The Reign of Charles Stuart (Super Condensed edition)
Charles Stuart may often be written off as a wasted monarch but in reality he made a much more significant impact on English politics than what anyone of the period could have predicted. We often separate the human aspect of historical figures from their actions and I believe that this phenomenon has been continued with Charles. It is easy to elaborate on the actions of men and woman and thus judge from that precedent but it makes for poor historical literature. Charles Stuart was a man, no less than any one of us and to do his life story justice we must treat him as one.
1: The Early Years (1612 – 1625)
The second monarch of the Stuart era was ‘supposed’ to be Henry IX Charles’ older brother, but Henry’s death in 1612 changed everything; Charles was now thrust into the public spotlight knowing that one day he was going to have to pick up the reigns of the kingdom. It wasn’t going to be easy. Throughout his childhood he had always been treated secondary to his brother Henry by James and this never ceased, even after Henry’s death. For example Charles was struck by James for squirting water at George Villiers (later the Duke of Buckingham) who was James’ royal favourite up until his death. In 1623 it would be Villiers that accompanies Charles to Spain in an effort to secure the ‘Spanish Match’, a marriage between Charles and the Habsburg Infanta. The venture would end in failure and cost the frail James £100,000. As we know Buckingham secured a marriage with the Bourbon Henrietta Maria, daughter of the King of France, instead with the hope of allying with the French against the Spanish and German Habsburgs.
2: The Crisis of the 1620s (1625 – 1629)
When James died in 1624 it was Charles that took the place of monarch with George Villiers (now the Duke of Buckingham) at his side as royal favourite. Charles immediately got off on a bad footing with Parliament, there was plague in London and Parliament refused to sit under the circumstances. Henrietta Maria Bourbon, Charles’ French wife also arrived at her own pace. Both Charles and Henrietta had similar ideologies on what monarchy should be and what everyone else should be. They believed that the monarch’s word was absolute law and that his or her prerogative extends above and beyond any other force in the kingdom bar that of God. Speaking of God a common claim by contemporaries of this period was that “God is on our side”. Charles believed that the Arminian church he would eventually favour was supported by the divine, Cromwell, who would be the downfall of Charles, was also religiously motivated.
If Charles had any opportunity to build a relationship with the political nation, the period 1625 – 1629 was the best time. The political atmosphere was tense after James’ death and any wrong move by Charles at this point may have precipitated a crisis. Charles’ foreign policy, often driven by Buckingham got off to a bad start. He attacked the Spanish port of Cadiz in 1625 which ended in failure, the significant cost of these attacks made Buckingham unpopular with Parliament. Considerable onus was placed on Buckingham who was already defaulting on his duties as Lord High Admiral of the Navy; pirates were becoming a substantial nuisance under Buckingham’s watch. Tunnage and Poundage which was meant for the upkeep of the navy was disappearing into a black hole, Parliament in its infinite wisdom decided to vote Charles Tunnage and Poundage for only one year. Charles was a poor communicator by nature and his entrenched views about absolute monarchy contributed to a personality that could never work with a Parliament beginning to assert itself and find its own feet. After Charles’ license to collect Tunnage and Poundage expired he ingenuously continued collecting it. Parliament was beginning to talk itself into a whirl over issues such as the toleration of Roman Catholics so Charles dismissed Parliament.
Typically in times of war Parliament would grant the monarchy a ‘help’, a subsidy to aid in the war effort. Parliament though was vehemently opposed to the kind of war Charles and Buckingham were fighting and refused to commit funds to a land war. By late 1626 Charles was desperate for money so he tried ‘benevolence’, in theory Charles requested the subsidy payers to give Charles the money directly without Parliamentary consent. Charles garnered little empathy through this act and even less financial support. In the face of this Charles issued a forced loan, he essentially twisted the arm of the political nation, forcing them to pay up or face the ‘consequences’. Ironically Thomas Wentworth (later the Earl of Strafford) refused to pay the forced loan even though he would go on to be one of the King’s most loyal ministers.
3: Personal Rule (1629 – 1640)
In 1627 England turned on France and found itself at war with both Spain and France, military disaster after military disaster left men like John Felton festering with contempt. In 1628 at Portsmouth he assassinated Buckingham and in the process becoming a hero of the people. Throughout the last two years of the 1620s a constitutional crisis developed, there is nothing better than the five knights’ case to typify this crisis. While imprisoned these five knights applied for the right of Habeas Corpus, the right to a trial, and it was given. Before any more challenges to Charles’ prerogative could materialise, Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 effectively heralding the beginning of the eleven years of personal rule.
There would be several positive and negative elements to personal rule; certainly from a constitutional standpoint personal rule was the beginning of absolutism, the worst case scenario for English republicans and constitutionalists. But was it really that bad in real terms? Looking back at personal rule from the interregnum era many have called it the golden age of prosperity and peace, whereas others have claimed that it was nothing more than ‘eleven years of tyranny’. There is substance for both claims, indeed it was a period of peace and increased trade but any fathom of democracy was non-existent, this was raw despotism, no questions asked. But it was never going to be as simple as that, questions were raised, and they became more pressing as personal rule dragged on.
By 1630 war with France and Spain had come to an end but Charles was still in phenomenal debt. He had to find some way to stay solvent but still allow for an eccentric lifestyle. This is where the crisis of the 1620s was magnified through unpopular religious changes and dubiously legal taxes. In 1633 William Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury; he was a stoic character from a modest background, everything the restless gentry despised, unfortunately for them he wasn’t going anywhere. Laud, without regard for anything bar the King’s authority introduced a raft of new reforms including the Book of Sports (1633) which stipulated that sports and games can be played after services on the Sabbath (Sunday). This upset Puritans who placed great emphasis on the sanctity of the Sabbath, for them, Sunday’s were a time of reflection not frivolity. Guard rails returned to Churches, the gentry’s pews were removed and icons emphasising the beauty of worship appeared in Churches all around the multiple kingdoms.
Laud’s reforms weren’t the only change. Nuisances, Forest fines, Purveyance, Wardship, Forced Loans and Ship Money all came into effect to replace traditional Parliamentary approved incomes. Nuisance fines were levied on those that built outside the walls of London, royal forest fines were resurrected. Royal forest was declared to be that if Edward I’s reign of 1292, this included half of Essex. The Earl of Salisbury was fined an incredible £20,000 for encroaching on royal forest. Ship Money was by far the most hated of all taxes. In theory ship money could only be collected during times of emergency for use by the navy, furthermore it should have only been levied on coastal counties. There was no possible way that ship money would noticeably contribute to Charles’ solvency if it was levied in the traditional way, so it was expanded. Charles extended ship money to the inland counties, and began collecting it perpetually despite the apparent lack of danger to England and its people. Another constitutional crisis arose when John Hampden, a major landowner, refused to pay ship money in 1637. Even though Hampden was eventually forced to pay up, Charles’ financial policies were already on a downward slide. It was becoming increasingly difficult to collect ship money and by 1638 receipts were beginning to drop off.
Meanwhile Archbishop Laud was busy inflaming the situation as much as he possibly could. There was a profound case where Laud placed three gentry in the stocks, Prynne, Bastwick and Burton. This kind of humiliation was unprecedented for the gentry, what made it worse was that Laud was a commoner himself. This action came at the worst possible time when the gentry were already at wits end over the many legally dubious taxes that they had to pay.
In 1639 the first Bishop’s war broke out which ended up in complete failure for Charles, his commander the Earl of Arundel did not have the resources to launch a successful counteroffensive against the Scots. Additionally the English militia were in a poor state; Charles’ plan for perfect militias had gone awfully wrong. Charles raised forced loans at several points throughout his reign and even into the 1630’s was collecting hundreds of thousands of pounds, 1637 however saw a change to this. Charles’ credit with the London merchants had expired and he was now resorting to fraudulent methods of raising money. Charles kept £30,000 of London merchant money in the tower for ‘safe keeping’ intending to use it to deal with the impending Scottish invasion force. £30,000 was not enough considering that Charles’ military costs were estimated to be much higher, in the millions of pounds. By locking this money away Charles lost all credibility with his creditors and gained nothing and by the time of the second bishop’s war Charles had no leverage.
To try and salvage the situation Charles had but one choice, to call Parliament. All of this had been set in motion by Laud’s introduction of the Prayer Book to Scotland in 1637, a decision that aroused great unrest among the Calvinist and Presbyterian Scots. In any case the damage was done and now Charles had to deal with the consequences, an uncompromising Scottish invasion force on one side and a Parliament trying to reduce Charles to a rubber stamp monarch on the other. It was at this point that Charles made the most damaging decision of his entire reign; encouraged by men like Thomas Wentworth he dismissed the Short – Parliament in May 1640. When Charles’ general Thomas Wentworth was defeated he called the Long – Parliament of November 1640 which would prove to be his end.
4: Crisis and Civil War (1640 – 1649)
A man that had begun making a name for himself in the 1629 Parliament began to re-emerge; his name was John Pym, often referred to as King Pym for his vehement opposition to the King’s policies. He became the progenitor of something called the anti-court consensus. The aim of this consensus was to oppose the prerogative courts that had been so hated during personal rule. Pym had great political skill in keeping a factional and agitated Parliament unified against the King’s prerogative courts and his ministers. Even though the anti-court consensus would eventually break up in 1642 it had already achieved its goals.
The anti-court consensus was the bane of Charles’ monarchy, it was unique because it’s members, notably Pym, were utterly convinced of the Catholics at court conspiracy which was in part, seen as the evil behind many of Charles’ unpopular policies. The Grand Remonstrance of 1641 was the first affirmative action taken against the Catholics in England; it strengthened anti-Catholic laws that were already in place such as the anti-recusancy laws. Over the course of the next year Charles was forced to concede to radical constitutional changes such as the triennial act and the act of attainder which made the conviction and trial of Charles’ evil ministers much easier. By doing this though Parliament was already beginning to corrupt itself, becoming the very evil that it was hoping to destroy. In face of the ten propositions in 1642 and the riotous London mob Charles chose to leave London in March of 1642 after his unsuccessful attempted arrest of the ‘five’ ministers. London was awash with anti-Charles sentiment, war was now inevitable.
In August of 1642 Charles raised his standard at Nottingham in the north. Both Parliament and Charles began raising forces. The Militia Ordinance and the Commission of Array were issued to raise armed forces by Parliament and Charles respectively. From the outset of the war Charles was in a worse military position than Parliament, he controlled the poorer North and West, opposing Charles was the much wealthier South – East in Parliamentary control. The opening shots of the war were placed on the 24th October 1642 at Edgehill, each army was about 13, 500 strong but the Royalists had something the Parliamentarians didn’t, a powerful cavalry force under Prince Rupert. Rupert proved instrumental in defeating the Parliamentary cavalry which effectively won the battle for the Royalists whose infantry were fighting to a rather typical stalemate. Charles, who proved to be a competent military leader later in the war, then, threw away an advantage by capturing Oxford rather than marching on London with moderate opposition. In the wasted time Essex built up formidable defences at London and 24, 000 men.
The war would drag on for three more years with the tide turning firmly in Parliaments favour by July 2, 1644 and the Battle of Marston Moor, where 27, 000 Scots and Parliamentarians faced down 18, 000 Royalists. For the first time Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides repulsed Rupert’s cavaliers ending his undefeated reputation. It would be a year later that the war would finally be lost for Charles at the Battle of Naseby, Rupert broke the Parliamentary left wing but the charge was carried too far and Cromwell broke the Royalist right demoralising the infantry and overwhelming them. The new model army that Cromwell and Fairfax had been the creators of had finally won through. What made it so effective was the idea of promoting on merit rather than social status, men like Manchester and Essex (who carried his own coffin into battle) with little talent for command were replaced by officers with a passion for command, men who wanted to be there.
Despite a conclusion to the war there was still an air of uncertainty about England, in fact that is an understatement, the civil war was defined by definite objectives, to defeat the King, but now the King had escaped and surrendered to the Scots, there was no clear way forward. To save many thousands of words the period of 1645 – 1649 can be summed up by Charles sallying between the custody of the Scots, Parliament and the New Model Army which became increasingly politicised as its upkeep became challenged by a Parliament eager for its dissolution. Charles hoped to bide his time, eager for an opportunity to take his place on the throne once again. When Cromwell realised this a special Parliamentary court was set up to try Charles, his death warrant was signed by the ‘regicides’.
In 1649 he was executed with the severing of the head from the body, this made Charles a martyr of monarchy, reinforced by his speech from the scaffold where he unerring stated “A subject and sovereign are clean different things”. He wasn’t a bad man in any capacity, he had a unique set of values to trust and to abide by, values that were simply incompatible with the emerging views of the time. Unable to change, Charles’ stoicism cost him his life.