The thirtieth day of January calls to mind that noblest of monarchs, Charles I of the House of Stuart, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. His reign was a study in chiaroscuro; a bright first half erupting into the bleakest darkness, only to end with a moment of shattering light. I speak, of course, of that death which has earned him the admiration of pious Anglicans for generations. Described as a martyr almost immediately after his execution, Charles I was formally raised to the altars of the Church of England in 1662, and his Mass and Office persisted until the Victorian era. Latterly, he has been the object of devotion by the most sound Anglo-Catholics. His feast is kept every year at Her Majesty’s Banqueting House in Whitehall, where the king met his untimely and illicit end.
That’s all very well and good for Anglicans. But where does this leave Roman Catholics? It is perhaps one of the great sadnesses of our age that the Ordinariate Missal did not retain the recognition of Charles as a beatus, if not a saint. A few years ago, Fr. Hunwicke produced a very good argument as to why, canonically and liturgically, a soul who died in schism could be recognized as a saint (taking the precedent of various Eastern saints like Palamas and Gregory of Narek). He has argued for a favorable reading of Charles’s Catholicizing tendencies before.
I would add my voice to Fr. Hunwicke’s. Charles was, on the whole, a boon to the Catholic Church. Charles’s marriage to a formidable Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, saw the arrival at court of Roman Catholic priests, a first since the days of Mary Tudor. He allowed the ambassadors of foreign courts to hold their own chaplains, notably at St. James’s, Spanish Place. Charles even opened up diplomatic talks with the Pope for the first time in decades, receiving more than one papal legate during his personal reign. High-level talks about reunion between the two churches were carried on in secret. He wrote to the Pope, in a letter of 1623 preserved and collected for publication by Sir Charles Petrie (1935),
Be your holiness persuaded that I am, and ever shall be, of such moderation as to keep aloof, as far as possible, from every undertaking which may testify any hatred towards the Roman Catholic religion. Nay, rather I will seize all opportunities, by a gentle and generous mode of conduct, to remove all sinister suspicions entirely; so that, as we all confess one undivided Trinity and one Christ crucified, we may be banded together unanimously into one faith. (See Petrie, The Letters…of King Charles I, pg. 16).
Of course, Charles was inconstant in these measures of good will. He was harsher on Recusants when it came to fines, but significantly lowered priest-hunting efforts. I believe I will not err in saying that, among the many martyrs of the English Reformation, none came during the King’s personal reign in the 1630’s. I only count four overall, of which we can probably acquit Charles from the burden of guilt. The two Catholics executed in 1628 – St. Edmund Arrowsmith, a Jesuit, and Blessed Richard Herst, a layman – seem to have fallen victim to the prejudices of lower officials rather than to any especially anti-Catholic venom emanating from the Crown. And once trouble with the Scots and Parliament began, Charles attempted to hold the situation together by, among other things, clamping down on priests. But even those martyrs which followed in the wake of these efforts owe their deaths more to the actions of local and middling anti-Papist forces than to the intentions of a harried crown. Only two seem to have died in 1641, the last year the King had any discernible control over what was going on in London. Realistically, it would be more appropriate to blame parliament for those deaths. In his church appointments, Charles always preferred those clerics who showed a marked sympathy to the doctrine of Rome. William Laud is only one among several examples that could be cited.
If this rather unpleasant parsing fails to convince us of Charles’s disposition towards the Church, then the works of his Catholic subjects might instead. The Catholic historian Lingard reports that, “Of five hundred officers in the royal army, who lost their lives during the civil war, one hundred and ninety four are known to have been catholics” (see Lingard, “Documents to ascertain Sentiments…” pg. 18). That’s a full 38.8%. The Civil War wrecked the old world of the Recusant nobility, most of whom proved themselves loyal to the King to the point of death. We might add that all the forces of Catholic Ireland rallied around the King’s cause. Every major faction of Irish Catholic society knew that they would suffer far more under the stridently Protestant regime of the Long Parliament than they ever had with Charles. Cromwell’s bloody Irish campaign was to prove their fears well-founded.
In the grand movements of history, it is easy to lose sight of the basic humanity and unique personality of those at play. Yet monarchy is always personal. So is the communion of saints. And when it comes to a “royal Saint,” as John Keble would have it, we ought to pay even closer attention to the personal characteristics of the man in question. Who was Charles Stuart?
A man of profound faith; a man who took his duty seriously, and executed it with all the fastidious attention of convicted principle; and, for the most part, a devoted husband. Though not entirely clean of adultery, Charles had but one mistress, and that only at the very end, while a prisoner. Alas. On the whole, his marriage was extremely sound by the standards of the Stuart dynasty, let alone the norms that prevailed among the continental rulers of the 17th century. One must rather admire the gallantry of a husband who cropped the ears of a man who dared to call his wife a whore in print.
Charles also exhibited impeccable taste in art. His aesthetic sensibilities led him to amass one of the finest compilations of paintings in Europe. Today, they form the core of the Royal Collection. He employed great artists like Van Dyck and Rubens to beautify the court, architects like Inigo Jones to ennoble the capital, and poets like Sir William Davenant and Ben Jonson to write lavish masques. The Queen and even Charles himself participated in these masques. Henrietta Maria thereby became the first woman to act on the English stage, clearing the way for later pioneers like Aphra Behn and Nell Gwynn to make their mark during the Restoration. All of these developments irritated the Puritans, as did Charles’s reissue of the Jacobean Book of Sports, encouraging the people of England to enjoy various games and festivities on Sundays and feast days.
The 1630’s were something of a golden age for English culture. The vast Laudian effort to restore “the beauty of holiness” in Church liturgy and fabrics must be set in this context. Charles was the king who loved beauty in all things.
Yet it is not for his mostly admirable character, nor for his exquisite aesthetics, nor for the glory of his personal reign that we remember him today. It is for that stirring death he embraced with the true fortitude and charity of a martyr.
On the scaffold, he declared to his murderers,
[As for the people], truly I desire their Liberty and Freedom as much as any Body whomsoever. But I must tell you, That their Liberty and Freedom, consists in having of Government; those Laws, by which their Life and their Gods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government (Sir) that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a soveraign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean, that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.
Sirs, It was for this that now I Am come here. If I would have given way to an Arbitrary way, for to have all Laws changed according to the power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here; and therefore, I tell you, (and I pray God it be not laid to your charge) That I Am the Martyr of the People…I have delivered my Conscience. I pray God, that you do take those courses that are best for the good of the Kingdom and your own Salvations.
After which he announced, “I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.” To Dr. Juxon, Bishop of London, he whispered the single word, “Remember.” He laid his head on the block, lifted his arms up in imitation of Christ, and the axe fell true. From that moment, the stunned crowd knew they had witnessed something auspicious. An account of the execution relates that
His blood was taken up by divers persons for different ends: by some as trophies of their villainy; by others as relics of a martyr; and in some hath had the same effect, by the blessing of God, which was often found in his sacred touch when living.
One could thus argue that a cult of the Royal Martyr existed from the very moment of his death.
Even so, the Church has not enrolled him among those hallowed names in the martyrology. It is unlikely she ever will, for political reasons if nothing else. For my own part, I am convinced that Charles I is worthy of a Catholic’s admiration. Yet truly does the verse of the Psalmist come to me, that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Ps. 21:1 KJV). In the end, only He can know what silent prayers and longings came to Charles in the last instant of his life.
Perhaps the true fate of Charles Stuart will remain a mystery until the Day of Judgment. But there is no reason that we mightn’t pray for him in the time until that fell revelation. After all, Charles died for what was best in the Church of England: episcopacy, sacraments, Marian devotion, beauty. Indeed, the very things it had inherited from its Apostolic past, and that Charles and his Archbishops had tried so ardently to restore. If history had taken a better turn, perhaps he might even have succeeded in the long hoped-for reunion of Rome and Canterbury.
If nothing else, let us be grateful to Charles for all the good he accomplished and inspired under the Providence of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.