Charles I: Author of his own Downfall?

Graham Goodlad examines differing interpretations of the part played by King Charles I in the outbreak of the civil war.

Portrait by Anthony van Dyck, 1636

In outline the disastrous events of Charles I’s reign are well known to students of the seventeenth century. The king’s inability to work with Parliament led, four years after his accession, to a conscious decision to govern without its collaboration. During the ensuing period of ‘personal rule’ – sometimes known as the ‘eleven years’ tyranny’ – important sections of the political nation were alienated in disputes over innovation in the Church of England and the king’s exploitation of non-parliamentary sources of revenue. In 1637, an ill-advised attempt to impose an Anglican form of worship on the predominantly Presbyterian Scottish nation triggered a series of events that brought England and Scotland to the point of military confrontation. The need to raise money, in order to resist the invader from north of the border, compelled Charles to recall Parliament in 1640. The king was then forced to sacrifice his leading adviser, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and to acquiesce in the entrenchment of Parliament’s right to sit and in the dismantling of the machinery of royal prerogative government. By 1642 the division of the governing class into two opposing factions had become a reality. After a botched attempt to arrest his leading parliamentary critics Charles abandoned his capital and the two sides began preparing for armed conflict. The subsequent period of civil war ended, in January 1649, in the trial and execution of the king and the abolition of the monarchy.

Charles I’s role in the unfolding of this catastrophe has ensured for him an almost universally unfavourable press, redeemed perhaps by respect for the dignity with which he met his death on the scaffold in Whitehall. Broadly speaking, historians of the Whig school viewed him as an ambitious yet also unintelligent ruler, intent on the unwarranted assertion of royal power, whose actions led to the comprehensive rejection of absolute monarchy in Britain. Charles was out of step with the solid good sense of his subjects and, by outraging their sense of the legitimate constitutional restraints on monarchical authority, he brought about his own thoroughly deserved downfall. Such an interpretation echoed the contemporary verdict, of the republican writer Lucy Hutchinson, that Charles was ‘the most obstinate person in his self-will that ever was, and was so bent upon being an absolute uncontrollable sovereign that he was resolved to be such a king or none’. It was crucial to the self-image of the parliamentarian side in the civil wars that Charles was the aggressor, whom they were fully justified in resisting. In the words of one of the king’s opponents, Lord Saye and Sele, the conflict that broke out in 1642 was ‘a war made to destroy the Parliament of England – that is, the government of England – in the very root and foundation thereof ’.

Is this focus on Charles’ intentions and failings as an individual merited? This article examines the evolution of his reputation as historians have sought to make sense of the outbreak of civil war. How far was the crisis of Charles’ regime the result of his weaknesses as a man and a leader, and how far the product of deeper structural problems, rooted in the nature of the British monarchy? Alternatively, as one scholar has recently suggested, can the resort to arms in the 1640s be largely explained in terms of an aristocratic coup d’état, mounted by a determined opposition faction with its own agenda? Was Charles simply unfit to rule, or was he confronted by a combination of circumstances against which he could not be expected to prevail?

Personal Failure or Structural Weakness?

Since the 1970s the work of a number of historians has promoted a greater understanding of the underlying problems faced by the early Stuart monarchy. The late Conrad Russell, in particular, drew attention to the difficulties posed by the phenomenon of ‘multiple kingdoms’. Charles I was king not of a united Great Britain but of three separate kingdoms, England, Scotland and Ireland, which differed enormously in terms of their political and legal systems and their social structures. Crucially, each component part of the realm was internally divided on religious grounds and contained a powerful group who preferred the religion of one of the other kingdoms to their own. This was to be particularly significant in 1639-40 when an invading Scottish army, challenging Charles’ authority in northern England, enjoyed the active support of puritan MPs and peers at Westminster. The incursion, which had been provoked by Charles’ attempt to introduce an Anglican prayer book in Scotland, was the decisive factor in bringing about the summoning of the English Parliament and its prolongation. Nor was Charles’ desire for religious uniformity throughout the realm an abnormal aspiration in the early seventeenth century, unrealistic though it proved in practice. The longer-term goal of the Scottish intervention was to secure support at Westminster for the extension of the Presbyterian model of church government south as well as north of the border. This was a major cause of the emergence of two opposing parties in London in 1641-42. By no means all of those parliamentarians who welcomed Scottish military pressure on Charles were prepared to endorse such a far-reaching religious agenda in their own land.

Conrad Russell highlighted another fundamental problem of the Caroline monarchy: the need to maintain the prestige expected of an early modern ruler, with revenues depleted by inflationary pressures and the deficient financial management of his royal predecessors. The predicament was worsened by Parliament’s unwillingness to provide adequate funds. This made a resort to unparliamentary sources of revenue, such as the extension of Ship Money from the maritime counties to inland areas, understandable. Kevin Sharpe’s detailed study of the personal rule has underlined the relative success of the monarchy, at least until the late 1630s, in paying its way. More controversially, Sharpe denied that the personal rule saw a steady growth of resentment on the part of the gentry and aristocracy against the regime. He argued that, by and large, Charles and his ministers governed England with the co-operation of the leading magnates at local level.

The work of Russell and Sharpe, and of other scholars, including Charles’ most recent biographer, Richard Cust, has created a picture of a monarch by no means wholly unsuited to the task of governing. Instead Charles emerges as a ruler whose good qualities were counteracted by specific defects and misjudgments about particular situations. These writers have challenged earlier stereotypes, according to which Charles was largely uninvolved in the important business of government. Too often he was depicted as obsessed with the trivial details of hierarchy and protocol, absorbed in his own family life and in the escapist world of art-collecting and court masques. Sharpe has demonstrated that he was in fact conscientious in keeping up with official paperwork, working with his ministers and directing the conduct of government policy. In particular the nature of the king’s relationship with his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, has been reassessed. We have now been led to see Charles far more as the initiator of church policy and Laud as its executor. Cust’s biography portrays Charles as a ‘conviction politician’ who was capable of giving leadership and attracting loyalty. The Caroline court was remarkably free of the factionalism that had been a characteristic of earlier reigns. Yet in spite of these positive attributes, it remains the case that Charles presided over his country’s descent into civil war and the frustration of the ideals for which he had striven in both church and state. What were Charles’ defects of character, and how significant were they for the breakdown of his regime?

Fatal Flaws?

Perhaps Charles’ most damaging trait was an inability to understand how others viewed his actions. Linked to this was a strong tendency to assume that all criticism of his views and policies was a mark of disloyalty, which needed to be confronted and crushed. Nowhere was this clearer than in his sponsorship of reforms of the Church of England, which aroused widespread unease among his most staunchly Protestant subjects. The main objective of Charles’ policies was to restore a sense of order and dignity to the established Church, in which he had been brought up. Unfortunately the emphasis that he and Archbishop Laud placed on ceremonial and on the authority of the clergy created a widespread belief that they were covertly promoting a revival of ‘popish’ practices. Particularly controversial were two developments in whose inception Charles played the leading role. His support for the siting of altars at the east end of church buildings, separated from the congregation by railings, seemed to mark a shift towards the ritualism associated with Catholic worship. The publication in 1633 of the Book of Sports, licensing a range of recreations on Sundays, was intended to make the parish church a focus for the social life of the local community. To puritans, however, it was a provocative challenge to their strict sense of Sabbath day observance.

The problem was heightened by the king’s marriage to the French princess Henrietta Maria. Charles’ reputation suffered from the widespread belief that the royal court, culturally isolated from mainstream opinion, had become a haven for Catholics. He became widely suspected of sympathy with the Roman faith at a time when this was fatal in English politics. In the autumn of 1641, when a Catholic rebellion broke out in Ireland, and lurid stories of massacres of Protestant settlers reached England, mistrust of Charles on religious grounds became a central issue. It formed the backdrop to the publication in November 1641 of the Grand Remonstrance, a document which identified Charles with the designs of a Catholic faction, alleged to be behind recent developments in the Church of England and the Irish rebellion. The impassioned parliamentary debate on the Remonstrance took forward the process of division at Westminster between the king’s opponents and his supporters.

Although Charles’ views on monarchy were in important respects a continuation of those of his father, James I, he lacked the older man’s capacity for public relations. By nature an authoritarian personality, Charles expected his wishes to be accepted without a need for discussion or compromise. Underpinning his conduct was a strongly felt sense of his personal honour, which may have stemmed in part from a deep-seated insecurity, dating back to a difficult childhood. This led him to personalise issues in an unhelpful way, so that he approached negotiations without a genuine desire to comprehend or resolve the grievances of the other side. It has frequently been noted that when Charles made concessions to his opponents, he believed that his status as monarch entitled him to break his word when an opportunity arose to recover the lost ground. As he told the Scottish bishops in August 1639, after his submission to demands for their abolition, ‘Though we may give way for the present to that which will be prejudicial both to the church and our government, yet we shall not leave thinking in time how to remedy both.’ As a result, many of those who had dealings with Charles came to mistrust him. They knew that he would give in to their demands only under pressure, and they expected to have to resume their struggle with him at a later date.

An awareness of these character traits helps to explain the determination with which John Pym and other critics of royal policies in the Long Parliament approached the task of clipping Charles’ wings in 1640-41. It is worth noting the lengths to which they were prepared to go in order to secure the death penalty for Charles’ most able and ruthless adviser, the Earl of Strafford. They feared that the army assembled by Strafford, in his capacity as the king’s deputy in Ireland, might be used not only to reduce Scotland to obedience but also to overcome resistance in England. The king’s opponents were anxious to institutionalise the gains they made, passing the Triennial Act in order to make the calling of Parliament every three years a legal requirement. This was followed by the abolition of the royal prerogative courts of High Commission and Star Chamber, and the Councils of the North and the Marches (the Welsh border region), which had been the instruments of the personal rule. There was also legislation to outlaw extra-parliamentary sources of revenue, such as Ship Money. The objective was to make a return to the arbitrary government of the 1630s impossible.

Charles’ inability to win trust was demonstrated by the affair of the so-called army plot in April-May 1641. After initially giving the impression of a readiness to conciliate, he severely damaged his prospects by becoming implicated in a reckless attempt to rescue Strafford from imprisonment. The revelation of the plot achieved the exact opposite of what Charles had intended: it increased the pressure for Strafford’s death and led Parliament to rush through a bill declaring that it could not be dissolved or adjourned without its own consent. The king showed an equally faulty grasp of tactics, with even more disastrous consequences, in his reckless attempt to arrest five of his leading critics in January 1642. By entering the House of Commons, only to find that his intended quarry had escaped, Charles made a major error. He exhibited a willingness to use force, thereby outraging sensitivities regarding parliamentary privilege, whilst also suffering the humiliation of failing to apprehend his opponents. The episode perfectly illustrates Charles’ lack of political awareness. The charges of treason that he made against the five members could be defended on narrowly rational grounds. The king’s decision to arrest them, however, was politically disastrous because it led public opinion on the streets to react violently against him. As a result Charles lost control of London, a development which he tacitly acknowledged by withdrawing from Whitehall shortly afterwards. He had effectively handed his opponents an enormous propaganda coup, together with the material advantages of possession of the capital.

An aristocratic Coup?

Few historians would seek to make a positive case for Charles’ conduct amid the turbulent events of 1640-42. This is true of one of the most significant studies to appear in recent years, John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt. Adamson does not attempt to minimise Charles’ responsibility for his own downfall, arguing that his inability to decide between strategies of conciliation and coercion guaranteed eventual failure. He depicts a monarch with, in effect, two personalities. At times Charles recognised the need to work within the law and to deal courteously and pragmatically with others. Yet he was also a prickly, impulsive character, protective of his honour, ready to use force in a bid to extricate himself from difficulties.

The distinctive feature of Adamson’s work is his argument that Charles faced a determined attempt by a group of nobles, the so-called ‘junto’ led by the Earls of Warwick and Bedford, to deprive him of prerogative powers that had hitherto been accepted as belonging to the monarch. The leaders of this group have featured in earlier studies although never have they been so prominent. John Morrill, for example, drew a contrast between Charles’ personal rule, when peers with deeply held political views were excluded from office, and the more successful approach of Elizabeth I, whose government contained a broader cross-section of the elite. Warwick, Bedford and others saw their own attainment of office as crucial to ending royal misgovernment, and their long exclusion from preferment added a more ideological dimension to their outlook. It has also long been known that membership of the Providence Island Company, which was founded in 1630 to establish a puritan settlement in the Caribbean, provided a means for these peers and others, including John Pym, to keep in contact during the personal rule. Adamson, however, goes further in ascribing to this group a deliberate programme of constitutional reform, designed to reduce the king to the status of the Venetian doge – a figurehead without real power. He details the close links between the junto and the Scots, whose capacity to apply pressure was vital to the success of their plans. In Adamson’s account, constitutional rather than religious issues assume centre stage. The intention of Charles’ opponents was to create the essence of a republic or ‘commonwealth’ behind the appearance of a monarchical state. The civil war broke out, according to this analysis, as a group of discontented royalists decided to resist the coup mounted by the junto.

The Noble Revolt presents a cogently argued case, based upon a vivid and detailed account of high political events between the spring of 1640 and January 1642. It has undoubtedly altered the way in which scholars see this critical period, but it raises a number of concerns. Adamson’s focus on a relatively short period says little about the longer term factors that enabled the crisis to develop. The shift in emphasis, away from religious issues as a way of explaining the conflict, is likely to remain particularly controversial. How coherent was the project of ‘Venetianisation’ pursued by the Warwick-Bedford faction? The role of accident and contingency in bringing about the civil war should perhaps receive greater prominence.

What is not in doubt is the mismanagement of the crisis by the king. Although there is now a much greater understanding of the context within which he operated, and historians’ assessments of Charles are less dismissive than they once were, his contribution to the tragedy of his reign cannot be denied. His personality encouraged conflict and, as his room for manoeuvre narrowed from the autumn of 1640, he proved unable to make the imaginative leap required to establish a workable settlement with his opponents. As a result he became involved in a conflict which he was unable to win.

Further reading

  • John Adamson, The Noble Revolt:The overthrow of Charles I (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007)
  • Richard Cust, Charles I: a political life (Longman Pearson, 2005)
  • Ann Hughes, The Causes of the English Civil War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 1998)
  • John Morrill, Revolt in the Provinces: the people of England and the tragedies of war 1630-1648 (Addison Wesley Longman, 2nd edition, 1999)
  • Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1990) and The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 (Oxford University Press, 1991)
  • Kevin Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles I (Yale University Press, 1992)
  • Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution 1625- 1660 (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Graham Goodlad is Director of Studies at St John’s College, Southsea.