This article is an edited transcript of Charles I Reconsidered with Leanda de Lisle on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 15 March 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
England, Scotland and Ireland were difficult to govern in the 17th century.
Even if the amazing Elizabeth I had been there, she might have struggled to deal with the complexity and the lack of cash that the English monarchy had in this period, and many other Tudor monarchs would also have struggled.
But the Tudors did two things which Charles didn’t really. The first was that each of the Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII onward introduced dramatic and very unpopular religious change.
But, importantly, on the one hand they used Parliament to give the actions legal force, and on the other they cut the testicles, heads, and various other body parts of their enemies.
That was something Charles didn’t do. During his so called 11 years’ tyranny, which were the 11 years he ruled without Parliament, there were no political or religious executions.
He would cut the ears of Puritan dissenters, but they kept their testicles and their heads. He was too soft on the opposition. Many royalists essentially said the 11 years’ tyranny hadn’t been nearly tyrannical enough and that was the great problem.
Charles was neither collegiate enough to work with Parliament, nor tyrannical enough to rule by himself.
The emergence of the 11 Years’ Tyranny
The way we get to the 11 Years’ Tyranny was an accumulation of hideous disasters. There are military failures in Europe. There are sections of Parliament who are desperate to get rid of his leading minister, the Duke of Buckingham.
Charles resists this but Buckingham is then assassinated.
There was an opportunity here to possibly rebuild trust between King and Parliament but, in fact, there’s just a sort of further deterioration in trust between the two sides partly because Charles’s religious reforms continue.
It ends up with a sort of virtual riot one day on the floor of the House of Commons and Charles then decides to dissolve Parliament.
Charles decides that it’s been taken over by radical elements and he’s going to rule without it for as long as he can.
Charles definitely wasn’t just a passive victim. It wasn’t that his belief in divine right monarchy meant Charles was instinctively unable to understand that rule involved compromise with these nasty people in Parliament.
He did understand that it involved compromise and he was willing to compromise.
But I think that he did lack confidence in a way. He was a highly intelligent man but he was one of those people who can’t read people well. He didn’t have an instinct for that.
He tends to lump his enemies together rather than being able to have the confidence to divide and rule and to know when he could afford to back down, when he needed to make a stand, who he needed to eliminate, who he needed to make friends with, however briefly.
He didn’t have those natural, political instincts, or human instincts even.
Ruling without Parliament
Even in his period of rule without Parliament he does rather well. He leaves the Thirty Years War and makes peace because he can’t afford the wars in Europe anymore, and he begins to rebuild royal finances.
He raises taxes without parliamentary consent, prerogative taxes, which are those taxes which he’s permitted to raise without Parliament. But they’re vastly increased and expanded.
So, for example, you have shipped money which used to be raised on coastal ports in time of war. He now brings these taxes inland in time of peace, and raises an enormous amount of money.
The judges back him. He starts building a huge navy because he foresees that naval power is going to be the source of Britain’s future greatness.
So he’s not just spending it on silk stockings. He’s doing something purposeful with it.
Many people oppose his taxes and many people oppose his church reforms. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t also in favour. Maybe not of his taxation, but people certainly approve of his church reforms.
A lot of his opponents are old men dying off. Middle aged, he’s by now got a brood of children to succeed him. I mean it was possible that he could have emerged as a kind of British Louis XIV.
Header image credit: King Charles I as painted by Gerard van Honthorst. Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Commons.