Charles I - Jacob Abbott


Charles commenced his reign in 1625. He continued to reign about twenty-four years. It will assist the reader to receive and retain in mind a clear idea of the course of events during his reign, if we regard it as divided into three periods. During the first, which continued about four years, Charles and the Parliament were both upon the stage, contending with each other, but not at open war. Each party intrigued, and maneuvered, and struggled to gain its own ends, the disagreement widening and deepening continually, till it ended in an open rupture, when Charles abandoned the plan of having Parliaments at all, and attempted to govern alone. This attempt to manage the empire without a legislature lasted for ten years, and is the second period. After this a Parliament was called, and it soon made itself independent of the king, and became hostile to him, the two powers being at open war. This constitutes the third period. Thus we have four years spent in getting into the quarrel between the king and Parliament, ten years in an attempt by the king to govern alone, and, finally, ten years of war, more or less open, the king on one side, and the Parliament on the other.

The first four years—that is, the time spent in getting really into the quarrel with Parliament, was Buckingham's work, for during that time Buckingham's influence with the king was paramount and supreme; and whatever was done that was important or extraordinary, though done in the king's name, really originated in him. The whole country knew this and were indignant that such a man, so unprincipled, so low in character, so reckless, and so completely under the sway of his impulses and passions, should have such an influence over the king, and, through him, such power to interfere with and endanger the mighty interests of so vast a realm.

It must not be supposed, however, in consequence of what has been said about the extent of the regal power in England, that the daily care and responsibility of the affairs of government, in its ordinary administration, rested directly upon the king. It is not possible that any one mind can even comprehend, far less direct, such an enormous complication of interests and of action as is involved in the carrying on, from day to day, the government of an empire. Offices, authorities, and departments of administration spring up gradually, and all the ordinary routine of the affairs of the empire are managed by them. Thus the navy was all completely organized, with its gradations of rank, its rules of action, its records, its account books, its offices and arrangements for provisionment and supply, the whole forming a vast system which moved on of itself, whether the King were present or absent, sick or well, living or dead. It was so with the army; it was so with the courts; it was so with the general administration of the government, at London. The immense mass of business which constituted the work of government was all systematized and arranged, and it moved on regularly, in the hands of more or less prudent and careful men, who governed, themselves, by ancient rules and usages, and in most cases managed wisely.

Every thing, however, was done in the king's name. The ships were his majesty's ships, the admirals were his majesty's servants, the war was his majesty's war, the court was the King's  Bench. The idea was, that all these thousands of officers, of all ranks and grades, were only an enormous multiplication of his majesty; that they were to do his will and carry on his administration as he would himself carry it on were he personally capable of attending to such a vast detail; subject, of course, to certain limits and restrictions which the laws and customs of the realm, and the promises and contracts of his predecessors, had imposed. But although all this action was theoretically the king's action, it came to be, in fact, almost wholly independent of him. It went on of itself, in a regular and systematic way, pursuing its own accustomed course, except so far as the king directly interposed to modify its action.

It might be supposed that the king would certainly take the general direction of affairs into his own hands, and that this charge, at least, would necessarily come upon him, as king, day by day. Some monarchs have attempted to do this, but it is obvious that there must be some provision for having this general charge, as well as all the subordinate functions of government, attended to independently of the king, as his being always in a condition to fulfill this duty is not to be relied upon. Sometimes the king is young and inexperienced; sometimes he is sick or absent; and sometimes he is too feeble in mind, or too indolent, or too devoted to his pleasures, to exercise any governmental care. There has gradually grown up, therefore, in all monarchies, the custom of having a central board of officers of state, whom the king appoints, and who take the general direction of affairs in his stead, except so far as he chooses to interfere. This board, in England, is called the Privy Council.

The Privy Council in England is a body of great importance. Its nature and its functions are, of course, entirely different from those of the two houses of Parliament. They  represent, or are intended to represent, the nation. The Parliament is, in theory, the nation, assembled at the king's command, to give him their advice. The Privy Council, on the other hand, represents the king. It is the king's Privy Council. They act in his name. They follow his directions when he chooses to give any. Whatever they decide upon and decree, the king signs—often, indeed, without any idea of its nature. Still he signs it, and all such decrees go forth to the word as the king's orders in council. The Privy Council, of course, would have its meetings, its officers, its records, its rules of proceeding, and its various usages, and these grew, in time, to be laws and rights; but still it was, in theory, only a sort of expansion of the king, as if to make a kind of artificial being, with one soul, but many heads and hands, because no natural human being could possibly have capacities and powers extensive and multifarious enough for the exigencies of reigning. Charles thus had a council who took charge of every thing, except so far as he chose to interpose. The members were generally able and experienced men. And yet Buckingham was among them. He had been made Lord High Admiral of England, which gave him supreme command of the navy, and admitted him to the Privy Council. These were very high honors.

This Privy Council now took the direction of public affairs, attended to every thing, provided for all emergencies, and kept all the complicated machinery of government in motion, without the necessity of the king's having any personal agency in the matter. The king might interpose, more or less, as he was inclined; and when he did interpose, he sometimes found obstacles in the way of immediately accomplishing his plans, in the forms or usages which had gradually grown into laws.

For instance, when the king began his reign, he was very eager to have the war for the recovery of the Palatinate go on at once; and he was, besides, very much embarrassed for want of money. He wished, therefore, in order to save time, that the old Parliament which King James had called should continue to act under his reign. But his Privy Council told him that that could not be. That was James's Parliament. If he wanted one for his reign, he must call upon the people to elect a new Parliament for him.

The new Parliament was called, and Charles sent them a very civil message, explaining the emergency which had induced him to call them, and the reason why he was so much in want of money. His father had left the government a great deal in debt. There had been heavy expenses connected with the death of the former king, and with his own accession and marriage. Then there was the war. It had been engaged in by his father, with the approbation of the former Parliament; and engagements had been made with allies, which now they could not honorably retract. He urged them, therefore, to grant, without delay, the necessary supplies.

The Parliament met in July, but the plague was increasing in London, and they had to adjourn, early in August, to Oxford. This city is situated upon the Thames, and was then, as it is now, the seat of a great many colleges. These colleges were independent of each other in their internal management, though united together in one general system. The name of one of them, which is still very distinguished, was Christ Church College. They had, among the buildings of that college, a magnificent hall, more than one hundred feet long, and very lofty, built in a very imposing style. It is still a great object of interest to all who visit Oxford. This hall was fitted up for the use of Parliament, and the king met the two houses there. He made a new speech himself, and others were made by his ministers, explaining the state of public affairs, and gently urging the houses to act with promptness and decision.

The houses then separated, and each commenced its own deliberations. But, instead of promptly complying with the king's proposals they sent him a petition for redress of a long list of what they called grievances. These grievances were, almost all of them, complaints of the toleration and encouragement of the Catholics, through the influence of the king's Catholic bride. She had stipulated to have a Catholic chapel, and Catholic attendants, and, after her arrival in England, she and Buckingham had so much influence over the king, that they were producing quite a change at court, and gradually through all ranks of society, in favor of the Catholics. The Commons complained of a great many things, nearly all, however, originating in this cause. The king answered these complaints, clause by clause, promising redress more or less distinctly. There is not room to give this petition and the answers in full, but as all the subsequent troubles between Charles and the people of England arose out of this difficulty of his young wife's bringing in so strong a Catholic influence with her to the realm, it may be well to give an abstract of some of the principal petitions, with the king', answers.

The Commons said:

That they had understood that popish priests, and other Catholics, were gradually creeping in as teachers of the youth of the realm, in the various seminaries of learning, and they wished to have decided measures taken to examine all candidates for such stations, with a view to the careful exclusion of all who were not true Protestants.

King.—Allowed. And I will send to the archbishops and all the authorities to see that this is done.

Commons.—That more efficient arrangements should be made for appointing able and faithful men in the Church—men that will really devote themselves to preaching the Gospel to the people; instead of conferring these places and salaries on favorites, sometimes, as has been the case, several to the same man.

The king made some explanations in regard to this subject, and promised hereafter to comply with this requisition.

Commons.—That the laws against sending children out of the country to foreign countries to be educated in Catholic seminaries should be strictly enforced, and the practice be entirely broken up.

King.—Agreed; and he would send to the lord admiral, and to all the naval officers on the coast, to watch very carefully and stop all children attempting to go abroad for such a purpose; and he would issue a proclamation commanding all the noblemen's children now on the Continent to return by a given day.

Commons.—That no Catholic (or, as they called him, popish recusant, that is, a person refusing to subscribe to the Protestant faith, recusant meaning person refusing) be admitted into the king's service at court; and that no English  Catholic be admitted into the queen's service. They could not refuse to allow her to employ her own French  attendants, but to appoint English Catholics to the honorable and lucrative offices at her disposal was doing a great injury to the Protestant cause in the realm.

The king agreed to this, with some conditions and evasions.

Commons.—That all Jesuits and Catholic priests, owing allegiance to the See of Rome, should be sent away from the country, according to laws already existing, after fair notice given; and if they would not go, that they should be imprisoned in such a manner as to be kept from all communication with other persons, so as not to disseminate their false religion.

King.—The laws on this subject shall be enforced.

The above are sufficient for a specimen of these complaints and of the king's answers. There were many more of them, but they have all the same character—being designed to stop the strong current of Catholic influence and ascendency which was setting in to the court, and through the court into the realm, through the influence of the young queen and the persons connected with her. At the present day, and in this country, the Commons will be thought to be in the wrong, inasmuch as the thing which they were contending against was, in the main, merely the toleration of the Catholic religion. But then the king was in the wrong too, for, since the laws against this toleration stood enacted by the consent and concurrence of his predecessors, he should not have allowed them to be infracted and virtually annulled through the influence of a foreign bride and an unworthy favorite.

Perhaps he felt that he was wrong, or perhaps his answers were all framed for him by his Privy Council. At all events, they were entirely favorable to the demands of the Commons. He promised every thing. In many things he went even beyond their demands. It is admitted, however, on all hands, that, so far as he himself had any agency in making these replies, he was not really sincere. He himself, and Buckingham, were very eager to get supplies. Buckingham was admiral of the fleet, and very strongly desired to enlarge the force at his command, with a view to the performing of some great exploit in the war. It is understood, therefore, that the king intended his replies as promises merely. At any rate, the promises were made. The Commons were called into the great hall again, at Christ Church, where the Peers assembled, and the king's answers were read to them. Buckingham joined in this policy of attempting to conciliate the Commons. He went into their assembly and made a long speech, explaining and justifying his conduct, and apologizing, in some sense, for what might seem to be wrong.

The Commons returned to their place of deliberation, but they were not satisfied. They wanted something besides promises. Some were in favor of granting supplies "in gratitude to his majesty for his gracious answer." Others thought differently. They did not see the necessity for raising money for this foreign war. They had greater enemies at home (meaning Buckingham and popery) than they had abroad. Besides, if the king would stop his waste and extravagance in bestowing honors and rewards, there would be money enough for all necessary uses. In a word, there was much debate, but nothing done. The king, after a short time, sent a message to them urging them to come to a decision. They sent him back a declaration which showed that they did not intend to yield. Their language, however, was of the most humble character. They called him "their dread sovereign," and themselves "his poor commons." The king was displeased with them, and dissolved the Parliament. They, of course, immediately became private citizens, and dispersed to their homes.

After trying some ineffectual attempts to raise money by his own royal prerogatives and powers, the king called a new Parliament, taking some singular precautions to keep out of it such persons as he thought would oppose his plans. The Earl of Bristol, whom Buckingham had been so jealous of, considering him as his rival, was an influential member of the House of Peers. Charles and Buckingham agreed to omit him in sending out the royal writs to summon the peers. He petitioned Parliament, claiming a right to his seat. Charles then sent him his writ, but gave him a command, as his sovereign, not to attend the session. He also selected four of the prominent men in the House of Commons, men whom he considered most influential in opposition to him and to Buckingham, and appointed them to offices which would call them away from London; and as it was the understanding in those days that the sovereign had a right to command the services of his subjects, they were obliged to go. The king hoped, by these and similar means, to diminish the influence against him in Parliament, and to get a majority in his favor. But his plans did not succeed. Such measures only irritated the House and the country. After another struggle this Parliament was dissolved too.

Things went on so for four or five years, the breach between the king and the people growing wider and wider. Within this time there were four Parliaments called, and, after various contentions with them, they were, one after another, dissolved. The original subject of disagreement, viz., the growing influence of the Catholics, was not the only one. Other points came up, growing out of the king's use of his prerogative, and his irregular and, as they thought, illegal attempts to interfere with their freedom of action. The king, or, rather, Buckingham using the king's name, resorted to all sorts of contrivances to accomplish this object. For instance, it had long been the custom, in case any member of the House of Peers was absent, for him to give authority to any friend of his, who was also a member, to vote for him. This authority was called a proxy. This word is supposed to be derived from procuracy, which means action in the place of, and in behalf of, another. Buckingham induced a great number of the peers to give him their proxies. He did this by rewards, honors, and various other influences, and he found so many willing to yield to these inducements, that at one time he had thirty or forty proxies in his hands. Thus, on a question arising in the House of Lords, he could give a very large majority of votes. The House, after murmuring for some time, and expressing much discontent and vexation at this state of things, finally made a law that no member of the House should ever have power to use more than two  proxies.

One of the Parliaments which King Charles assembled at length brought articles of impeachment against Buckingham, and a long contest arose on this subject. An impeachment is a trial of a high officer of state for maladministration of his office. All sorts of charges were brought against Buckingham, most of which were true. The king considered their interfering to call one of his ministers to account as wholly intolerable. He sent them orders to dismiss that subject from their deliberations, and to proceed immediately with their work of laying taxes to raise money, or he would dissolve the Parliament as he had done before. He reminded them that the Parliaments were entirely "in his power for their calling, sitting, and dissolution, and as he found their fruits were for good or evil, so they were to continue, or not to be." If they would mend their errors and do their duty, henceforward he would forgive the past; otherwise they were to expect his irreconcilable hostility.

This language irritated instead of alarming them. The Commons persisted in their plan of impeachment. The king arrested the men whom they appointed as managers of the impeachment, and imprisoned them. The Commons remonstrated, and insisted that Buckingham should be dismissed from the king's service. The king, instead of dismissing him, took measures to have him appointed, in addition to all his other offices, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, a very exalted station. Parliament remonstrated. The king, in retaliation, dissolved the Parliament.

Thus things went on from bad to worse, and from worse to worse again; the chief cause of the difficulties, in almost all cases, being traceable to Buckingham's reckless and arbitrary conduct. He was continually doing something in the pursuit of his own ends, by the rash and heedless exercise of the vast powers committed to him, to make extensive and irreparable mischief. At one time he ordered a part of the fleet over to the coast of France, to enter the French service, the sailors expecting that they were to be employed against the Spaniards. They found, however, that, instead of going against the Spaniards, they were to be sent to Rochelle. Rochelle was a town in France in possession of the Protestants, and the King of France wished to subdue them. The sailors sent a remonstrance to their commander, begging not to be forced to fight against their brother Protestants. This remonstrance was, in form, what is called a Round Robin.

In a Round Robin a circle is drawn, the petition or remonstrance is written within it, and the names are written all around it, to prevent any one's having to take the responsibility of being the first signer. When the commander of the fleet received the Round Robin, instead of being offended, he inquired into the facts, and finding that the case was really as the Round Robin represented it, he broke away from the French command and returned to England. He said he would rather be hanged in England for disobeying orders than to fight against the Protestants of France.

Buckingham might have known that such a spirit as this in Englishmen was not to be trifled with. But he knew nothing, and thought of nothing, except that he wished to please and gratify the French government. When the fleet, therefore, arrived in England, he peremptorily ordered it back, and he resorted to all sorts of pretexts and misrepresentations of the facts to persuade the officers and men that they were not to be employed against the Protestants. The fleet accordingly went back, and when they arrived, they found that Buckingham had deceived them. They were ordered to Rochelle. One of the ships broke away and returned to England. The officers and men deserted from the other ships and got home. The whole armament was disorganized, and the English people, who took sides with the sailors, were extremely exasperated against Buckingham for his blind and blundering recklessness, and against the king for giving such a man the power to do his mischief on such an extensive scale.

At another time the duke and the king contrived to fit out a fleet of eighty sail to make a descent upon the coast of Spain. It caused them great trouble to get the funds for this expedition, as they had to collect them, in a great measure, by various methods depending on the king's prerogative, and not by authority of Parliament. Thus the whole country were dissatisfied and discontented in respect to the fleet before it was ready to sail. Then, as if this was not enough, Buckingham overlooked all the officers in the navy in selecting a commander, and put an officer of the army in charge of it; a man whose whole experience had been acquired in wars on the land. The country thought that Buckingham ought to have taken the command himself, as lord high admiral; and if not, that he ought to have selected his commander from the ranks of the service employed. Thus the fleet set off on the expedition, all on board burning with indignation against the arbitrary and absurd management of the favorite. The result of the expedition was also extremely disastrous. They had an excellent opportunity to attack a number of ships, which would have made a very rich prize; but the soldier-commander either did not know, or did not dare to do, his duty. He finally, however, effected a landing, and took a castle, but the sailors found a great store of wine there, and went to drinking and carousing, breaking through all discipline. The commander had to get them on board again immediately, and come away. Then he conceived the plan of going to intercept what were called the Spanish galleons, which were ships employed to bring home silver from the mines in America, which the Spaniards then possessed. On further thoughts he concluded to give up this idea, on account of the plague, which, as he said, broke out in his ships. So he came back to England with his fleet disorganized, demoralized, and crippled, and covered with military disgrace. The people of England charged all this to Buckingham. Still the king persisted in retaining him. It was his prerogative to do so.

After a while Buckingham got into a personal quarrel with Richelieu, who was the leading manager of the French government, and he resolved that England should make war upon France. To alter the whole political position of such an empire as that of Great Britain, in respect to peace and war, and to change such a nation as France from a friend to an enemy, would seem to be quite an undertaking for a single man to attempt, and that, too, without having any reason whatever to assign, except a personal quarrel with a minister about a love affair. But so it was. Buckingham undertook it. It was the king's prerogative to make peace or war, and Buckingham ruled the king.

He contrived various ways of fomenting ill will. One was, to alienate the mind of the king from the queen. He represented to him that the queen's French servants were fast becoming very disrespectful and insolent in their treatment of him, and finally persuaded him to send them all home. So the king went one day to Somerset House, which was the queen's residence—for it is often the custom in high life in Europe for the husband and wife to have separate establishments—and requested her to summon her French servants into his presence, and when they were assembled, he told them that he had concluded to send them all home to France. Some of them, he said, had acted properly enough, but others had been rude and forward, and that he had decided it best to send them all home. The French king, on hearing of this, seized a hundred and twenty English ships lying in his harbors in retaliation of this act, which he said was a palpable violation of the marriage contract, as it certainly was. Upon this the king declared war against France. He did not ask Parliament to act in this case at all. There was no Parliament. Parliament had been dissolved in a fit of displeasure. The whole affair was an exercise of the royal prerogative. Nor did the king now call a Parliament to provide means for carrying on the war, but set his Privy Council to devise modes of doing it, through this same prerogative.

[Illustration] from Charles I by Jacob Abbott


The attempts to raise money in these ways made great trouble. The people resisted, and interposed all possible difficulties. However, some funds were raised, and a fleet of a hundred sail, and an army of seven thousand men, were got together. Buckingham undertook the command of this expedition himself, as there had been so much dissatisfaction with his appointment of a commander to the other. It resulted just as was to be expected in the case of seven thousand men, and a hundred ships, afloat on the swelling surges of the English Channel, under the command of vanity, recklessness, and folly. The duke came back to England in three months, bringing home one third of his force. The rest had been lost, without accomplishing any thing. The measure of public indignation against Buckingham was now full.

Buckingham himself walked as loftily and proudly as ever. He equipped another fleet, and was preparing to set sail in it himself, as commander again. He went to Portsmouth, accordingly, for this purpose, Portsmouth being the great naval station then, as now, on the southern coast of England. Here a man named Felton, who had been an officer under the duke to the former expedition, and who had been extremely exasperated against him on account of some of his management there, and who had since found how universal was the detestation of him in England, resolved to rid the country of such a curse at once. He accordingly took his station in the passage-way of the house where Buckingham was, armed with a knife. Buckingham came out, talking with some Frenchmen in an angry manner, having had some dispute with them, when Felton thrust the knife into his side as he passed, and, leaving it in the wound, walked away, no one having noticed who did the deed. Buckingham pulled out the knife, fell down, and died. The by-standers were going to seize one of the Frenchmen, when Felton advanced and said, "I am the man; you are to arrest me; let no one suffer that is innocent." He was taken. They found a paper in his hat, saying that he was going to destroy the duke, and that he could not sacrifice his life in a nobler cause than by delivering his country from so great an enemy.

King Charles was four miles off at this time. They carried him the news. He did not appear at all concerned or troubled, but only directed that the murderer—he ought to have said, perhaps, the executioner—should be secured, and that the fleet should proceed to sail. He also ordered the treasurer to make arrangements for a splendid funeral.

The treasurer said, in reply, that a funeral would only be a temporary show, and that he could hereafter erect a monument  at half the cost, which would be a much more lasting memorial. Charles acceded. Afterward, when Charles spoke to him about the monument, the treasurer replied, What would the world say if your majesty were to build a monument to the Duke before you erect one for your father? So the plan was abandoned, and Buckingham had no other monument than the universal detestation of his countrymen.