You Are There (1953–1971)
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The Trial of Charles the First 

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10 January 1954 (USA)  »

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The Wrong Man For The Job
2 December 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

It has been said that the Stuart Monarchs of Scotland and Great Britain were singularly unlucky. This is quite true. There was a period in the 15th - 16th Centuries where a string of five Stuart kings of Scotland died violently before they could raise their own children. Mary, Queen of Scotland lost her throne, and then was executed for trying to murder her host and protector Elizabeth I of England. Mary's son James VI of Scotland had a rough time with the arrogant Scotch Nobles and came to the English throne (as James I) with a secretive, vindictive nature. He did reign twenty two years in England. His son and heir Prince Henry, died in 1613. So Henry's brother Charles became his father's heir.

He was under the tutelage of his father's favorite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. "Steenie" (Buckingham's nickname) tried to take Charles under his wing, and taught him not to trust Parliaments and to believe (as James believed) in the "divine right of kings" to rule. As Charles was head of the Church of England, this made plenty of sense. Buckingham was Charles chief for the first three years of his reign. In that brief period his maladministration led to higher taxes, and two wars (one with Spain and one with France - the war that is the subject of THE THREE MUSKETEERS). Hopelessly outmatched by Cardinal Richelieu as a leader, Buckingham got his historical footnote as being the first English Prime Minister to be assassinated in August 1628.

One of the few good things he did was to arrange a marriage for Prince Charles with Princess Henrietta Marie of France in 1624. Charles, after "Steenie's" untimely (?) demise, actually demonstrated something that his father and grandmother had not demonstrated: Charles fell in love with his spouse and they had a happy and fruitful home life. It was one of the few nice things about Charles - he was quite faithful. They had five children together.

But the lessons of his father and "Steenie" were more important historically. Throughout his reign Charles I battled Parliament on taxes. In the 1630s, Charles tried to reign without Parliament. Had he been as much a tightwad as his predecessor Henry VII this would not have mattered, but Charles spent recklessly. Some of the expenditures (for the government and armed forces) make sense. But Charles also was aesthetic. He collected the finest art collection of any British Monarch in history. That was a very costly hobby, and as the art was in his palaces (so the public could not see it) not one to get public sympathy.

Another problem was his reliance on strong men assistants. He appointed William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury, and Laud began a rigorous campaign to enforced the high church standards he held regarding articles of Church of England procedure and dogma. This annoyed to the Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland. Laud was also willing to persecute Catholics at the drop of a hat.

England's Irish problems remained as difficult as ever. The Catholics in Ireland resented Laud's persecutions, and the policies of allowing Scottish and English Protestants to establish enclaves of "plantations" in what is now Northern Ireland. A huge army was built up and put under command of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Wentworth was absolutely ruthless in putting down opposition . In 1641, Charles needed tax money desperately. He requested it from the Parliament he was forced to summon. They insisted an explanation of the large army under Strafford. Charles allowed them to summon this true supporter of the monarchy back to London, where he was tried and convicted of treason. Strafford waited for an expected pardon from Charles. None came - Strafford went to the block.

By 1643 Charles had been defeated in a war with the Presbyterians of Scotland, and forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty promising to make England Presbyterian too. But then he found a similar war from Parliament, emboldened by his weakness on Strafford and by his defeat by the Presbyterian. And the Irish Catholics were massacring Protestant land owners in Northern Ireland. In short, Charles had rendered the British Isles into total shambles.

The Civil Wars lasted from 1641 - 1648. Fortunately for England, Spain was in deep decline and France had it's own Civil Wars of the Fronde in this time. The only break was when Charles got captured by Parliamentary forces in 1645 (in time to see Laud go to the block), but he escaped prison the following year. It would have been better for him had he just left the country. He kept reorganizing his supporters (the "Cavaliers") against Parliament (the "Roundheads"). He kept making and breaking allegiances and promises. To be fair so did Parliament, but Parliament was winning.

He was put on trial for treason by Parliament. Charles always maintained a personal dignity, and to his credit he maintained it at his trial (January 1649). He refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the trial court: he was the monarch - and his person was the representation of the English state and people. If you could try him, you could try anyone. Parliament was trying to establish it's supremacy over the monarchy. In the end his arguments and dignity did not avail. He was found guilty (by a narrow vote, by the way), and was beheaded on January 30, 1649. Maintaining his stoic dignity to the end, he turned to the huge crowd, looked at them, and uttered one word: "Remember!"

Actually his death was his finest moment. Charles I stamped upon the British people the limits of Parliament. No other King or Queen of England or Britain has ever been turned into a political martyr since January 30, 1649 - the British public would not tolerate it. The Anglican Church, to this day, regards him as it's leading martyr as well.


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