Charles I of England – Reign, English Civil War & Execution

King Charles I suffered one of the most tragic ends in the history of the monarchy. After the death of his father, James I of England, he ascended the throne and witnessed an ill-fated reign steeped in continual clashes with his parliament.  It was this antagonism that ultimately formed the basis of the bloody English Civil War and also led to his January, 1649 execution. England became much more democratic after his death.

What else was this Stuart king known for? And how authoritarian was his reign?

Below, WHE explores the life, succession and ultimate undoing of Charles I of England, the monarch whose abuse of power and strong appetite for war made him one of Britain’s most hated rulers.

King Charles I of England reigned from 1625-1649, when he was beheaded by Parliament. Portrait: Charles I in Three Positions by van Dyck, 1635–36

Family and Early Life

Born in Dunfermline Place, Scotland in 1600, to James I (also known as James VI of Scotland) and Anne of Denmark, Charles was the second surviving son of his parents. James I came from the royal Stuart line and had been successful in uniting the thrones of Scotland and England after a childless Elizabeth I of England died in 1603.

At age five, Charles was named Duke of York and was also made a Knight of Beth. Growing up, he was a sickly child and a stutterer. He went through classical education and studied  languages and religion.

King Charles’ parents – King James and Queen Anne – Engraving by Simon de Passe

Henry, his well-liked and widely admired  older brother and heir to the throne, succumbed to a severe fever in 1612, aged 18. Now the heir apparent, Charles was given the title Prince of Wales, i.e. heir apparent to the English, Irish, and Scottish thrones. Charles was 16 years of age at the time.

Rise to the throne

Following the death of James I on March 25, 1625, Charles ascended the throne to begin what would be a regarded as a very tumultuous reign.

As required of a king, Charles had to find a wife. He had an arranged marriage with  Henrietta Maria, a devout and unapologetic Roman Catholic, nine years his junior and the sister of Louis XIII of France.

The marriage would produce nine children over the years and would leave six surviving children. The queen consort had a tremendous amount of influence over Charles, a king who was in so many ways a very swayable individual.

Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria by Flemish painter van Dyck, 1632

Conflicts with Parliament

The king’s marriage displeased Parliament who thought that Charles would relax restrictions on Roman Catholics, which could lead to the subversion of  the Protestant Church.

Despite, Charles’ promises that he would not lift the restrictions, he had already assured his brother-in-law, Louis XIII, in a secret marriage agreement he would do just that.

The marriage also saw the the handing of seven English ships to the French so that the Protestant Huguenots at La Rochelle would be subdued. This agreement was also made on the blind side of Parliament.

February 1626 saw the crowning of Charles at Westminster Abbey, with his wife conspicuously missing to register her displeasure of the Protestant ceremony.

Basically, a cloud of religious suspicion marked the beginning of his reign; and over time, things took a turn for the worse.

Charles I’s reign witnessed serious animosity with Parliament on such issues as the funding of war abroad and his unflinching views about the divine right of kings.

Charles’ worsening financial situation and use of unconventional methods to raise money brought him into an open and bloody confrontation with his parliament. It was that conflict that morphed into the bloody English Civil War, a war that spanned for more than a decade. Did you know: a higher percentage of Britain’s population died in the English Civil War than in both World War I and World War II combined. Portrait of King Charles I of England by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1635

He constantly clashed with Parliament over money because the latter had a duty to enact tax laws and plan the budget.

Frustrated by the frequent conflicts, Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 in the hopes of ruling as an absolute monarchy.

In the years that followed, he dissolved and recalled Parliament repeatedly. Inflexible with his decisions, Charles tried to avoid the institution all together and get money through other channels.

For example, customs duties were raised, outdated laws governing the forest were revisited, and money was taken from merchants.

In his attempt to oppose the monarchy’s financial burden on the people, English landowner John Hampden (1595-1643) defied the new directives, leading to him being summoned to the royal court.

This and many other actions caused displeasure among the people, especially towns that had to pay the highly controversial ship money that was extended to the inland counties of England without parliamentary approval.

The collection of ship money was originally restricted to coastal regions, and in most cases, it was collected only during times of war.

However, in 1635, Charles decreed that ship money was to be extended beyond the coastal regions as he believed that the defense of the kingdom was the priority of all his subjects.

Charles dissolved Parliament for about eleven years and resumed sitting between 1640 and 1642, when he wanted the body to raise funds for his campaign against a Scottish army which had invaded northern England. The King also needed funds to quell an uprising in Ireland. These two events were rooted in the king’s ruthless and domineering policies and religious disagreements.

The English Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in August 1642, the Cavaliers, loyalist and sympathizers of Charles I, took over northern and western England, whereas Parliamentarian forces (i.e. the Roundheads) controlled the southern and eastern parts of the country.

In the beginning, the Charles’ forces appeared to be on the winning side, especially after establishing an alliance with Irish Catholics to end the Irish Rebellion.

However,  an alliance formed between the Parliamentarians and Scotland that year brought a large Scottish army to the side of Parliament, thereby turning the tide in favor of the king’s opponents.

In July 1644, the two opposing forces met at Marston Moor to fight the biggest battle of the First English Civil War. Parliamentarian forces eventually overpowered the Cavaliers, toppling  the king’s dominance over northern England.

The Civil War was made up of several bloody battles and military blockades in England. Eventually in August, 1648, the remaining men of the Cavaliers were defeated at the Battle of Preston.

The First English Civil War finally came to an end when the New Model Army secured victory for the Parliamentarians.

Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War. Cromwell was a leading and very radical figure in New Model Army. He went on to become Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, governing England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the English overseas possessions. His reign lasted from 1653 to 1658.

Execution of King Charles I

Charles (in the dock with his back to the viewer) facing the High Court of Justice, 1649

The army of the Parliamentarians requested for the king to be tried for treason and for his role that led to the deaths and injury of people all across Britain.

On January 20, 1649, Charles I stood before a high court of justice in Westminster Abbey. Through it all, the king, who did not recognize the power of the court, argued that his actions were in favor of the liberty of the people.

He was eventually found guilty of treason and executed on January 30, 1649.

Whereas the Parliamentarians labelled him a tyrant and a traitor, Charles I’s supporters considered the deceased king a martyr.

What happened after the execution of Charles I?

Upon the execution of Charles, the English crown passed on to the deceased king’s eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales.

On February 17, 1649, the new king was crowned King Charles II at the Royal Square of St. Helier, Jersey near the coast of north-west France.

The monarchy’s abolishment paved way for England’s Republic or what came to be known as the Commonwealth. The Rump Commons deposed the House of Lords leading to the assumption of power by a Council of State.

Later in 1660, however, the Monarchy was restored to Charles oldest son, Charles II.

Archbishop William Laud, who was executed by Parliament during the war, said about Charles, “a mild and gracious prince who knew not how to be, or how to be made great.”

Charles may have been more polished than his father, but his rigid stance and uncompromising attitude were largely responsible for his downfall.

Facts about Charles I of England

Charles I of England. Portrait by Dutch painter Anthony van Dyck, c. 1636

Birth Day and Place – November 19, 1600; Dunfermline Palace, Dunfermline, Scotland

Mother – Anne of Denmark

Father – King James VI of Scotland and I of England

Spouse – Henrietta Maria of France (married in 1625)

Siblings – Henry, Elizabeth, Robert, Mary, Sophia

Children – Charles II, Mary, James II and VII, Elizabeth, Anne, Henry, Henrietta

Reign – 1625 – 1649

Coronation Date – February 2, 1626

SuccessorCharles II

Predecessor – James I of England

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