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King Charles I of England: Facts, Trial & Execution

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Discover the world of Charles I, the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1625 to 1647. Learn about his battle for supremacy with the English Parliament, his trial for treason and his eventual execution.

The Early Life of Charles I

Charles I was the second son of King James I and his wife Anne of Denmark. James I had inherited the throne of England from his cousin, the famous Queen Elizabeth I of England, who had died without marrying or producing children. James was a controversial ruler and engaged in constant bickering with the House of Commons, one of the two legislative houses of Parliament.

Painting of Charles I by Daniel Mytens
Painting of Charles I by Daniel Mytens

Originally, Charles' older brother, Henry Frederick, was the heir to the throne of England. By most accounts, Henry Frederick was a strong warrior and an intelligent young man. By contrast, Charles was a sickly and weak boy. When his parents moved to take the throne of England, Charles was left behind in Scotland with his tutors because it was believed that he was too frail to make the journey. Within a few years, Charles was well enough to join his parents in their new kingdom. Although he grew stronger as he grew up, Charles was still considered to be the weaker of the two brothers.

When Charles was 12, Henry Frederick died suddenly, most likely of typhoid, a bacterial infection that was common during the time period. Unexpectedly, the weak young boy was the heir apparent to the throne of England. Like his father, Charles grew to believe that the monarch had a divine right, or that the king had a God-given right to do as he pleased. This belief created numerous problems for James I in dealing with Parliament and it created similar issues for Charles when he took the throne.

Before his death, James I attempted to arrange a marriage between Charles and the Princess of Spain, Maria Anna. It is important to understand that Spain was deeply tied to the Catholic Church, while England had separated from the Catholic Church and become a Protestant nation. The House of Commons was opposed to a marriage between a Catholic princess and their Protestant future king.

Charles, on the other hand, was deeply interested in the match and even traveled to Spain incognito in 1623 in an attempt to win the princess' hand. Unfortunately for Charles, Maria Anna had no interest in marrying the English prince. She reportedly called him an 'infidel' for his Protestant religious beliefs.

A Young and Controversial King

Two years later, just before the death of James, the king and his son arranged for the marriage of Charles I and Princess Henrietta Maria, the sister of King Louis XIII. France, like Spain, was a Catholic nation, and Parliament insisted that Henrietta Maria could only practice her religious beliefs in private. Despite their promises to the contrary, after the death of his father in 1625, Charles signed a secret treaty with the French king promising that he would relax restrictions on Catholics in England and granting the French power over the English fleet. Although he later reneged on this promise, Charles's secret treaty produced significant disputes between Charles and the House of Commons.

Painting of Charles I by Anthony Van Dyke from Royal Collection
Painting of Charles I by Anthony Van Dyke from Royal Collection

In 1629, Charles dealt with the constant disagreements by disbanding Parliament. Throughout this period, Charles financed his government through the use of extraordinarily high taxes. The people of England became increasingly dissatisfied with this method of government. Without Parliament, many people considered Charles' taxes to be illegal. In addition to the high taxes, Charles also supported changes to the Book of Common Prayer. These changes were highly unpopular in Scotland and Ireland.

In response to the high taxes and religious upheaval, Scotland rebelled and Charles was forced to recall Parliament in order to raise funds for an army to put down the rebellion. Once Parliament had reconvened, they made a number of laws restricting the power of the king, who many Englishmen had come to believe was a tyrant. In particular, Parliament created a new law that required the king to summon the House of Commons at least once every three years, thus making Charles' dismissal of them in 1629 illegal. Threatened with an invasion by the Scottish, Charles had no choice but to accept the new rules of Parliament.

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