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A revolution axed king Charles I’s rule. Don’t let it be the last

This article is over 1 years, 5 months old
Amid all the monarchy tripe, Chris Fuller celebrates a revolution against the royals
Oil painting of King Charles the first

King Charles I with his head still on (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

The machinery of the state is predictably attempting to enforce mourning on us all. Now Buckingham Palace and its ever-loyal media are busy grooming the nation to accept Charles III as his mother’s replacement. But the new monarch might well reflect that Charles is an unlucky name for a king. After all, it ended very badly for his namesake.

The year was 1649 and king Charles I was led onto a scaffold in Whitehall, London. His head was chopped off, whereupon souvenir hunters gathered round to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood and collect pieces of royal hair. The beheading was the culmination of nine years of revolution against the old feudal order represented by Charles.

Under feudalism peasants cultivated their own small pieces of land and had to give some of their produce, labour and military service to the lords who ruled them. Landowners and monarchs alike frittered away any surplus, increasing and securing their wealth by force and through alliances—often of the marital kind.

Crowned in 1625, Charles embodied the feudal system. He lived in the lap of luxury. At his christening he was dressed in a robe made of gold. As a youth, a dinner consisted of three types of bread, ten types of meat, ale and lots of grapes. He accumulated a vast art collection, even buying paintings worth £6 million in today’s money. All this while his navy starved.

One of his ambassadors advised him to have one wife for reasons of state and another to please him. Fruitless negotiations for Charles to marry a Spanish princess lasted eight years. He finally cut a deal to marry Henrietta Maria of France. Such was the love between them that the ceremony was held without Charles present, a proxy taking his place.

In 1641—when Charles needed more allies and more money—he married his eldest daughter, Mary, to Prince William of Orange. She was nine, he was 15. The king and his courtiers watched the couple consummate the marriage.

Charles’s disregard for human beings extended to the battlefield. The fleets he sent to fight the armies of Spain and France were poorly equipped. The ships leaked. The sailors were starved of rations and pay. Of the 6,000 men sent to La Rochelle in 1626, only 2,000 survived.

The king’s opponents were hung, drawn and quartered. Others had their ears chopped off and noses split, or were imprisoned for life.

The feudal economy sucked the country dry. It was a parasitic set-up which failed to reinvest in production. Charles benefited handsomely from monopolies granted by royal order. These covered vast swathes of everyday life, such as the making of playing cards, dice and bricks, the production of combs and dye, and the transporting of the skins of sheep and lambs. 

While still a prince, Charles took a £120,000 bung from merchant William Cockayne. In return Cockayne was given a monopoly to export finished wool—the export of unfinished wool was banned. But, the wool industry collapsed when the Dutch stopped importing the material, and thousands of workers lost their jobs.

The feudal order was a strict hierarchy. Charles claimed he ruled by divine right, insisting at his trial in 1649, “You cannot do without me. You will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you.” He summoned and dismissed parliaments at will and ruled by personal diktat for 10 years before 1640.

The king’s archbishop, Laud, ensured the church was ruled from the top down. Altar rails in churches marked a class divide and members of the congregation were expected to bow and scrape. Charles explained, “People are governed by the pulpit more than by the sword at times of peace.” So, the pulpit had to be under his control.

But the feudal order was changing. Innovations like the use of manure, new crops and using oxen to pull ploughs meant the economy grew by about one per cent a year. With more being produced, the population could grow and with it markets for goods not immediately consumed by peasants.

A new group of farmers emerged, often rearing sheep. The wool was put out to cottage-based workers to make cloth. Peasants were thrown off the land to make way for cattle, and then commercial crops. Coal, iron and dye industries grew.

The new class of capitalists were held back by Charles’s monopolies, his waste of money and his taxes. The capitalists had their own religion, Puritanism, which emphasised hard work and cut out the feudal bishops in favour of a direct relationship with God.

Charles’s weak point was that he needed parliament’s authority to raise his money, and parliaments were increasingly dominated by the new capitalist class. Having picked a war with the Scots by raiding their coffers and forcing an English prayer book on them, Charles also then faced revolt in Ireland. So, in 1640—after 10 years of personal rule—he had to summon parliament to raise new taxes.

The lid was lifted off years of simmering dissent. The House of Commons quickly abolished the king’s courts, freed people who had refused to pay taxes and made sure that parliament could not be dismissed again at Charles’s whim.

But it was not just the new traders, merchants and farmers who were angry. So too was a vast mass of the population. Petitions piled into the Commons, brought by large crowds. Posters appeared on the king’s palaces saying, ‘To Let’. London prisons were stormed and people were freed. “No bishops, no kings!” was chanted on the streets. Peasants tore down the hedges blocking access to the common land they used to supplement their income.

Twenty thousand people signed a petition to bring the Earl of Strafford to justice. The earl was Charles’s attack dog who had threatened to raise an Irish army to secure the king’s rule. The petitioners won and Strafford was executed in 1641 in front of 100,000 onlookers.

Throughout the next nine years, the “middling sort” mobilised to push forward the bourgeois revolution. These were the London apprentices, the independent producers and small farmers. Their determination stood in stark contrast to wealthier supporters of parliament who feared the revolution may “save them from the yoke of the king only to place them under the yoke of the populace”.

In the winter of 1641-42 tens of thousands of armed Londoners—and a strike by shopkeepers—forced the king to leave London. Later a mass mobilisation fortified the capital against his return. Around 1,000 women oyster workers marched to build the defences with their flags flying.

Daily agitation was on the streets. By 1642 some 3,500 pamphlets were being published a year, often sold by radical women. Some independent women-only churches were formed, demanding the right to divorce.

Critically, with the military campaign against the king stalling, Oliver Cromwell formed the New Model Army in 1645. Its soldiers were recruited from the radical population who fought with a sword in one hand and a bible in the other. Cromwell said, “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

The new army went on to win the Battle of Naseby where 1,000 royalists were killed and 5,000 captured. But the army was more than Cromwell’s tool. Two years later, in 1647, angry at threats to disperse them and frightened that parliament would do a deal with the king, the army erupted into mutiny. They elected Agitators as recallable representatives and sent Cornet Joyce, a tailor by trade, to arrest the king.

As a royalist counter-revolution raged in 1648, mobilisation from below continued. A radical group called the Levellers demanded more democracy and a final showdown with the king. They petitioned, demonstrated, sold radical pamphlets and organised in the army. In the end they forced Cromwell and some of his generals to bring Charles to trial in January 1649.

Parliament’s court found Charles to be a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy”. But it was a revolution by thousands of ordinary people that sealed the fate of king Charles I. Let it not be the last.

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