Why Charles and why a martyr?

The more observant of you today (30th January) will notice that the site has up a picture of Charles I and the collect for today. It reads:

King of kings and Lord of lords, whose faithful servant Charles prayed for those who persecuted him and died in the living hope of your eternal kingdom: grant us by your grace so to follow his example that we may love and bless our enemies, through the intercession of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Now, let’s be totally honest – Charles the First was a bit of a pompous fool. He led the country into a disastrous civil war on the basis that he was absolutely convinced that he had a divine right to rule, and that these icky un-noble commoners should really know their place. He tore the land apart and in doing so inadvertently created the dictatorship which followed him that put his excesses of authoritarianism in the shadows.

And yet, at the moment when he could choose to save his life, he chose not to. Offered the choice of saving his neck (or at least the thing on top of his neck) by allowing the church to become congregational, or standing by his belief that the catholic church is built on episcopacy, he decided that the manner in which the church was divinely organised (as he saw it) was a non-negotiable. Bishops were the key focus of the unity of the church since the first century, and to dispense with them would be to dispense with not just the organisational church but also the very essence of its organism.

So he went to his death rather than allow under his reign the removal of the “bene esse” of the church. Shortly after the Restoration he was canonised by the Church of England, the last person to be treated in this way. Let’s all for one day, put aside the fact that his promotion of Laud to Canterbury began the dissolution of the Electionist heritage of the BCP and the Articles, and remember a man who was prepared to go to his death rather than betray Christ.

14 Comments on “Why Charles and why a martyr?

  1. Hmm. So do you see bishops as part of the esse of the church (as your penultimate paragraph, with its reference to “the very essence of its organism”), or just its bene esse?

    Of course, there is the old joke about bishops having to be part of the church’s esse, because they certainly don’t contribute to its bene esse. ;-)

    I hear what you’re saying, but unfortunately the phrase “Charles, King & Martyr” brings my Roundhead tendencies frothing to the surface. I see it as part of a Restoration rewriting of history that is difficult to separate from events such as the “Ejectment” of Puritan clergy or the dreadfully cruel persecution of Scottish covenanters by the future James II.

  2. Oops, omitted a word from my first para. Parenthesis should read: “(as your penultimate paragraph, with its reference to “the very essence of its organism”, implies)

  3. Oh I think the 17th Century is just full of self-righteous clergy and monarchs doing their own thing without any regard to anybody else, including Charles I…

    I actually do believe that episcopacy is the bene esse of the church. I guess I was just playing with words in that sentence that you picked up on (and actually wanting to prompt a response like yours!!).

  4. All centuries seem to be full of self righteous clergy – and our own is no exception. And each century has some clergy who simply stand out as being shining lights for the Gospel – and ours again is no exception. 
    At least Charles was capable of thinking and acting for himself. We have now simply so disabled the monarch from doing either of those things publicly that we would be better to acknowledge that we live in a democracy, do away with childish things that simply wear crowns on state occasions and only take communinon in private,  and call ourselves citizens and not subjects.    
    It is also important that we recognise the BCP and Articles as ‘political/polemical’ documents as opposed to spiritual/religious. They are of their day.  And that is why we give general assent to them as ‘historic formularies’ rather than using them as any real basis for our doctrine nearly 500 years after they were written.     

  5. You seem to imply that in supporting congregationalism he would have been betraying Christ (have I understood you correctly?). Is the episcopal ordering of the church the only ordering that you see as Biblical or Christlike?

  6. I’m suggesting that Charles believed that in supporting congregationalism he was betraying Christ. Whether it would have been a betrayal is of course debatable, but ultimately it was on a matter of theological principle that he went to his death.
    Similar I guess in the same way that Thomas More went to his death on a matter of theological principle. Whether he should have done is debatable, but we recognise that for him his duty to Christ outweighed his duty to the State.

  7. John H beat me to it, but I’m sure you were waiting for me to chip in!

    Charles I went to his death for treason. For shedding the blood of his subjects. I have no difficulty seeing him as legally guilty of this.

    Adopting presbyterianism (I don’t think he was ever offered congregationalism) would hardly have betrayed Christ. It certainly would have betrayed his idea of the divine right to rule following his father’s dictum ‘No bishop, no king.’ No doubt he had a strong conscience about this but our consciences can be fallen and in error. One may be a martyr for the sake of one’s conscience without being a martyr for the sake of Christ and his gospel.

    So, today I shall raise a glass to Oliver Cromwell. That great Puritan (and congregationalist) who rather viewed himself as the parish policeman maintaining order than a monarch above all contradiction. One who humbly refused a crown when offered to him and who now undoubtedly casts a better crown at the feet of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

    Puritanically yours (which is why I enjoy my beer)

    John Foxe.

  8. Dear Peter,

    I have kept a short article from History Today by a QC which examines and upholds the lawfulness of Charles Stuart’s trial which I shall be happy to send you if you wish!

    Oliver Cromwell’s defence:

    more religious liberty and tolerance than under any Stuart before or after.

    Defence rests.

    PS And Charles started it.



  9. Will try to find it and pop it in the post.

    Tut Peter, historical recollection fails you. Who was it who raised his standard at Nottingham (a declaration of war) whereupon it promptly blew over in the wind?

    a. Charles Stuart
    b. Oliver Cromwell
    c. John Owen
    d. William Laud

    Curiously yours,


  10. Since when was the king not allowed to raise his standard wherever he went?

    Even more curiously yours,

    Peter (does my hat look good with this fluffy feather?) Ould

  11. I can’t help feeling that both Peter and John have a secret yearning to have lived in the 17th century rather than the 21st; perhaps the two of you should join the Sealed Knot and slog it out on some muddy field somewhere, feathers and all!
    Personally I have been thinking for some time that we ought not really to use the word ‘martyr’ for people who are killed by other Christians. Witnessing for a particular idea about the faith is not really the same thing as witnessing for the faith itself for the benefit of outsiders.
    As for Charles and Cromwell: they both made great mistakes politically and I would judge they both made pretty serious mistakes in religion too if they really thought Christ wanted them to fight a civil war. Emotionally I know where my heart lies: I have a yen to be Wrong but Romantic – although a cruel twist of fate has in fact made me Right but Repulsive – and I was somewhat guiltily delighted to find yesterday that our republican Essex-born vicar had relented so far as to allow one of his fellow clergy to celebrate a mass of Charles) but as far as history is concerned all my head can  say is that the best thing we learned from the Civil War was not to do it again.

  12. Dear Peter,

    when he’s declaring war on his own people rather than foreigners. That makes him a tyrant.

    Dear Robert,

    ;) Though we mostly learn you can’t build heaven on earth so try to get along with your fellow Christians showing as much flexibility as possible on issues of church government as you can. (Though modern day English presbyterians are really half way between their seventeenth century presbyterian and congregational forebears.)

    In Christ,


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