Friday, January 30, 2009

Charles: The King Who Lost His Crown and His Head

Christopher, a former parishioner and friend of mine has a great respect and devotion for Charles I (1600-1649), son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark and Norway, and grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots.  The Anglican Church honors Charles as "King and Martyr" in its liturgical commemoration on this day; the Episcopal Church does not.  But every year, knowing Chris' ongoing admiration for the controversial former "King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc." , I always call or write to wish him a blessed "Charles Day".

Prior to becoming king, which happened by default since his older brother, Henry, died at age 18, just before Charles' 12th birthday, Charles bore the following titles:  Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Duke of York, Duke of Albany, Marquess of Ormond, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Ross, Baron Renfrew, Lord Ardmannoch, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland.  Is it any wonder, then, that he was ardently and passionately convinced that kings ruled by Divine Right: that he had a direct powerline to the King of Kings?!  He proved it by his actions which were frequently a little over the top: levying taxes without Parliament's OK, ruling without a Parliament, dissolving Parliament, being responsible for two civil wars, opposing and coming down hard on Calvinism and others with Reformed tendencies, etc.  Maybe it was the shoes he wore that caused all his discontent! Get a look at those "pumps" he's wearing in the picture above.

Amazingly, he managed, through all the ups and downs -- and there were more than anyone could count -- to hang on to his kingdom for 24 years.  That is, until people got really tired of his constant drama and "attitude".  During the Civil War periods Charles suffered any number of military losses to his opponents, yet still he thumbed his nose at Parliament, even in defeat.  Virtually the last two years of his life he moved from prison to prison.  Finally, the House of Commons passed an Act of Parliament creating a court for a trial.  This had never been done to an English king; others had been deposed, but never tried for "high treason and other high crimes".   Sounding a bit like Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague, Charles refused to enter a plea, proclaiming that no court had jurisdiction over a monarch, since his own authority had been given to him by God, as well as by the traditions and laws of England when he was crowned and anointed.  

It was all to no avail.  It took only 9 days to convict Charles.  It's said that when the prosecutor, Solictor General John Cooke, began reading the indictment, Charles tried to stop him by poking him with his cane.  When the ornate silver tip of the cane fell off, Cooke refused to pick it up.  After a dramatic pause, King Charles leaned over and did so: perhaps a symbol that the proud monarch finally realized that even he had to bow before human law.  There's a lesson in that, isn't there?

Shortly before he was executed on January 30, 1649, Charles sent a letter to his son, the Prince of Wales, via his chaplain.  It begins: "With God, I would have you begin and end, who is King of Kings, the sovereign disposer of the kingdoms of the world, who pulleth down one and setteth up another.  The best government and highest sovereignty you can attain to is to be subject to him, that the sceptre of his word and spirit may rule in your heart..."  Regarding the preservation of established religion and laws, he says: "...I may (without vanity) turn the reproach of my sufferings, as to the world's censure, into the honour of a kind of marytrdom, as to the testimony of my conscience..."
He concludes: "...I know God can -- and I hope he will --  restore me to my rights.  I cannot despair, either of his mercy, or my people's love and pity.  At worst, I trust I shall but go before you to a better kingdom, which God hath prepared for whose mercy I commend you, and all mine..."

At his execution, Charles is said to have insisted on wearing two cotton shirts to prevent the cold weather from causing any noticeable shivers that could be mistaken for fear or weakness.  His last words were: "I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be."  He then said a prayer, placed his head on the block, and signalled to the executioner that he was ready.  With one, powerful, smooth stroke Charles I entered a new kingly realm.

In May, 2007, I had the privilege of visiting St. John's Chapel at Little Gidding, of T. S. Eliot fame, formerly the center of Deacon Nicholas Ferrar's little prayerful community of family and associates.  For me, the chapel had an exquisitely "prayerful" feel to it.  One of the stained glass windows, restored in 1853, is a memorial to Charles I.  He had visited Little Gidding twice, in 1642 and 1646.  At the bottom of the coat of arms are words which, perhaps, well sum up Charles' whole life:  "Dieu et mon droit.  [God and my right.]" 

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