On a cold Tuesday January 30, 1649, a slight figure stepped out of a window of the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace on to a scaffold. He made a brief speech to the large crowd that had gathered around the palace before placing his neck on a wooden block. With one swing of the executioner’s axe, his head was removed from his body. King Charles I of England had been executed as “a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good of this nation”.
Charles was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland. His popular elder brother, Henry, died in 1612. So Charles became king when his father, who had become James I of England as well, died in 1625. Charles was a small man, who suffered from a lack of confidence. When speaking, he struggled with a stammer. But he was also a highly cultured man. He had beautiful manners and never lost his temper. He loved hunting and fine living. He married Henrietta Maria, the daughter of the French king, in 1625 and fell deeply in love with her.
Charles, like his father, believed in the “divine right” of kings. According to this belief, a king ruled by God’s will alone, and did not have to answer to anybody about his actions. Charles’s belief in his divine right made it difficult for him to deal with the English Parliament that, by tradition, was called whenever the king wanted to raise taxes or pass laws.
RULING WITHOUT PARLIAMENT
Charles called four Parliaments—in 1625, 1626, 1628 and 1629—because he needed to raise money for wars against Spain and France. Charles’s confrontational style of government made him unpopular, as did general dislike of his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. This made these Parliaments hostile and unhelpful. They refused to grant him the same rights to collect money as previous English kings, and they opposed his choice of ministers. The third Parliament forced Charles to accept the Petition of Right, which limited his ability to collect taxes without the consent of Parliament. The fourth Parliament even dared to criticize the king openly. Charles closed it, and ruled without a Parliament for the next 11 years.
Charles I took his responsibilities as king very seriously—which is why he hated the interference of Parliament so much. He believed that a king should care for his subjects as a father cares for his child. Above all, he wanted to unify the way in which the people of his kingdoms (Scotland, Ireland and England were ruled entirely separately at this time) were governed and the way they worshipped God. He sent his minister Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, to Ireland where the administration was reformed. In 1637 he supported the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, in introducing the English Book of Common Prayer to Scotland. This was a very unpopular move because most Scots were Presbyterian and wanted to keep their Church separate from England. Thousands signed a national Covenant against Charles and his new prayer book. In 1639 a Scottish Covenanter army invaded England and defeated Charles’s forces. Strafford raised an army in Ireland to fight the Scottish rebels. As Charles needed money to fight this war against Scotland, he was forced to call a Parliament.
SHORT AND LONG PARLIAMENTS
Parliament met in April 1640. This Parliament is known as the Short Parliament because it was dismissed after a few weeks for arguing with the king. A new Parliament was called in November 1640, which became known as the Long Parliament. Many of the members of the Long Parliament were Puritans who, like the Scots, were opposed to Charles’s version of the Protestant religion. They also objected to the king’s belief in his divine right. They moved to remove Charles’s ministers; Strafford was executed and Laud was accused of treason.
In 1641 the Long Parliament voted in favour of the Grand Remonstrance, a long list of everything Charles had done wrong during his reign. At the beginning of 1642 Charles left London and headed north to York. Both sides began gathering arms and men, and war between the king and Parliament became inevitable.
The English Civil War lasted from 1642 until 1646. At first Charles and his supporters, known as Royalists or Cavaliers, thought they would win. However, the first major battle, at Edgehill in Warwickshire, ended in stalemate. Supporters of Parliament, known as Roundheads, reorganized their army and it became much too strong for the Royalists. The Royalists were defeated at Naseby in 1645 and the next year Charles was forced to surrender. Kept imprisoned but still king, he feared for his life and supported several plots to try to overthrow Parliament’s rule. So in 1648 radicals in Parliament put Charles on trial. The execution of the king meant that Parliament could set up a republic, which lasted for 11 years until the restoration of Charles’s son, Charles II.