles, and he was allowed to die in the Tower.

From this time there was no Parliament for eleven years (March 1629 to April 1640). Every year made the people better acquainted with the character of their king, who showed an unhappy ignorance both of the history and the temper of the nation; and taught them to feel more and more deeply that stronger safeguards were needed to withstand the arbitrary power of the soverign. The London merchant who compared the rule of Charles to that of the sultan of Turkey was not altogether unjust. A paternal government was his beau-ideal; and Parliament was to be summoned only to give advice to the king, and to acquaint him with the needs of the people. The Petition of Right, to which he had recently given his assent, he utterly disregarded. He descended to a puerile exercise of authority. His proclamations forbade the country people to come up to the metropolis, commanded all the shops in Cheapside, except those of the goldsmiths, to be shut, and prohibited the building of more houses in London, unless special leave (to be well paid for) were first obtained. But the great necessity was to procure money. The Council of the North was directed to compound with recusants. Monopolies were granted to companies in defiance of the spirit of the law. Neglect of the knighthood which was no longer an honour was punished by a fine, whichw as often extremely severe. Pretensions to forest-lands, which prescription had long made unjust, were revived. And, lastly, the famous ship-money was levied. Besides, Charles must also be held personally responsible for other tyranny than that which was executed at his direct command. During there years Strafford was maturing his policy of "Thorough," by which England was to be made subject to a standing army; and if Charles did not carry out this scheme as far as might have been possible, it was not because it was too bad, but only because it was too great for him. Though he had no love for its inventor he showed his respect for his absolute policy by making him president of the Council of the North, and sending him to govern Ireland with an iron sternness, which though it certainly helped to arouse in others the feeling which resulted in the honors of the Irish massacre. He allowed the Star Chamber to sentence a clergyman to perpetual imprisonment, mutilation, and whipping for a libel against the bishops, and to reduce a gentleman to poverty for merely sneering at the badge of a nobleman. He sanctioned the inquisitorial Court of High Commission. He supported Laud’s oppression of the Puritans, his inculcation of celibacy among the clergy, of auricular confession, of prayers for the dead, and of the doctrine of purgatory, and he advanced men like Montagu, whom he knew to be desirous of a reunion of the English Chruch with Rome, confirming by all this the suspicious which the disclosures of Bristol had awakened.

At length, on his own sole authority, he commanded Scotland to receive a liturgy and a book of canons. The fatal results of this act belong to the history of Scotland. Unable to meet the Scottish army with a sufficient force, Charles summoned the Short Parliament; but as it refused to vote supplies till it made inquiry into the causes of the imprisonment of Eliot and his two companions, into ship-money, and other matters of that kind, it was speedily dissolved. A great council of the peers would not act alone; and in November 1640 he was compelled to summon the Long Parliament. The Commons were now happy in a leader magnificently fitted for the times. His fiery energy was repressed, not quenched, by the ripeness of his age; his courage and determination were too firm to be shaken; his respect for law and order was deep and strong; but deeper still and stronger were his love of liberty, and his resolve that noting should serve as a bulwark against despotism. With the sagacity of the true statesman, Pym struck the first blow at the strongest pillar of the hateful structure. He exhibited articles of impeachment against the earl of Strafford. The impeachment was allowed to drop (against his wish), but it was only in favour of a bill of attainder. The preachers preached and the mob yelled against the great delinquent. The king went in person to the House of Lords, and tried to buy him off by promising never to employ him again; and then listened to a scheme, hatched by certain hot-headed officers and some of the fierier of the countiers, to bring up the army of the north and overawe the Parliament. But his entreaty was voted irregular; the plot was discovered, and the earl was condemned to death. Charles’s weakness was now fatal to himself. A few months later the splendid ability of Strafford would have been invaluable to him. But he had no affection for the stern, haughty "dark earl," and, when the Lords refused his humiliating request that they would suggest to the Commons some milder punishment, he sacrificed his greatest servant. At the same time, Charles, who never knew the true place for firmness, yielded on another fatal point by confirming a bill, according to which the Parliament then sitting was not to be dissolved without its own consent. Before the triumphant course of the Commons everything had now to give way. The Triennial Bill was passed, ship-money, the Star Chamber, the High Commission, the Council of the North, the Council of Wales, the council of Lancaster and Cheshire, the whole system of illegal exaction and injustice, were swept away. The religious passion of the Houses manifested itself in an impeachment of Laud, and a proposal to abolish Episcopacy.

Charles once more resorted to the crooked policy which he usually employed in extremity. He visited Edinburgh, attended the Presbyterian worship, and loaded Argyll, Hamilton, and the other Presbyterian leaders with marks of favour, while all the time he was intriguing with the earl of Montrose, Argyll’s open enemy. There was a darker suspicion at the time that an attempt, known as the "Incident," had been made by Montrose, with the king’s knowledge, to assassinate Argyll; but this worse treachery is by no means proved. At this moment, while men’s minds were full of excitement and apprehension, a massacre of thousands of Protestants took place in Ireland. It was known that O’Neale, the leader of the butchery, professed to have the king’s written warrant and the ardent support of the queen; and many believed the hideous charge. They would have been more strongly convinced had they seen the letter in which his majesty coldly remarked that he trusted this trouble in Ireland would help to cure the folly at home. Other plots were also being discovered, of which men more naturally ascribed some knowledge to the king. Pym’s life was in constant danger. An attempt was made to convey plague infection to him in a letter, and a gentleman was stabled by mistake for him in Westminster Hall.

But Pym and the Parliament yielded not one step. On the 1st December 1641 the Grand Remonstrance was presented to the king, who received the committee which presented it in the highest spirits. He had returned from Scotland but a few days before, had been entertained at a great banquet by the Lord Mayor, and had made up his mind to show the Parliament that he was not to be trifled with. He had already appointed Colonel Lunsford, a disreputable scapegrace, to the command of the Tower. He now replaced the guard, which had protected Parliament since the news of the Army Plot, by a company under the earl of Dorset, who did not pass his first day of duty without firing on the people. Mobs far from orderly began to assemble round Westminster Hall, and a petition against the bishops was presented to the Commons. The bishops themselves were mobbed on their way to the House, and when they protested against the legality of what should be done in their absence, were summarily silenced by an impeachment. The excitement in the city grew dangerously intense, and Charles fanned the flame by accepting a company of armed soldier-adventurers as guard, and allowing them to quarrel with the unarmed crowd.

It was on the 3d of January 1642 that the final breach was made. Pym was not to be gained over, for only a few days before he had refused office. The king now practically declared war against the Parliament. How far he acted alone is disputed; but Clarendon is very likely right in saying that he was goaded on by the queen, who had retained from the political theory in which she had been educated some very lofty notions about the rights of kings and the duties of parliaments. On the morning of the 3d, he commanded Attorney-General Herbert to impeach Lord Kimbolton (against whom, however, the matter was not pressed), Pym, Hampden, Haslerig, Hollis, and Strode on a charge of high treason, founded upon their parliamentary conduct. The rooms, drawers, and trunks of the five members were illegally sealed at the king’s command, and the king’s sergeant-at-arms was illegally sent to demand their persons. The Commons behaved with the greatest dignity. The sergeant was commanded to show his respect for the House by laying aside his mace, and four members, of whom two were privy-councillors, were sent with a message to the king that the House would give him an answer as speedily as the greatness of the business would allows, and that the members should meet any legal charge against them. But Charles had determined to crush the Parliament by force, and to make it for ever subservient to the Crown. He sent orders to the lord mayor that the guard sought by the Parliament should be employed to disperse all crowds, and to "shoot with bullets" all who resisted. On the morning of the 4th, and the head of his attendants, his pensioners, and the Whitehall guard, armed with partisans, swords, and pistols, to the number of three or four hundred men, he entered the House of Commons, and demanded the persons of the five members, declaring that treason has no privilege. But, with the formal consent of the House, they had taken refuge in the city; to the king’s demands the sole reply was that given by the speaker, bravery, though tremblingly, and on his knees, that he could speak only as he was commanded by the House; and Charles was obliged to retire with undignified threats upon his lips. The consequence of this act was the most terrible excitement. Some members of the commons cried "Privilege" in the very presence of his majesty. In London the shops were shut; there was a report that the cavaliers, with the king at their head, were about to fire the city, and it became known that a seizure of the arms of the citizens was contemplated. When the king visited the city next day, in the streets and in the court-room of the common council, he was met by cries of "privilege of Parliament!" The panic still grew; the streets were thronged with almost frenzied crowds; the train bands were collected. Other crows poured in from the country, one with a petition signed by thousands for the protection of Pym, another, from Buckinghamshire, eager to live and died with Hampden, to serve the Commons, respectfully to petition the king. The very sailors in the river caught the enthusiasm, and offered their assistance. And the House of Commons, declaring itself no longer safe at Westminster, adjouring first to Guildhall and then to Grocer’s Hall. On the 10th Charles, seeing that the true magnitude of his attempts had been understood, and that he was met with his own weapons, retired in alarm to Hampton Court. On the following morning the five members returned to their seats in triumph, amid salutes from the river, the shouts of the crowd, and a parade of the train bands.

The Parliament retaliated the king’s attack by passing a bill assuming the command of the militia, and appointing the lieutenants of countries. But the king on his journey from Dover, where the queen had embarked with the crown jewels, had met with so many expressions of loyalty that he refused his consent. He requested, however, that all requirements should be drawn up in one documents, and submitted to him. Accordingly, in June 1642, Parliament presented "the Nineteen Propositions." They were such as would have entirely altered the constitution. Constitutional concessions could no longer avail the king; fifteen years of unconstitutional rule had made that impossible. He had striven to obtain the tyranny; he had appealed to force; and the Civil War had already begun with the Westminster tumults. On the 22d August 1642, it was formally commenced by the erection of the royal standard at Nottingham. At first success was on the side of the king, and the Parliament suffered so severely in the west that they began to discuss terms of peace, while several defections to the royalists party took place. But Charles was too highly elated; having summoned a parliament of his own at Oxford, he declared that which met at Westminster or be none; and when the earls of Holland, Bristol, and Clare came over to his party, he treated them with so much neglect and insult that after three months they turned back, and no others risked the treatment they had received. But as the troops of the Parliament became accustomed to the use of arms, and its officers to the tactics of war, the inferiority of the royalists became apparent. In the beginning of 1645 the Parliament was in a position to demand, in the treaty of Uxbridge, that Presbyterianism should be established, and that it should have the command of the army and navy and the direction of the war with Ireland.

In the same year, after the decisive victory at Naseby, the king’s cabinet, containing a number of letters which proved that he was promising toleration to the Catholics and seeking aid from several foreign powers, fell into the hands of the Parliament, and the letters were published. Soon after a still more important discovery was made—that of a treaty entered into, by means of the earl of Glamorgan, with the Irish Catholics, whose aid was to be bought at the price of great religious concessions. Charles denied all knowledge of the affair, and Glamorgan was imprisoned for a short time; but subsequent evidence gives strong reason for believing that he was deeply implicated in the matter. Owing to the anti-popish bigotry which they offended, and the insincerity which they manifested, these disclosures were extremely damaging to the king.

In May of the next year Charles had fled to the Scots at Newark; and in January 1647 he was delivered by them into the hands of the English Parliament, who placed him in Holmby House, six miles from Northampton Terms similar to those offered at Uxbridge were again tendered at Newcastle; but Charles, being sincerely attached tc Episcopacy, was most unwilling to yield concerning church affairs, and, holding himself necessary to any settlement, believed that he had only to insist upon more favourable offers. In June the army took possession of his person, and finally brought him to his palace to Hampton Court. He was treated with respect and kindness; Cromwell and Ireton sought to bring about a secure peace; and the latter, on behalf of the Agitators or Adjutators, who formed the parliament of the army, drew up most favourable terms. But unable to see that army was now supreme, and hoping, contrary to his whole experience, to obtain something more from the Parliament or the Scots, with whom he was treating, Charles haughtily broke with the officers and scornfully refused their offers. To many it was now apparent that it was vain to hope for a settlement by means of compromise.

From this moment the ascendancy was taken by a party of enthusiasts, who held that a crown should not excuse the crime of treason against the country, and sternly called for justice on the grand delinquent. Fearing assassination, Charles fled to the Isle of Wight, where, however, he was captured. But trusting in the Scots, who now prepared to protect him by force, he still rejected the offers of the Parliament, which were again tendered to him at Carisbrook and at Newport. At length the army impatiently seized him once more, removed him to Hurst Castle, and thence to Windsor and St James’s, purged the Parliament by excluding some hundred and forty members, and resolved to bring him to trial. On the 1st of January 1649, though the Peers adjourned refusing to consider the question, the Commons voted the appointment of a High Court of Justice "to the end no chief officer or magistrate might presume for the future to contrive the enslaving and destruction of the nation with impunity." One hundred and thirty-two commissioners were elected, of whom about half took part in the trial. Bradshaw was elected Lord President, and Cook solicitor against the king. On the 20th, the 22d, and the 23d, Charles was brought before this court; but with a calm and admirable dignity, due to a sincere belief in his own pretension, he proudly refused to acknowledge the court, declaring that obedience to kings is commanded by Scripture, that by the law the king can do no wrong, that the Common have no authority of themselves to erect a court of judicature, and that they had not received such authority from the people, whose power to confer it he, besides, declined to admit. On the 26th the court went through the form of listening to evidence that he had appeared in arms against the Parliamentary, which was declared to represent the nation. On the 27th Bradshaw pronounced sentence of death against Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, a murderer, and a traitor to his country; and on the afternoon of the 30th of January 1649, Charles was beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall. His body was conveyed to Windsor, and on the 8th of February was buried in St George’s Chapel without any service.

In person and in demeanour Charles presented a most favourable contrast to his ungainly, babbling father. A somewhat painful stammer was his only physical defect. His manner, also, was grave and reserved; his scrupulous observance of the ordinances of religion was accompanied by strict decorum of conduct; and he possessed considerable taste for literature and art. Yet of almost all the essential kingly qualities he was utterly destitute. He had, indeed, a strong sense of personal and royal dignity, but this very feeling was fatal to him. It rendered intolerable the least limitation of the prerogative which he believed to be his divinely-appointed birthright; and thus it placed him in obstinate opposition to the strongest tendency of his time,—that tendency which had already resulted in the Reformation, and which now manifested itself in the development pf Puritanism and the growth of the English constitution. Nor did he possess the qualities which might have given him a chance of success in the contest. Affectionate toward his intimate friends to a degree of weakness which often arouses contempt, he had no magnanimity for an enemy, nor even fidelity to a servant, however great, who did not awaken his fondness. In political sagacity he was utterly wanting; and so completely did he identify political skill with duplicity that, in public matters, he could never be trusted, and compromise with him was impossible.

About the time of Charle’s death several works appeared purporting to be by his hand. Of these the chief is the Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his solitude and sufferings. After the Restoration Bishop Gauden declared himself its author, and his claim was not disputed either by Clarendon or by Charles II., who, on the contrary, gave him ecclesiastical preferments. The controversy as to its authorship has left little doubt that it is a forgery. A collection of the works was published at the Hague in 1651, under the title of Reliquiae Sacrae Carolinae: The works of that Great Monarch and glorious Martyr, King Charles I.

The chief contemporary authorities for the history of this reign are—Rushworth, a barrister, and a member of the Long Parliament, who gives an account of the proceedings of the Parliament from 1615 to 1640, and also relates the trial of Strafford; Whitelocke, a moderate Parliamentarian, whose Memorials extend from the accession of Charles to the Restoration; Sir Ralph Verney and Sir Symonds D’Ewes, members of the Long Parliament. The Hardwicke and Clarendon State Papers; the recently published Calendars of State Papers; Carte’s History, Irish Massacre set in a clear light, and Life of Ormond; Laud’s Diary; Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion, the work of a royalist partisan, whose great talents did not include political insight; and The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, by Thomas Carlyle, also contain original information. As it deserves, this period had been more frequently treated by modern historians than any other in English history. In 1822 appeared Brodie’s careful History of the British Empire from the Accession of Charles I. to the Restoration; in 1824-28 Godwin’s republican History of the Commonwealth; in 1830 Isaac Disraeli’s Commentaries on the Reign of Charles I. See also Hallam’s Constitutional History; Forster’s Sir John Eliot, The General Remonstrance, The Impeachment of the Fire Members, and Statesmen of the Commonwealth; S.R. Gardiner’s Prince Charles and the Spanish Marriage; Sanford’s Illustrations of the great Rebellions; Burton’s History of Scotland. Especially on account of the analogy of this portion of English history with the French Revolution, it has been carefully studied by several French historians, among whom the most important is Guizot, who has published a Historie de la Revolution d’ Angleterre, and a Histoire d’ Oliver Cromwell. It has also been treated in German by Dahlmann. See ENGLAND (T. M. W.)


404-1 See Forster’s Sir John Eliot, vol. i. p. 214

The above article was written by Thomas McKinnon Wood, L.C.C., LL.D.; Chairman of Parliamentiary Committee, 1895-98; Chairman of London County Council, 1898-99.

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