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Charles I of England
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Charles I of England

Charles I, Charles Stuart (November 19, 1600 - January 30, 1649) was King of Scotland, England, and Ireland (March 27, 1625 - January 30, 1649), and is most notable for being the only British monarch to be overthrown and beheaded. He was the son and successor of James VI and I.

Born at Dunfermline Palace (his father at this time being King of Scotland but not yet of England), he was an underdeveloped child (he is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain's shortest king) and was not regarded with the same confidence as his elder brother, Henry, Prince of Wales. However, when Henry died of typhoid in 1612, Charles suddenly found himself the heir to two thrones and was created Prince of Wales in 1616. He was greatly influenced by his father's favourite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who took him on an expedition to Spain in 1623 to look for a suitable bride; the quest was unsuccessful, because the Spanish demanded he convert to Roman Catholicism.

He came to the throne while much of Europe was moving towards domination by all-powerful monarchs, such as Louis XIV of France. Charles would attempt to pursue similar policies but would be limited by a robust parliamentary opposition. There was widespread opposition to many of Charles' actions. These included the use of the Court of the Star Chamber to suppress dissent; a policy of taxation without the approval of Parliament; and a religious policy that was seen by the Puritans as attempting to bring the Anglican Church closer to Roman Catholicism.

Table of contents
1 Marriage
2 Conflict with Parliament
3 Civil war
4 Trial
5 Execution
6 Commemoration
7 Restoration of the monarchy
8 Fiction
9 See also


On June 13, 1625 he married Henrietta Maria de Bourbon, daughter of King Henry IV of France, and had issue:

  1. Charles James Stuart, Duke of Cornwall (March 13, 1629 - March 13, 1629).
  2. King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland (May 29, 1630 - February 6, 1685).
  3. Mary Stuart, later wife of William II, Prince of Orange (November 4, 1631 - December 24, 1660).
  4. King James II of England and Ireland/James VII of Scotland (October 14, 1633 - September 6, 1701).
  5. Elizabeth Stuart (December 29, 1635 - September 8, 1650).
  6. Anne Stuart (March 17, 1637 - November 5, 1640).
  7. Catherine Stuart (June 29, 1639 - June 29, 1639).
  8. Henry Stuart, Duke of Gloucester (July 8, 1640 - September 13, 1660).
  9. Henrietta Anne Stuart, later by marriage Duchess of Orléans (June 16, 1644 - June 30, 1670).

Although the marriage seems to have been a successful one, it was never popular with the British people.

Conflict with Parliament

Conflict with Parliament seemed to start early in Charles' reign. Parliament effectively witheld a large part of his royal income by failing to vote him tonnage and poundage, a customs tax, early in his reign, despite the fact that it had been granted to past kings for hundreds of years. Charles collected it anyway.

Parliament failed to vote Charles a sufficient amount of money to fund the foreign policy he wanted to pursue. Charles wanted an expensive land war with Spain in an attempt to pressure them in to restoring lands to his son-in-law, the Elector Palatine. Parliament, who had supported the war before Charles came to the throne, preferred a cheap Elizabethan style naval attack on Spain's new world territories. The resulting attack on Cadiz in 1625 was appallingly executed and discredited Charles and his court favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, whilst leaving the king with the bitter impression that parliament had supported his war but had failed to pay for it. The expedition to relieve the French protestant Huguenots in La Rochelle under Buckingham was equally disastrous. England found itself at war with both France and Spain at the same time. The incompetence of this foreign policy can better be appreciated if you imagine modern Britain simultaneously attacking the U.S.A. and China.

The Commons passed resolutions against the arbitrary taxes Charles was forced to resort to, and arbitrary arrest, and passed the Petition of Right in 1629. Buckingham was assassinated by John Felton on August 23 of the same year. Parliament tried to pass further motions obnoxious to the king, and was dissolved on March 29 1629.

The years that followed were called the Personal Rule or the eleven years' tyranny during which no parliaments met. Lacking the funds parliament supplied, Charles was forced to raise taxes which had dubious legal grounding and very little popular legitimacy. One of these was ship money.

After the death of Buckingham, two new men assumed growing importance in the government: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and William Laud. Laud, made archbishop of Canterbury, was instrumental in a policy of imposing a strict conformity on the Church: but it was a conformity in line with his Arminianism, and was met with continued hostility by the Puritans. England, however, remained quiet and even prosperous, until Charles tried in 1637 to impose this same conformity on the Scots.

The result was the revival of the National Covenant and the first of the Bishops' Wars, which ended in a humiliating truce for Charles on June 18 1639. It was in order to raise money to subdue the Scots that he was forced to take the fateful step of recalling Parliament in April 1640. This Short Parliament proved unamenable to Charles's wishes, and was dissolved on May 5. After another defeat in Scotland, Charles retreated before the Scottish army, who occupied Newcastle and forced Charles to call another parliament.

This Long Parliament soon brought matters to a head, and took measures which both threatened Charles's political position and caused him deep personal grief. The MPs of the long parliament thought of themselves as conservatives defending the king, the Church and parliamentary government against innovations in religion and the tyranny of Charles evil advisers. Yet their actions made Charles view many of them as dangerous rebels trying to undermine traditional government. Wentworth was impeached, and, that having failed, executed by bill of attainder. Laud was imprisoned and later executed. Charles was forced into one concession after another - the affirmation of Presbyterianism in Scotland and the abolition of ship money and the Star Chamber. The tension was heightened when the Irish rebelled against Protestant English rule and unfounded rumours of Charles involvement reached parliament. An army was required to put down the rebellion but many MP's feared that Charles might use it against parliament. The Militia Bill was intended to wrest control of the army from the king, but Charles refused to give up such an important part of his royal power.

The threat of this and the possible impeachment of Henrietta Maria finally led him to attempt to take control of events by seizing five members of Parliament identified as the key ringleaders. Charles was persuaded in favour of this policy by Henrietta Maria, and when he had taken the decision to make the arrests, she made the mistake of telling a friend who alerted Parliament. When Charles arrived, he found that "all the birds have flown". By violating Parliament with an armed force, he made the breach permanent, but equally important was the growth of a 'king's party' of royalist supporters, Lords and MPs who thought parliament had gone too far. It was no longer safe for Charles to be in London, and he went north to raise an army against parliament; the Queen went abroad to raise money to pay for it.

Civil war

The English Civil War had not yet started, but both sides began to arm. After futile negotiations Charles raised the royal standard (an anachronistic medieval gesture) in Nottingham on August 22 1642. Charles set up court at Oxford, from where his government controlled roughly the north and west of England, Parliament remaining in control of London and the south and east. The war went on indecisively through 1643 and 1644, until the Battle of Naseby tipped the military balance decisively in favor of Parliament. There followed the Siege of Oxford, from which Charles escaped in April 1646. He put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, who delivered him to Parliament as part of a deal in January 1647. He was imprisoned at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire, until cornet George Joyce took him by force to Newmarket in the name of the army. At this time, mutual suspicion had developed between the army and Parliament, a suspicion that Charles was eager to exploit.

He was then transferred first to Oatlands and then to Hampton Court, where more involved but fruitless negotiations went on. He was persuaded that it would be in his best interests to escape - perhaps abroad, perhaps to France, or perhaps to the custody of Robert Hammond, Parliamentary governor of the Isle of Wight. He decided on the last course, believing Hammond to be sympathetic, and fled on November 11. Hammond, however, was appalled and confined him in Carisbrooke Castle.

Here he continued to try to bargain with the various parties, eventually coming to terms with the Scottish Presbyterians that he would allow the establishment of Presbyterianism in England as well as Scotland for a trial period. The Royalists rose in July 1648, and the Scots invaded. When the Scottish armies were finally defeated at the Battle of Preston, pressure grew in the army for Charles to be put on trial.


This was a novel idea; monarchs had been deposed before, but never brought to trial as monarchs. The leaders of the plan believed the king had to die, but were determined that this would be no act done in a corner. Instead Charles, as King of England, would face a show trial. A Bill was brought in for creating a Court to try him, with 135 (all firm revolutionaries) named as Commissioners and judges in the trial. This was passed as an 'Act' by 26 to 20 in the House of Commons.

The King's 'trial' lasted from January 20 to January 27, 1649. The King, having refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Court, was convicted of high treason by default; the Commissioners had agreed in advance the sentence. Only 59 Commissioners signed the King's Death Warrant dated January 29, and Cromwell had difficulty in getting that many to comply. The death warrant refers to him as "Charles Stuart, King of England".


Charles was beheaded on January 30, 1649 in front of the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall. The execution was not greeted with any enthusiam, but by near silence. It was common practice for the head of a traitor to be held up and exhibited to the crowd with the words "Behold the head of a traitor!", but although Charles' head was exhibited, the words were not used. In an unprecedented gesture, Cromwell allowed the king's head to be sewn back on his body so the family could pay its respects. King Charles I is buried in the Henry VIII vault at Windsor Castle. The last time the vault was opened was on April 1, 1813.

There is some historical debate over the identity of the man who beheaded the King, who was masked at the scene. It is known the regicides approached Richard Brandon, the common Hangman of London, but that he refused, and contemporary sources do not generally identify him as the King's headsman. It is possible he relented and agreed to do the deed, but there are others who have been identified. William Hewlett was tried for the murder after the restoration and convicted. In 1661 two people identified as 'Dayborne and Bickerstaffe' were arrested but then discharged. Henry Walker, a revolutionary journalist, or his brother William, were suspected but never charged. Various local legends around England name local worthies.

Parliament asserted its legal authority even over the monarch, rather than claiming that he was no longer king. Oliver Cromwell would soon become Lord Protector of England, a position which made him a virtual dictatorterrorism


There are several Episcopalian churches dedicated to Charles I as "King and Martyr," in England, Canada, and the United States of America. A commemoration of Charles I was added to the Book of Common Prayer by Charles II upon the Restoration, observed on January 30. The commemoration was removed by order of Queen Victoria in her capacity as head of the Church of England. However, it is listed in the Calendar in Common Worship of 2000 as a "Lesser Festival".

Restoration of the monarchy

In the Restoration, his eldest surviving son regained the thrones of Scotland, England, and Ireland as Charles II.



The TV special "
Blackadder: The Cavalier Years" features a surreal version of the events leading to his execution.

Charles's life has more often been treated seriously in novels and plays and on film.

See also

Preceded by:
James I/VI
King of England Succeeded by:
The Commonwealth (de facto)
Charles II (de jure)
King of Scots
King of Ireland