Charles the villain or Charles the martyr?

Posted by Tory Historian Sunday, August 03, 2008 ,

Tory Historian spent an hour or so last Thursday in the National Portrait Gallery, which is open late on Thursdays and Fridays. On the top floor the small room that is given over to temporary exhibitions on one theme is filled with images of Charles I before his execution, during it and as the glorious martyr afterwards. The exhibition is on till mid-December and is well worth seeing.

The Parliamentarians probably over-reached themselves when they tried, condemned and executed the King, thus turning a problematic and not very popular former ruler into a martyr for all times. (Tory Historian seems to recall talk of the same thing happening with Saddam Hussein after his execution but it has not. That man was beyond simply unpopular – he was hated in a way Charles I was not except by very few.)

There is deliberately very little about Charles and his Scottish wars or disagreements with Parliament or, for that matter, the religious, constitutional and political problems he allowed to grow in the years before the Civil War. Many of the portraits that relate to the period can be seen in the large room devoted to the subject.

The theme in the special exhibition is the fascinating one of propaganda and the way opinion can be swayed. Charles was not a popular king but the notion of raising Parliamentary rebellion may not have appealed to many people either. Still, there had been rebellions before – some successful, some not so much.

The issue here was the trial and execution. Charles was actually put on trial and accused of being “a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public and implacable enemy of the commonwealth of England”. This was the shattering new idea that the squires of England, who sat in that Parliament thought of: that the king could be tried because there was a law and a constitutional order that was superior to him.

New ideas are not necessarily popular and this one was not, followed as it was by King Charles’s apparently noble martyrdom during trial and at the execution. The subsequent oppressive rule by Parliament did not endear the cause to people and the Royalists profited by it.

Etchings and woodcuts of Charles’s execution, real and imaginary, were widely available, though their production and distribution was actually banned in the country. They were brought in from the Continent, many, interestingly enough, from Holland, a country that had only recently emerged from its own war against the King of Spain.

As the notes to the exhibition say:

Royalist propaganda avoided difficult political and constitutional issues and focused attention on a sympathetic image of a devoted king suffering for his people.
After the Restoration King Charles was made into a martyr, the only Anglican one, but his name was removed from the Common Prayer Book in 1859. As the more personal fascination with the King-Martyr receded there was a greater historical interest in the whole period of the Civil War and even what was then known as the Commonwealth.

There is a fascinating aspect to this, which the exhibition curators touch on briefly. Somehow, out of that situation the concept of England, the monarchy that is controlled by the constitution and a Parliament that may be bound in some ways theoretically by royal privilege but is, in fact, the ultimate law-giver. Well, that was true until 1972 when said Parliament introduced legislation that made a different body’s laws superior. Time for another John Hampden, perhaps.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. New? Hmmmm. Or, was it more of a reassertion of medieval notions of consensual and contractarian kingship, in opposition to the early modern infusion of Roman-derived ideas of absolutism and Divine Right? The English King's coronation oath (to this day) provides no enforcement mechanism (so far as I know), but it implies a duty to a higher law. This eroded away on the Continent, but not in England.

  3. What was new was the idea that the king could be put on trial for, among other charges, treason. This is the formulation of the idea that the king as a person is different from the king as an idea or, as you say, the embodiment of a higher idea. The person could be answerable to the idea.

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