Sunday, 14 March 2010
The Man of Sorrows
When Henrietta Maria, the prospective wife of Charles I, saw his image for the first time in Van Dyke’s triple portrait she is said to have wept. It’s possible to understand why. There is something deeply melancholic in those eyes, in that face, something that might even be described as martyrdom foretold.
The royal couple were eventually married in person (there had been an earlier marriage by proxy) in June 1625, a few month after Charles’ accession to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. After some initial frigidity, they were to find a deep and lasting happiness, which at least went part of the way to balancing the troubles of Charles unhappy public life.
His was never going to be an easy task. A small, retiring, shy man who spoke with a life-long stutter, he was never meant to be king. That was a role to be played by his older brother Henry, by all accounts an intelligent and personable figure, who gave ever sign of playing the part well. But Henry died in 1612 of typhoid fever, not long before Charles’ twelfth birthday.
As far as governance is concerned, the ways of dealing with people and institutions, Charles, now heir apparent, was given next to nothing in the way of practical training and responsibility from his father, James. But he inherited one particularly dangerous dogma – that monarchs ruled by divine right, by the will of God and not by the will of profane human institutions; not by the will of Parliament.
James had been king of Scotland many years before his accession to the English throne in 1603. There he had been involved in a lengthy struggle with the church; with those, like Reverend Andrew Melville, who inclined to a Presbyterian view, a view which held the king to be just an ordinary member of the church, like any other before God. James embraced divine right, and continental forms of absolutism, as a kind of royal declaration of independence. But what worked in Scotland, with its relatively weak parliamentary tradition, was to be disastrous in England.
Divine right was never going to fit within the English constitutional framework, with assertive traditions of parliamentary self-expression going right back to the Middle Ages. James, unsurprisingly, had a less than comfortable relationship with Parliament. But for all his dogma the King was a trimmer, a pragmatist, who only pushed a point so far. Charles, in contrast, was very much a ‘man of principle’, who hid his shyness and insecurity behind a rigid protocol, behind a jealous regard for the royal dignity; and for him the royal dignity truly was bestowed by God.
The struggle between crown and Parliament was the leitmotiv of Charles’ whole reign. He began badly, so badly that he dispensed with Parliament altogether for eleven years, raising money by any means available. This worked up to a point in ordinary circumstances, but a taste of future trouble came with the attempt to extend the Ship Tax, levied in costal counties for defence purposes, to the rest of the country, leading to the famous prosecution of John Hampden. But the whole act of royal management, of royal juggling, if you will, was in danger of falling if something extraordinary happened, and the extraordinary happened: the Scots rose in rebellion over the introduction of a new Anglican-style Prayer Book. Soon after the so-called Bishops’ Wars began.
Charles had not the military resources to repel or subdue the Scots. Such force that was available collapsed in 1640. With his treasury empty the king was obliged to summon the first assembly in eleven years - the Short Parliament, which proved unwilling to grant supply until certain grievances were addressed, and after so long a gap there were many, particularly over the question of religion and church government. Parliament, dominated by puritans like John Hampden, John Pym and latterly Oliver Cromwell, was suspicious of the high Anglicanism favoured by Charles, and the Catholicism embraced by the Queen.
The Short Parliament was dismissed after a few weeks with nothing settled, but as the crown was practically bankrupt Charles had no option but to summon another- the Long Parliament, which was destined only finally to exit the stage of history twenty years later. Now things really got out of hand. No sooner was peace made with the Scots than a major rebellion broke out in Ireland; the balls came down one by one. In England Charles mismanaged Parliament so badly that he was obliged to leave London in early 1642 in the tensest of political atmospheres. After some lengthy manoeuvring by both sides, the English Civil War finally broke out later that summer.
The war, in its first stage, was to last until 1646, leaving the King totally defeated and a prisoner of his enemies. Still he refused to compromise, seeing himself as a key player, playing one side off against the other; the Scots against the English, the New Model Army, which came into existence in 1645, against the Parliament, the monarchists against the republicans. The only effect this had was to radicalise politics still further. Finally, in late 1647, the King entered into a secret compact with the Scots, who promised to send an army into England on his behalf in return for certain religious concessions. The result was the Second Civil War, defeat for the Scots and a death warrant for the King.
Charles’ execution in January 1649 was born of a kind of political necessity; the axe went through his head, it might be said, in the way that Alexander’s sword went through the Gordian Knot. The act, though, had been little better than judicial murder, a decision that could only be secured after the army purged Parliament of all those sympathetic to the King, leaving a compliant and unrepresentative Rump. It was the beginning of a constitutional nightmare, with England eventually slipping into a military dictatorship headed by Cromwell.
Charles finally achieved his martyrdom, a witness for the Anglican ideal that he held so dear. He, more than any other, surely deserved the incorruptible crown.