My Weekly Reader 17 October 2018.

During the 1500s, the “Wars of Religion” that accompanied the Reformation and Counter (or Catholic)-Reformation wreaked havoc on Europe.  One response appeared in the creation of “absolute” monarchies that had the rights and resources to stamp out rebellion.  Such monarchies could spawn new conflicts, but absolutis, called out to kings who took their responsibilities seriously.  In England, the Stuart kings who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, were convinced absolutists.  The English Parliament sought to check the claims to royal rights.  Under the second Stuart king, Charles I, push came to shove.  A civil war broke out (1644-1648).

C.V. Wedgewood chronicled the long struggle in two excellent books (The King’s War, The King’s Peace).  Here she portrayed King Charles as deceitful, even dishonest in his relationships with others (both friends and enemies).  She portrayed him as uncertain, even fearful, in pursuing the course he set out.  He comes off as a poor sort of king to lead a troubled country or to win the war that would decide that country’s future course.

His opponents were very different.  In the course of the war, power passed to a group called the Independents.  These were dissenters from the Church of England (the Protestant state church).  They rejected both the hierarchical administrative structure of the Church and many of its doctrines, which seemed to them too close to Catholicism.  In the words of Thomas Macaulay, “they knew what they fought for and loved what they knew.”  Oliver Cromwell, who rose up to be a formidable soldier and politician, came to be their “chief of men.”

Perhaps 300,000 people died in the civil war before Parliament won.  The Parliament captured the king, found him still determined to assert his claims, and had to decide what to do.  A compromise—the Treaty of Newport—had been offered to the defeated king.  He rejected the terms, which would have included the exiling of his chief supporters, a radical reform of the Church of England, and parliamentary control of the army.

The dominant faction in the Parliament, with their power rooted in the army rather than in the voters, decided to put King Charles I—“that man of blood”–on trial, to convict him, and to execute him.  This amounted to a judicial murder.  It could be justified only by a “cruel necessity” of bringing peace to the country without submitting to royal absolutism.[1]

In her third book on the subject, she focuses on the defeated king in the last, brief, stage of his life.  She portrays Charles as an in many ways admirable human being.  He remained committed to a conservative version of the Church of England and to his own understanding of the royal powers.  In his trial he refused to recognize the right of Parliament to put him on trial.  Convicted and condemned, he met death with great courage.  In sum, a better man than a king.

The trial and execution of King Charles I had ambiguous effects.  Over the short run, it consolidated the victory of Cromwell, the army, and the Independents, while laying royal absolutism in the dust.  Cromwell established what amounted to a military dictatorship.  It alienated many Englishmen, just as had royal absolutism, and scarcely survived Cromwell’s death (1658).  In 1660, the Stuart dynasty was restored to the throne and England has remained a monarchy to this day.  However, Parliament confirmed its authority and it grew with the passage of time.

[1] C.V. Wedgewood, A Coffin for King Charles (New York: Macmillan, 1964).

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