Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the UK (and Canada, among other Commonwealth countries) has a new monarch: King Charles III. There has not been a king of England named Charles since the 17th century, and the reign of especially Charles I was beset by ill fortune and catastrophe (though Charles II had his fair share of misfortune too). Let us briefly review the trials and tribulations of the first King Charles, who could well be nicknamed ‘bad luck Chuck’.
Charles I (1600-49) succeeded James I (r. 1603-25), the first of the Stuart kings since Elizabeth I had no natural issue and so the line passed to her Scottish cousin. Charles sought to uphold the doctrine of the divine right of kings championed by his father, but was a far less capable sovereign. In the early years of his reign (1625-49), he was dominated by his favourite George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham’s predilection for extravagant spending, religious conservatism, and political incompetence stained the king’s reputation. Parliament opposed the king’s costly wars against France and Spain, as well as his favour of Roman Catholics and imposition of custom duties known as tunnage and poundage, all influenced by Villiers. Parliament declared to the king that ‘the Buckingham stops here.’
Charles gave in to some of Parliament’s demands, but from 1629-40 decided to rule without a Parliament–a period known as the ‘Eleven Year Tyranny’. He governed with the advice of the high Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud; the autocratic Earl of Strafford; and his French Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria. The combination of what was seen as crypto-Catholic leanings and imposition of ship-money (to fund the navy) even in inland counties outraged enemies of the court. The Bishops’ Wars which erupted over Charles’s attempt to impose Anglicanism in Scotland forced him to recall Parliament in 1640. Parliament now asserted its power, including over its own dissolution, and so became known as the Long Parliament. The Long Parliament forced Charles to sacrifice both Laud and Strafford, who were impeached and executed. For Royalist supporters of the king, the Long Parliament was the Wrong Parliament.
King Charles sought to stamp out Parliamentary opposition, but this only inflamed his enemies and led to the English Civil War in 1642. Charles and his supporters fled to Oxford, their wartime capital, and raised the royal standard against Parliamentary forces which were based in London. The English Parliament swore a Solemn League and Covenant with their Scottish allies in 1644, and beat the Royalist forces in several battles in the following years. The king was captured in 1646 by the Parliamentary army, escaped, and captured again in 1648. He was put on trial and publicly executed (as depicted above), an act which horrified not only Royalists but the rest of Europe. It inspired, however, would-be revolutionaries who always wanted to get a head in the world.
The ensuing years of civil war and republican rule finally ended with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the accession of King Charles II. While Charles II’s reign (1660-85) was initially popular, his pro-Catholic leanings and the luxury of his court eventually led to Parliamentary opposition–though it was his successor, his Catholic brother James, who would be deposed three years after becoming king. Restoration England under Charles II was a period of cultural flourishing, especially in the arts and sciences, though it was also beset by plague and the Great Fire of London. Charles II was always haunted by the untimely demise of his father, and King Charles III would do well to remember the missteps and mishaps of these predecessors. Not heeding the lessons of past kings would be a monar-key to disaster.
Till next time,
Early Modern monarchenemy Studies Program