Charles I by Van Dyke
2nd February 2013 is the 387th anniversary of the coronation of England’s arguably most rubbish king.
He has some stiff competition - Henry VI was pretty useless, and Edward II was deposed by his own wife - but Charles I, I think, wins out for managing to be the only British monarch to annoy his own people so much that they, state-sanctioned, murdered him.
And it wasn’t even as if it started well. Charles had been ruling since his father James I died in March 1625, but plague had postponed the coronation. In case that wasn’t sufficiently ominous, his wife refused to be crowned alongside him, and the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke too quietly for the congregation to hear when they were supposed to start applauding.
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Charles, born a second son of James VI of Scotland in November 1600, was never meant to be king. He was, by all accounts, an unattractive child, weak and with a pronounced stammer that he retained throughout his life - his father kept him in Scotland until a year after his own accession to the English throne, in 1603. Charles’s older brother Henry was, in contrast, glorious, and Henry’s death from tuberculosis in 1612 was as tragic as it was unexpected.
Charles I in his Garter robes by Van Dyke
Charles therefore started training for kingship late, and a combination of naivety and supreme arrogance meant he made some grave errors even before he was crowned. Charles, like his father, was an ardent believer in the concept of Divine Right, that a king was annointed by God and therefore no other man had the authority to challenge him. Unfortunately Parliament tried to challenge him in its first session of his reign, by trying to impeach Charles’s beloved best friend, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had risen to prominence under (if rumours are to be believed, quite literally under) James VI and I, becoming the preeminent figure at court, obscenely wealthy, and in charge of pretty much anything he wanted to be in charge of. This included, in 1625, an expedition to take the Spanish port of Cadiz, which ended in ignominious failure. Parliament blamed Buckingham for the men, the money and the dignity that had been lost but Charles, in an early display of the jaw-dropping inability to compromise that would eventually kill him, dissolved the session in a huff rather than risk Buckingham.
His early reign was also characterised by his disastrous marriage, to a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. Henrietta Maria was only 15 when she arrived in England, already married by proxy to a nervous 25-year-old virgin who was a strict Anglican in a country that outlawed Catholicism. Charles had agreed with her brother, Louis XIII, that she should be allowed to practise her faith openly, which didn’t go down well with her new Protestant subjects. She and Buckingham hated each other, and because Charles loved his friend far more than he loved his wife, Henrietta Maria’s first months in England were unhappy ones.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Mytens
So there was no glorious victory at Cadiz to celebrate, no heir to the throne and no harmony between Protestants and Catholics at court. There was no huge parade, and the Queen, refusing to be crowned in an Anglican ceremony, watched proceedings from an upstairs window. In the embarrassing silence that followed the Archbishop’s largely unheard call for cheering, it fell to one of the Lords to whip up some enthusiasm by shouting: ‘God save King Charles!’
* * *
God didn’t. Eventually, on 30th January 1649, after an eleven year rule without a single session of Parliament, followed by two bitter, bloody civil wars, England sent its king to the scaffold.
David Starkey & Christopher Hibbert: Charles I: A Life of Religion, War and Treason