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Charles I: The Martyr or The Traitor

Charles I of England was born in 1600 at Dunfermline, Scotland. He reigned as King of England and Ireland from 1625 until his death in 1649. In this essay I will attempt to consider whether Charles I was a martyr or a traitor. During Charles reign he did many things which upset the people and Parliament. His reign commenced badly when in 1625 he married the French princess, Henrietta Maria De-Bourbon which, as she was a Catholic, upset Parliament and the protestant inhabitants of England. In the first four years of his reign, three Parliaments were summoned and dissolved and then for eleven years he ruled without the help of Parliament.

Amazingly this may not have been as bad a situation as it sounds, as the source below suggests. In this time the kingdom enjoyed the greatest calm and the fullest measure of happiness that any people in any age for so long a time have been blessed with. England was secure. The country was rich and was enjoying the pleasure of its own wealth. The Protestant religion was advanced against Rome by the writings of the late archbishop (Laud) more than it had been since the Reformation. This was written by Clarendon about his view of the eleven years without Parliament.

Clarendon was a minister of Charles II. This would mean that his view would have veered towards the royalists views. He would not say that it was a bad situation, as he was closely linked to the royal family. Clarendon may not be referring to the entire country, but possibly within his own circle of the royals, the lords and gentry. He went to war with France between 1627 and 1629 and his continuing need for money led to unpopular economic policies as shown in the source below. Ship Money was a financial success. But the political cost was immense.

Charles offended almost every class in the country the lords, the gentry and the merchants. This source is taken from a recent history book, Societies in Change. This source should be fairly reliable, because it is from a textbook used in many schools, but it does not say where this source originally came from. As it was written recently, and not at the time, you cannot judge the truth that the source holds. He introduced a new prayer book in Scotland, and the Scots rebelled; finally, in 1642, having alienated most of the population of the country, Charles entered into Civil War.

There was a second Civil War from 1642 till 1648, after which he came to trial at Westminster. His dignified refusal to plead, was taken as a confession of guilt, and he was beheaded at Whitehall in 1649. It is widely acknowledged that there were six final causes of the Civil War, the first of which was in November 1641 the Grand Remonstrance. This was a new list of demands made by the House of Commons. The House of Commons was divided on this issue showing that support for Charles was greater than originally thought.

The second trigger, also in November 1641, was the Irish Rebellion. The Catholics in Ireland rebelled against their Protestant rulers and rumours spread that the King was behind the rebellion and it was the first part of a plan to make England Catholic. The third trigger took place in 1642 when Charles tried to arrest 5 MPs. The MPs had been warned, and consequently fled, but the event confirmed Parliaments fears that Charles was planning to dissolve Parliament, and rule by himself again. This is an account of events from shorthand notes.

The House was informed that His Majesty was coming with a guard of soldiers. When the King was looking about the House he asked the Speaker whether any of the five persons were in the House. To which the Speaker, falling on his knee, answered, Your Majesty, I have not eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place. This source would have been fairly reliable, as it was written by John Rushworth who was a clerk in the House of Commons. He would have no particular reason to lie, and the notes were made at the time of the incident.

The fourth trigger, a month later, in February 1642, was when Parliament voted to throw bishops out of the House of Lords. Many MPs believed that if bishops and the national church were abolished it would be very bad for the country and they began to support Charles. A month later, in March 1642, arguments about the army became trigger number five when parliament took control of the army without King Charless permission because they did not trust him. The sixth, and final, trigger, took place on 1st June 1642 when parliament voted for a set of demands named the Nineteen Propositions.

This finally divided the Kings supporters from his opponents and caused much resentment and distrust. In August 1642 Charles raised his standard at Nottingham and the Civil War began. IN the English Civil War not many people actually chose whose side they would be on. They supported the side which got their army there first, or they supported the army their local lord supported. The ordinary people were then forced to fight for that side. They were forced to pay taxes which paid for the armies, and to provide shelter and food for passing soldiers.

The source below gives a further insight into who fought whom. Support for Parliament came fro the rich south and east of England, the Kings support from the poor north and west, most of the nobles fought for the King, and they were joined by the gentry. Religion was also important Catholics fought for the King and Puritans for Parliament. Most MPs were against the King. So were the merchants. This source is from a modern school textbook, and so should be a fairly reliable source, but the source does not say where it originally came from.

At the start of the war the Kings armies where much better equipped than Parliaments although Parliaments armies improved greatly towards the end of the war. Conditions for soldiers were brutal and bloody and there was immense suffering by ordinary people in their communities as their homes were looted or destroyed, and they themselves, or family members were injured and even killed. The source below shows the extent of plunder and violence. They ran into every house cursing and damning, threatening and terrifying the poor women most terribly, setting naked swords to their breasts.

They fell to plundering all the town, picking purses and pockets, searching in holes and corners and every other place the could suspect for money and goods. They beastly assaulted many womens chastity, and bragged about it afterwards, how many they had ravished. The next day in every street they kindled fire with gunpowder, match, wisps of straw, hay and burning coals. This source is a description of what Prince Ruperts troops did to Birmingham after they had captured it in April 1643. Rupert was Charles Is nephew. The writer is unknown, so consequently we cannot evaluate the veracity of this source.

There were very few major battles in the Civil War, but, when a major battle, such a Marston Moor took place, it could have a decisive effect. Oliver Cromwell emerged from the battle of Marston Moor, in July 1644, as the most powerful Parliamentary leader. After Marston Moor the Royalists never again looked as though they could win the war although fighting continued around the country for another two years. On 5th May 1646 the King finally surrendered to the Scottish army. The Kings trial lasted from 20th January to 27th January, 1649.

On the first day of the trial the charges were read out as written in the source below. Charles, trusted with a limited power to govern according to the laws of the land and to use the power for the good of the people, has: Overthrown the rights and liberties of the people Taken away the power of Parliament Levied war against Parliament and the people. Charles Stuart was guilty of all the treasons, murders, burnings, damages and mischiefs to this nation committed in the wars. This source came from a recent school textbook, and so should be a reliable source.

The King, refused to plead innocent or guilty to these charges as he refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Court and was convicted of high treason by default. The Commissioners had agreed the sentence in advance. Only 59 Commissioners signed the Kings death warrant (dated 29th January), and Oliver Cromwell had difficulty getting that many to comply. The death warrant referred to him as Charles Stuart, King of England. Charles was beheaded on 30th January 1649 in front of the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall.

The execution was not greeted with any enthusiasm, but by near silence. Although it was common practice for the head of a traitor to be held up and be shown to the crowd with the words Behold the head of a traitor! Charless head was held up for the crowd to see, but the words were not used. In an unprecedented gesture, Cromwell allowed the Kings head sewn back onto his body so that the family could pay their last respects. King Charles I was buried in the Henry VIII vault at Windsor Castle. Between 1649 and 1660, for the first time in its history, England had no monarch and was a republic.

No-one had experience of running the country without a King, and there were many ideas on how this should be done. The army became the most powerful force in the country, and the person who controlled the army was Oliver Cromwell who became the most powerful person in the country. As the years unfolded and the governing regimes appeared to become even more brutal the people began to reflect on whether King Charles I was actually a traitor or a martyr. It appeared to many that life was better with the King in power, than Oliver Cromwell. Opinions differed a lot at the time, and people still disagree until today.

In my opinion, from studying the history of Charles I and the Civil War, I feel that he was the most dishonourable and duplicitous of English kings. I think that his dignity over his trial and execution made it what we would call today a massive propaganda defeat for his opponents. The extent of the success of the propaganda is shown from the source below which has been taken from a contemporary pamphlet about Charless death. Even the crucifying of our blessed Saviour did not equal this, and Christ, although as unjustly condemned, was yet judged at a lawful court.

His public beheading at Whitehall took place before a stunned but sympathetic crowd. He managed to rescue his reputation by his dignity at the end and by the publication of his writings, Eikon Basilike, justifying his actions which were read for decades to come. However, it should be remembered that his actions during his reign; his lies, deceit and hollow promises led to the situation which resulted in immense hardship and suffering for his subjects and unprecedented constitutional upheaval.

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