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King Charles I, 1600 - 1649

Updated Saturday, 9 June 2018
First he lost his parliament; then his throne; then his head. Find out more about the King of England during this bloody era. 

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King Charles I/VI

King Charles I had the misfortune of ascending the throne at a time when Crown-Parliament relations were becoming increasingly tense, and when religious antagonisms (at home and abroad) were growing in volatility. Only an extremely flexible and imaginative monarch could hope to steer the ship of state through these dangers, but Charles' behaviour and strategy indicated a singular lack of such qualities.

Charles was born on 19th November 1600, the second son of James VI/I and Anne of Denmark. As the younger son, he was never meant to be King but when his brother Henry died in 1612, the shy and stammering young prince became heir to the throne.

Charles ascended the throne in March 1625, and inherited a fractious relationship with Parliament. Much of this tension focused on finance and Charles summoned only three Parliaments before attempting to rule without this quarrelsome assembly throughout the 1630s. However, Charles needed Parliament's support to raise finance through taxation and, without it, he had to resort to a wide range of obscure and extremely unpopular methods of raising funds-ship money, forced loans, impositions, and sale of monopoly licences. None of these methods were strictly illegal but his determination to reassert the royal prerogative and squeeze funds from unwilling contributors generated a lot of opposition. On the surface, Charles' period of personal rule appeared tranquil but tensions were gradually accumulating.

In religious affairs, Charles favoured a high church episcopalian Anglicanism, and this support for an ecclesiastical system based on hierarchy was entirely consistent with his belief in divine right monarchy. However, his enthusiasm for ceremony, ritual and vestments brought him into conflict with the Puritan faction which favoured a stripped down approach to worship and who regarded anything other than this as 'popery'.

With the assistance of Archbishop Laud, Charles attempted to impose religious uniformity throughout his three kingdoms, including Scotland where the national church was both Calvinist and Presbyterian. When Charles attempted to impose an Anglican Prayer Book on the Scottish church in 1637, it aroused tremendous hostility which eventually spilled over into outright opposition.

It was Charles' determination to impose his will on the Scots through military means which, in the long run, precipitated the Civil War and resulted in his execution. Funding a proper army demanded the recall of Parliament, and the recall of Parliament provided an outlet for many of the grievances which had accumulated over eleven years of personal rule. Many MPs felt great sympathy for the Scots and declined to give Charles command of an army which could be used against them. Charles regarded Parliament's increasingly assertive attitude as an attack on the royal prerogative and relations between Crown and Parliament gradually deteriorated throughout 1641- 42. When Charles raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642, this marked the start of the First Civil War.

Having presided over a breakdown in relations between Crown and Parliament, Charles now revealed himself to be a less than effective war leader. Although personally brave and capable of winning occasional engagements (Lostwithiel, Cropredy Bridge) his strategy was inconsistent and he was easily swayed by the advice of favourites. Charles made the fateful decision to stand and fight against a bigger Roundhead army at Naseby (against Rupert's advice) and, when Rupert was forced to surrender at Bristol, Charles impetuously dismissed his most effective general. The defeat at Naseby, the Covenanter victory at Philiphaugh and the seizure of Chester (which prevented the landing of Irish troops) rendered the Royalist position untenable by early 1646. On 5th May 1646, Charles surrendered to the Scottish Covenanter army at Southwell and the First Civil War was over.

Having lost the military struggle, Charles had to rely on his political instincts and negotiating skills to secure advantage but he was not well-equipped in either regard. Having been raised in a rarefied atmosphere in which his every wish was a command, Charles lacked the imagination to appreciate the extent to which his kingdoms had been transformed by the turmoil of Civil War. Having been placed on the throne by God, he could not envisage a world in which he did not regain his throne by either political or military means. It was an attitude out of step with the times.

Charles' decision to form an Engagement with the Scots in December 1647 (which precipitated the Second Civil War) sealed his fate. Before this, Charles had been regarded as an essential component of any peace settlement. Having plunged the three kingdoms back into turmoil, the 'man of blood' came to be regarded as an impediment; he would have to go.

Under pressure from the Army, Parliament placed Charles on trial in January 1649. Once the decision to place Charles on trial had been made, the result was a foregone conclusion. On 30th January 1649, Charles was executed on a scaffold in front of Whitehall. He met his end with great dignity and fortitude, something which helped his son regain the throne in 1660.

English Civil War: The Key Players


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