Charles I - English Monarch

Charles I - English Monarch

Charles I, the most tragic king of the House of Stuart, was born at Dunferline in Fifeshire in Scotland on November 19, 1600. Charles was the second son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. When Charles was three, his father became king of England in March 1603, on the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the last from the House of Tudor.

Charles became heir to the throne in 1612, when his elder brother Prince Henry died. In November 1616, he was made Prince of Wales, and thus first in line to succeed his father on what were now the combined thrones of England and Scotland.

On the death of his father, Charles became King Charles I on March 27, 1625. He almost immediately married Henrietta Maria, King Louis XIII’s sister. During this period, he became heavily influenced by George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. Villiers had also been a favorite of James I.

Buckingham propelled England into a distastrous policy of foreign intervention that the economy of the country simply could not support. Buckingham was widely disliked, and although he was impeached by Parliament in 1628, he was killed before he could lead another failed international expedition.

Divine Right of Kings

The main point of contention between Charles and the Parliament was his belief in the divine right of kings. His father, James I, had taught him that, as king, he was answerable only to God. Indeed, the impeachment of Buckingham by Parliament was as much a challenge to Charles’s belief in absolute royal authority as it was an attack on the king’s favorite courtier.

While Parliament conceded that the king had a right to appoint his own government ministers, members of Parliament felt that Charles should govern with their advice and consent. Parliament attempted to use the voting of subsidies for the king’s government as leverage to gain such equality with the king in matters of governing the kingdom.

Religion also became an issue. Although the country had been officially Protestant since the Act of Supremacy in 1534 established the king as the head of the Church of England, Charles’s queen, Henrietta Maria, carried out private Roman Catholic religious rites in the court. Even more, the king himself favored Catholicism rather than the Church of England, the religion of the state.

Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria Coques
Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria Coques

Charles dissolved Parliament three times during his reign. He also imprisoned in the Tower of London his chief parliamentary opponent, Sir John Eliot, who died in the Tower in 1632. When Charles dismissed his fourth Parliament in March 1629, he played out his belief in the divine right of kings and ruled as the sole authority in England. He did not call another Parliament for 11 years.

Deprived of subsidies voted by the other governing bodies, Charles depended on ship money, a royal levy first applied to towns that depended on maritime trade for their livelihood, but later extended to inland cities. Charles also sold monopolies, giving to royal favorites control of certain industries in return for funds, a thinly disguised attempt at royal influence peddling in return for financial gain.

Charles’s attitude toward religion also became a political point of crisis. The archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who governed the Church of England in the name of the king, was head of the “High Church Party,” which in effect was still similar in many ways to Roman Catholicism, more often than not referred to now in England as the Church of Rome, as distinguished from the Church of England.

Laud and the king further affronted supporters of Parliament during the years of the king’s personal rule because the monarchy was turning more to bishops for counsel than to nobles.

At the same time, the rise of Sir Thomas Wentworth, the earl of Strafford, was seen as another indication of the king’s belief in royal absolutism. Wentworth was appointed president of the Council of the North and was later to rule Ireland.

Wentworth’s determination to rule in the king’s name had made a close friend of Archbishop Laud, but an army of enemies among those opposed to the king’s growing authoritarian rule. In the end, the crisis came in September 1639, when Archbishop Laud had attempted to impose his vision of the Church of England, with its Book of Common Prayer, on Scotland.


The Protestant reformation under John Knox followed a different path in Scotland than it had in England. Scottish Presbyterianism was violently opposed to the Church of England’s neo-Catholic hierarchy and it was Laud’s ambition to impose the Church of England upon Scotland, supported by Wentworth and the king, that led the Scottish to assert their rights in defense of their Presbyterian Church in 1638.

When an attempt to come to an agreement with the king failed at Glasgow, open rebellion broke out in Scotland in September 1639. Believing Scottish liberty to be under siege by Charles I, hundreds of veterans of the Thirty Years’ War flocked to the Scottish army.

Wentworth advised Charles to summon Parliament to raise money for an army to defend England from a likely Scottish invasion. When Parliament was called in April 1640, its members, especially those in the House of Commons, quickly asserted Parliament’s right to share in the governing of England with the king. On May 5, 1640, Charles closed what became known in history as the Short Parliament.

On his own again, Charles called Wentworth to northern England, where he attempted to raise an army to face the Scots. In response, the Scots crossed the historic boundary between England and Scotland, the River Tweed, in August 1640. By this time, an unspoken alliance united the Scottish Presbyterians with leading opponents of Charles’s absolutism in Parliament.

The Scottish invasion forced Charles to convene Parliament again in November 1640. Parliament, furious at Charles’s virtual dictatorship, struck back. Wentworth and Laud were brought before Parliament by an act of attainder, denied legal advice, and imprisoned.

Wentworth was soon executed, in an act of parliamentary absolutism as strong as any that Charles had ever been accused of by Parliament. The crisis came to a head in October 1641, when the Irish Catholics rose up in bloody rebellion against the Protestants.

Charles and the Parliament engaged in a back-and-forth battle of legislation, each attempting to bring the other under control. The unprecedented forced entry by Charles into Parliament in January 1642 brought to an end any hopes of compromise.

Charles abandoned London to Parliament and raised the royal standard at Nottingham in August 1642, making Oxford the temporary royal capital. The first battle of what would be the English Civil War took place at Edgehill in October 1642, but was inconclusive.

The earl of Essex withdrew his parliamentary forces after the battle, leaving the road to London open to Charles. But the king did not press his advantage, and Essex was soon able to gather reinforcements to block the way. In 1643 Parliament formed an alliance with the Scots against the king.

Partly from exposure to the Scottish military tradition, Sir Thomas Fairfax began to form the New Model Army, perhaps the first truly professional force in British history. Oliver Cromwell, an English squire, emerged as the driving force behind the New Model, which scored decisive victories over the king at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645).

At last, Charles realized his cause was lost, and large-scale military operations ceased. Negotiations were entered into with Charles but rather than treat with Parliament in good faith, he urged on the Scots to attack again for a Second Civil War in 1647. In January 1649, Charles I was tried for treason by Parliament, with his alliance with the Scots one of the gravest of charges leveled against him. On January 30, 1649, Charles I was beheaded.