The English Civil War and Failure of Charles' Monarchy

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  • 0:06 Divine Right of Kings
  • 1:38 Religion
  • 2:50 Money
  • 3:44 Parliment
  • 4:42 Civil War & Execution
  • 8:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the reign and execution of England's King Charles I. It will highlight the actions of Charles, along with his confrontations with Parliament, that led to the English Civil War.

Divine Right of Kings

For centuries, England held to the Divine Right of Kings, the belief that kings are given the right to rule by God. Therefore, kings are accountable to God alone. These days, England has definitely softened on this concept. However, when you take into account that two BILLION viewers watched the fairytale wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, you realize people on both sides of the Atlantic think these royals are still something very special.

To put it mildly, the English crown has given us some remarkable characters, not the least of whom would be King Charles I. Although he doesn't currently get as much press as this Charles or the wife-killing Henry VIII, he is a central figure in England's history. Not only did he lead England to its 17th-century civil war, he was executed for doing it! Yes, you heard that right. A king of England was actually executed by his people!

For those of us who grew up playing baseball rather than cricket, the reign of King Charles is probably not familiar. In order to explain how his bad decisions caused the civil war, I thought we'd use the old 'three strikes you're out' metaphor. In this scenario, the English parliament will be our umpires, while King Charles will be our batter. His strikes will come in the areas of religion, money, and politics.

With all this being said, let's play ball!

The actions of Charles I led to the English Civil War
King Charles I

Strike One - Religion

Charles' first swing and miss came in the form of religion. In the mid-16th century, King Henry VIII split with the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England. Although there were a few attempts to bring the country back to Catholicism, Protestantism remained the religion of the state. Of course, this was a huge bone of contention with English Catholics, who were marginalized and even persecuted in the name of Protestantism. This strife led to mistrust as each side suspected the other of foul play.

With this background in mind, it's not surprising the Protestant Parliament was outraged when Charles chose a Catholic princess as his bride. Their concerns were obvious. If such a marriage occurred, would the next king or queen be raised as a Catholic? Even worse, his bride was from France. Would the marriage give Catholic France a foothold in England?

Thumbing his nose at these concerns, Charles married his Catholic girl. Adding to this, he began persecuting the fundamental English Protestants known as Puritans. With this drastic move, the Protestants of England called, 'Strike One!'

Strike Two - Money

Strike two occurred when Charles decided to play foul with the treasury of England. First, he used the Star Chamber, or an English court of law in which the upper class was tried, to raise money for his own purse. During his reign, the Star Chamber inflicted heavy fines on those brought before it. Charles also used the court to bribe the wealthy to buy noble titles. If they refused, they too were fined.

Second, he forced all of England to pay Ship Money. Ship money, which was a tax used for the upkeep of the English navy, was historically only paid by coastal towns. However, Charles decided everyone should pay this tax since everyone benefited from the navy. Although he may have had a point, this unilateral decision infuriated the powerful men of the nation. With this, strike two was called!

Strike Three - Parliament

Strikes one and two were pretty big deals. However, strike three was one for the record books! It occurred in 1629, when Charles actually refused to let Parliament meet. Not only did he refuse them once, Charles kept Parliament from meeting for over a decade! This came to be known as the Eleven Years' Tyranny, or Charles I's Personal Rule. This didn't end until 1640, when Charles got into a tangle with Scotland and needed Parliament's money to fund the war.

Of course, Parliament wasn't just going to hand him his money. They were going to make him grovel! Before agreeing to fork over the dough, Parliament wanted Charles' chief adviser, Sir Thomas Wentworth (the one he listened to instead of them), executed. They also revoked the King's power to dissolve Parliament while also making it illegal for him to impose his own taxes.

Henry VIII split with the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-16th century
King Henry VIII

Civil War and Execution

With his chief advisor dead and his money dwindling, Charles' hatred for Parliament grew. In 1642, he marched on Parliament with about 300 soldiers. His goal was to arrest a few of his biggest critics. Unfortunately for Charles, he had misread the loyalty of his fan base! Although many didn't agree with Parliament, the people still considered this body to be the representatives of the people. If Charles was free to arrest the powerful men of Parliament for criticizing him, how would the common men of England be safe from his whims? With this, strike three rang out all over London!

Within days of trying to arrest his opponents, King Charles realized his error and fled from London to Oxford. In Oxford, he worked to raise an army large enough to conquer Parliament once and for all. Instead of reviewing or recanting the strike call, Parliament refused to back down. With this, civil war began in 1642.

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