The English Civil War

The Reign of Charles I

Charles I had replaced his father, James I, on the throne in March 1625, and ruled England alongside his wife, Henrietta Maria, the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France. Charles was unlike his father. While James had been pretentious but strong, Charles was cultured but indecisive. Though his small stature and nervous stammer made it very difficult for him to gain the unqualified loyalty and respect of Britain’s elite, his passion for art and generous patronage of artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck made him many friends in the art world.

His unfortunate misjudgement, from the outset of his reign, in clinging uncompromisingly to his father’s belief in the Divine Right of Kings, contributed significantly to the troubles that confronted him. When addressing Parliament, Charles spoke plainly and concisely, a welcome change from his father’s garrulousness. Still, his monetary demands exceeded those made by James and were viewed as excessive by the members. A Protestant-heavy House of Commons consistently refused his desires and began to consider labelling charges against the Duke of Buckingham, a principal advisor to James who had maintained a strong influence over Charles. With Charles’s early actions brought into question, a new charter of political liberty was in the offing by 1628, in many ways a logical extension of the Magna Carta that, among other things, condemned the King’s ability to sentence without trial, tax without the consent of the Commons, control his own troops or even impose his rights against parliament without their approval. When the Petition of Right was first put to Charles, he dismissed it as a contradiction of his divine right.
Charles I alongside the Tudor State Crown, by Daniel Mytens
Charles I alongside the Tudor State Crown, by Daniel Mytens

Over the next ten years, the political situation became delicately poised in England. The murder of Buckingham in 1628 was followed in 1630 by Charles’s becoming a father (the later Charles II), and the King’s decision to dissolve parliament, ruling without one from 1629 till 1640. The void left by Buckingham’s death saw the rise of two key supporters, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and former parliamentarian Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. By 1635 Charles had ruled England with relative success, but his need for funds had become critical. After achieving mixed success in his attempts to raise funds through ‘ship money’ – funds levied on the coastal towns that didn’t require parliament’s consent – Charles’s decision, in 1637, to impose William Laud’s controversial high church prayer book on his Scottish subjects led to riots in Edinburgh. Shortly afterwards, the King declared a so-called ‘Bishops’ War’ on Scotland. His forces suffered defeat at Newcastle, and a lack of funds led him to call the ‘Short Parliament’. His request for funds was refused, and a second parliament opposed his demands by nearly four to one. The events of what historians later dubbed ‘The Long Parliament’ was noteworthy in England’s history, as the shift in consciousness toward republicanism escalated alongside a shift in wealth from the church and baronial magnates to the ever-emerging Middle Class.

The Long Parliament had been a notable setback to the King. Bullied to put his signature on Strafford’s death warrant, the spectre of the Magna Carta returned to haunt him again in 1641 with an updated 200-clause version of the Petition of Right that included the removal of the King’s Star Chamber (his personal court), regularisation of taxes and a demand that bishops be forever banned from sitting in the House of Lords. The proposal was radical, even compared to the current mindset, and was only narrowly voted in by MPs. Charles’s response became legendary. In January 1642 he entered the House of Commons and demanded the arrest of five MPs, including John Pym and Arthur Hesilrige, all of who escaped. Within two months, armed gangs from London began to bombard Westminster, forcing Charles and the Queen to take flight. While the Queen headed to France, along with the Crown jewels, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, thus beginning England’s sixth major civil war.