The fateful end of Charles I in 1649 was England's only instance of regicide by its people. The controversial 17th-century monarch defied Parliament and asserted his right to rule as he saw fit, ultimately sealing his fate at the hands of his enemies.
Charles ruled England for more than 20 years, often rejecting the will of his people and Parliament. His overthrow and execution, however, pushed the limits of what even his biggest critics could have expected to happen. Charles's actions brought civil war to England, but offing a king wasn't something his subjects or outside observers took lightly.
The facts about Charles I's reign and his unprecedented passing offer insight into the extreme political situation in England at the time, and reveal just how difficult it was to be king.
As Charles found himself in one conflict after another with Parliament, he got rid of the opposition when necessary. Charles's first Parliament, openly hostile to his new bride and unhappy with the king's foreign policy, met in June 1625. After Parliament refused to grant him tonnage and poundage duties for life, Charles dismissed the body in August.
In June 1626, Charles dissolved his Second Parliament after the body demanded that he dismiss the Duke of Buckingham in exchange for war funding. Charles was forced to call together another Parliament in 1628, again in need of funds. Parliament continued to attack the Duke of Buckingham, but his expiration brought that disagreement to an end.
The real problem Charles had with the Parliament of 1628 was their demand that he agree to the Petition of Right in exchange for any new taxation revenue. The Petition of Right settled disputes over Charles's unlawful billeting of troops and imprisonment without cause and limited his non-Parliamentary taxation. The king agreed to the petition, believing he could ultimately get around it.
By early 1629, Charles had also started appointing bishops in England to support his cause. Parliament, unable to take any action against the king on matters of religion, focused again on tonnage and poundage. Frustrated with their defiance, Charles ordered the head of Parliament, Sir John Finch, to adjourn in March 1629. Finch tried, but many members of Parliament were unwilling to leave. As critics of the king began reading actions against him, Finch was physically held down in his chair.
Parliament made several resolutions against Charles, after which the king called Parliament's actions "undutiful and seditious carriage" and dissolved the body. He also had nine of his main detractors arrested and thrown in prison.
After the dissolution of Parliament in 1629, Charles exercised his prerogative to get the money he needed. He didn't call another Parliament for 11 years, and instead developed new customs duties and exploited an old tax known as ship money. Ship money was a medieval practice by which the king could demand that coastal counties provide ships and funds for the defense of the kingdom during times of war.
Charles took ship money to new levels, demanding that all counties in England pay the tax throughout the 1630s. He also used his private courts to arrest opponents and enacted religious reforms to build the authority of the Church of England.
During the 11 years that Charles ruled without a Parliament, commonly referred to as his personal rule, the king signed treaties to end wars with France and Spain, expanded his family, and focused on the activities of his royal court. Opposition to the king's absolutist actions grew, and when religious reforms in Scotland were met by revolt, Charles again found himself in need of war funds.
During the 1630s, Charles named William Laud the Archbishop of Canterbury, as he held similar beliefs about the role of the Church of England. Laud, a fierce opponent of Puritanism, was an advisor to the king, and together they worked to elevate religious services. Laud encouraged priests to wear ceremonial garb and incorporate more music, while Charles tried to force the nobility to give their lands to the church. Laud also introduced a new Book of Common Prayer.
At first, the most prominent opponents of these actions were the Puritans, who believed these serious and ostentatious religious practices should be simpler. When Laud tried to force the Scottish Church to use his book of prayer in 1637, the Presbyterian Church expressed bitter opposition. In 1638, Scottish critics issued the National Covenant, admonishing the king and Laud and endorsing Presbyterianism. The next year, Charles went to war to impose the prayer book in Scotland.
With the outbreak of war in Scotland, Charles had to call Parliament into session in 1640. In dire need of funds to support his Bishops' Wars, Charles was desperate. During the first round of conflicts between Charles and the rebellious Scots, the king had been forced to comply at Berwick in 1639. Charles wasn't done yet and took up arms again the following year. Scottish forces responded by invading England and ultimately defeated the king's army at Newburn in August 1640.
As Charles prepared to fight the Scots, he called for a new Parliament in April 1640. Unfortunately for Charles, the leadership made it clear they would not even discuss subsidies without first addressing their grievances against the king. The so-called Short Parliament had set a date of May 7 to debate the issue of war in Scotland, but Charles disbanded the body on May 5.