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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Charles I. (1625-1649.)

Charles I. (1625-1649.)

Charles I., who succeeded James I., was not a very complex character. He had an inherited thirst for absolute rule, a fatal attachment to favourites, and no man or party could rely for a moment on that "royal word" of his to which he invariably appealed when he contemplated some act of unusual perfidy. Oliver Cromwell was perhaps not very far wrong when he pronounced Charles "the hardest-hearted man on earth," but he certainly was greatly at fault when he likewise credited him with "great parts and great understanding." "Insincerity," says the impartial Hallam, was "a fault that appeared in all parts of his life, from which no one who has paid the subject any attention will pretend to exculpate him." This it was even more than his tyranny that sealed his doom. It was the impossibility of binding Charles by any compact that nerved the Commons to put him to death. Yet in the unhallowed arts of dissimulation he was a mere child compared with the matchless Oliver himself.

As for the tyranny of the king, it was neither greater nor less than that of his immediate predecessors, James and Elizabeth. He merely walked diligently in their footsteps over ground which their royal hoofs had helped to render impassable.

Hardly was he seated on the throne, when the memorable strife between king and parliament began. The House, led by Sir John Eliot, impeached the royal favourite, Buckingham, one of the most incompetent, reckless, and insolent of his tribe. "I must let you know," wrote Charles to the Commons, "that I will not allow any of my servants to be questioned among you, much less such as are of eminent place and near me." And summoning the members to Whitehall, he told them—"Remember that parliaments are altogether in my power for their calling, sitting, and dissolution; and therefore, as I find the fruits of them good or evil, they are to continue or not to be." This the Commons were very careful to remember when the Long Parliament met. They effectu- page 57 ally provided against the exercise of a power so arbitrary and dangerous; yet even now the Prime Minister can of his own whim or for party purposes turn the Representatives of the People out of doors at any moment. Our rulers would utterly belie themselves if they did not preserve some relict of every State abuse.

Eliot's impeachment of Buckingham was concieved in a strain such as no Tudor or Stuart had ever listened to. "Through the power of State and justice he has dared ever to strike at his own ends. What have been his actions, what he is like, you know. By him came all our evils, in him we find the causes, and on him must be the remedies! Pereat qui perdere cuncta festinat. Opprimatur ne omnes opprimat!" (Let him perish who is in haste to ruin everything. Let him be crushed lest he crush everyone.) Eliot and Sir Dudley Digges were at once hurried to the Tower, while the House was speedily dissolved for its insubordination. Illegality followed illegality. But benevolences, forced loans, and ship-money were enforced to little purpose. The people sullenly resisted.

In another parliament the famous Petition of Right was wrung from the king, and Buckingham fell by the hand of the assassin Felton. Felton regarded himself as a public benefactor, and rich and poor drank to his health. The parliament of 1629 was dissolved like its predecessors, but not before it had declared "a capital enemy of kingdom and commonwealth" any minister who should advise the levy of subsidies without consent of parliament, and "a betrayer of the liberty of England and an enemy of the same" whoever should voluntarily comply with such illegal demands.

The king's third parliament was as unbending as the others. It was dismissed, and the king resolved to govern "by such other means as God had put into his hands." For eleven years Charles, Laud, and Strafford had it pretty much their own way. Sir John Eliot, the brave, the learned, the eloquent died in the Tower. Chambers, a patriotic London alderman, for complaining that Englishmen were worse off than Turks, was heavily fined, and died like Eliot in durance. To-day, alas! his civic successors suffer chiefly from excess of turtle and conger eel. The Petition of Right was treated as if no royal assent had been given to it. The apostate Strafford page 58 had undertaken "to vindicate the monarchy for ever from the conditions and restraints of subjects."

But the darkest hour was before the dawn. An unexpected light burst from the North. Presbyterian Scotland rose in arms as one man to resist Episcopal innovations which Charles had forced on that country at the instigation of Laud. James I., from a bitter personal experience, had admonished that narrow-minded ecclesiastic that "he knew not the stomach of that people." The Scots were over the border before the king could organise any adequate resistance, and their decisive action changed the whole aspect of affairs.

In 1640 the Long Parliament was convoked, and the whole fabric of royal tyranny, column by column, and buttress by buttress, fell to the ground. Strafford and Laud went to the block. The king's outrageous attempt to arrest the Five Members in the House itself was the immediate precursor of the civil war. On the field of N ase by the royalist forces were irretrievably shattered.

Fast, fast the gallants ride
In some safe nook to hide
Their coward heads pre-destined
To rot on Temple Bar:
And he—he turns and flies,
Shame to those cruel eyes
That bore to look on torture,
But dared not look on war.

The war ended in the complete overthrow of the Royalists, the execution of the king, and the eventual usurpation of the supreme power by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Bonaparte of the English Revolution.

About the justice of the king's sentence there can be no rational dispute. He had violated the fundamental laws of the State and involved the nation in torrents of blood. The Commissioners who tried him were men of the highest probity, and of their president, Bradshaw, the worst that Whitlocke could say was that he was "a stout man and learned in the law—no friend of monarchy." Charles declined to acknowledge the authority of the Court on the ground that the English monarchy, being hereditary, he himself was the fountain of all law. Bradshaw overruled the objection, asserting that kingship, on the contrary, is an page 59 elective trust, and that the people are the source of all rights. In a previous chapter the reader may remember this question was examined and solved as Bradshaw solved it.

But all things that are lawful are not expedient. There are numerous "wenches" in society, as Casca said, always ready to cry, "Alas, poor soul!" when a high-placed criminal meets his deserts—aye, even "if he had stabbed their mothers," and out of consideration for these weak vessels, it can hardly be doubted that exile or imprisonment would have been a more politic penalty than death. What was to be dreaded was a monarchical reaction, and that, at all events, the execution of the king did not prevent. It is noteworthy that the illustrious trio, Vane, Blake and Sidney regarded the execution, as a grave political blunder.

Oliver Cromwell's account of the ground of his action in the matter, as afterwards narrated by his confidant, Lord Broghill, is worth relating:—

"The reason of an inclination to come to terms with him (Charles) was, we found the Scots and Presbyterians began to be more powerful than we (Cromwell and the Independent Army Officers) and were strenuously endeavouring to strike up an agreement with the king and leave us in the lurch; wherefore we thought to prevent them by offering more reasonable conditions. (At this juncture, there is every reason to believe, Cromwell would have been content with the earldom of Essex and the post of generalissimo.) But while we were buried with these thoughts, there came a letter to us from one of our spies, who was of the king's bedchamber, acquainting us that our final doom was decreed that day, What it was he could not tell; but a letter was gone to the queen with the contents of it, which letter was sewed up in the skirt of a saddle, and the bearer of it would come, with the saddle upon his head, about ten o'clock the following night, to the Blue Boar Inn in Holborn, where he was to take horse for Dover. The messenger knew nothing of the letter in the saddle, but someone in Dover did. We were then at Windsor, and immediately upon the receipt of the letter from our spy, Ireton and I resolved to take a trusty fellow with us, and in troopers' habits to go to the inn, which we accordingly did, and set our man at the gate of the inn to watch. The gate was shut but the wicket was open, and our man stood to give us notice when anyone came with a saddle on his head. Ireton and I sat in a box near the wicket, and called for a can of beer and then another, drinking in that disguise till ten o'clock, when our sentinel gave us notice that the man with the saddle was come, upon which we immediately rose, and when the man was leading out his horse saddled we came up to him with our swords drawn, and told him we were to search all who went in and out there, but as he looked like an honest fellow we would only search his saddle, which we did, and found the letter we looked for. On opening it we read the contents, in which the king acquainted the queen that he was now courted by both the page 60 factions, the Scots and Presbyterians, and the Army; that which of them bid fairest for him should have him; that he thought he could close sooner with the Scots than the other. Upon which we speeded to Windsor, and finding we were not like to have any tolerable terms from the king, we immediately resolved to ruin him."

But though Oliver's resolution to despatch the king was there and then taken, he professed to be undecided almost to the last. It was his invariable policy to appear to be led by those he was misleading.

At a later date honest General Ludlow made the following curious notes at a conference convened by Cromwell, in Westminster, between the so-called "Grandees of the House and the Army" and the "Commonwealth's men," or Republicans, of whom Ludlow was one:—

"The Grandees, of whom Lieutenant-General Cromwell was the head, kept themselves in the clouds, and would not declare their judgments either for a monarchical, aristocratical, or democratical government, maintaining that any of them might be good in themselves, or for us, according as Providence should direct. The Commonwealth men declared that monarchy was neither good in itself nor for us; that it was not desirable in itself from the 8th chapter and 8th verse of the First Book of Samuel, where the rejection of the judges and the choice of a king was charged upon the Israelites by God himself as a rejection of Him, and from divers more texts of Scripture to the same effect. And that it was in no way conducive to the interest of the nation, was endeavoured to be proved by the infinite mischiefs and oppressions we had suffered under it; that indeed our ancestors had permitted themselves to be governed by a single person, but with this proviso that he should govern according to the direction of the law which he always bound himself by oath to perform; that the king had broken his oath and thereby dissolved our allegiance. Notwithstanding what was said, Lieutenant-General Cromwell—not for want of conviction, but in hopes of making a better bargain with another party—professed himself unresolved; and having learned what he could of the principles and intentions of those present at the conference, took up a cushion and flung it at my head and then ran down the stairs; but I overtook him with another, which made him hasten down faster than he desired. The next day, passing by me in the House, he told me he was convinced of the desirableness of what was proposed, but not of the feasibleness of it, thereby I suppose, designing to encourage me to hope that he was inclined to join with us, though unwilling to publish his opinion, lest the Grandees should be informed of it, to whom I presume he professed himself of another opinion."