Your guide to King Charles I, the deposed monarch who lost his head

What was Charles I like as king? How did his actions contribute to Civil War? And why was he executed? Leanda de Lisle answers key questions on the Stuart monarch, who was brutally deposed and later charged as a public enemy…

A portrait of King Charles I

The future Charles I was born in Scotland on 19 November 1600 to King James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. It was a day of Gothic horror and royal triumph, beginning with the decomposing bodies of two Scottish noblemen being gibbeted and quartered at the Market Cross in Edinburgh.

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The two bodies in question belonged to two noble brothers – 22-year-old John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of Gowrie, and his 20-year-old brother, Alexander – who had been killed during what James believed was a kidnap attempt against him made in league with ‘fiery’ ministers of the Scottish kirk (or ‘church’). They had feared (with reason) that James was poised to impose Crown-appointed bishops over the kirk’s Calvinist councils – known as presbyteries –which would place them under tight royal control.

As the second surviving son of James VI (and I of England, from 1603), Charles did not become heir apparent until the death of his elder brother Henry in 1612. The heads of the Ruthven brothers would still be on view in Edinburgh when Charles became king aged 24, on 27 March 1625.

This clash between Calvinism and the king’s belief in his right to rule Church and state would come to dominate Charles’s reign.

Charles I: key dates and facts 

Born: 19 November 1600, Fife, Scotland

Died: Age 48, 13 January 1649, Whitehall, London, England

Parents: Charles was the second surviving son of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, and Anne of Denmark

Spouse: Henrietta Maria, sister of the French king, Louis XIII

Known for: King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625–49, Charles I is remembered for his belief in the divine right of kings (the idea that a monarch’s authority is bestowed by God). His clash with parliament resulted in the Civil Wars, the conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians that wracked the British Isles in the middle of the 17th century. Found guilty of treason by parliament, Charles I was executed by beheading in 1649. His rule was followed the Protectorate, during which Oliver Cromwell (r1653–8) and later Richard Cromwell (r1658–9), ruled as Lord Protector (r1653–58), before Charles I’s son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660

Charles I’s ruling style, and his beliefs on royalty

Charles’s beliefs and ruling style were rooted in what his father had taught him, as expressed in James’s writings, and in Charles’s own personality.

The first significant work to have an impact on Charles was James’s 1598 treatise ‘The True Laws of Free Monarchy’. After the Reformation in the 16th century, Protestants and Catholics had developed ‘resistance’ theories that argued kings took their authority from the people, who had the right to kill any monarch of the ‘wrong’ religion. James’s ‘True Law’ argued against this, claiming that kings drew their authority from God and therefore only God could punish them.Divine Right Kingship was a defence against religious extremists; it was not mere self-aggrandisement.

Portrait of Charles I and his family. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images).
Portrait of Charles I and his family. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images).

The second significant work was a ‘how to rule’ handbook entitled the Basilikon Doron or ‘Royal Gift’. (It was the contents of this ‘gift’ that had so disturbed the Ruthven brothers and their kirk allies in 1600.) In the handbook, James had traced the instability he had faced as king in Scotland to the origins of Scottish Reformation. In England, Henry VIII had claimed a ‘Royal Supremacy’ over the church, giving England’s monarchs the power to direct religious change. In Scotland, by contrast, “many things were inordinately done by a popular tumult”. For this James blamed the “fiery ministers” of the kirk. The Basilikon Doron hammered home the dangers of ‘popularity’ – by which James meant demagogy that led to violent disorder – and its antidote, which was hierarchy, in church and state.

James’s lessons left Charles convinced that the Church of England was “the best in the world”, keeping “the middle way” between the “pomp of superstitious tyranny” of a Catholic Church led by the Pope, and “the meanness of fantastic anarchy”, represented by those Protestants who rejected an episcopate – that is, government by bishops.

Unlike his father, Charles was not a wordsmith. He used the visual – a theatre of ceremony, ritual and beauty – both at court and in church, to reform and shape a socially deferential, hierarchical society that was in his view appropriate to divine-right monarchy and sacramental kingship, in which the king was head of the church.

Early on in his reign, Charles announced his determination to “establish government and order in our court from which thence may spread with more order through all parts of our kingdom”. The drunkenness and informality of James’s court was brought to an end and the strict “rules and maxims of the late Queen Elizabeth” were reintroduced.

Charles also introduced a more ceremonial style of worship to the Church of England, with music in beatified settings. Charles believed he was bringing order to post-Reformation Protestantism, and that he was reviving ceremonies that existed before “corruption” by Rome.

Charles I and puritan reformers: how did he react?

Presbyterians in Scotland and Puritans in England saw the Church of England’s combination of Reform Protestant theology and Catholic structure as a dangerous “mingle mangle of the popish government with pure doctrine” and wished to cull pre-Reformation hangovers. They detested Charles’s ceremonial Church of England, which was at odds with a Calvinist focus on sermons, and believed that religious art was idolatrous and that music was a distraction from prayer.

Charles was determined, however, that all his subjects should worship as he did, and he persecuted anyone – Catholics or Puritans – who opposed him in England and its colony of Ireland. By 1637 he had the confidence to try and extend this also to Scotland, which was an independent kingdom under the Stuart crown. His attempt to impose a Church of England-style prayer book on the Presbyterian Scots triggered a riot, and in 1639 a war with the rebels who insisted that Charles abolish episcopacy.

Charles I’s personal rule and the Bishops’ War

As Charles had already learned to his cost in his wars with Spain and France in the 1620s, war was expensive and he needed the taxes to pay for it. The most effective way to raise them was through parliament – but Charles had failed to do so many times. Like his father, he never appreciated parliament’s significance to the English people as representing law and liberty.

Nor did he have good political instincts. Charles distrusted appeals to the emotions, in part because he had absorbed his father’s lessons concerning the dangers of ‘populism’, but also because he had no instinct for it. He found people difficult to read. Form and order mediated relationships in a way he was comfortable with. Equally, any challenge to form and order felt extremely threatening.

The 'trial' at Westminster of King Charles I
The ‘trial’ at Westminster of King Charles I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Charles had fought bitterly with his parliaments in the 1620s, in particular over their wish to unseat his minister-favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. In 1629 – following Buckingham’s murder and further failed attempts to persuade parliament to pay for his wars – Charles settled on a policy of peace abroad and personal rule without parliament.

After the first war with the Scots – the so-called Bishops’ War – ended in stalemate, Charles was forced to call a parliament in 1640, to fight a second war. But his 11 years of personal rule had created a legacy of bitterness and mistrust. This Short Parliament was dissolved within weeks without having voted the king his taxes.

But when this second Bishops’ War ended in the king’s defeat, another parliament had to be called – and this Long Parliament would survive him.

Charles I and Civil War

The new media – of pamphlets and news-sheets, sermons and political speeches – all helped Charles’s most ruthless enemies build a narrative that would justify rebellion as a necessary defence against ‘popery’. This term was used in the 17th century to describe a form of political and spiritual tyranny which Puritans associated with the Catholic Church but which was also deployed against Arminians and any Protestants who were not full blooded Calvinists. Calvinist peers and their Puritan allies whipped up ethnic and religious hatred to create a climate of fear. Targeted and organised mob violence was used to intimidate English MPs, and misogynistic attitudes to women helped demonise Charles’s queen Henrietta Maria as the papist-in-chief.

A portrait of the battle of Naseby
The armies of King Charles I were destroyed by the Parliamentarian New Model Army commanded by Oliver Cromwell in 1645, at the battle of Naseby. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

When the war broke out, parliament had control of London and the majority of England’s wealth and population. For a time, they also had the backing of the Scots. Despite these advantages it took four years for them to defeat Charles and his Royalist forces militarily. In this Charles had received a great deal of help from his much-maligned queen, who had raised money, men and arms. He had also inspired great loyalty and was described as “very fearless in his person” in battle. Following defeat, he showed equal courage in the grindstone of captivity.

Double portrait of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria
Charles’s queen, Henrietta Maria, was seen as the papist-in-chief. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Imprisoned from 1646, Charles never gave up the struggle to get the best terms possible for his restoration as king. In his last negotiations with parliament before it was purged by the Puritan-led New Model Army, his final sticking points were his refusal to deny his beliefs by agreeing that episcopacy was not divinely ordained, or his brothers in arms by giving up his friends to punishment. Until the last day of his trial he hoped he could yet strike a deal.

Why was Charles I executed?

Charles I was put on trial in January 1649, charged with high treason and “other high crimes against the realm of England”. If Charles had accepted the legality of the tribunal, his life could have been saved. He would effectively be accepting that he had no veto that could block Commons decisions. This would mean he could be returned to the throne without any danger to parliament, “a sword always over his head [and] grown grey in the documents of misfortune”.Yet, as Oliver Cromwell reportedly warned the judges, if the king refused to plead, then in order to confirm the supreme power of the Commons, they would have to “cut off his head with the crown on it”.

A woodcut depicting the execution of Charles I
The execution of Charles I in front of Whitehall, London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Charles did not accept the legality of the court and so left his judges with little choice – and he was condemned to death.

Why was the death of Charles revolutionary? 

Until Charles’s trial in 1649, the law stated that treason was an act against the king. Charles was executed for treason against the people, as represented by parliament. But the new Puritan Commonwealth was first vested in a parliament that had been culled by military force and eventually in the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who showed no more affection for parliaments than Charles had.

The Commonwealth was detested and following the restoration of Charles II, Cromwell’s corpse was dug up and ‘executed’, like the Ruthven brothers on the day Charles was born. The rotting corpses of the anti-Episcopalians in Edinburgh and London provide grim bookends to Charles’s life story.

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Leanda de Lisle is the author of White King: The Tragedy of Charles I (Vintage, 2019)