Charles I (1600-1649), king of England from 1625 to 1649, was to witness and take part in the English civil war, or Puritan Revolution, which ultimately cost him his life.
The second son of James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) and Anne of Denmark, Charles I was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on Nov. 19, 1600. He did not become heir apparent to the English throne until the death of his elder brother, Henry, in 1612. Whether it was his early physical infirmities or the stress caused by the antipathy between his parents, the future king showed signs of personality disturbance in childhood. He did not speak as a young child and later always stuttered. He betrayed deep feelings of inadequacy both in his formal silences and in his overdependence on self-confident favorites. From very early life he lied. This was to be the King's ultimate weakness.
Charles received a good education with tutors. His first emergence into public affairs came with the loss of the crown of Bohemia by his brother-in-law, Frederick V, in 1618. That loss and the subsequent occupation of Frederick's inheritance in the Palatinate by Spanish troops deeply shocked Charles. He conceived that if he were to marry the Spanish Infanta, the King of Spain would restore the Palatinate to Frederick. Charles went to Spain in 1623 with the 1st Duke of Buckingham, who abetted the scheme. In Madrid it took Charles 5 months to comprehend that the Spanish would never agree to marriage with a heretic, much less to the restoration of the Palatinate.
When Charles perceived the truth, he and Buckingham went to the opposite extreme and stampeded an unwilling King James and an eager Parliament into war with Spain. At the same time a marriage treaty with Louis XIII of France was arranged for the hand of Louis's sister, Henrietta Maria. Charles became king on March 27, 1625. His marriage occurred by proxy in Paris on May 1. The union was accompanied by an alliance between England and France against Spain. From the first, however, there were misunderstandings. The English believed that the French were not active enough in helping to expel the Spanish from the Palatinate. The French did not believe that Charles had lived up to the religious promises of the marriage contract—to allow freedom to the English Catholics. It is not surprising under these circumstances that Charles found the gawky adolescent princess less than compatible. Relations with the Queen's brother deteriorated until Charles declared war on France as well as Spain in 1627.
These wars necessitated the frequent summonses of Parliament during the first years of Charles's reign. Differences over supplies, religion, and economic policy were frequent and led to the Petition of Right in 1628, in which the Commons condemned the King's policy of arbitrary taxation and imprisonment. But the chief cause of the King's difficulties with Parliament was the resentment of the English aristocracy over the continued ascendancy of the Duke of Buckingham. His ill-managed expedition against Cadiz, Spain, in 1625 and his disastrous attack in 1627 on the French forces besieging La Rochelle completely discredited the King's government in the eyes of the aristocracy.
Buckingham's assassination in 1628, although it was a bitter personal blow to the King, opened up a period of constructive rule, known as the period of personal government. An aftermath of constitutional disputes rocked Parliament in 1629, but many of the peers and their allies in the Commons such as Thomas Wentworth and Dudley Digges had thrown in their lot with the King. The earls of Arundel and Pembroke, Clifford, and Weston divided up administrative patronage. The wars against France and Spain were terminated, and so long as no new foreign crisis arose, royal finances were sufficient to conduct government without calling Parliament and reviving constitutional and religious opposition. After Buckingham's death, too, Charles fell in love with Henrietta Maria, and they were ever after a devoted couple.
Charles spent his time hunting and acquiring perhaps the greatest art collection in Europe. The quintessence of the King's royal policy during these years was the enforcement of order and a decorous service in the English Church by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. The attempt to extend this religious order to Scotland in 1637, however, brought down the edifice of personal government. Parliament again had to be summoned in 1640, and to the residue of constitutional resentment from the earlier parliaments was joined the fear that the Earl of Strafford, the King's deputy in Ireland, would be an even more powerful and dangerous minister than the Duke of Buckingham had been. Until Strafford's execution for treason in 1641, the King faced a united aristocracy; and he was forced to relinquish most of his ministers, abolish the Star Chamber (councilors and judges who sat as a court) and High Commission, agree to triennial parliaments, and promise that no customs would be raised in the future without specific parliamentary grant.
Following Strafford's death, the King's untrustworthiness still barred a stable settlement with the leaders of Parliament. His attempt to get evidence against them in Scotland during the autumn of 1641 coincided with the Irish rebellion. The parliamentary leaders could not trust him with an army. Their fears were confirmed when he entered the House of Commons on Jan. 4, 1642, in order to arrest five of their leading members for treason. Parliament then began on their own authority to make military provision to suppress the Irish and to defend themselves. Charles could not allow the heart of his prerogative to be thus torn from him, and so on August 14 the King raised his standard at Nottingham and called upon all his loyal subjects to defend his right. The civil war had begun.
Charles attracted a majority of the peers and many of the gentry to his side, and he commanded the military populace of Wales and the North. Under the generalship of his nephew Prince Rupert, the royal cavalry in particular bore down the parliamentary forces during 1642 and 1643. But Charles again fell victim to incompetent courtiers, as a whole the King's cause was ill-managed. By contrast the few but important peers who remained to command Parliament proved masters at gaining popular support, money, control of the navy, and a sufficient military response. On July 2, 1644, they won a surprise victory over Rupert at Marston Moor; in the following year they professionalized their military force as the New Model Army and decisively defeated Charles and Rupert at Naseby. In 1646 Charles surrendered to the Scots allies of Parliament.
During the succeeding years the King's main effort was to restore his royal authority. The means he chose were contradictory deals with various political groups, now the political Presbyterians in Parliament, now Oliver Cromwell and the Independent army generals, and at all times the Scots. Just as his letter commissioning an Irish army to land in England and requesting French troops during the civil war had discredited him after their discovery on the field of Naseby, so these incompatible negotiations from 1646 to 1648 destroyed his moral position in the eyes of many Englishmen. His negotiations with the Scots led to their intervention in the second civil war, of 1648, and this sealed Charles's fate in the minds of the army generals. On Dec. 6-7, 1648, the generals purged Parliament of all who were negotiating for the King's restoration to power and prepared to bring the "Man of Blood" to trial.
There was in England no legal method to try a king. But Henry Ireton and the other officers devised a High Court of Justice, consisting of members of the purged Commons and other public officials, to try Charles Stuart for high treason. The King refused to recognize their jurisdiction and would not plead. During the trial he gave his finest defense of his kingship: "I do stand more for the liberty of my people, than any here that come to be my pretended judges." "I am sworn to keep the peace, by that duty I owe to God and my country, and I will do it to the last breath of my body; and therefore ye shall do well to satisfy first God, and then the country, by what authority you [try me]." By such words, when the court condemned him to death, he created the myth that he died for liberty under the law. On Jan. 30, 1649, he was led onto a scaffold, where he prayed with Bishop Juxon, and was beheaded. Thereby he also became the sanctified champion of the Anglican Church, despite his many promises to Catholics, Presbyterians, and Independents during the days of his adversity. After a decade under Puritan military dictatorship, the King executed that day became the foundation for restored monarchy, established church, free Parliament, and the conservative rule of law in England.
Further Reading on Charles I
C. V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace, 1637-1641 (1955), The King's War, 1641-1647 (1958), and A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (1964), are probably the best studies of Charles I for the years 1637-1649 and also provide excellent background material on other politicians of those years. Esmé C. Wingfield-Stratford's three volumes, Charles: King of England, 1600-1637 (1949), King Charles and King pym, 1637-1643 (1949), and King Charles the Martyr 1643-1649 (1950), are standard treatments, although conservative and very favorable to the King. Good background studies of the period are G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts (repr. 1957), and Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, 1471-1714 (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Bowle, John, Charles I: a biography, Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.
Carlton, Charles, Charles I, the personal monarch, London; New York: Routledge, 1995.
Daniels, Christopher W., Charles I, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Gregg, Pauline, King Charles I, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Higham, Florence May Creir Evans, Charles I: a study, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Morrah, Patrick, A royal family: Charles I and his family, London: Constable, 1982.
Ollard, Richard Lawrence, The image of the king: Charles I and Charles II, New York: Atheneum, 1979.
Charles, King of England, 1600-1637, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.