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Charles I 1600–1649 King of Great Britain

Charles I
1600–1649
King of Great Britain

Charles I was the second king to rule the united kingdoms of Scotland and England. However, his authoritarian* policies resulted in a break with Parliament, the nation's elected government. This division ultimately led to a revolution that toppled the English monarchy.


Early Life. Charles I was the second son of King James VI of Scotland and Anne, princess of Denmark. When his father assumed the English throne in 1603 as James I, young Charles was left behind in Scotland. A sickly child, Charles never received much attention from his parents, and his older brother, Henry, teased him mercilessly. When Henry died of typhoid fever in 1612, Charles became the heir to the throne. However, his father continued to ignore him, and his mother died in 1619. His only close friend was George Villiers, one of the king's gentleman companions.

In 1623 Charles went to Spain to propose marriage to Donna Maria, sister of the Spanish king. The offer was pointedly refused, and Charles angrily returned to England. The trip, however, had a lasting influence on the English prince. It exposed him to the work of many noted artists, such as Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael. It also left him bitter toward Spain.


King and Parliament. Charles succeeded to the throne on March 27, 1625. For the next three years, his friend George Villiers, now duke of Buckingham, dominated English politics. Together they planned a number of military expeditions against Spain and France. In 1625 they attacked a fleet of Spanish treasure ships, seeking revenge for the humiliation they had experienced in Spain two years earlier. In 1627 Buckingham led an expedition against France. Both campaigns ended in failure.

To pay for these military adventures, the king asked Parliament to vote for new taxes. The House of Commons refused to do so unless Charles dismissed Buckingham. Charles responded by breaking up Parliament and collecting the taxes anyway, triggering a constitutional crisis. In July 1628 Parliament passed the Petition of Right, a statement of grievances against the king. Charles grudgingly accepted the petition, but relations between the king and Parliament continued to decline.

In August 1628 an insane army officer assassinated Buckingham, who was about to lead a fleet against the French. The loss devastated Charles. Moreover, the fleet was soundly defeated, further poisoning the relationship between the king and Parliament. In March 1629 the House of Commons defied Charles's order to adjourn and passed several resolutions opposing decisions that the king had made. Outraged by this open resistance to his authority, Charles became determined to rule on his own.


Personal Rule. The years from 1629 to 1640 formed Charles's socalled Personal Rule. In many ways, the king retreated from political life during this period. He became deeply attached to his wife, the former French princess Henrietta Maria, and the couple produced several children.

Charles also used this time to build one of the finest art collections the English court had ever seen. A collector from an early age, Charles amassed a superb collection of paintings by Italian Renaissance artists, including Titian, Correggio, Raphael, and Andrea Mantegna. Charles often used diplomats, artists, and agents to obtain pieces of art for him. Foreign rulers and diplomats, as well politicians and people attached to the English court, often gave the king artworks to win his favor.

Charles's collection not only revealed his fine taste in art, it also shed light on his personality and policies. The glory and power of English monarchs are common themes in the works. Charles appears as a hero in several pieces. Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck reinforce the ideas of divine right* and absolute rule.

Civil War. By 1639 Charles's hold on his kingdom was weakening. He imposed several new taxes, which were unpopular, but it was his religious policies that truly infuriated his subjects. In 1637 Charles introduced a new prayer book into Scotland, which was largely Calvinist*. The book, which most viewed as close to Roman Catholicism, led to riots. Hundreds of thousands of Scots vowed to fight to keep their own religion and resist the power of English bishops.

Charles became convinced that the Scots were determined to fight not only the Church of England but also the crown. Vowing not to give in to their demands, the king fought two wars against the Scots. The First Bishops' War of 1639 forced Charles to call the "Short Parliament," which lasted from April to May of 1640. After his defeat in the Second Bishops' War that same year, he called the "Long Parliament," which opened that November.

For over a year, the king and Parliament tried to compromise. Parliament wanted to control the crown, but the king would accept no limits on his power. In January 1642, Charles led soldiers to the House of Commons to arrest the leaders of his opposition. The members escaped, but the king's action badly damaged his relations with Parliament. Both sides began arming for war.

Charles declared war against his rebellious subjects in August 1642. The two sides clashed several times between 1642 and 1644, and Charles won several victories. However, the rebel forces—led by parliamentary statesman Oliver Cromwell—decisively defeated the king's army at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. The fighting continued for a year, but in May 1646 Charles surrendered to the Scots.

For several years Charles bargained with the Scots, the army, and Parliament, hoping to gain control by dividing them. Instead he produced a second civil war, more brutal than the first. In December 1648, the army arrested Charles and brought him to London. Found guilty of treason, Charles was executed on January 30, 1649.

(See alsoEngland; Monarchy; Scotland. )

* authoritarian

referring to strong leadership with unrestricted powers

* divine right

idea that a monarch receives the right to rule directly from God

* Calvinist

member of a Protestant church founded by John Calvin

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