This article is an edited transcript of Charles I Reconsidered with Leanda de Lisle available on History Hit TV.
I’m not going to say that Charles I was great, but there were ups and downs. People remember the end.
They remember that he was executed at the hands of his own subjects. This is normally just read back across his whole life as if he was doomed from birth. That just wasn’t the case, and things might have been so very different.
Charles wasn’t the oldest son. He had an older brother called Henry. You hear a lot about, “The marvellous elder brother, if only he had lived.”
But he died aged 18, just old enough to have raised great hopes without living long enough as to have had the chance to disappoint them. That’s the point.
The kind of people who had nice things to say about Henry were the heirs to other people who had said all these lovely things about Elizabeth I, to use it as a stick to beat King James with.
But actually, during Elizabeth’s lifetime, they hadn’t been that loyal to her, so the idea that Henry was a brilliant ruler whose life was cut short isn’t true.
James I was probably a difficult father: heavy drinking, opinionated, possibly gay.
Charles did find it a bit tricky in his early teens when his mother was still living and his father was clearly in love with the Duke of Buckingham, or the later Duke of Buckingham. I think he did find that bit embarrassing, but you know, he could have had a lot worse.
Charles enjoyed the kind of family love his father had never known. His father had never known his own father, who had been murdered.
James, aged five, had seen his grandfather die. Charles had a relatively easy childhood and James was a relatively loving father for a monarch.
Charles was twenty-four, when he ascends to the throne, so young still.
The English monarchy was also in a dire position in the 1620s. It was broke, which was partly the consequence of the way the Tudors had ruled.
They had sold a lot of land, they had spent a lot of money, they had left a lot of debts. James was, by nature, extravagant and those debts had accumulated.
When Charles came to the throne, he had a lot of debts, and he was keen to take Britain into war in Europe in support of the Protestant calls and his sister who had lost the crown of Bohemia with her husband. There was really no money to pay for it, so that was tricky.
He took Britain into the 30 Years’ War as soon as he became king.
But he then found Parliament weren’t actually prepared to pay for this war, so he then made peace and a lot of people started complaining that he wasn’t fighting the Habsburgs after all.
He couldn’t win really either way, poor man.
Charles and Parliament
Charles’s relationship with Parliament was tricky. He understood that Parliament was extremely useful and that it was a good thing for kings to get on with parliaments.
But I think Charles, like his father, didn’t really understand the importance of Parliament in English culture. I think that was part of it.
He also didn’t have a good instinct for dealing with people, and particularly for opponents. He wasn’t good at divide and rule, and he tended to lump all his enemies together.
He just wasn’t good at reading people generally. He didn’t have that instinct and that made him slightly insecure, which was unhelpful in his dealings with Parliament amongst other things.
He did have friends and allies with the British ruling classes. The whole point is there was a civil war. There were two sides to it. So yes, he had supporters.
As the war went on, many of the people who began by supporting “Parliament,” and I put Parliament in inverted commas because it was only always a section of Parliament, moved to his side as Parliament became increasingly radical.
Charles and Parliament originally fell out over spending on war, but that seems to be very common in the 16th and 17th centuries. He did attempt to patch things up.
But unfortunately, for one reason or another, they all went pear shaped. I think there was just great mistrust on both sides.
Part of this was to do with religion. The Church of England was essentially a Calvinist church but with a Catholic structure. Charles thought this made the Church of England the best in the world.
But others disagreed and they felt it was half-reformed, a dangerous mix of a Popish government and pure religion.
They were appalled when they saw Charles reforming the Church of England on more ritualistic, ceremonial lines.
They felt it was a threat to the Calvinist credentials of the Church of England and there was a massive falling out about that.
Header image credit: Charles I and Henrietta of France by Anthony van Dyck. Credit: Commons.