Charles I in 1637-1649: Not a Bad King after All?

By Seel, Graham E. | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Charles I in 1637-1649: Not a Bad King after All?


Seel, Graham E., History Review


Graham E. Seel defends the record of Charles I, arguing that he showed effective powers of political and military leadership and that he very nearly succeeded in holding on to the throne.

Although the arguments of revisionist historians have done something to alter the impression that prior to the collapse of the Personal Rule Charles I was `a man who made every mistake in the book', no sustained attempt has been made to revise the generally accepted picture of Charles I as a catastrophic king during the years 1637-1649. What follows therefore is an attempt to argue that Charles was not without qualities of effective leadership and astute political judgement during the latter period of his reign.

Events in Scotland, 1637-1640

Lamenting in particular Charles' tendency to use his prerogative to promote religious innovations, Allan Macinnes has concluded that the King's presence in Edinburgh in 1633 `provided tangible proof of not just his intransigence and ineptitude as a monarch but also his crass insensitivity to Scottish sensibilities'. Four years later, having collaborated with only a handful of Scottish bishops, Charles introduced in Scotland a revised version of the English Prayer Book. It was met with organised riots and resistance which subsequently crystallised into the National Covenant of February 1638, the signatories of which bound themselves to resist innovation in Church and State.

Yet Macinnes' verdict on Charles is open to question. No doubt if the King had consulted more widely he might have avoided error, but circumstances did not seem to indicate that any such course of action was necessary. Indeed, the impact of Caroline religious policy in Scotland prior to 1637 suggested that the imposition of the Prayer Book was a logical course of action. After all, the English Prayer Book had been used in the Chapel Royal in Edinburgh for 20 years and the imposition of the canons of 1636 -- enjoining east end tables, kneeling and confession -- did not result in `more noise than all the canons in Edinburgh castle', despite the fears of Bishop Maxwell. Gordon Donaldson has claimed that provided that the merits of the Prayer Book received serious attention, `by far the greater part of the book of 1637 ... would be reasonably acceptable'. Certainly the acceptance of the English Prayer Book and the 1562 articles by the Irish convocation (an assembly of clergy that met at the same time as Parliament) in 1634 created an impetus for a uniform liturgy for all three British kingdoms. Moreover, considering the British ecclesiastical achievement of James VI and I, there was by 1637 a compelling case for a British King to craft a British Church in which bishops could act as crown agents throughout his realms. By limiting the effects of a markedly Presbyterian Church in his northern kingdom, Charles could hope to eradicate the potentially politically destabilising effects likely to appear as long as two different Churches existed under the rule of one monarch. Finally, if the royal policy was misguided it was perhaps because the King was seriously misled, perhaps even because he was the victim of a conspiracy which included leading members of the Scottish political nation such as Traquair, Balmerino and Rothes, who colluded with their English counterparts in order to destroy episcopacy.

Charles has also usually been vilified for the way in which he responded to events in Scotland from 1637. In particular, he stands accused of having offered concessions too late in the day. Yet in September 1638, only seven months after the formation of the National Covenant, Charles offered to withdraw the Prayer Book and provided for limitations to be placed upon the authority of bishops. To have offered concessions at an earlier stage would almost certainly have appeared as royal weakness and might have stiffened the majority of the Covenanters to hold out for yet more. In any case, the Covenanters, particularly in the person of Argyll, were driven forward by a complex nexus of motives, religious and nationalistic, which, as M. …

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