Project Canterbury King Charles's Memory
By Frederick S. Arnold
American Church Quarterly volume 35, 1934
ON the afternoon of the 30th of January, 1649, Charles I of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Virginia, King and heir of an hundred kings, was led, through the halls of his palace of Whitehall, to a scaffold erected on the road outside the Banqueting House and, by a masked executioner, beheaded in the sight of all the world. The vast crowd assembled for this awful sight burst into sighs, groans, lamentations, and floods of tears. It is said that women fell into convulsions; that, in a few instances, on hearing the news, men fell dead from the shock; that even the Puritans' pulpits were bedewed with tears. English kings, notably Edward II and Richard II, had been deposed of old and privately done to death. Kings, for instance, Edmund and Edward the Martyr, had been assassinated, in the dark ages almost forgotten. Never before had such a deed as this been done, however, nor was to be done again until Louis XVI was guillotined (1793), in the French Revolution, at Paris.
The deed was the deed of a fanatical minority, possessed for the time of the power of the sword. Macaulay, in his "Essay on Hallam's Constitutional History," says: "It could not be procured without dissolving the government by military force, without establishing precedents of the most dangerous description, without creating difficulties which the next ten years were spent in removing, without pulling down institutions which it soon became necessary to reconstruct, and setting up others which almost every man was soon impatient to destroy. It was necessary to strike the House of Lords out of the constitution, to exclude members of the House of Commons by force, to make a new crime, a new tribunal, a new mode of procedure. The whole legislative and judicial systems were trampled down for the purpose of taking a single head."
Nor was this great and revolutionary crime exactly successful. Oliver Cromwell, indeed, usurped the government for the rest of his natural life as Lord Protector. He could neither be king himself nor found a dynasty. He could not carry out his own ideas, some of which, such as the reform of parliament, were excellent. He could never govern constitutionally and legally, because his own parliaments disrated his title and their own. He was compelled, by the horror and aversion of England, to maintain his seat by the army and by military and despotic power. The religious problems of the nation remained in confusion to the end of his life. At length he died on his "lucky day," September 3rd, in the year 1658. A mighty storm of thunder, lightning, wind and rain tore over the British Isles at Oliver Cromwell's passing, so that it seemed to men that his powerful soul was riding the hurricane to some dark coast.
A moment of anarchy succeeded the Protector's death, until, within two years, men hastened to restore the ancient constitution. The crown, the Houses, the laws, above all, the Church of England, returned. Everything was as it had been. The constitutional development of England was taken up where the last legal session of the Long Parliament had left it. The crime had borne no fruit. The Protectorship had been a barren interlude.
Yet that the Apostolic and Catholic Church of England came back with the crown and the Lords and the laws was probably, under God, due to King Charles the First. It was Charles who promoted Archbishop Laud successively from St. David's to Bath and Wells, to London, and to Canterbury. William Laud became King Charles's confessor at the beginning of his reign. Charles supported Archbishop Laud at all times, in his heroic efforts to revive the policy of Bancroft (Ý1610) and Andrewes (Ý1626), to root out Calvinism, and to make the religion of England Anglo-Catholic. In his letter to Bishop Juxon from Newcastle in 1646, as given in W. H. Hutton's history (Macmillan), the king wrote: "I need not tell you the many persuasions and threatenings that hath been used to me for making me change Episcopal into Presbyterial government, which absolutely to do is so directly against my conscience that by the grace of God no misery shall ever make me." He added: "God is my witness, my chiefest end in regaining my power is to do the Church service." It was generally thought and still appears probably true that King Charles, by giving up Episcopacy after the defeat at Naseby (1645), could have won enough Presbyterian support to have saved his life. Charles and the English people knew that he died because he would not surrender the Church.
Bishop Juxon attended the king at his martyrdom, heard his last confession, and gave him his last Communion. The Bishop stood beside him at the scaffold. "There is, sir, but one stage more, which, though turbulent and troublesome, is yet a very short one," Bishop Juxon called to the king. "Consider, it will soon carry you a great way; it will carry you from earth to heaven; and there you shall find, to your great joy, the prize to which you hasten, a crown of glory."
"I go," replied the king, "from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can have place." His head was severed from his body at one blow. (Hume's England, Ch. 59.)
There can be no shadow of doubt that the consistent Anglo-Catholicism of King Charles I throughout his whole life, his refusal to give up Episcopacy, even when he was in the power of his enemies, and the very Catholic and consecrated bearing and manner of the king in his witness-bearing death created that high tradition of loyalty to the Church, which bore fruit at the Restoration. It was the memory of the royal martyr which made all thought of "comprehension" or of any surrender of Anglican principles inconceivable after 1660. The Prayer Book of 1662 was an improvement on the Book of 1559 or 1604. The Clarendon-code, as the laws on Church-matters were called, enforced a reasonably satisfactory Anglicanism throughout England, and three Anglo-Catholics, Juxon, Sheldon, and Bancroft, were elevated in succession to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. Knowing the irreligious character of Charles II and the weak Churchmanship of the upper classes previous to 1640, it seems certain that it was the life, the faith, and the martyrdom of King Charles I that created the great tradition of High Anglicanism and identified law and loyalty with the Church and the sacraments. Under God, we owe our Church to the royal martyr.
This being so, it must appear most ungrateful in all Churchmen of the English rite, if we do not pay him reverence due and seek his intercessions for us in the courts of heaven. But for Charles I, you and I would today have practically no choice between Protestantism and Rome. But for Charles I, the English Church today would be scarcely so much as the non-Episcopal Lutheran Church in Germany and there could be no Anglican communion. But for Charles I, under God, the Church would not have been restored intact at the Restoration.
It is because this is so obviously true, that the efforts have been made by Puritans and misbelievers to blacken the memory of the royal martyr. The most simple device, yet one of influence among simple people, has been to confuse the two kings named Charles in unlearned minds, for indeed the vices and immoralities of the son, Charles II, were flagrant enough. Mere cursory reference to Macaulay, Green, or any respectable author, not to mention such a favorable historian as Hume, will instruct the reader that Charles I was chaste, temperate, kind, a devoted husband and father. He was a scrupulous observer of the offices of the English Rite. He went to his private chapel at six in the morning. He promoted Archbishop Laud and other great Churchmen of the school of Bancroft and Andrewes. Laud was his confessor. Thus, that Charles I was pure, temperate, devout, and orthodox is undisputed historical fact.
Charles I, was, incidentally, an exquisite judge of art and painting and wrote better than any modern English king. The Eikon Basilike, published as the king's work, has been attributed to Doctor John Gauden. one of Charles I's chaplains. Gauden made this claim very privately, after the Restoration, to gain favor with the court. He was in fact made a bishop. He may have had much to do with editing and giving the book final shape. It is, however, plainly the mind of the king, whose writings it appears to resemble more than the writings of Gauden. The king may have entrusted Gauden with the duty of giving the work final shape. On the whole, Eikon Basilike is a kind of argument not only for kingship, but for Anglo-Catholicism.
Thus the attack on the personal character of Charles I is historically impossible, though the enemies of truth have done something among the ignorant, by confusing the royal martyr with his dissolute son of the same name. Even the king's friends have, however, admitted that he was not a politician or a statesman adequate to the times in which he lived. His manner was reserved and distant, rather than conciliatory. He seems to have had the fault of a quick temper. He inherited from his father, James I, the absurd notion of kingcraft, as something tortuous and involved in plot and subterfuge.
Yet in considering the politics of Charles I it must be remembered that the theory of the constitution was still unfixed. In the Middle Ages, there was no such thing, generally speaking, as ownership of land. Land was a fief of the crown. It was burdened with elaborate feudal dues and obligations. It was in the attempt to enforce these ancient rights of the crown, especially ship-money, that Charles I raised against him all the rich men of the kingdom.
Our modern system of plutocracy, or the rule of wealth, and of the uncontrolled monopoly of land and of natural resources was represented by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. The future lay with them. Though, thanks to Charles I, they were not able to destroy the Church of England, they were able to enclose the commons and to rob the lands of the poor; to abolish the feudal dues, on which Charles I had insisted, without substituting a land-tax in their place; and to transform the merry England of the Catholic and feudal ages into the plutocratic England of modern times; the England of concentrated wealth, land-monopoly, and proletarian misery. We see economic history today with different eyes than those of Macaulay and Green. Perhaps we shall not side with the politics of the Stuarts. At least, we may cease to think the changes wrought by Cromwell and the land-grabbing rich men of the seventeenth century as beneficent in the economic sphere.
It may be that when Charles I was opposing the English landlords, he was simply making a last, unsuccessful effort to preserve the mediaeval system. Under those ancient tenures, the right to the use of the earth was shared, as it has not been since Cromwell's tone, by all the people of England. The great estates bore all the burdens of government and society. Land monopoly was impossible in the Catholic ages. It was the king's effort to preserve the incidence of the ancient tenures that first stirred the gentry against him, but England has hardly been a happier country because of the victory of the landlords.
Charles I failed to restore feudalism. The spirit of the age was against him. His unsuccessful efforts have united, to defame him, all the advocates of landlordism, from Cromwell's time to our own. If ever the issue is raised again it must be in a different form. The politics of the Stuarts is a thing of merely historic interest. Yet it is far from certain that the land-system which became triumphant after Cromwell's day was any better than the feudal system for which the king contended.
Be that as it may, there is no room to doubt, but that, by his Catholic life and his martyr's death, Charles I saved Anglicanism from apostacy and misbelief. His great memory, his high tradition brought back the Church, the bishops, the Prayer Book, and the faith. By his death, under God, our spiritual victory was won. So that we do well to keep the 30th January, in memoriam sancti Caroli, regis et martyris, and to bid his intercessions for the Church for which he died.