Wednesday 8 January 2020

Charles I: An Absolute Downfall

William Luke Flanagan
BA History
Charles I is seen by many as the ultimate example of England’s final absolutist monarch. His reign lasted from 1625 until 1649, however, in those 24 years the status of the monarchy’s legitimacy had radically shifted due to the growth of pro-republicanism. Despite the gradual increase in parliamentary influence during the Tudor Dynasty, the monarch was still seen as the sovereign ruler of England. Even King James I of England managed to stabilise a relatively uneasy relationship with Parliament despite opposition from Puritan and Arminian Members of Parliament. The question is how did Charles fall from grace? And how did the concept of absolutism die in England with him? This can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, Charles’s unenlightened thinking reinforced by his Catholic sympathies after marriage with Henrietta Maria. Secondly, his dictatorial means of raising money. Thirdly, his expensive foreign policy failings and, ultimately, the English Civil War resulted in his absolute downfall which had long term consequences on the role of Parliament in the future.
On religious policy, Charles was particularly out of touch with the House of Commons as he was a heavily influenced Catholic due to his marriage with Henrietta Maria and the birth of his sons Charles and James. This combined with the appointment of William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, and the announcement of a new Anglican Book of Prayer to the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, made many in England suspect that Charles wanted to return England back to Catholicism gradually. Charles I’ s belief in divine right to rule was critiqued in the Commons which demonstrates the modernising ideals of English politics compared to the situation in Europe at the time. Parliament feared this mostly because of the threat of papal dominance, and also of the monarch exercising dictatorial powers on the country with justification of religion like in the medieval era, which would undermine Parliament’s authority. With these policies being enacted by Charles relatively early in his reign, it is arguably understandable why Parliament quickly turned on him and openly rebelled against him.
King Charles I (van Dyck, oil on canvas,
1635-1636, NPG 843,
Charles-I, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Foreign policy failings like the wars against Spain and France along with Thomas Wentworth’s poor leadership against the Scottish Covenanters and Irish rebels proved that Charles was incompetent. His foreign policy however demonstrated his contra-dictory tendencies, as he supported the Swedish and German Protestant states against the Catholic Habsburgs with mercenaries despite himself being Catholic. It clearly demonstrated that he didn’t truly care about religion so long as he maintained power. His war with France, despite being married to a French Catholic, is more evidence to suggest that Charles prioritised prestige and wealth over religious principle.
His financial policies, however, were the most important factor in his demise, as he behaved like a ruthless tyrant in attempting to raise money. After dissolving Parliament in 1629, which began the ‘personal rule’ - or the ’11-year tyranny’ as coined by Whig historians like S. R Gardiner - Charles needed new methods to raise money. These included forced loans, the ‘Distraint of Knighthood’, which was the selling of knighthoods to wealthy nobles in return for payment, and Ship Money where coastal towns provided either warships or money to build said ships to the
Crown for national defence. All of these were enacted under obscure medieval laws ensuring that they weren’t classified as taxes, because, since Magna Carta, only Parliament had the authority to raise them. Failure to meet the quotas imposed by the King saw people prosecuted by his own Court of the Star Chamber with executions being common. This goes to show Charles’s authoritarian attitude and resulted in his popularity completely faltering by the time Parliament was recalled in 1640, ending his ‘personal rule’. This was more important than the other factors as it clearly demonstrated Charles’ ambition to avoid Parliament at all cost, in a similar fashion to the medieval kings of England, so that he could retain his power. After all, Charles recalled Parliament to get money and the ‘Grand Remonstrance’ passed due to John Pym, Oliver Cromwell and other radical Puritans in 1641 highlighting his dubious financing methods.
In conclusion, Charles’ fate was almost doomed from the start since his marriage to Henrietta Maria. His methods of raising money made him incredibly unpopular amongst the gentry, and his religious policies indirectly threatened civil war sooner rather than later. His foreign policy disasters proved his incompetence in war management as was demonstrated in the English Civil War where he squared off against Parliament. Defeats at Marston Moor, Newbury, Naseby and Preston (1644 – 48) guaranteed that Charles would be shown no mercy at the hands of Parliament after causing the deaths of thousands. Charles’ execution and the later brief Republic under the ‘Barebones Parliament’ and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell transformed the legacy of monarchical rule in England forever. Charles I’s reign is the greatest example of how clashes between tradition and modernity are at odds with each other, and can lead to change. After Charles, there was never another monarch who tried to challenge the role of Parliament in much the same manner. It is an example of how England, and later the British political system, was way ahead of other European nations like France in terms of its conceptualisation of a robust Parliament: this would only be realised elsewhere during the so called ‘long nineteenth century’, as coined by British historian Eric Hobsbawm. These 24-years of British history guaranteed Parliament’s place in politics for the foreseeable future. It also epitomised the fears of religious differences and dominance, along with how crucial constitutionality and limitations are to prevent human beings exploiting royal powers for personal use.

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