Charles I lived from 19 November 1600 to 30 January 1649 and was King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 27 March 1625 until his execution. A number of members of the Stuart Dynasty had, over the centuries, shown a tendency to become embroiled in self-defeating and unnecessary controversy and conflict, and in Charles I this became something of a defining characteristic. This led to his eventual loss of his head: though only after a complex series of civil wars that had cost many of his subjects their lives as well. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Charles I managed to stir up conflict on two different, but related, fronts. The first was his belief in the Divine Right of Kings, which many viewed as an attempt by him to gain absolute power. The second was his wish to move the Church of England - and even more controversially the Church of Scotland - away from their post-Reformation Calvinist or Presbyterian leanings and back towards a greater degree of ceremony in England, and the reintroduction of bishops to govern the Church of Scotland. Coupled with his marriage to a Catholic, many in his kingdoms felt he was seeking to revert to Catholicism by the back door. By managing to antagonise Parliament, the powerful Puritan end of the spectrum in the Church of England, and most of Scotland, Charles eventually succeeded in bringing about his own downfall.
Charles was born the second son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark at Dunfermline Palace in 1600. A feeble, sickly and under-sized child, Charles was at first left in Scotland in the care of nurses when his father went to London in 1603 to become James I of England. He followed the following year, and in 1605 was made the Duke of York. Charles' elder brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, died of typhoid in 1612, leaving Charles as the heir apparent to the three kingdoms held by his father.
In 1623 Charles was taken by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, to Spain in search of a suitable bride: but his efforts to secure the daughter of King Philip III, the Infanta Maria of Spain, failed when the Spanish demanded he convert to Catholicism before any marriage could take place.
Charles I became king of his three kingdoms on 27 March 1625. He called his first Parliament in May and found its members strongly opposed to his proposed marriage to Princess Henrietta Maria of France, sister of Louis XIII of France and a Roman Catholic, because they feared Charles would then ease restrictions on Roman Catholics and undermine the official establishment of Protestantism. Charles had met Henrietta Maria while en route to Spain. Charles responded to Parliament's concerns by agreeing that restrictions on Roman Catholics in England would not be eased: which directly contradicted the secret marriage treaty he had entered into with Louis XIII of France. The couple were married on 13 June 1625 in Canterbury.
Charles started his reign by becoming embroiled in the continental 30 Years' War in support of his sister's husband, Frederick V, Elector Palatine. This entailed making war on the Catholic Philip IV of Spain. Parliament sought to constrain Charles by approving only limited funds, and the right to raise certain customs duties for a year.
In early 1629 Parliament voiced strong opposition to Charles's continued collection of customs duties beyond the period they had authorised, and in the face of their opposition to a number of his other policies, Charles I dissolved Parliament in March 1629. In order not to be reliant on funds that only Parliament could approve, Charles made peace with Spain and France, and embarked on what has since variously been known as the Eleven Years Tyranny or simply as the Personal Rule. During this period Charles raised the funds he needed without Parliament by reintroducing taxes last seen hundreds of years earlier, especially Ship Money.
These measures just about allowed him to keep his regime afloat, but afforded him little leeway should he find himself suddenly in need of additional funds. This need arose because of Charles' imposition of unwelcome changes on the Church of Scotland. In effect, having already made changes to the Church of England that brought it in many eyes unacceptably close to Catholicism, he insisted on bringing the Church of Scotland much more into line with the Church of England. His changes included the use of full Anglican rites at Charles' Scottish Coronation in 1633; the subsequent imposition of governance of the church by Bishops rather than by Church councils; and the imposition of a new Book of Common Prayer, first used in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday 23 July 1637. A certain Jenny Geddes responded by throwing her stool and the Minister, and widespread rioting followed across Scotland.
On 28 February 1638 the Scots produced the National Covenant which was eventually to be signed by many thousands north of the border. This sought to preserve distinctive Scottish cultural and religious freedoms and practices. And when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland abolished rule by Bishops later in 1638, replacing it with Presbyterian government by Elders and Deacons, Charles treated their decision as a rebellion against his authority.
In the First Bishops' War of 1639, Charles I failed to make an impact on the Scottish Covenanters and in the Pacification of Berwick conceded to the Scots the right to a free church assembly and a free parliament. Unfortunately for Charles, the Church of Scotland Assembly that met in Edinburgh on 20 August 1639 not only confirmed the end of governance by Bishops in Scotland, but went further, agreeing that such governance was contrary to the very scriptures themselves. The Scottish Parliament, which met shortly afterwards, took things further and effectively abolished the concept of absolute Royal Power.
Charles was now in an impossible position, and in April 1640 he called the Short Parliament in England to raise the funds he needed for another war against the Scots. Instead, the English Parliament focused on grievances arising from the Eleven Years Tyranny, and when Charles dismissed Parliament he was in a worse position than ever, with no resources to fight a war, and his lack of English support now obvious to all. Nonetheless, Charles I prepared for another war against the Scots. This time, however, the Scottish Covenanters pre-empted him, crossing the border on 17 August 1639 and after defeating the English Royalist army at the Battle of Newburn, before occupied Newcastle, effectively closing off much of London's supply of coal.
The Treaty of Ripon, signed in October 1640 was a further humiliating defeat for Charles. It required him to pay the expenses of the Scottish army occupying northern England, and temporarily ceded Northumberland to Scotland. By November 1640, Charles had little option but to recall Parliament again, at the start of what became known as The Long Parliament. This session began with Parliament giving itself powers to call itself if the King did not do so at least every three years, and by giving itself the power to veto efforts by the king to dissolve it. Charles had little choice but to approve these changes: doubtless through gritted teeth. Then, in November 1641, the House of Commons passed the Grand Remonstrance, denouncing all the abuses of power Charles had committed since the beginning of his reign.
At the beginning of 1642, Charles was told that Parliament was about to impeach his Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria. On 4 January 1642 Charles personally led troops into the House of Commons in an effort to arrest the Members most strongly opposed to him, but he found they had been warned of his coming, and had fled. Charles in turn fled an increasingly hostile London for Nottingham, where on 22 August 1642 he raised his standard at the start of the English Civil War.
By April 1646 the Civil War had turned decisively against the Royalists and in favour of Parliament, and Charles surrendered to Scottish Presbyterian forces at Newark. The Scots eventually turned Charles over to the English Parliament in 1647 and he was imprisoned in a series of locations, finally at Carisbrook Castle on the Isle of Wight. From Carisbrook, Charles continued to try to negotiate with anyone who would listen to him, eventually agreeing with the Scots that if they moved their support to him, he would allow the establishment of Scottish-style Presbyterianism in England.
The Second Civil War followed, in July 1648, when Royalist forces in Wales took up arms in attacks coordinated with a Scottish invasion of northern England, this time with the Scots on the side of the King. Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell easily put down the uprising in Wales, and at the Battle of Preston from 17–19 August 1648, Cromwell also defeated the Scottish Royalists.
On 2 January 1649 Charles was put on trial for high treason and other high crimes in front of a court especially created for the purpose by an Act of Parliament. His death warrant was signed on 29 January 1649, and he was beheaded the following day at the Palace of Whitehall in London. Power over the three kingdoms was assumed by a Council of State, which included Oliver Cromwell, then Lord General of the Parliamentary Army. Charles' stupidity and intransigence had effectively led to the creation of a republic in England that was to last until the restoration to the throne to his son, Charles II, on 29 May 1660.