King Charles the First, 1600-1649

King of England, Scotland and Ireland whose refusal to compromise over complex religious and political situations led to civil war, his own execution and the abolition of the Monarchy.

Portrait of King Charles the FirstThe second son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark, Charles Stuart was born at Fife in Scotland on 19 November 1600. His father succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and came to the throne of England as King James I in 1603.

Charles was created Duke of Albany at his baptism (December 1600) and Duke of York in 1605. He was placed in the care of Lord and Lady Fyvie until the age of four, then moved to England where he was brought up in the household of Sir Robert and Lady Carey.

As a child, Charles suffered from weak ankle joints that slowed his physical development. Attempts were made to strengthen his physique by making him wear heavy boots reinforced with iron. Charles was also slow in learning to speak and never completely overcame a slight stammer. His education was overseen by Thomas Murray, a Scottish Presbyterian who later became Provost of Eton. Despite his physical disabilities, Charles was a serious-minded student who excelled at languages, rhetoric and theology.

Vivat Rex

Charles was overshadowed by his brilliant elder brother Prince Henry, to whom he was devoted, but Henry died of typhoid when Charles was eleven years old. With Henry's death, Charles became heir to the throne of the Three Kingdoms: England, Scotland and Ireland.

The death of Prince Henry prompted a succession crisis. King James and Queen Anne were too old to have more children and the sickly Charles was not expected to survive to adulthood. A proposal was made that in the event of Charles' death, the succession would pass to James' daughter Princess Elizabeth and her husband the Elector Palatine Frederick V, which would mean the Wittelsbach dynasty acceding to the throne of the Three Kingdoms. However, by strength of will, Charles worked to overcome his physical weaknesses. He followed a self-imposed regimen of hard physical exercises that led to rapid improvements in his health and physique. Charles became a good horseman, excelling at tournament sports and hunting. He developed sophisticated tastes in the arts and earnestly applied himself to his religious devotions.

Created Prince of Wales in 1616, Charles was instructed by King James in every aspect of ruling a kingdom. With a profound belief that kings are appointed by God to rule by divine right, Charles succeeded as the second king of the Stuart dynasty in 1625.

Charles came to the throne amid pressure from English Protestants for intervention against Spain and the Catholic powers in the religious wars raging in Europe (the Thirty Years War, 1618-48). He allowed England's foreign policy to be directed by the unpopular Duke of Buckingham, who masterminded a series of disastrous military expeditions against Spain and France intended indirectly to assist the Palatinate. Charles dissolved his first two parliaments when they tried to impeach Buckingham but he was forced to call a third because he needed funds to pursue his warlike policies. In 1628, Charles' opponents formulated the Petition of Right as a defence against the King's arbitrary use of his powers. Charles grudgingly accepted the Petition in the hope that Parliament would grant him subsidies, but in practice he ignored its provisions.

Personal Rule

Badge of the Stuart dynastyEmblem of the Stuart dynasty

After the assassination of Buckingham in 1628, critics in Parliament turned their attention to Charles' religious policy. Resentful of parliamentary interference in matters which he believed were his concern alone, Charles angrily dismissed his third Parliament in 1629. Furthermore, he imprisoned several of his leading opponents, and declared his intention of ruling alone. The eleven-year period of the King's Personal Rule was also described as the "Eleven Year Tyranny". It was initially successful and during the turmoil of the civil wars, many people looked back upon it as a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Charles had made peace with Spain and France by 1630. Trade and commerce grew; the King's finances were stable by 1635. This enabled him to commission great works of art by Rubens and Van Dyck, and also to build up the Royal Navy for England's defence. But without Parliament to grant legal taxes, Charles was obliged to raise income by obscure and highly unpopular means including forced loans, the sale of commercial monopolies and, most notoriously of all, ship-money. Along with Charles' controversial religious policies, these measures alienated many natural supporters of the Crown, including powerful noblemen like Lord Saye-and-Sele, and wealthy landowners like John Hampden.

Charles and his advisers made extensive use of the Court of Star Chamber to prosecute opponents. Dating back to the 15th century, Star Chamber had originally been a court of appeal. Under the early Stuarts, it came to be used to examine cases of sedition, which in practice meant that the court could be used to suppress opposition to royal policies. Star Chamber sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. It became synonymous with the King's misuse of his power during the Personal Rule.

Religious Strife

In religion, Charles favoured the elaborate and ritualistic High Anglican form of worship. He appointed William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Laud insisted upon strict compliance to the established tenets of the Church and vigorously supported the King's claim to divine right. Laud also made extensive use of Star Chamber and the ecclesiastical court of High Commisson to suppress opposition from Puritans who regarded his high church liturgy as dangerously close to Roman Catholicism.

The King's marriage to the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria also caused consternation amongst English Protestants, particularly as she was allowed to practise her religion openly and freely. In some quarters, Henrietta Maria's influence over the King and the royal children was regarded as part of an international Papist conspiracy against the Protestant faith.

Although Charles himself was high-minded and devout, his religious policies were deeply divisive. In collaboration with Archbishop Laud, he insisted upon religious conformity across the Three Kingdoms. This went disastrously wrong when the Anglican liturgy and Laudian Prayer Book were forced upon the Scottish Kirk in 1637, resulting in the creation of the Scottish National Covenant against interference in religion, and the Bishops' Wars between the two nations.

In order to finance war against the Scots, Charles was obliged to recall Parliament in 1640, bringing his eleven-year personal rule to an end.

King versus Parliament

The strength of feeling against the King's policies in Church and State resulted in vehement criticism and lack of co-operation from the Short Parliament of April 1640 and its successor the Long Parliament. The opposition was orchestrated by John Pym in the House of Commons in collaboration with a small group of Puritan nobles in the Lords. Rather than making a direct political attack, Pym successfully undermined the King's position by blaming the nation's grievances upon the malign influence of his principal ministers Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford. To great popular acclaim, Parliament impeached Laud and Strafford and condemned them to death, with Charles doing little to help them.

The King's standard
1642: The King raises his battle standard

In November 1641, news of the Irish Uprising reached London, provoking a crisis over whether King or Parliament should control the army that was needed to quell the rebellion. Against a background of riots and civil unrest, the King and royal family were forced to flee from London in January 1642 following Charles' disastrous attempt to arrest the Five Members regarded as his leading opponents in Parliament. During the spring and summer of 1642, as King and Parliament appealed for the support of the nation and manoeuvred to gain control of the armed forces, a violent confrontation became inevitable. King Charles raised his battle standard at Nottingham Castle on 22 August 1642, which was his call-to-arms and the beginning of the English Civil War. Ironically, the navy that Charles had built on the proceeds of ship-money declared for Parliament. Having lost London to the Parliamentarians, Charles set up his court and military headquarters at Oxford.

Although he lacked military experience, Charles was courageous and always accompanied the Oxford army on campaign. He employed the Scottish veteran Patrick Ruthven, Earl of Forth, as his chief military adviser. However, the Royalist war effort was hampered by arguments and jealousies amongst its senior commanders, with Charles himself frequently indecisive or capricious. He was easily swayed by his counsellors, notably Lord Digby, who was himself conducting a personal vendetta against Prince Rupert. When the King began shipping government troops back from Ireland as reinforcements in 1643, Parliament mounted a successful propaganda campaign, raising fears of a Catholic conspiracy against English Protestants that greatly damaged the Royalist cause. The combination of Parliament's alliance with the Scottish Covenanters and the formation of the professionally-run New Model Army brought about the defeat of the Royalists in 1645-6.

Confinement and Intrigue

Charles fled from Oxford in April 1646 as the New Model Army approached the city. He surrendered to the Scottish army rather than to Parliament under secret terms negotiated by Cardinal Mazarin's envoy Jean de Montereul, who hoped to influence a settlement between England and Scotland that was favourable to French interests. Charles attempted to exploit divisions between the Parliamentarians and the Scots, continually involving himself in plots and intrigues with the exiled Henrietta Maria in the vain hope of gaining military help from Ireland and France. He failed to recognise the damage done to his cause in England by his association with foreign powers and Catholics. After Charles refused to accept the terms offered under the Newcastle Propositions, the Scots handed him over to Parliament in January 1647. The New Model Army—which was itself in disagreement with the Presbyterian faction in Parliament—secured the King in April 1647.

King Charles imprisoned1647: King Charles imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle

Charles was held at Hampton Court Palace, where he continued to play off the Army, Parliament and Scots against one another. He hoped that the monarchy would be seen as a beacon of stability amongst the political turmoil, but his obstructiveness and duplicity in negotiations alienated Oliver Cromwell and other Parliamentarians who had been anxious to reach a settlement. Believing that Army radicals were planning to murder him, Charles escaped from Hampton Court in November 1647. However, he ignored the advice of the Earl of Lauderdale to go north to Berwick where the Scots would support him and went instead to the Isle of Wight to seek the protection of the governor, Colonel Hammond, intending to take ship from there to France. Torn between loyalty to the King and his duty to Parliament, Hammond confined King Charles at Carisbrooke Castle.

Refusing to compromise over a settlement with the Army or with Parliament, Charles turned once again to the Scots. Under the terms of the Engagement signed in December 1647, Charles promised to impose Presbyterianism in England in exchange for a Scottish army to fight against Parliament. The Marquis of Argyll and the Scottish Kirk opposed the Engagement because Charles refused to take the Covenant personally or to impose it upon his subjects, but Argyll's rival the Duke of Hamilton put himself at the head of the Engager army and prepared to invade England. The Scottish invasion and simultaneous Royalist uprisings in England and Wales resulted in the short but bitterly-fought Second Civil War, culminating in Cromwell's victory over the Scots at the battle of Preston in August 1648.

Trial and Execution

Army officers were furious that Charles could deliberately provoke a second war when his defeat in the first seemed so clear an indication of divine favour to the Parliamentarian cause. Tired of his deceptions and intrigues, the Army denounced King Charles as the "Man of Blood". Parliament was purged of Presbyterian sympathisers and moderates in December 1648 and left with a small "Rump" of MPs that supported the Army. The purged Parliament appointed a High Court of Justice in January 1649 and Charles was charged with high treason against the people of England. The King's trial opened on 20 January. He refused to answer the charges, saying that he did not recognise the authority of the High Court, but he was found guilty of the charges against him and sentenced to death on 27 January 1649. The King was beheaded on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall on 30 January.

Execution of Charles the First1649: The execution of King Charles I

The King's execution shocked the whole of Europe. He was buried on 9 February at Windsor rather than at Westminster Abbey to avoid the possibility of public disorder at his funeral. Charles' personal dignity during his trial and execution had won him much sympathy. His death created a cult of martyrdom around him, which was encouraged by the publication of a book of his supposed meditations during his final months, Eikon Basilike.

The ideal of the martyred king helped to sustain the Royalist cause throughout the Commonwealth and Protectorate years. After the Restoration, it was sanctified to commemorate Charles' sacrifice of his life for the doctrine of episcopacy. King Charles the Martyr is the only saint to be canonised in the Anglican church. To this day, wreaths of remembrance are laid on the anniversary of his death at his statue, which faces down Whitehall to the site of his beheading.


S.R. Gardiner, Charles I, king of Great Britain and Ireland, DNB, 1887

Pauline Gregg, King Charles I, University of California, 1984

Mark A. Kishlansky and John Morrill, Charles I, Oxford DNB, 2004

Thrush, Andrew, The death of Prince Henry and the succession crisis of 1612-1614, (History of Parliament Trust)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace (London 1955)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)


Wikipedia article on Charles I

Biography on the official website of the British monarchy

King Charles' speech from the scaffold

The Death Warrant of King Charles I - House of Lords Record Office