Saint Charles Stuart I of England, King and Martyr

Saint Charles Stuart I (1600-1649) was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1625. On his accession to the throne, King Charles found a considerable party amongst the clergy disposed to abandon the Calvinistic views which had been predominant in the previous century and to welcome a theological position much near to traditional Catholicism. The King, who personally favoured the new movement, took decisive steps to silence religious controversy, meanwhile promoting Anglo-Catholics, or High Churchmen, to important positions. In 1633, he gave the See of Canterbury to Blessed William Laud, the leader of the catholic Anglican movement. Archbishop Laud’s vigorous policy in enforcing a fixed standard of liturgical ceremonial, including Altar rails, Altar lights, bowing to the Altar and Cross, the Eastward position at the Mass, and the restoration of true Altars and sanctuaries, and repressing Calvinism, earned him wide unpopularity, while the King, whose administrative, financial, and foreign policy had been as distarous as it had been well-intentioned, suffered with him. The fact that the Kings’ wife, Henrietta Maria, was a Roman Catholic added to the difficulties, since Saint Charles, torn between her demands for complete toleration for her Roman co-religionists and the violent anti-popery of the mass of his subjects, unsuccessfully compromised. The only result of this policy of compromise was popular indignation at the difference between the half-hearted enforcement of the recusancy laws against Roman Catholics and the rigour with which the Star Chamber, under Archbishop Laud’s direction, passed sentence on Puritans, even though such sentences were lenient in comparison with those which Romanists and Puritans alike has suffered under Elizabeth I.

Saint Charles’ Scottish policy was equally unfortunate. In Scotland the earlier agitation against Episcopacy had died down, but between his coronation in 1633 at Edinburgh and the revolt against the Book of Common Prayer in 1637, King Charles, himself a Scot and son of King James VI of Scotland, enflamed the situation. His coronation was carried out with the fullest Anglican ceremonial; he absolutely insisted that Scotland should adopt the English or a similar Scottish Book of Common Prayer, and should conform to the Laudian liturgical usages in all externals. He insisted on a uniform Anglican Catholicism for both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. His goal was to make both the English and Scottish Churches Catholic, united in the fullness of Catholic faith and order under the authority of King and Bishops. The King, most dangerously, insisted that the government and policy of the Church of Scotland were to be dependent upon the See of Canterbury or upon Scottish Bishops controlled by the King and the Archbishop. The result of this unbending policy was the National Covenant of 1638, which forever plunged Scotland into Presbyterianism and Calvinism. Saint Charles’ policy backfired.

The Civil War, which broke in England in 1642, was only in part caused by the ecclesiastical situation, but the defeat of the King in 1645 meant the disestablishment of the Church of England and the loss of the Prayer Book and the Apostolic Ministry, and the establishment of Presbyterianism in their place. The failure of Saint Charles to negotiate successfully with his enemies in the following years is in part evidence that he was not trusted, but it was due even more to the fact that his principles refused to let him consent to the loss of the Episcopate in order to conciliate the goodwill of the Scots and the wealthy English laity. He was unwilling to sacrifice the Apostolic Ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in order to save his own life – he could have done so and preserved himself, but he did not. For this reason, he is venerated as the Royal Martyr of the Anglican Church, whose death secured the preservation of Apostolic Succession. Because Saint Charles died as a Martyr for the sake of Apostolic Order, the Anglican Church is branch of the Holy Catholic Church, and not a sect.

In the words of Father Vernon Staley: ‘It is sufficient to say, in conclusion, that humanly speaking, the very existence of the Church of England as an integral part of the Catholic Church, is due to King Charles I. It is true of him that "he that will save others, himself he cannot save." By consenting to regard Episcopacy as merely a useful institution, and not an institution essential to the Church's very being, and by suffering the Presbyterian theory of Church's ministry to be established in the land, King Charles the Martyr might have saved his life. Had King Charles yielded upon this point, the Church would have been destroyed. To forget the Royal Martyr on this day of his supreme sacrifice, is to be guilty of utter ingratitude.’

"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.

"And yearly now, before the Martyr's King,

For thee she offers her maternal tears,

Calls us, like thee, to His dear feet to cling,

And bury in his wounds our earthly fears."

--Blessed John Keble, The Christian Year

Saint Charles’ murder, an illegal action carried through by fanatical army leaders, has been justly considered a martyrdom, since in the end it was conditioned only by his resolution to defend the Church and to save the Catholic Priesthood and the Prayer Book liturgy. His personal character, though marred by indecision, imprudence, and, at times, confusion, was, in his private life, of the highest moral purity and beauty, and in his public position, of such religious principle and personal responsibility which appeared to full effect in the dignity of his last days.

On the day of his death the Eikon Basilike, a hagiographical memoir was published as the dead King was acclaimed widely as a Martyr. From 1662 to 1859 a special service for 30th January, the day of his martyrdom, was annexed to the Book of Common Prayer by Royal Mandate – it ordered an annual day of national fasting. Saint Charles, King and Martyr, is still commemorated on 30th January in the Anglican liturgical Kalendar. At least five Church of England parishes have been dedicated to him and many others are dedicated to him throughout the Anglican Communion; numerous shrines to him exist throughout the Anglican world.

Remember! Saint Charles, pray for us!