In chapter three of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historian, Edward Gibbon wrote that the peaceful and golden reign of Antoninus offered few materials for ‘history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’. It was on this day in 1649 that one of the more egregious crimes and follies committed by an English government took place: Charles I was beheaded before a crowd in Whitehall; the first, and last time, in English history that an anointed king was executed in public. In a foretaste of what would happen often in the future, the king was put on ‘trial’ by those who had won a war, found ‘guilty’ on charges no proper court would have recognised, and duly subjected to victors’ ‘justice’: the French and Russian revolutionaries would follow suite.
When the Monarchy was happily restored in 1660, the Convocation of Canterbury and York agreed to add the King’s name to the calendar of Saints when the Prayer Book was revised; this, I think, makes him the last saint recognised by the Church of England alone. From 1662 onwards, on this day the Martyr King has been commemorated by the Church he did so much to serve; when I was a young man it was still the fashion to say a Mass for the King; I hope it is so still in some quarters.
No doubt Macaulay was correct in judging Charles a king much addicted to ‘dark and crooked ways’, but then the old Whig had little time for the kind of King and Church Toryism which celebrated the King as a martyr. Like most of the Stuarts, Charles lacked a sense of what was possible in politics, but when it came to the Church, he knew what he was doing, and for those who reverence the Catholic tradition in Anglicanism, he is indeed a martyr.
Charles deplored the growing Calvinist influence on the State Church, and was sympathetic to the aims of Archbishop William Laud who wished to restore the Church a more catholic sacramental and liturgical style of worship and ethos. Under Laud, and with the King’s patronage and encouragement, theEucharist was once again seen as the principal action of the Church, with the sermon being relegated to its proper place. More controversially, the doctrine of the Real Presence was once more taught at Oxford and Cambridge, and vestments were worn again. Candles were lit upon altars and a greater emphasis was placed on the externals of worship including the use of music. Altars, which had been destroyed under Edward VI and Elizabeth, were were restored in churches, replacing the communion tables which had taken their place during the great iconoclasm. In all of this, Charles was instrumental in restoring to the Anglican church its Catholic heritage, and men like Lancelot Andrewes and Jessica’s beloved George Herbert flourished under his patronage.
Readers here, treated to the lucubrations of Bosco, will easily understand the fury raised in Caliban’s breast by such patent and potent signs of reverence for Christ’s Church, and not the least of the factors which led to the Civil War was the rage of Calvinists as they saw their preaching houses turned back into places of prayer and meditation; noise is always threatened by the silence of prayer. Laud was duly impeached and executed, and Charles was offered the chance of retaining his life and throne if he renounced episcopacy and accepted the Puritan way; this he refused to do. It is this refusal which made the restored Church recognise him as a martyr.
Charles was, in many ways, a foolish monarch who played a poor hand badly, but those in the Church of England, and the Ordinariate, who have preserved the Catholic tradition in this land (and, I sometimes think, a better version of it than that reintroduced by Wiseman), owe him a great debt. Whatever his shortcomings, on the issue of supreme importance, he was willing to die for what he thought was right; to suffer and to die rather than compromise his faith. We do not ask of Saints and Martyrs that they live perfect lives, but we do look to the manner of his death, and here the poet Marvell had it right:
He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene;
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try:
Nor called the gods, with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right;
But bowed his comely head
Down, as upon a bed.
John Keble’s poem also deserves a mention here. Its full text can be found on the website of the Society of King Charles the Maryer, but here I will quote just these verses:
True son of our dear Mother, early taught
With her to worship and for her to die,
Nurs’d in her aisles to more than kingly thought,
Oft in her solemn hours we dream thee nigh.
For thou didst love to trace her daily lore,
And where we look for comfort or for calm,
Over the self-same lines to bend, and pour
Thy heart with hers in some victorious psalm.
And well did she thy loyal love repay:
When all foresook, her Angel still was nigh,
Chain’d and bereft, and on thy funeral way,
Straight to the Cross she turn’d thy dying eye.