The hesitant martyr

Margaret Laird reflects on the death of King Charles I and wonders about the value of keeping his 'saint'day

The inclusion of 30 January in the ASB and Common Worship is surely evidence that greater recognition is now being given to the importance of Charles I; but what can be gained from observing this day?

King Charles, with his weaknesses and unpredictability, was not endowed with Solomons wealth and wisdom. However, with the aid of his Royalist followers and their conviction of the Divine Right of Kings, expressed in Eikon Basilike, the cult of the Martyr King was established within a few years of his death.

The Fast, as 30 January was known, was officially observed until the early nineteenth century. It was the Tractarian Movement which led to renewed interest in the cult. Shorn of its political agenda, it became an inspiration to those who cherished the vision of the Church of England as Catholic, reformed and woven into English society. This alone could justify the annual remembrance; but are there other reasons for doing so?

When the king was executed in 1649, his supporters must have thought that the world and church they knew were disappearing. At the king's burial, with the Prayer Book forbidden, the closed copy carried by Bishop Juxon, as he followed the coffin in the snow, must have seemed to Royalists symbolic of the bleakness of the forthcoming era. In 1655, in The Golden Grove, Jeremy Taylor expressed the mood of many of his contemporaries who had 'in their lifetime discountenanced an excellent liturgy, taken off the hinges of unity and disgraced the articles of religion.'

Although Milton had predicted that 'no martyr ever died for a church which was established,' others believed that Charles I and Archbishop Laud had vindicated themselves against this charge, by showing that the doctrines and practices of the Church of England were the same as those for which the early martyrs died. Consequently, throughout the 1650s, despite the risk involved, the Royalist cause was kept alive, particularly as people became disenchanted with the Commonwealth. Andrew Lacey, writing in The Cult of King Charles the Martyr [Boydell 2003] commented, 'In many ways the dead king was more useful to the Royalists than when he was alive' when his behaviour was so unpredictable.

Thomas Traherne, writing soon after the Restoration, reflects how the attitude to the established church had changed. Anxious to uphold the new Ecclesiastical Settlement, he criticized those who 'make divisions and are despisers of union, peace and external flourishing' and described the established church as 'a blessing provided by God in his mercy'.

30 January also has theological significance. In his final speech, Charles I said, 'I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.' The Kingdom of God and Divine Kingship were clearly in his mind as he approached the scaffold. They were a clear inspiration to George Herbert in such hymns as 'King of Glory, King of Peace' 'Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and King!' And with the Restoration, poets and theologians were again freely using the imagery of kingship, and the sense of awe and worship was again incorporated into Anglican liturgy.

30 January might also remind us that God has a plan for every individual. Charles himself wanted above all to fuse the image of the king with the reality. Set against the seventeenth century understanding of the world (as Shakespeare put it) as a stage on which we are all called to act out our life in the particular sphere assigned by God's providence. Charles I managed to conceal the contradictions of his character by achieving 'composure', a quality which impressed his subjects. The king truly believed that God had set him upon the throne and that it was his duty to make God's image of him a reality. May the day recall us to those words of the Catechism, 'to do my duty in that state of life into which it shall please God to call me.'

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