Saturday, 23 November 2013

Charles 1

King Charles 1 by Pauline Gregg. Phoenix Press, London, 1998 (1981). pp X11 + 496. Illustrated.

This review was written on July 25th 2004

I borrowed this rather intimidating volume from the Pembroke Library. I started reading it at the end of March and I finished the book on 13 April. The book is well written and my preliminary notes were started when I was at page 104.

I knew little of the history of England during the sixteenth and seventieth centuries apart from some popular impressions of the earlier period from Henry V111 to Elizabeth 1. Charles was the second son of James V1 of Scotland who succeeded Elizabeth after her death as James 1 of England. Immediately after his elevation, he went to live in London and paid little attention to Scotland (and less to Ireland) during the rest of his life. James had married Anne, the daughter of the King of Denmark, and had three children by her, Henry, Charles and Elizabeth. Henry as he grew to manhood was greatly admired and loved for his talents and for his many personal attributes. He would clearly have made an excellent successor of James 1 if he had not died from scarlet fever at the age of 18, to the great distress of his family, the Court and the people of England. It is likely that, if he had survived to become King, much of the troubles which were to afflict the United Kingdom during the early seventieth century would have been avoided.

James 1
James 1 was a remarkable man, intellectual, artistic, sentimental and obsessed by the concept of the Right of Kings. He has always been the subject of a bad press to my mind. History has been unkind to him, probably because of his perceived tolerance of Catholics, and the pejorative repetition of his role in intervening in such areas as the smoking of tobacco and his disregard for parliament. It is hard not to recall his description as the wisest fool in Christendom.

Shall smokers name in centuries to come King James the wisest fool in Christendom? Or doth he seek with seer’s divining eyes a Siren Nicotina seeking tears, a usurer who charges men in years? (anon).

He was in fact a very tolerant person who at all times wished to encourage amity between Protestant England and the Catholic monarchies in Europe. He was equally tolerant of the remaining Catholic aristocracy at home and had many Catholic friends and advisors.

His anxiety to have his surviving son Charles marry the Infanta of Spain led to the rather ludicrous, unheralded and abortive visit by Charles and his intimate companion, Buckingham, both in disguise, to Madrid seeking marriage with the Infanta. She largely snubbed Charles and the whole episode turned out to be a disaster. The escapade was not approved by James and this humiliating episode eventually led Charles, after he had succeeded his father, to supporting the anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish Parliament to declare war on Spain. The quarrel with Spain was related to the fact that James's daughter, Elizabeth, had married Frederick of the Palatinate but Frederick was ousted by the Catholics in his own country with the support of Spain and Austria. Frederick’s restoration was to remain an obsession with both James and later Charles but, despite a persistent diplomacy and the provision of an army on their part to support Frederick, he was never to return to his modest fiefdom. He was exiled with his wife and family to the Netherlands, and after his early death his wife and family came to live and to extend further the burgeoning and extravagant Court of Charles.

In 1635 James died at the age of 57, as usual in those times in suspicious circumstances.  Suspicion of poisoning was rife and his close friend, Buckingham, was suspected of conniving in his death. Buckingham was a close confidante of both James and Charles, and was recognised as the power behind the thrones until his assassination. He was suspected of having connections with the Catholics, so that his death was greeted with satisfaction by most of the English population. In general, James 1 emerges as a tolerant person, an earthy character with good common sense and a homely touch, and not as the intolerant, irascible and unstable monarch which has been the historical stereotype

Charles 1
Charles replaced him at a difficult time for England, bad weather, recurring epidemics of plague and smallpox, and the country in debt (thanks largely to James’s extravagance and his European policies). He was hampered by a poor army and a poorly equipped fleet. Soon Charles became disastrously involved in foreign policy, particularly with his failed marriage to the Infanta of Spain and his subsequent marriage to Henrietta, the daughter of Louis X111. His marriage to a Catholic Queen, with her large coterie of Catholic staff and hangers-on, created inevitable difficulties with the largely Protestant English people and with parliament. It also irritated the French Court because of his perceived failure to honour his commitment at the time of the marriage arrangements to allow freedom of practice of Catholicism in the United Kingdom. His tolerance of Catholics was seriously embarrassed by a Protestant parliament and a largely Protestant people.   

Charles became involved in a number of disastrous political and military escapades in Europe, including naval attacks on Spain and France, all of which ended in humiliation of the British Crown and the people of England. Like his father, he believed in the supreme power of the King, and this was manifested by his complete control of central administration and the ministry, and his contempt of parliament which he rarely convened and then only when he was in dire need of money. He rarely called Parliament and failed to do so for one period as long as ten years.

Charles 1 - three different views by Van Dyck
Because of the enormous debts he accumulated through his ill-judged European policies, his generous gifts and his extravagant Court, he was forced to call Parliament for financial reasons. Since the time of Elizabeth, power and central administration was entirely in the hands of the monarch and there was little evidence of local or regional administration which were largely in the hands of Justices of the Peace who were appointed by the King. By recalling Parliament, he was to run into trouble because he had already alienated the aristocracy, the landed gentry and an increasingly influential business community through his autocratic behaviour, his taxation policies, his apparent toleration of Catholics and his wife’s Catholicism. Parliament had certain powers under the constitution to prevent the monarch from collecting taxes and he only called Parliament when he needed money. His request for special taxes was refused and, having been convened by Charles, Parliament took the opportunity to bring charges of treason against some of the King’s closest advisors and confidantes which marked the beginning of the rift between the King and the people, and which eventually lead to the effective transfer of much political power from the King to Parliament.

Despite Charles’s chronic financial problems, he, like his father, continued to collect valuable pictures from Italy and Holland, and other important items of jewellery and artefacts. The Caravaggio’s, Titians, Rubens and the works of all the great Italian, Spanish and Dutch painters which adorn the homes and palaces of Royalty in the United Kingdom are largely the result of James and Charles intense interest in the arts and their extravagant tastes. Van Dyck and Rubens were only two of many artists who visited London at Charles’s bequest during his reign.

17th century Puritan theologians
During Charles’s reign the puritans became increasingly intolerant, not only of Catholics but of the Anglican Church of which Charles was the head. Charles’s own tolerance was shared by many of his subjects but the puritans believed that the Anglicans were tainted by many of the customs and liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and it was about this time that the English developed their extraordinary antagonism to the Pope. The Puritans were supported by the Scots who were strongly committed to their Presbyterian Church, who were antagonistic to the bishops and who greatly resented Charles’s imposition of Anglican influence on the Scottish Parliament during his one visit to that province. Charles’s contact with Catholics, his rather extravagant, outgoing and gregarious Court, his corrupt and inefficient government, his wife’s Catholicism, and his close contact with the ambassadors from Catholic Europe were reasons to raise the hostility of the Puritans. The Puritans were further fortified by Charles’s action in creating a number of martyrs who opposed him in public and they were supported financially and morally by the many low church emigrants who were in the New World where they were becoming more prosperous and more  independent than their brethren at home. It was stated that Charles hit the rich more than the poor and that he had sympathy for the underdog, a further reason to antagonise the powerful and the privileged.

Charles 1 (blue sash) during the civil war.
Yet, taking all in all, taxes in the United Kingdom were less than they were in other European countries. He devoted much of his time to attending to government matters and was closely aware of the activities of his ministers. Charles had many faults but he was sensitive, tolerant and not vindictive. However, as the conflict with parliament developed over the late 1630s and early 1640s, he became more rather than less belligerent towards his opponents and he made the first move to organise an army to fight a hostile parliament. The author goes into some detail of the civil war which ensued, a war which would not have taken place if Charles had shown some judgement in arriving at a settlement with willing opponents in parliament who were willing to compromise. The war dragged on for a few depressing and formless years but it was clear that the King, isolated as he was from his court and his centre of power in London, and unwilling as he was to compromise, was unlikely to win against better organised and more committed opponents. His ultimate execution by beheading became inevitable as the prospects of compromise faded with his defeat by the forces of parliament and their Scottish allies. The situation was worsened by the rebellion which took place in Ireland at the time and which was to lead to Cromwell’s subsequent savage subjection of the Irish and of the plantation of a large part of the country. The decision to execute the King required courage and strong resolution, and might have been avoided if Charles had offered to abdicate and to accept his son as king, and if he had agreed to the settlement demanded by parliament on behalf of the people.

Despite the Irish view of Cromwell’s savage treatment of our antecedents, he emerges as a reasonable representative of the parliamentary party with a strong urge to compromise with the King on constitutional matters. Unfortunately, by this time the King was obdurate in refusing any compromise.  One can understand how the British had a more tolerant attitude to Cromwell than had the Irish. He does not emerge with the same reputation for draconian repression among the English as he does among the Irish.

Charles 1 execution.
Cromwell’s vision of revolution was undermined when he supported the privileged following the King’s execution rather than establishing the freedom and welfare of the ordinary people. It was probable that the civil war and the immediate administration following the execution of the King led eventually to Whig supremacy and the increasing political influence of the landed gentry.

Charles could hardly have averted the Civil War because of the faults in his character and temperament which made negotiations with him difficult. His death and the subsequent period before the Restoration in 1660 left the landed gentry and the wealthy independent of monarchy. They remained the main source of influence in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Eventually, with the Restoration, the Church of England was established. Dissent was tolerated but simply excluded from the corridors of influence and power.

This biography made a valuable addition to my reading. It describes that seminal moment in British history when power passed from the monarchy to Parliament. However, membership of parliament was confined to the rich and the aristocratic, substituting one tyranny for another. They were to continue their dominion of privilege, graft and corruption for the next two centuries and they, with the support of a corrupt monarchy, became the subject of Tom Paine’s strictures at the end of the eighteenth century when he published his attack on the British monarchy and government in his classic The Rights of Man. (See the review re Paine)

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