The myths that surround the ultimately tragic rule of Charles I mask the realities of a courageous and uxorious king who fell foul of a bitter struggle between two sides of English Protestantism.
Charles I was said to be the only king of England ever to have been crowned in white. To opponents he was the White King of the prophesies of Merlin, a tyrant destined for a violent end. His supporters later declared that the white robes were the vestments of a future martyr. Yet the White King sobriquet is unfamiliar today.
In popular memory Charles is recalled as a failed monarch, executed at the hands of his own subjects. This ultimate defeat is read back across his life, to the moment he was born a frail infant marked out by disability. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king’s twisted spine was an outward sign of a deformed soul. Similarly, the weak legs and lingual incapacity of Charles’ childhood have been depicted almost as physical manifestations of weakness of character and stupidity.
We are told he was outshone by his brilliant elder siblings: his sister Elizabeth, the future ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia (whose depressive husband, Frederick V, lost his patrimony and his kingdom); and brother Henry (who died aged 18, having raised great hopes without having had the chance to disappoint them). Yet contemporaries who glorified Charles’ siblings were the heirs to men who had used the memory of Elizabeth I as a stick with which to beat his father, James I. Nor had they been universally loyal to Elizabeth in her lifetime. Many had been followers of her final favourite, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who had led a court revolt against her in 1601.
The real Charles was far from the pathetic inadequate of myth. He enjoyed the family security and, indeed, the love his father had never had. He was a far better scholar than Henry and had a dry sense of humour. As a boy of 12 he teased his ill mother that he was sorry not only because she was sick and he could not see her, but because he would miss her ‘good dinners’. He overcame his disabilities to become an athletic adult, who spoke concisely but elegantly. In achieving this, he showed the determination, resilience and sense of duty that would be a feature of Charles the king. Unfortunately, however, stories about Charles that ring true and appeal to our prejudices about the weak monarch have become ‘fact’.
Take the story of his boyhood companion, Will Murray, whose uncle, Thomas, was Charles’ tutor. William was not only a friend. According to his biography, he was also Charles’ whipping boy: when Charles was badly behaved, it was Murray that was beaten.
Yet the first reference I have found to Murray being Charles’ whipping boy dates from more than 70 years after the king’s death, in Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Times. The story is used to explain Murray’s undue influence over the king. Only six years after Charles’ execution, Thomas Fuller’s Church History claimed that Edward VI had a whipping boy in Barnaby Fitzpatrick, who was (supposedly) never beaten because the godly king was so saintly. The earliest reference to any whipping boy (that I found) appears in Samuel Rowley’s Jacobean play, When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), in which Henry VIII has a ‘whipping boy’, ‘Browne’.
The story of these Tudor and Stuart whipping boys was conjured up in 1605, in the aftermath to the English publication of James’ tracts on divine right kingship, with their assertion that no subject could legitimately raise their hand against God’s anointed. It has been accepted because it fits with the image of Charles as the man responsible for the suffering of the Civil Wars: he was a bad king, but his people had the whipping.
This negative image of Charles deters readers who are less drawn to the period than they are to that of the Tudors. Good books get overlooked along with exciting new scholarship. Charles needs fresh life, not to be restored to any pedestal, but to be seen to grow and change, to make mistakes and learn, to be judged in the context of his times and among his contemporaries – including women, who were also involved in high politics. In popular memory, the leading figures of Charles’ reign are male soldiers, male MPs and male clerics. Oliver Cromwell and John Pym, Prince Rupert and William Laud dominate the narrative, while the reputation of the most prominent woman, Henrietta Maria, still lies in the eye of a storm of sexist tropes.
In intellect, Charles’ queen has been depicted as if she were a hysterical child, embodying the belief that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. Conversely, even as a teenage bride Henrietta Maria is depicted as a crone. A remark made about her later in life, describing her teeth protruding like javelins from a fortress, is taken out of context so that the lovely face of her youth is only a witch’s spell that masks the hag. She is a servant of evil, another Eve, spiritually weak yet seductive, who corrupts the king into popery and brings civil war to a Protestant Eden.
Previously unpublished royal letters, to which I had access, give voice to a queen who was every inch the daughter of the great warrior king, Henri IV of France, and as remarkable as any of the wives of Henry VIII.
Charles’ reign began during the Thirty Years War. This was the world of Charles’ sister, the Winter Queen, of Protestant churches in flames and the advance of the Counter-Reformation, of a Spanish empire on which the sun never set and the new Puritan colonies of the Americas, a London of fast-moving media reporting on politics from Parliament as well as on the conflict in Europe. England – Britain – is part of this wider world.
Henry VIII’s nationalised form of Anglo-Catholicism did not survive him. From the reign of Edward VI, English Protestants saw the Church of England as part of international Reform Protestantism – a stripped-down Protestantism that would later be labelled Calvinism – just as Scottish Protestants did their Presbyterian kirk. The fate of British Protestantism was linked to what happened to their fellow Calvinists in Europe; there, Protestantism was in retreat. In the 1590s, Protestants held half the land area in Europe. A century later they would hold only a fifth.
Anxiety over Calvinist survival on the continent gave an edge to concerns at home about the half-reformed nature of the Church of England, with its episcopate (government by bishops) and other pre-Reformation hangovers. There was mistrust of Stuart enthusiasm for Elizabethan compromises, particularly among those labelled Puritans.
Protestantism had only survived where it had been imposed or permitted by rulers. To defend themselves, British Protestants had therefore developed ‘resistance’ theories, arguing that kings took their authority from the people, who had the right to overthrow any monarch of the ‘wrong’ religion, which included being the ‘wrong’ kind of Protestant. ‘Popery’ was the term applied to those who sought to spread Counter-Reformation; it was also applied to any reversal of Calvinism.
James had confronted resistance theory by arguing that kings, like bishops, drew their authority from God and that only God could punish them. Divine Right Kingship was not some mere expression of megalomania: it was a defence against religious extremists, both Protestant and Catholic. Charles grew up aware that resistance theory had cost his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, her throne (at Protestant hands); it had justified kidnap and murder attempts against his father (at Protestant and Catholic hands); and it lay behind the assassination of his wife’s father (at Catholic hands – a reminder that a monarch faced threats even from those of their own religion). He embraced his father’s writings and his accession revealed a dynamic monarch.
In the first weeks of his reign, in 1625, he ended his father’s ‘long corrupted peace’ and took his kingdoms into the Thirty Years War, fighting for the interests of the Stuarts and the Protestant cause. At home he created a theatre of ceremony, ritual and beauty, designed to shape a deferential and hierarchical society appropriate to divine right monarchy.
The informality and hard drinking habits of James’ court were brought to an end. Charles asked that nobles not ‘enter his apartments in confusion as heretofore’. Each rank was to have its appointed place. In religion, Charles sought a move away from Calvinist sermons and extempore prayers to rituals and ceremonies, with pre-Reformation origins, but which were nevertheless Protestant and set in buildings fit for purpose. His reforms would have a lasting influence on the Church of England, which still mark it – and English culture – today.
Among the significant figures at court in the 1620s was a group the historian John Adamson has termed the ‘Essex cousinage’: the son, nephews and nieces of the 2nd Earl of Essex. As such, they were members of a family with a long history of support for the Calvinist cause at home and abroad. It was a legacy the cousins engaged with in different ways, some as royal favourites, others as leading protectors of the ‘commonweal’ – or public good – against arbitrary royal power.
Among them was Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick. The greatest privateer of the age, he was violently anti-Spanish and deeply involved in the American Puritan colonies. Along with the 3rd Earl of Essex, he was known in Parliament as one of the ‘popular Lords’, who ‘aimed at the public liberty’ and the limiting of royal power. By contrast, Warwick’s younger brother, Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, was a Privy Councillor and favourite of Henrietta Maria, sharing her early anti-Spanish, pro-French policy. So did another cousin, Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle, a significant political player, reputed to be the mistress of the second most powerful man in England: George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
The shooting star of the Jacobean age, Buckingham had earned Charles’ trust when he was a teenage prince, becoming his mentor. But he was deeply unpopular during his long monopoly of power and became even more so for supporting Charles’ religious reforms. His successive military failures against Spain and then France only served to heighten the sense of Counter-Reformation threat.
Charles refused repeated requests by Parliament to sack Buckingham. When he was denied the parliamentary taxes he needed to fight Britain’s enemies abroad, he extended his royal powers to raise money by other means. This threatened to make Parliament irrelevant. By 1628 MPs’ speeches were describing Buckingham as the embodiment of all the dangers the nation faced. When he was assassinated that summer, Charles saw his death as part of a pattern of assault on royal authority by would-be oligarchs who, like the 2nd Earl of Essex, wished to direct royal policy and take control of appointments, while their particular brand of protestantism only encouraged their sedition. Following a virtual riot in the Commons in 1629, Charles decided his enemies had hijacked the institution. Eleven years of personal rule began.
Charles seemed set to become a British version of the future Louis XIV. He made peace abroad and began to repair royal finances through vastly expanded prerogative taxes (raised by royal right without the need for parliamentary approval). Charles invested some of his new money in the Royal Navy, promising a future for Britain as a great maritime power. The right to raise these taxes was unpopular, but was backed by his judges and, while his Church reforms also faced bitter opposition, they had a growing following. Time was on Charles’ side. Many of his toughest opponents were ageing men and the virile young monarch had a brood of children to guarantee the succession.
At court, the exquisitely beautiful theatricals of the masques depicted an idealised world of deference and social harmony, such as Charles wanted to build. Unlike his father, Charles was neither a keen author, nor an enthusiastic public speaker. His was a cinematic imagination and his eye encompassed far more than the art that would bring to Britain the greatest royal art collection ever seen in these islands. Theatre was a natural way for Charles to express his vision.
A deferential society suggests to us a slavish fawning to snobs with an unearned sense of superiority. Today we strive to create a ‘meritocracy’, in which people are able to achieve their potential through their own efforts. There is, however, another perspective. A meritocracy also suggests that those who are not successful have less merit than those who excel; and that those who have success owe nothing to luck, or the help of the less successful, only to their own efforts and brilliance. Ours is a self-congratulatory system that also fosters a sense of entitlement.
The hierarchical society Charles imagined was underpinned by Christ’s example of self-sacrifice. Everyone owed service, both to those above them (commoner to noble, noble to king, king to God) and to those beneath them, to whom they owed a duty of care. This included protecting the weak and promoting the talented and the brave. That was the theory. Charles wanted to make it a reality. It was not a contemptible ambition. It was, however, one that he failed spectacularly to achieve. The Tudor past suggests why.
Henry VIII and his children had each introduced dramatic religious change, but they had used Parliament to give their actions legal force and had terrorised their opponents. Like his Scottish father, Charles had never really understood the significance of Parliament in English culture. Nor was he able to overcome his instincts, trust more to his MPs and to his own power to control and intimidate them, accepting the compromises and slights to his regal authority that the messy business of politics sometimes required. He was always self-righteous, but rarely ruthless. While Puritans were persecuted and cropped of their ears, they were not cropped of their heads.
Charles once observed that only cowards were cruel and he hesitated when faced with the need to act violently. Not all royalists were enamoured of this gentle nature. The so-called ‘eleven years tyranny’ was, by their lights, not nearly tyrannical enough. It was all very well to rely ‘wholly on the innocence of a virtuous life’, but, they pointed out, it exposed Charles ‘fatally to calamitous ruin’.
When, in 1637, Charles introduced a new Prayer Book to Scotland, to bring his kingdoms into closer religious uniformity, it was greeted by an organised riot. Some felt that ‘had the King caused the chief ring leaders of these tumults to be put to death’ it would not have led to a Scottish rebellion and the so-called Bishops Wars. Yet, while flinching from cruel acts may be a political liability, it is not a moral weakness. Charles would become more ruthless with time.
The Bishops Wars ended in 1640 with the Scots’ occupation of the north of England. This forced Charles to call what became known as the Long Parliament to raise tax money to pay the Scots to leave. No longer was the opposition willing to settle on the protection and promotion of English Calvinism and the ‘liberties of the subject’. Warwick and other opposition peers, along with Puritan allies such as the MP John Pym, had plotted the invasion in treasonous alliance with the Scots rebels. They were anxious to divest Charles of any powers that might enable him to later punish their treachery and to remove any minister capable of aiding him.
Charles’ hard man, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, had threatened to use an Irish army against the Scots and was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason soon after Parliament had assembled. In 1641 Parliament passed an Act of Attainder to have him executed without conviction at trial. Charles would never forgive himself for succumbing to the threats against his family and his crown that convinced him to sign the death warrant. Meanwhile the opposition whipped up ethnic and religious hatreds to create a climate of fear that would help justify their increasingly radical moves.
Charles was accused of taking political advice from his mother-in-law, the Counter-Reformation champion Marie de Medici. English Catholic homes were raided for hidden weapons and attacked by mobs, 80-year old priests were hung, drawn and quartered, all to create an illusion of threat, while mob violence and mass petitions were used to intimidate MPs and to push through legislation that the Warwick-Pym group wanted.
The Catholic Irish were terrified (with good reason) that they faced a genocide at the hands of such a Parliament and rebelled in the hopes they might gain the same freedoms of religion that the Presbyterian Scots had achieved. This helped the Warwick-Pym group ramp up fears still further, with exaggerated reports of massacres of Protestant settlers being widely disseminated. By 1642 the new media of pamphlets and news sheets, together with sermons and political speeches, had built a narrative that would justify rebellion as a defence against ‘Popery’ and Henrietta Maria was being cast as the papist-in-chief.
This was in fact a war between Protestants over the nature of the Church of England and where exactly the balance of power between king and Parliament should lie. With Charles having accepted the necessity of rule with Parliament, many MPs would fight for the king’s cause against those they judged an ambitious clique, allied to extremists and fanatics. Some who began the war opposing him would change sides as the opposition’s radicalism increased: the treacherous royal favourites Henry Holland and Lucy Carlisle among them.
Most people – certainly Henry Holland – expected the war to end with one great battle that the king would lose. He would then be the puppet of the Essex cousinage and their allies. But Charles proved a brave soldier and inspired great loyalty. Parliament had control of London and most of England’s wealth and population. For a time they also had the backing of a foreign army in the Scots. Nevertheless, it would take years for Parliament to defeat Charles militarily. But Parliament’s victory at Naseby in 1645 led to a major propaganda coup that would have a lasting impact: the capture of the king’s correspondence.
Charles’ letters to the queen frequently addressed political issues, but all were suffused with the language of love. Careful editing and the addition of commentary was used to ‘prove’ that his wife was ‘the true controller of the breeches’. It compounded the image of Charles as somehow effete. In the early modern period, ‘effeminate’ was a term that described men who enjoyed female company. Charles is judged less than a man because he loved his maligned wife.
The real Charles showed as much courage in captivity as on the battlefield. Imprisoned from 1646, Charles never gave up the struggle to get the best terms for his restoration. His sticking points were a refusal to betray his brothers in arms, by giving up his friends to punishment, or his God, by denying episcopacy was divinely instituted. This latter was against Henrietta Maria’s firm advice: for the daughter of Henri IV, London was worth a bench of Protestant bishops. But Charles still hoped to strike a deal until the last hour of his trial, threatening war in Ireland, to be led by the moderate Calvinist, the Earl of Ormond.
The fight would go on after his death, with the publication of the Eikon Basilike (Royal Portrait). Carefully revised by Charles in his final months, the first copies were on sale on the day of his execution, promoting him as a ‘martyr of the people’, who had died for liberties and the Protestant religion. It sold in huge numbers. There would be 40 impressions and issues in England in 1649 and 20 in Latin, Dutch, French, German and Danish. It helped keep the royalist cause alive.
That Charles had been crowned in white was untrue. He was neither martyr nor murderer, but a courageous and principled man, whose ruin, like that of the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, came as a consequence of human failings and misjudgements. He is not a man we should despise, but one for whom we should have empathy. This keeps his reign alive in the imagination, his life unfolding, with its successes and failures, and for us, in following it, the thrill of discovery.
Leanda de Lisle is the author of The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr (Chatto & Windus, 2018).
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of History Today with the title ‘Neither Black nor White’.