The fateful end of Charles I in 1649 was England's only instance of regicide by its people. The controversial 17th-century monarch defied Parliament and asserted his right to rule as he saw fit, ultimately sealing his fate at the hands of his enemies.
Charles ruled England for more than 20 years, often rejecting the will of his people and Parliament. His overthrow and execution, however, pushed the limits of what even his biggest critics could have expected to happen. Charles's actions brought civil war to England, but offing a king wasn't something his subjects or outside observers took lightly.
The facts about Charles I's reign and his unprecedented passing offer insight into the extreme political situation in England at the time, and reveal just how difficult it was to be king.
Charles was the second son of King James VI of Scotland, who succeeded Elizabeth I as the monarch of England after her departure in 1603. Charles's older brother, Henry, was the Prince of Wales and apparent successor to the throne until his passing from typhoid in 1612. It devastated Charles, who adored his brother, but also propelled him to the top of the succession ladder.
Charles had been a sickly child, and his eventual succession didn't instill confidence in the royal court. He soon became the Prince of Wales and spent the 1610s and early 1620s learning the ways of the royal court, patronizing the arts, and training to be king. After his father's demise in March 1625, Charles was crowned King of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Charles's father, James VI of Scotland, ushered in the Stuart line of rulers in England as an absolutist. He believed in the divine right of kings, something that later influenced his son. From James's perspective, it was "sedition in Subjects, to dispute what a King may do in the height of his power" because it went against the will of God.
Charles embraced this and conducted his rule with the attitude that, as God's lieutenant, no one should criticize or question his will.
Charles was a Protestant in a land full of religious tension. The divide between Catholic and Protestant factored heavily into political and economic alliances and, as a result, marriages. Charles needed to find a bride, and the country needed to find a way to protect itself from potential violence from the staunchly Catholic Spain.
As early as 1608, diplomats had been arranging a marriage between Charles's brother Prince Henry and the daughter, or Infanta, of the king of Spain. Once Henry passed, that possible arrangement transferred to Charles. Negotiations for the Infanta's hand lasted for years, and in 1623, Charles and George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, took matters into their own hands to try to retrieve Charles's future bride, Maria Anna. The diplomatic mission was a failure, and the betrothal was called off after Charles refused to convert to Catholicism as a condition of the marriage.
Other options were available to Charles, however. While on his way to Spain, Charles met the sister of French King Louis XIII, Henrietta Maria in 1623, and marriage negotiations between the English and the French were finalized in November 1624. They married by proxy in a ceremony held in Paris shortly after James's demise in 1625, when Henrietta Maria was just 15, with a formal ceremony in Canterbury in summer 1626.
As part of the marriage negotiation between England and France, the Queen Consort Henrietta Maria was allowed to continue practicing Catholicism, which didn't go over well with the Protestant factions in England. Charles privately agreed to support English Catholics, as well, and English Protestants feared how far those influences and agreements would go.
In addition to the political tensions between the king and Parliament, Charles's spending caused a rift with the representative body. Charles believed he could collect funds as part of his royal prerogative; Parliament held the position that its role in government was to control the king's income. Parliament had granted Charles the right to collect customs duties, but only for one year rather than in perpetuity.
The king took offense and continued to collect them anyway. Charles also gathered monies outside of Parliament's approval through mechanisms like "forced loans," which compelled wealthy noblemen to pay the king. When five knights refused to do so, they were thrown into prison without a trial.
Charles also disagreed with Parliament when it came to the treatment of royal favorite George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Parliament was suspicious of the duke, believing he influenced Charles's rash foreign policies as England fought wars with both Spain and France. Parliament tried to get Charles to dismiss Buckingham in 1628, but he refused.
In 1628, Buckingham was slain by naval lieutenant John Felton, who believed he was acting in the House of Commons' interests.
As Charles found himself in one conflict after another with Parliament, he got rid of the opposition when necessary. Charles's first Parliament, openly hostile to his new bride and unhappy with the king's foreign policy, met in June 1625. After Parliament refused to grant him tonnage and poundage duties for life, Charles dismissed the body in August.
In June 1626, Charles dissolved his Second Parliament after the body demanded that he dismiss the Duke of Buckingham in exchange for war funding. Charles was forced to call together another Parliament in 1628, again in need of funds. Parliament continued to attack the Duke of Buckingham, but his expiration brought that disagreement to an end.
The real problem Charles had with the Parliament of 1628 was their demand that he agree to the Petition of Right in exchange for any new taxation revenue. The Petition of Right settled disputes over Charles's unlawful billeting of troops and imprisonment without cause and limited his non-Parliamentary taxation. The king agreed to the petition, believing he could ultimately get around it.
By early 1629, Charles had also started appointing bishops in England to support his cause. Parliament, unable to take any action against the king on matters of religion, focused again on tonnage and poundage. Frustrated with their defiance, Charles ordered the head of Parliament, Sir John Finch, to adjourn in March 1629. Finch tried, but many members of Parliament were unwilling to leave. As critics of the king began reading actions against him, Finch was physically held down in his chair.
Parliament made several resolutions against Charles, after which the king called Parliament's actions "undutiful and seditious carriage" and dissolved the body. He also had nine of his main detractors arrested and thrown in prison.
After the dissolution of Parliament in 1629, Charles exercised his prerogative to get the money he needed. He didn't call another Parliament for 11 years, and instead developed new customs duties and exploited an old tax known as ship money. Ship money was a medieval practice by which the king could demand that coastal counties provide ships and funds for the defense of the kingdom during times of war.
Charles took ship money to new levels, demanding that all counties in England pay the tax throughout the 1630s. He also used his private courts to arrest opponents and enacted religious reforms to build the authority of the Church of England.
During the 11 years that Charles ruled without a Parliament, commonly referred to as his personal rule, the king signed treaties to end wars with France and Spain, expanded his family, and focused on the activities of his royal court. Opposition to the king's absolutist actions grew, and when religious reforms in Scotland were met by revolt, Charles again found himself in need of war funds.
During the 1630s, Charles named William Laud the Archbishop of Canterbury, as he held similar beliefs about the role of the Church of England. Laud, a fierce opponent of Puritanism, was an advisor to the king, and together they worked to elevate religious services. Laud encouraged priests to wear ceremonial garb and incorporate more music, while Charles tried to force the nobility to give their lands to the church. Laud also introduced a new Book of Common Prayer.
At first, the most prominent opponents of these actions were the Puritans, who believed these serious and ostentatious religious practices should be simpler. When Laud tried to force the Scottish Church to use his book of prayer in 1637, the Presbyterian Church expressed bitter opposition. In 1638, Scottish critics issued the National Covenant, admonishing the king and Laud and endorsing Presbyterianism. The next year, Charles went to war to impose the prayer book in Scotland.
With the outbreak of war in Scotland, Charles had to call Parliament into session in 1640. In dire need of funds to support his Bishops' Wars, Charles was desperate. During the first round of conflicts between Charles and the rebellious Scots, the king had been forced to comply at Berwick in 1639. Charles wasn't done yet and took up arms again the following year. Scottish forces responded by invading England and ultimately defeated the king's army at Newburn in August 1640.
As Charles prepared to fight the Scots, he called for a new Parliament in April 1640. Unfortunately for Charles, the leadership made it clear they would not even discuss subsidies without first addressing their grievances against the king. The so-called Short Parliament had set a date of May 7 to debate the issue of war in Scotland, but Charles disbanded the body on May 5.
Charles reached an agreement with Scottish forces, known as Covenanters, in October 1640. He agreed to pay them £850 a day until they left England. He had no choice but to reconvene Parliament. The Long Parliament that met in November 1640 was openly hostile to the king. Led by one of Charles's fiercest enemies, John Pym, Parliament cut Charles and his advisors no slack. They first went after Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Stafford, one of the king's most hated ministers. Wentworth was impeached by the House of 1641 and later slain for treason.
Parliament also took steps to ensure the king could not dissolve the governing body without their consent, abolished any non-Parliamentary taxation - including ship money - and ended all prerogative courts seen to challenge the supremacy of law. William Laud was impeached in 1641, and the king saw his personal rule systematically dismantled by the end of the year.
By October 1641, Charles not only faced difficulties from his enemies in Parliament, but also met a rebellion in Ireland. The rebels claimed they were working in Charles's name, which fed into the complaints presented by Pym the following month. In November 1641, John Pym published the Grand Remonstrance, a petition of all of the grievances he had against Charles since he took the throne in 1625.
By early 1642, Charles feared his wife, the Catholic Henrietta Maria, would be the next person removed from power. He attempted to push back against Parliament and moved to have John Pym and four other members impeached. Charles sent armed guards to seize Pym and his colleagues, but they fled. When he arrived at Parliament, he demanded the traitors be brought to him.
No one in Parliament would tell him where they were, and a few days later, a committee considering the situation articulated their position against him. They said the King's actions were "against the rights and privileges of Parliament" and anyone who tried to arrest the five members of Parliament on behalf of the King was "guilty of a breach of liberties and of the privileges of Parliament, and is a public enemy of the commonwealth."
Charles's actions violated any amount of trust and destroyed the king's credibility with even the most moderate of Parliament members. Charles left London soon after, and both sides began gathering troops for what looked like an inevitable civil war.
Charles and Parliament both prepared for battle, with Charles setting up his base at Nottingham. The first clash between the king's army and the Parliamentary forces took place at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642. The battle itself was a bit of a stalemate, but as winter approached, Charles's hopes of marching to London and taking back his kingdom came to an end.
The two sides continued to engage in skirmishes, with Parliament controlling the south and east and Charles enjoying support from the north and west of England. Parliament controlled the much wealthier part of the kingdom, however.
It wasn't until 1644 that Parliament - the Roundhead army, led by Oliver Cromwell - asserted its dominance over Charles after a decisive victory at the Battle of Marston Moor. During the battle, Charles and his Royalist army suffered significant losses.
With the victory at Marston Moor, the Parliamentary army transformed into a much more organized and stable force: the New Model Army. The New Model Army aimed to completely wipe out the Royalist forces with foot soldiers, cavalry, and mounted infantry.
With Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax leading the way, the New Model Army defeated Charles's Royalist forces at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. Charles escaped from the battle and fled, hoping for reinforcements from Ireland. None arrived, and in May 1646, he surrendered.
Charles escaped from custody and fled to the Isle of Wight in 1647. He thought the governor of the Isle of Wight, Colonel Robert Hammond, was sympathetic to his cause and would help him escape to France, but Hammond betrayed him. Hammond imprisoned Charles and told Parliament his whereabouts. While in custody on the Isle of Wight, Charles negotiated with the Scots and they agreed to invade England and help restore him to the throne. The Second Civil War lasted for less than a year before the New Model Army defeated the Scots at the Battle of Preston in August 1648.
Oliver Cromwell and other leaders of the Parliamentary cause were convinced England would never know peace as long as the king was alive. Charles, still on the Isle of Wight, didn't find the sympathetic support he hoped for and was sent back to London to face the newly established Rump Parliament.
The Rump Parliament comprised the remaining members of the Long Parliament, the hangers-on who survived Pride's Purge. The Purge was a maneuver by Cromwell and other anti-Royalists to remove any potential support for the king in Parliament. Pride's Purge derived its name from Colonel Thomas Pride, a military official who led forces to Parliament in December 1648 and arrested or excluded more than 200 members from the governing body.
The Rump Parliament got to work in January 1649, establishing a tribunal to try Charles for treason. They later abolished the monarchy and established England as a commonwealth.
The trial of Charles I convened in January 1649 at Westminster Hall in London. The king listened to the charges against him, namely treason and other high crimes. He responded by denying the legitimacy of the court, saying the tribunal members were a group of sinners, defying God's will.
Charles remained defiant; repeatedly asked to enter a plea, he refused. Over several days, the prosecution argued that the king was not above the law and ultimately ruled: "Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer, and a public Enemy, shall be put to Death, by the severing his Head from his Body."
Charles's warrant was signed January 29, 1649, and the penalty carried out the following day. He was allowed to spend the early part of January 30 walking through St. James' Park. Capital punishment was delayed due to an inability to find someone who would fulfill the task, but at 2 pm, he was led to a scaffold outside Whitehall in London.
Charles reportedly wore two shirts to keep out the cold, and according to observers, gave a final speech attesting to his innocence. He placed his head on the scaffold, and it was removed in one blow.
According to one observer, when the king's head was cut off, there was "such a groan as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again."
For the first 11 years after Charles's expiration, England was no longer a monarchy. First led by Oliver Cromwell until his passing in 1658, then by his son, Richard, this Interregnum period ("between reigns") ended in 1660 when Parliament asked Charles's son, Charles II, to return to England and rule as king.
Once the monarchy was restored, Cromwell, John Bradshaw, and Henry Ireton, the three men most instrumental in the capital punishment of Charles, were posthumously tried for treason and found guilty. The men's bodies were exhumed and hanged symbolically, and their heads were placed on spikes outside Westminster Hall. They remained there until a storm knocked them down over 20 years later.