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Charles I

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, October 3, 2018


Pen Portrait of Charles I by Jim GodfreyCharles I was a cultured and charming man, but as a king was indecisive, inflexible and devious. Like other monarchs of his time he believed in the divine right of kings. He led his country into civil war and is the only English monarch to have been beheaded by his people


Early life and rule

Charles I was born in Fife, on 19 November 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. He was two when his father ascended to the throne of England, and twelve when his older, and much more charismatic brother, Henry, died of typhoid. It was claimed that "few heirs to the English throne have been as widely and deeply mourned as Prince Henry." Charles had idolised his brother, but by comparison was seen as a failure. Small in stature, and lacking in confidence, he also suffered from a stammer.

In 1625, on the death of his father, Charles became King. Three months later he married Henrietta Maria of France, a 15-year-old Catholic princess who refused to take part in English Protestant ceremonies of state. This was to be the cause of much ill-will among many of his subjects. His initial reliance on George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who openly manipulated parliament, also created powerful enemies, especially among the nobility.

Charles had to contend with a parliament that disagreed with his military spending. Religious and political tensions also abounded. As a result of these tensions, Charles dissolved parliament three times in the first four years of his rule. In 1629, he dismissed parliament altogether, ruling alone for eleven years. It meant raising funds by decree — angering the general public.

The period of Charles's personal rule came to an end following the rise of unrest in Scotland. The King was forced to recall parliament to obtain funds for war. He also faced military revolt in Ireland in November 1641. With the prospect of another quarrel with parliament, Charles attempted, and failed, to have five legislators arrested. In 1642, Civil War broke out in England.


The Civil War

Oxford played a central part in the Civil War. Its strategic position, together with the wealth of its colleges made it an obvious choice as the King’s base once Parliament had established its grip on London. Charles held court at Christ Church, living in the Deanery and holding sessions of his counter-parliament in the Great Hall. The Queen lodged at Merton College, and a doorway was created between the two colleges to allow them to meet in secret.

Other colleges were similarly taken over, by courtiers or to house the offices of state, or else to billet the King’s troops. The Royal Mint was set up in New Inn Hall Street, lead was taken from the roof of the Corn Market, and munitions were stored in New College Tower. The city’s medieval defences were transformed by artillery bastions, earthworks and by flooding meadow land.

Although the war started well for Charles, his fortunes soon waned. The parliamentary army, led by Oliver Cromwell, won crucial victories at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). Oxford found itself besieged and, at 3am on 27 April 1646, Charles fled with his chaplain and a groom of his bedchamber. With his long hair trimmed and wearing a false beard, he travelled in disguise as their servant, poignantly calling himself Harry, his beloved brother’s name. They crossed Magdalen Bridge and escaped north, surrendering to the Scots.

The Scots turned Charles over to parliament in 1647, but after secret talks with the King they changed sides in return for his promise to make England Presbyterian. They were defeated in battle by Cromwell and finally, in January 1649, Charles was tried in Westminster Hall for ‘high crimes against the realm of England’. He maintained that no court on earth could try a king, but ‘Charles Stuart’ was duly sentenced to death as ‘a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy’. On 30 January 1649, with exemplary courage and grace, he went to his beheading at Whitehall, a martyr to his cause. Indeed, among certain high church Anglicans, he is still ‘Blessed Charles, King and Martyr’.


At Christ Church, the Vice Chancellor’s Throne in the nave of the Cathedral was used by Charles when attending services, and eight ‘Cavalier Monuments’ stand in the Lucy Chapel/South Transept. Also, a large quantity of straw was discovered in the loft above the Chancel Vault in the nineteenth century. It was intended to feed the King’s cattle corralled in Tom Quad!