Was Charles I the Villain That History Depicts Him As?

History Hit Podcast with Leanda de Lisle

6 mins

13 Nov 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Charles I Reconsidered with Leanda de Lisle on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 15 March 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

After the battle of Marsden Moor and the Battle of Naseby, the English Civil War slowly becomes a hopeless cause for King Charles I. But execution wasn’t a certainty.

Regicide certainly comes into people’s minds during the Second Civil War, that royalist rising from 1648. Many soldiers of the New Model Army are thoroughly fed up of having to fight again and lose people. A group of them decide that he should be tried, that man of blood.

Meanwhile, Charles gives himself up to the Scots. He believes that the Scots will be prepared to negotiate with him, as they are. But he becomes their prisoner, not their guest. That he hadn’t expected.

The battle of Marston Moor, the English civil war, painted by John Barker. Credit: Bridgeman Collection / Commons.

He won’t compromise with them, and what he will not do is say that Episcopacy is wrong, and innately wrong at that. Charles will never do that. The Scots didn’t understand that.

They didn’t understand that it was a core religious belief for Charles. When they realised this, they sell him to Parliament.

Thus he ends up with Parliament and then he’s snatched by the New Model Army. Then while he’s imprisoned by them there was a Royalist rising, which was effectively the Second Civil War.

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This is brutally put down by the English Parliamentary Army and also involves the Scots. You end up with a lot of very fed up people.

This cements Charles’ trial. Even then, it’s still not a certainty that he’s going to be executed.

Killing a king

But Parliament – again, it’s even more absurd to call it Parliament at this stage because it’s been purged by the New Model Army, so it’s just a rump- don’t know how people in Europe are going to react: how the great powers are going to react. It was a risk, chopping off a king’s head, as you can imagine, and it was difficult on many levels.

What they really want is for Charles to recognise the court.

Engraving from Nalson’s Record of the Trial of Charles I. Plate 2 from “A True copy of the journal of the High Court of Justice for the tryal of K. Charles I as it was read in the House of Commons and attested under the hand of Phelps, clerk to that infamous court”, taken by J. Nalson Jan. 4, 1683. Credit: British Museum / Commons.

If he does that, he’s essentially recognising the supremacy of the Commons, which means that he is admitting that he has no negative voice, that he cannot prevent the passing of any legislation.

He has to say yes to whatever the Commons wants. But Charles doesn’t do that. Charles won’t recognise the court and therefore won’t recognise the supremacy of the Commons, and so they’re left with really no choice but to chop off his head.

It is a possibility that Charles lost his life but saved the monarchy by doing that. There was no guarantee that the restoration of Charles II would ever happen. But the way that Charles I died bravely must have helped.

By a late stage he had also learned the value of the printed media and propaganda.

The Eikon Basilike helped the monarchy’s cause. This was a reportedly autobiographical work, which argued that Charles had been right all along and that he was dying as essentially a martyr for the English people and for English law.

The Church of England also helped to keep the royalist cause alive until the restoration of Charles II. I suppose that it was fortunate for the monarchy that the Commonwealth was enormously unpopular.

The Execution of Charles I. Engraving by “C.R.V.N.”, 1649. Credit: The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson / Commons.

Parliament seems to have departed most from historic norms during the 1640s, but then of course they tried to retreat in a way because they also tried to make Cromwell king. And he was a king because, if he wasn’t one in name, he ruled like a monarch.

He even had masons, a court and a version of a coronation; his wife and his daughters were called princesses. It was extraordinary.

Cromwell was succeeded by his son, which didn’t work. But they tried to imitate the old system.

Charles I therefore ends up being executed. He wears two shirts so he doesn’t appear to shiver. The most moving part of this episode is when Charles says goodbye to his children.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) by Samuel Cooper. Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Commons.

He says goodbye to his two youngest children in person. Elizabeth is 13 years old and his son Henry is 5. It’s very difficult to either read or write about those scenes to be honest, because they’re so emotionally charged.

I would argue that people have been unusually harsh on him because he was on the losing side. Instead of remembering the ups and downs, the good and the bad, they read the end, and that failure is read across his whole life.

One of the things I find very striking is that since his childhood he had weak legs, this lingual deformity.

People still talk about Charles’s weak legs as if they were somehow symptoms of weakness of character. His lingual deformity is seen as some kind of dumb stupidity.

In the past, people thought of disability as a mark of sin, of man’s fallen nature. Shakespeare wrote Richard III with his crooked spine and is seen as a reflection of his crooked soul.

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These old patterns of thought are very strong.

If anybody went to see “Wonder Woman”, you would see that Wonder Woman was very beautiful and glamorous and physically perfect. Her opponent, who’s also a woman, Dr. Poison, is disfigured. It’s strange that we still think in similar ways.

I see Charles as a tragic figure.

He’s like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, really, because he is a man who’s brought to ruin not by wickedness, because he’s a man of great courage and a high principle, but he’s brought to ruin simply by ordinary human flaws and misjudgements. So maybe we should have empathy for him.

The Execution of Charles I of England. Artist unknown. Credit: Scottish National Gallery.

The terrible 17th century

Geoffrey Parker argues in his book on the 17th century, that there was an explosion of violence in the 17th century across the world and he argues that around one third of the global population was killed in the 17th century.

So while Charles was desperately wrestling with these big issues, the environmental backdrop was awful as well.

The weather is a sort of notable feature, because it was always freezing cold or pissing with rain. Almost every moment where there was a weather report it was normally something terrible, bringing bad harvest and plague.

But the war itself was the really terrible thing here. There was a description from this European, who visits before the war and sees England as this agriculturally rich society where everyone seems quite sort of fat and happy.

The battle of Marston Moor, the English civil war, painted by John Barker. Credit: Bridgeman Collection / Commons.

This European returns after the war and everyone is embittered and angry and it had this vast psychological impact.

The same percentage of the population was killed in the English Civil War as was killed in the trenches of the First World War, so that’s not surprising. In a way, it was a worse war because it’s your friends, your neighbours, even members of your own family who you were fighting.

The White King

As an interesting aside, the phrase ‘White King’ was a sobriquet that was used about Charles during his lifetime. He was said to have been the only King of England ever to have been crowned in white.

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This is untrue and it was actually first used by his enemies. They said he was the white king of the prophecies of Merlin, a doomed tyrant.

But it was then taken up by his friends who argued that his white robes had been the vestments of a future saint.

Then there was a famous description of his burial, which took place at Windsor, and it describes his coffin being taken from the Great Hall at Windsor to St. George’s Chapel, and how there’s a snowstorm and the snow covers the black velvet pool with white, the colour of innocence.

The witness says, “And so went the White King to his grave.” But this is also untrue.

The man who spanned this story was actually a professional liar who had actually been employed by Parliament to spy on Charles in his captivity.

Then, of course, he had been quite keen to suck up to Charles II and spin this romantic story about how the innocent Charles was buried.

Header image credit: Battle of Naseby, by an unknown artist / Commons.