King Charles I: Forever Imprisoned?

Windsor Castle in Berkshire is said to be home to many spirits, however only one has the dubious honor of being a King actually brought to trial and executed. Certainly other monarchs had been overthrown and murdered, but none before Charles I had been tried and convicted. His execution brought about the temporary end of the monarchy and the reign of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth of England.

His spirit is said to haunt Windsor Castle, where he spent his imprisonment. Although he was beheaded, his apparition, which is said to be seen around the Canon’s house in St. George’s chapel, appears much as his portrait does. For those who believe in ghosts, this is not hard to fathom, as Oliver Cromwell allowed his head to be sewn back on to his body for burial.

If ever a spirit was to be doomed to walk in perpetual unrest–Charles I certainly qualifies. His entire life was about maintaining an absolute monarchy, which has labeled him a tyrant to some. Others see him as a martyr for the divine purpose of the royal dynasty and its relationship with the Church of England. However he is perceived, the life and death of Charles I of England was one that will never be forgotten.

Charles I (House of Stuart) was born in November of 1600, the second son of James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England) and Anne of Denmark, as well as being the grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was such a sickly child that when his father ascended to the throne after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, he stayed in Scotland until the following year while his family went on to England. His brother Henry, Prince of Wales was the expected heir to the throne, however he suffered an untimely death at the age of eighteen in 1612. Charles then became heir apparent. Upon the death of James I, Charles became King of England, Ireland, and Scotland on 27 March, 1625.

As King, Charles was quite controversial. Like his father, he believed in the “divine right of kings” which in essence says that a monarch answers not to man but to God alone. King James at least made the appearance of compromise with his subjects and Parliament, but Charles felt he was under no obligation to do so. Religion, which had always been a hot button issue, became the crux of the conflict between Charles I and the people, especially with his marriage to the Catholic French princess Henrietta Maria by proxy on 11 May 1625 and in person on 13 June of the same year. He was ceremoniously crowned King on 2 February 1626 without his wife next to him, as there were many bad feelings about the marriage.

Charles continued to do things his own way, regardless of any action Parliament tried to bring about. His refusal to answer to anyone or compromise led to wars with Spain and even France who he had previously promised not to attack. His launches were aggressive, costing huge amounts of money which the House of Commons tried to temper with rules about how many taxes could be collected per year. Charles ignored all efforts to curb his military spending, which caused finances to go in a downward spiral. After the war with Spain ended in 1628 Charles met again with Parliament. Unable to come to any kind of agreement, Charles took matters into his own hands. He dissolved Parliament, beginning an eleven year reign of personal rule.

His inability to manage any amount of money and without Parliament at least attempting to develop a better system of taxation, Charles was looking at a very dismal picture. He even went so far as to dig up a law from the 13th century stating anyone who made at least 40 pounds a year be of knighthood service to the King. The law had not been looked at for ages, but Charles proceeded to pass out fines for non-compliance. He found other ways of obtaining monies, whether they were legal or not, including revocation of land gifts to nobility and granting monopolies.

Religion remained a major conflict, as William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury that Charles I appointed in 1633 had every intention of pushing the Calvinist viewpoints through and making them a part of the official Church of England. He proceeded to campaign for the closing of Puritan organizations and was quick to use all legal means at his disposal against those who objected to the reforms he was trying to push through. Charles I supported Laud’s Calvinist views which put him at further odds with the people. When he tried to further his influence into Ireland and Scotland, he was met with much resistance, leading to the Bishops Wars. After the first of these, Charles was forced to reinstate Parliament so he could regroup and launch another offensive. All of this ended up costing more money than it was worth, and a cessation of arms was declared. Charles was then forced to declare a Long Parliament in 1640, or a Parliament that could not be dissolved by anything other than the members all agreeing to do so.

** in case you haven’t guessed…..the members of Parliament are not happy campers at this point.**

More conflicts followed, including the Irish Rebellion and the English Civil Wars. These civil wars came about as a result of Parliament and Charles not being able to come to any kind of agreement. The first of these began in 1642, with Oliver Cromwell, a member of the Parliament at Cambridge, being a leader of sorts. Charles and his supporters, who were dwindling, were defeated in 1647, and the question became of who, if anyone, would be king. Charles, not one to stand by and admit defeat encouraged his Scottish supporters to invade England in 1647, beginning the second Civil War. Cromwell and his forces once again claimed victory, and Charles I was arrested.

But what to do with him? There was no precedent for trying a monarch for treason. It required digging up an old Roman law which stated that a military group or government could overthrow a tyrant. The law was re-written for the occasion and Charles was tried for treason in January of 1649. There were 135 judges summoned to the trial, however only 68 showed up. None of them wanted to be the one to read the charges and be the Chief Judge in the case, so a lawyer by the name of John Bradshaw was given the job. My guess is that he didn’t quite see his promotion coming in that particular way.

Charles refused to defend himself. He was given three chances to do so and three times he refused. He was then declared guilty and sentenced to death. A quote from John Bradshaw, delivering the sentence: “he, the said Charles Stuart, as a tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good of this nation, shall be put to death by severing of his head from his body.” Fifty-nine commissioners signed the death warrant, including of course, Oliver Cromwell.

And so there it was. Charles I was executed by beheading three days after the trial in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. There was a bit of a delay because, quite frankly, no one wanted to be the one to do it! As disliked as Charles was, beheading a monarch after a legal court trial had never been done, and there were those who feared the wrath of God for doing so. Finally, they found a man to do it, and he along with an assistant were paid 100 pounds each to do the deed as well as their identities being hidden by masks. Charles wore two shirts to the execution so he would not be seen shivering from the cold and have it mistaken as fear. Before he was executed, he said these words: “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.” With that, he was beheaded.

All of that–and in the end nobody quite knew how to feel about it all. No real joy was taken in his death by the people, some of whom saw it as a death to the monarchy they alternately loathed and had come to depend on. He was canonized by the Anglican Communion as Saint King Charles the Martyr, with his feast day being the day of his death, 30 January.

Does he haunt still today? Many believe so. Staff and visitors alike say that they have seen him. Perhaps he is doomed to stay forever in imprisonment, wondering where it all went wrong. Maybe the unnecessary wars and conflicts he initiated keep his spirit in torment. Or maybe…just possibly…he is convinced he is still running the show!