What Were the Main Strengths and Weaknesses of the Early Stuart Monarchs?

By Stephen Wass

King James slobbered at the mouth and had favourites; he was, thus, a Bad King” (Sellar and Yeatman 1930: 66)

Few periods of history have been so avidly contested by historians as the early Stuart one (see for example the account in Burgess 1990) but the settling point seems to be that such was the complexity of the times that no single approach guarantees the telling of the whole truth and so a more pragmatic synthesis is attempted or as archaeologist Bruce Trigger expresses it,’ a very important technique for promoting a more objective understanding of the past is multivocality’ (Trigger 2006:515). This is not to say that difficulties in hearing many voices simultaneously should be overlooked, ‘ The tensions between seeing the demands of the 1620s, say, in their own terms, and placing them in a process culminating in civil war (that is a narrative process) are acute’ (Burgess 1990: 617).  These tensions are perhaps even more acute when we move to the task of evaluating  the role of specific performers. 

On one level any enterprise which begins with a triumphal progress through the country, as with James’s descent on London in 1603, and ends with execution and abolition in 1649 must be deemed a failure, however, one is struck by the multiple opportunities that Charles had, even after his delivery to the parliamentary commissioners in January 1647, to reach some kind of a settlement and if he had done so, arguably, he could have ushered in a more progressive form of constitutional monarchy. If this had been the case the historical perspective on his entire reign and indeed the whole period would have been quite different. Still the fact is he did not and it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that it was on his watch that the institution of English monarchy ended on the block – at least temporarily. Even so it still seems profoundly unsound to see nearly fifty years of political development solely in terms of this outcome, indeed what should one make of the thought that towards the end Charles actively embraced the role of martyr, with conviction if not enthusiasm? He may have seen his apotheosis as a triumph rather than a disaster. Tosh argues that ‘Historians’ interest in the actions of long-dead individuals cannot be confined to the intentions of those individuals’ (Tosh 2002 : 647) but nor is it appropriate to apply standards or make judgements which are entirely anachronistic about matters on which we have lost a degree of acuity and indeed experience – religion being one of them.

 The primacy of religion in many forms of discourse in the early seventeenth century is perhaps one of the hardest things for modern commentators to accommodate. Whilst there are, of course, many telling analyses of the religious dimension of the period on the whole there is far more coverage of the social, economic, military and political outcomes of Stuart rule because these are categories that continue to be familiar. Furthermore because of the general decline in those subscribing to religious views, concepts, such as martyrdom, which would have been familiar in the seventeenth century. seem increasingly perverse and baffling to western society today. Tyacke puts it this way, ‘The ideas of a past society challenge our understanding, because they are often alien to more modern ways of thought. This is especially the case as regards that area of human experience which we call religious (Tyacke 1990:1). This is unfortunate because when we look at statements made by both monarch and parliament it is clear that religion was at the fore front of everyone’s  thinking in  terms of measuring up the performance of the monarch. It is not the case that contemporary historians ignore the significance of religion but rather that the coverage does not stand in proportion to its original importance.

The difficulty becomes immediately apparent if we take as our starting point James’s early declarations of what should be in effect the aims and objectives of a monarch in his Basilikon Doron of 1599.  Published in London in 1603, but originally penned as notes of guidance to his son Prince Henry, this extended letter was written in three sections, ‘The first teacheth you your duty to towards God as a Christian: the next, your duty in your office as a King: and the third informeth you how to behave yourself…’ (Basilikon Doron: Preface 6). Although the first part is the shortest its primacy over the other three sections is clear, ‘… so can he not be thought worthy to govern a Christian people knowing and fearing God, that in his own person and heart, feareth not and loveth not the Divine Majesty’ ( Basilikon Doron:  1). The King has a double obligation to God both for his own creation and his appointment as a ‘little God’ or monarch. There is a very strong scriptural basis to this as the knowledge needed to ‘discharge your duty both as a Christian and a King’ can only be obtained through detailed study of the Bible. Prayer, conscience and lastly and almost in passing, the church are commended to the prince. The second section, which could be reasonably described as being political, is nevertheless riven with scriptural quotations and exemplars. The key concept is that a good king, ’employeth all his study and pains to procure and maintain by the making and execution of good laws the welfare and peace of his people’  ( Basilikon Doron:  18).  He also notes the importance of good personal conduct which will then be adopted by the lesser orders who will ‘counterfeit (like Apes) their Prince’s manners’ ( Basilikon Doron:  18) an extension of this being the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, a doctrine established after the Peace of Augsberg in 1555 whereby the state was supposed to follow the religious proclivities of its leader.

Of course one must be aware that James was writing in a particular context and there may well be a healthy dose of ’do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’, nevertheless it is not unreasonable to  take this as an account of James’s own hopes for kingship, especially in anticipation of his new realm of England. We find similar sentiments expressed by MPs at the first session of parliament in the summer of 1604 who proclaimed that ‘a general hope was raised in the minds of all your people that under your Majesty’s reign religion, peace, justice, and all virtue should renew again and flourish; that the better sort should be cherished, the bad reformed or repressed, and some moderate ease should be given us of those burdens and sore oppressions under which the whole land did groan.’ (Tanner 1930 quoted in Coward 1987: 104). A less celebratory tone has been identified by some historians codified within popular entertainments of the day, for example in King Lear (1604), ‘scene 18 is a crucial moment, for in its botanical-political field of imagery, it brings together the departure of Queen Elizabeth (as goddess of wheat) with the very ambivalent presence of King James I (as king of darnel). For James, witnessing this scene, the question is clear: will he manage the nation's resources in a way that is just, responsible, and above all sustainable?’ (Archer 2012: 542)

There appears, at least at the outset of the period, to have been a fair degree of consensus as to what James’s success criteria were: first and foremost he had to maintain a standing as a Christian prince and a prince amongst Christians  a role which was enormously enhanced when he became the head of the Church in England. From this lofty position he had to enact the passage of laws and see to their just application in order to guarantee the peace of the kingdom and the prosperity of its inhabitants.  Using modern terms we have questions of law and order at home and foreign policy abroad being the main instruments of peace – or lack of it – and, partially following on from that peace, comes welfare in the sense of the promotion of economic prosperity rather than just state support of an individual. How well did James and his son Charles do?

King James I
James wrote little in the way of confessional pieces although he did comment in a marginal annotation in a rather self-congratulatory fashion in 1609, ‘my care for the Lord’s spiritual kingdom is so well known, both at home and abroad as well as by my daily actions as by my printed books’ (Quoted in Fincham and Lake 1985: 169).  We cannot be entirely sure as to what extent he viewed his role as a Christian prince a success on a personal level but what does survive is evidence of his conduct in the public sphere of religion which naturally goes on to overlap with the political sphere. It appears that James, in a manner which reflected his own character and his political thinking, aimed to steer a middle way between the competing extremes of  popery and Puritanism, so when confronted in 1603 with the reforming Millenary Petition he adopted a course cherished by politicians today and set up an enquiry, the Hampton Court conference of 1604, and again, echoing with contemporary resonance, ‘the purpose of the conference remains unclear’ (Fincham and lake 1985: 170) but there was, ‘an element of “rehearsed drama” about it, “which makes on suspect that it was a kind of enacted proclamation”’ (Shriver 1967 quoted in Fincham and Lake 1985: 173). The outcome of the conference was unusually positive, ‘with a long list of reforms affecting both the government and the worship of the church – and it is clear that some, though not all of these reforms were put into practice during the next decade’ (Smith 1997:263), not the least of these being the publication of the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611. All this created a climate about which it is possible to say that, ‘Religion was never a major divisive issue between James and his parliament’ (Coward 1987: 114). This path of gentle reform and general moderation characterised much of James’s reign, even the challenges of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 were not used as an excuse for a witch-hunt amongst Catholics nor were puritan clerics unduly hounded with only around 90 of the most troublesome sort ultimately being deprived of their livings (Houston 1994: 60) although one of them was, of course, John Dod, ejected from Hanwell in 1607.

Without going any deeper into the religious debates and controversies which on the whole James managed to steer an even course around throughout his reign, and avoiding entirely the added complexities of the church in Scotland, it is possible to say that on both a personal and national level the king’s approach to religious questions was successful – a point widely recognised at the time, ‘The zeal of your Majesty toward the house of God doth not slack or go backward but is more and more kindled, manifesting itself abroad in the farthest parts of Christendom’ (Preface to the Authorized Version). There was a sense that James’s reign was a golden age of the English church, ‘during which time a sublime vernacular Bible had been produced, learning and godliness flourished... and there were no harsh controversies’ (Houston 1994:107). Unfortunately, as is often the case the situation began to deteriorate towards the end of his reign.  In particular issues linked to the Arminian controversy as discussed at the Dutch Synod of Dort (1618 – 1619) began to impact on the English church. James in his desire to embrace the brightest and best in the way of scholars and preachers rather let his guard down in doctrinal matters thus leaving for his son a legacy which some might argue was to prove fatal.

Beyond the narrow and not so narrow confines of religious discourse James’s other stated ambitions, as we have seen, were to ensure the peace and welfare of his people. One of the most discussed tropes of James’s reign was his commitment to peace particularly in his approach to foreign relations. Although he was no doubt sensitive to the financial and dynastic implications of foreign wars again he makes it clear that his stance is primarily taken in response  to a religious imperative, ‘ the first… of these blessings which God hath, jointly with my person, sent unto you is outward peace… which is no small blessing to a Christian Commonwealth’, however, he follows this up with the comment more closely anchored in realpolitik, ‘for by peace abroad with their neighbours… the towns flourish, the merchants become rich, the trade doth increase’ ( James to parliament, March 1604, quoted in Coward 1987:107). The practical steps he took can be readily be charted. In 1604, despite pressure from the French and the Dutch, he put an end to war with Spain with a treaty which was balanced and generally favourable to all interested parties. James continued to remain abreast of developments on the continent through an effective network of spies and reporters who were able to inform him in such terms: ‘The Almains are disunited; Denmark not potent: Spain remote and busied about other matters; but France gathering force as if it were to wrestle with somebody’ (Sir George Carew quoted in Carter 1964: 60). He was instrumental as mediator between Spain and Holland which resulted in the 1609 Truce of Antwerp and tried with very limited ultimate success to intervene in the affairs of the Rhineland by marrying his daughter Elizabeth to the Elector Frederick in 1613. The same year saw the arrival of the Machiavellian Spanish ambassador, Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuna, later Count of Gondomar. A traditional view has been that Gondomar generally dominated and out-maneuvered James but a more nuanced reading of their relationship indicates, ‘a mutual respect between two subtle and wily politicians’ (Wormald  1983: 189).

A growing rapprochement with Spain went hand in hand with a growing distance from the Dutch to the point that when war was expected between Spain and the United Provinces in 1615 the idea of a Spanish marriage was heavily promoted. This was to no avail and eventually England was sucked into a European war during the Palatine crisis when in 1620 Spanish forces invaded the territory and were unsuccessfully opposed by a small Anglo-Dutch force. Frederick, James’s son-in-law became a ‘vagabond king’ and the opening shots had been fired in what was to become the Thirty Years War.  Despite some measure of preparation the 1621 parliament rapidly fell into disarray and in any case was more preoccupied with the consequences of a widespread depression in trade and the remedying of a whole host of grievances. James’s application for a subsidy, probably half-hearted at best, to further prosecute the war only served to stir up controversy about the privileges of parliament in response to which James dissolved it. Subsequently negotiations were reopened with Spain ending in Prince Charles ill-advised and ludicrous attempt to marry the Infanta, an enterprise ruined by, ‘his own brand of irresponsible haggling’ (Houston1994: 89). Although not in good health James continued his efforts at mediation in respect of ‘the German question’ despite the humiliated Charles and Buckingham actively lobbying for war with Spain. During the 1624 parliament an ailing James was finally pushed into an expensive military intervention but it perhaps signifies his lack of conviction that , ‘The reign ended with parliament committed to financing a “real war”; but where, how and against whom was not made absolutely clear (Houston1994: 94). Charles was not to prove so circumspect. Right up to end of his reign James maintained the conviction that, ‘He is an unhappy man, that shall advise a king to war;  and it is an unhappy thing to seek that by blood which may be had by peace’  (Rushworth 1659:  128 quoted in Carrier 1998:137). It has been suggested (see for example Smith 1997: 271 ) that James simply avoided war because he could not afford it but it is clear that his policies were interventionist rather than isolationist and there was a genuine working towards peace and reconciliation informing his diplomatic strategies which on the whole were successful.

Of course to early seventeenth century sensibilities ‘the cure of souls’ was the ultimate welfare question but in more general terms the grievances of the common sort of people could be summed up thus: ‘to starve is woeful, to steal ungodly and to beg unlawful but to endure our present estate any while is almost impossible’ (Petition of  Wiltshire cloth workers 1620, quoted in Underdown 1987: 117). Economic well-being and its concomitant alternative hunger were an key element in the over all health of the nation. Unfortunately the measures available to the early Stuart monarchs were rather limited and there was very little they could do about managing, let alone preventing the two main challenges to the ‘welfare of the people’. The first element was population growth, exact figures are debatable and although evidently the boom years of the late sixteenth century were past nevertheless in general terms the population of England rose by  around 20%  (for example from 4.2 to 5.2 million according to Wrigley 1969: 78) during the first half of the seventeenth century. Wrightson outlines the consequences of this alongside the attendant inflation,’ unprecedented  opportunities for profit to those who supplied the market and at the same time the gradual impoverishment of those who depended for their living upon wages or fixed incomes’ (Wrightson 2004: 134),  although as Healey points out the pattern was subject to strong local variation (Healey 2011).

The second unmanageable element was the inevitable cycle of good and bad harvests with years of notable dearth during James’s rule being generally given as  1607 and 1608, and 1621 to 1623 with 1622 being particularly disastrous (analysis drawn from Hoskins, W.G. 1964 and 1968). Again the pattern could vary from region to region but at its worse the fate of those rendered destitute, and perhaps Shakespeare was referring back to the bad years 1594 – 1597, could be described thus,  ‘ (He) eats cow  dung for salads; swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog; [and] drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to tithing and stocked, punished and imprisoned’  (King Lear Act scene 11). It is hard to determine quite how James felt about what today would be termed the most vulnerable in society: the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed who constituted a, ‘surfeit of peasants’ (Healey 2011 : 153). In his  second speech to the ‘parliament of love’ in 1614 James, ‘reemphasized his “ sincerity and love” and declared his “intension to unburthen” his subjects of their “grieves”’ (Mondi 2007: 153) but a closer reading of related proceedings reveals perhaps inevitably that it is the concerns of  the middling sort which are being aired here and the needs of the lowest stratum of society were generally only referred to when they threatened the  peace and security of the gentry.

Perhaps parliament is not the best place to look for evidence of James’s care for his poorest subjects. In general measures for the relief of poverty were administered through a system of Books of Orders, the first in 1587 coming on the back of an earlier famine, Slack explains that they, ‘were… an established practice of using the Crown’s prerogative powers to publicize its social policy, educate magistrates in its main principles and supervise its application … the uniformity of print and the detailed instructions possible when social policy was defined without the constraints of parliamentary statute’ (Slack 1980: 3). Administered through the privy council and by the exercise of the King’s prerogative powers arguably these orders demonstrate the direct and personal application of remedies to succor the poor. Were these measures successful? Slack is unconvinced: ‘The chorus of complaint suggests that many of the provisions in the dearth orders seemed cumbersome and ill-devised at a time when regional specialization in agriculture was increasing, and when the causes of destitution were seen to lie as much in unemployment, over-population and low wages as the weather and the harvest’ (Slack 1980: 13). Nevertheless  the argument has been made that despite these inefficiencies the measures were sufficient to spare England some of the worst excesses of continental famine and disorder ( see for example Walter and Wrightson 1976) and so were relatively successful.

It appears that contemporary discourse relating to the welfare of the generality of the King’s subjects was more closely tied to questions of trade so that Lionel Cranfield could stress, when speaking to parliament in 1621, ‘If eighteen years with a flourishing trade and one third part improvement of all the staple commodities of the kingdom for so long time together will not make the people rich, they have strangely abused God’s blessing under his Majesty’s government’ (Quoted in Carrier 1998: 121). In a system traditionally dominated by monopolies and patents it is salutary to read of the debates from the parliament of 1605 - 6 relating to free trade ( Croft 1975: 17 ) of which Walter Cope was a notable champion whilst continuing to subscribe to a number of monopolies of his own. James’s personal profligacy and financial ineptitude is too well rehearsed to detail here but to what extent was the overall package of economic management successful during his reign? Clearly the state was taking an increasing role in finance during the period, ‘Under… the early Stuarts the central government working through the privy council increased its intervention in nearly every aspect of the English economy’ (Neilsen 1997: 2) but with limited impact. ‘Though the total burden of taxes was light in the early seventeenth century, the collection was inefficient, unpredictable and subject to political influence and corruption’  (Clarke 1995: 11) and again ‘The private economy of England after 1540 seems to have been largely insulated from political events and even from the strife of the Civil War  (Clarke 1995: 37). So we see a situation where we have a number of interventionist policies relating to trade but of questionable efficiency occasionally having positive outcomes but equally, sometimes, resulting in disastrous ones, as with the Cockayne affair relating to the export of fully finished cloth in 1614 (for background Wilson 1960). Coward argues that there  was no coherent approach to the economy, merely a series of ‘fire-fighting’ measures and in any case the most significant economic determinants as far as exports were concerned  were associated with the decline in northern European markets attendant on the Thirty Years War (Coward 1987: 25). Smith suggests that whatever the wider impact of James’s fiscal policies were, essentially, with generally good harvests and comparatively stable prices, the years up to 1620 saw rising prosperity with ’increasing demand for non-essentials’ but this was more the result of good fortune than good management (Smith 1997: 254).

As James’s contemporary William Shakespeare put it, ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones’ (Julius Caesar Act 3, scene ii) and whilst it feels necessary to itemize and justify claims to James’s possible strengths his weaknesses seem to speak for themselves. Setting aside the more vituperative remarks of the disaffected courtier Anthony Weldon even his description of the King’s personal qualities is not wholly negative. His physical weaknesses and personal peculiarities were probably of greater significance to observers in the seventeenth century that we would allow for today (unless your name is Ed Milliband) on account of the doctrine that the King as father to the nation should embody all its virtues but there seems no evidence that his defects, whatever they may have been, compromised his ability to develop and communicate effectively his ideas and policies. His main failing that most modern commentators agree on was his essential slackness when it came to pursuing matters of policy and following up on their implementation, so for example in the instance of church reform, ‘James, perhaps because of his administrative laziness, failed to carry out the reforms agreed on at Hampton Court and a major opportunity to reform the church was lost’ (Coward 1987 : 113).

James’s personal fecklessness when it came to spending at court and his consequent battles with parliament have attracted much unfavourable comment, memorably Kishlansky notes that, ‘the King had the financial acumen of a child in a sweet shop’ (Kishlansky 1997: 83). As crown expenditure soared old debts were repaid by taking on new ones and the perception of profligacy drew understandable comment and criticism. In an interestingly watery extended metaphor Thomas Wentworth commented in 1610, ‘… to what purpose it is for as to draw a silver stream out of the country into the royal cistern, if it shall daily run out thence by private cocks’ (Gardiner 1862, quoted in Coward 1987: 121). Although it sounds worryingly like  current political speak to say that James had inherited a financial legacy, ‘that was a relic of creaking antiquity and dangerous inadequacy’ (Houston 1994: 23), a more acute administrator may have taken more active steps to shore up these shaky financial foundations. Despite the efforts of figures such as Robert Cecil and Lionel Cranfield essentially there was a, ‘whole complex of weaknesses throughout the government machine: duplication, amateurishness, defalcation, the lack of able and committed administrators’ (Hurstfield 1971: 240). Nevertheless James missed many opportunities to remedy the situation, perhaps the most noteworthy being the collapse of negotiations relating to the ‘Great Contract’ in 1611.

In the universe of  Sellar and Yeatman second only to James’s slobbering were the uses he made of his favourites and the uses they made of him. This is not to say that there were not great men in attendance, indeed, ‘a monarch served by the Earl of Salisbury, Lord Chancellor Egerton, Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke probably had as much advice as he needed’ ( Kishlansky 1997:68) but  working within a situation when at the best of times, ‘the ambitions of the court factions and the working of the patronage machine were the central feature of political life’ Smith 1997 : 259) and where, in effect, favourites were instruments of government, James’s operation of the system revealed some basic flaws. Essentially in the early days this was reflected in a preponderance of Scots at court and later on the dominance of Buckingham in the King’s final years caused some unease as did James’s seemingly homosexual interest in some of his younger courtiers. James’s tolerance of homosexual behaviour and abhorrence of tobacco may seem like very modern virtues but as Coward points out, ‘he could not afford to be “a man ahead of his time”; he had to be a man with whom his contemporaries could identify (Coward 1987: 105).

The most conspicuous failure of all James’s policies was with the one that lay perhaps closest to his heart, the union of the two Kingdoms of Scotland and England. James described this project eloquently in terms of  the solemnity of marriage, ‘I am the husband, and the whole isle is my lawful wife’ (James I to the Commons March 1604 quoted in tanner 1961: 26) but vested interests both sides of the border remained unconvinced. Reporting to Commons in April 1604 no less a figure than Sir Francis Bacon listed a whole raft of objections ranging from the cogent, ‘acts, instruments and forms of policy and government run now in the name of England and upon the change would be drawn into uncertainty and question’ to the trivial, ‘the contracted name of Britain  will bring in oblivion the names of England and Scotland’’ (Quoted in Galloway 1986: Appendix). James’s failure  to obtain parliamentary support dismayed him and coloured his relationship with the institution thereafter, ‘ the King angry and disillusioned by the narrow attitudes of his English subjects never forgave the Commons for their virtual rejection of what was for him undoubtedly the most important parliamentary project of his entire reign’ (Smith 1997: 257). However, even this piece of received wisdom has been challenged by revisionists. Cuddy, using as his starting point Ruben’s depiction of the union of the crowns on the Banqueting House ceiling begun in 1629, argues that James was thwarted mainly by the inadequacies of parliament as an effective body to legislate for the two countries, so that he was forced to use, ‘the court, the Bedchamber and the Bedchamber favourites to express the Union. His solution to the problem was ingenious and very successful: nowhere is the inventiveness and originality of James’s approach to kingship clearer’ (Cuddy 1989: 124). Whatever the case the degree of disunity that continued to exist between the two kingdoms was a factor that lay behind the ultimate downfall of his son Charles.

King Charles I
When Charles came to the throne in 1625 it is probably safe to assume that his aims and objectives were not too dissimilar to those of his father. He would have been brought up with the precepts expressed in Basilikon Doron and whilst not groomed for kingship like his older brother Henry from 1612 onwards his future career path was clear and so the maintenance of ‘true’ religion and the resulting peace and well-being of the realm became Charles’s main priorities and indeed it is against these yardsticks that Charles was tried and ultimately found wanting. In moving on to consider the rule of James’s second son it is both easy and tempting to give in to indulgence in cod psychology. A weakly child isolated and in the shadow of his talented and much fêted older brother, no wonder he turns out to be both delusional and stubborn and so loose a kingdom. It is a common perception and as always must contain elements of truth within it. Cust sums up the situation thus: ‘Charles’s public profile remained low until about 1619. This was partly a consequence of personal difficulties. There were still doubts about his health and physical development… he was also notably shy and diffident, completely lacking in… self-confidence’ (Cust 2007: 3). Possibly Charles was what today would be called a late developer or a slow starter. What is intriguing is that within a matter of a few years he was embarking on an escapade to woe the Spanish infanta which if ill founded at least demonstrated a capacity for passion and derring-do. Part of Charles up-bringing was exposure to clerics essentially of the Calvinist persuasion (Cust 2007: 14). The fact that Charles should turn his back on these influences in such a marked fashion becomes something of a leitmotif for his reign. Yet again, perhaps especially so with Charles, religion is a central concern of the monarch but a concern which extends beyond the personal and ultimately leads to war. Morrill comments, ‘there were three linked but separable ‘perceptions of misgovernment' in the 1630s and 1640s, each playing a different role in the shaping of the civil war: the 'localist', the 'legal- constitutionalist' and the 'religious'; and that while the first two created political stalemate, the third proved to have the ideological dynamism to drive minorities to arms’  (Morrill 1985: 105). It is important, therefore to analyse that aspect of his rule that exposed to his greatest weakness but also paradoxically his greatest strength.

Charles’s drift away from his father’s moderate and consensual form of Protestantism can probably be ascribed to the churchman Lancelot Andrewes who in 1619 engineered a shift in Charles’s religious instruction towards what became for him a set of guiding principles, Arminianism. At one level these teachings stood in opposition to the rather bleak Calvinist doctrine of predestination - that the elect were selected by God for salvation ‘before time’ - and maintained that Christian souls may be saved by virtue of their faith and consequent good works. The doctrinal change also carried with it an imperative to make liturgical changes further emphasizing the grace obtainable through the sacraments and resulting in a greater sense of the numinous as expressed through the dramatic promptings of ritual and the physical environment of the church setting, what Smith refers to as ‘the beauty of holiness’ (Smith 1997: 284). During James’s rule the anti-Calvinists had slowly been gaining influence at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for example in 1611 William Laud won the strongly contested election for the presidency of St. John’s College, Oxford, an appointment ultimately confirmed by the King (Tyacke 1990: 68). Following his accession in 1625 Charles attempted to chart out the future progress of religion. There is some debate as to whether Charles at this time was a sincere convert to the precepts of Arminianism or whether he simply wished to quash the debate on predestination in order to prevent further controversy (Cust 2007: 86).  It is probably also significant that those who supported Arminianism were also prepared, some of them enthusiastically, ‘to preach up monarchical authority in defence of [their] beliefs’ (Tyacke 1990: 181). However, it soon became clear, both in terms of the appointments that he made and the stance he took on controversies such as Richard Montagu’s anti-Calvinist publication A New Gag for an Old Goose, where his true sympathies lay. Attempts were made to ease the growing religious crisis at the York House Conference of  1626 but a moderate settlement proved elusive and the failure of the attempt lead to a growing rift with Parliament (Cust 2007:90). The anti-Calvinist faction further entrenched themselves during the latter years of the 1620s so that ‘by mid-1630, with the issuing of new Instructions to the Clergy and other measures to restrict Calvinist preaching, the world had been made safe  for the  anti-Calvinists and the direction of the church had been fixed for the following decade’ (Cust 2007: 94). Unfortunately that direction was to lead Charles on a path which increasingly diverged from that which many of his subjects were on and did nothing to address popular fears of a Roman Catholic resurgence. The degree to which Charles lost touch with popular opinion is much debated but it seems clear that he was missing out on the degree of discontent that existed particularly with Laud’s custody of the church. The advancement of William Laud to Bishop of London in 1628 and then Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 (meanwhile he had been made Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1630 ) was an indicator of the growing influence of what has become called Laudianism’ on Charles.  It has been suggested that the new doctrines appealed to Charles so much because they. ‘mirrored his own obsessions with order and beauty’ (Kishlansky 1996: 128) but there must have been more to it than this and Sharpe feels that Charles’s primary concern was with the avoidance of schism and controversy and as far as the differing factions within the church were concerned Charles was ‘genuinely and impartially committed to union’ (Sharpe 1992: 283).

 As further changes were pushed through the church began to take a greater interest in secular affairs, a further spur to its growing unpopularity although perhaps the single most ‘dangerous’ innovation was the reordering of layout of parish churches by removing the altar table from the nave and railing it off in the east end of the church. Whatever the motivations for this alteration, whether to advance the cause of holiness or simply deter the local dogs from stealing the communion loaf, many parishioners saw it as depriving them of their traditional right to an accessible communion and as a ‘plain device to usher in the mass’ (Kenyon 1966: 76), a perception not helped by the continual presence of a catholic queen in the person of Henrietta Maria and hence a court full of ‘popery, painting and playacting’. Charles with his passion for ‘an ordered ritual and uniformity of worship’ ( Sharpe 1992:279) just didn’t see the dangers. One consequence of all this was the re-emergence and growing influence of radical sects in the late 1630s (Coward 1987:151) so whilst Charles may have felt secure in his own personal faith and observances his drive for uniformity was starting to have precisely the opposite effect and so the church began its long descent which ended up in the late 1640s with such a chaotic kaleidoscope of sects that guidebooks were published to explain them all (Pierce 2008: 190 – 193).

Of course the early Stuart church could never be considered as separate from the state both in terms of finance and politics.  When Charles made Bishop Juxon Lord High Treasurer in 1636  his was the first ecclesiastical appointment to the post for over a century. Campaigning by the Laudians to ensure a well resourced clergy, however well intentioned, caused considerable upset amongst the land-owning classes who had been profiting from their abuse of church advowsons. Similarly Charles’s ill-considered insistence that the Scots  make use of the English prayer book following his visit to the country in 1633 was another instance  unintended consequences. When the prayer book was finally released in 1637 it drove the moderates into the arms of the radicals and the radicals into open armed rebellion and as such the Covenanter army made it as far south as Newcastle in 1640. At this point they were bought off at a cost of £850 a day for which Charles had to summon what eventually became the Long Parliament. (Smith 1988: 289)  Charles’s attendant defeat in battle at Newburn  demonstrated just how vulnerable he was and exposed the real possibility of the violent over throw of legitimate authority.

When that violent over throw arrived in 1649 Randall suggests that on the day of the King’s execution on January 30th.  one of  ‘the most egregious blunders’ was over-looking, ’the fact that the second lesson [ for the day] was the 27th chapter of St. Matthew, on the trial and crucifixion of Christ. To the King himself, when Bishop Juxon read the lesson a few hours earlier, the choice seemed providential’ (Randall1947: 137). A key thread for Charles running through his understanding of what it meant to be a monarch was the idea that he should ‘discharge his conscience’ in all things and in shouldering this very personal burden he was ultimately fulfilling the primary duty God had put upon him. So once his options had run out, a situation largely of his own making, he faced death with a degree of serenity. His final position was sadly not one that had worked for him over the previous two decades but was essentially that of a constitutional monarch appointed by God but with a duty to his people, he was therefore doubly a martyr: ‘ I needed not to have come here; and therefore, I tell you, (and I pray God it be not laid to your charge) that I am the martyr of the people’ (Charles I as given in Cole 1649). Writing of the King’s last moments Cust says, ’Where he was most successful was in… bequeathing a powerful legacy to his son. Here his courage and conviction came into their own… Charles II’s return to the crown was the victory that his father had long anticipated, and it owed much to his final performance as a kingly martyr’ (Cust 2007: 465).

Whilst Charles’s personal pathway to martyrdom may have brought him some personal satisfaction the ultimate descent of his kingdom into war does nothing for his success as a peacemaker.  It is possible to take, on the whole, a positive view of James’s desire to be Rex Pacificus but it seems clear that Charles did not share his father’s pragmatic and principled commitment to peace making but was more influenced  by a misplaced sense of personal and by extension national honour. Unfortunately his enthusiasm for war was not matched, at least initially, by any great competence in it. Of course he had inherited  an ill-defined joint naval operation with the French  but his intention as expressed to parliament was to lead the country in support of the Palatinate by drawing down funds from raids on Spanish shipping (Kishlansky 1996:107). Suffice it to say all this came to very little except of course huge expenditure and consequent disagreements with parliament. Eventually Charles was drawn into peace treaties with France in 1629 and Spain in 1630  which did nothing to settle the Palatinate question. Charles enthusiastic support for the navy, whilst leading eventually to the ship money debacle, did at least build an effective fighting force, it was unfortunate that this force defected en masse to parliament in 1642.  Before that point, however, the navy did more than a little to make the seas safer for trading which lead to minor booms in some ports (Quintrell 1993: 71).   The eventual ratification of the Peace of Prague in 1636 rather under-lined how ineffectual his diplomatic efforts were. Kishlansky sums up Charles’s position on foreign policy thus, ‘Peace was the key to restoring government to a semblance of normality, and the terms of disengagement could hardly be more humiliating than the results of combat’ (Kishlansky 1996: 116).
For the majority of the population peace at home was far more important than peace abroad and questions of law and order continued to vex the gentry, who as a body provided the magistrates on whose shoulders rested responsibility for the upkeep of a civil society. Charles must have been sensitive to some degree regarding this aspect of his subject’s welfare although, ‘The government of the time was preoccupied with the conditions of their less fortunate subjects for reasons of security as well as moral considerations’ (Smith 1997: 282). There were, however, a number of divisive elements operating within county society a major source of conflict being the approach to the Sabbath day. James had first issued a Declaration of Sports in1617 in an attempt to regulate popular recreations on Sundays in way which was fairly permissive. This drew the ire of many puritans who thought it ‘morally and socially objectionable’ . Predictably the Laudians were generally staunch supporters of these country revels and Underdown cites ‘the Reverend John  Lothwaite of Rockland St. Peter’s, Norfolk, who read the Book with enthusiasm and turned up to shout “well played” at Sunday football matches’ (Underdown 1987: 67). When Charles reissued the Book in 1633 to counteract growing numbers of local prohibitions there was a degree of rejoicing amongst the lower orders and a section of the conservative gentry so, ‘in the this aspect at least, Laudian policy was appealing to a large segment of the population, though not of course, to the middling sort’ (Underdown 1987: 68). Unfortunately for Charles these tax-paying literate middling sort  were the coming thing and in particular formed the core of a growing electorate who had great expectations of a ‘godly reformation’ and with who he was out of touch and out of sympathy.

From the point of view of the general well-being of the majority of his subjects the importance of good harvests and a ready supply of food has already been noted. It is debatable as to what the extent of the influences of the generally poor harvests of the 1630s were. Smith points out that the, ‘growing disillusionment of the gentry with Charles’s government coincided with a difficult period for the country’s economy’ (Smith 1997:281) but there is not necessarily a causal relationship between poor harvests and rising food prices and political dissent. Whilst the late 1620s saw three good harvests in a row the decade starting in 1630 saw generally poor harvests with1637 being noticeably deficient (analysis drawn from Hoskins, W.G. 1964 and 1968). Coward considered that the application of the Books of Orders’ in the 1630s while attempting to supply relief and give more structure to local government had only patchy results and were soon over turned once the crises were past’ (Coward1987:146). Smith glosses those failures in relief that did occur as being the result of ‘social policies which were well intentioned but relied too much on direction from the centre’ (Smith 1997: 282).

As with his father the factors which affected the economy and in particular trade, still mainly carried out with northern Europe, were largely beyond his control, however, in  trade terms the 1630s were moderately prosperous, despite the run of difficult harvests, a situation which  perhaps reflected the growing economic independence of the towns and their comparative freedom from the vicissitudes that were inflicted on their country cousins. The fact was that following a range of political settlements on the continent, ’English ships could now travel to any port and, as England was the major non-belligerent, they did much transshipping. Merchants forgot their quarrel with the crown’ (Kishlansky 1997: 117). Of course the crown was still deeply  embroiled in the whole business of patents and monopolies, farmed out primarily to profit the royal purse. There were genuine if misguided, attempts to promote national industry employing local workers and materials including the notorious ‘popish soap’ monopoly which failed primarily because of, ‘the failure of the soap to meet its advertising claims – that it “did wash both whiter and sweeter” – than to the Catholics who were among the projectors’ ((Kishlansky 1997: 120).

Many of the beneficiaries of trade monopolies were members of the court and the system seen under his father of favourites and factions competing for influence continued. Arguably James made the system work slightly better than his son did.
It was felt at the time that Buckingham’s transition from the confident of the father, James, to the mentor and comrade-in-arms of the son, Charles, was a remarkable one. Coward believed that his role with Charles became an even more dominant one and that he blocked the normal channels of patronage and understanding thereby substantially contributing to Charles’s growing alienation from the majority of those at court. Following the start of impeachment proceedings against Buckingham in 1626 Charles dissolved parliament to protect him (Coward 1987: 139) and  one should also note that one of Charles’s greatest regrets, right to the end of his life, was that he had also failed to protect a later favourite, Thomas Wentworth the Earl of Strafford, who was executed in 1641. If nothing else Charles tried to be loyal to those he saw as friends but in general their influence acted to the detriment of Charles’s political career, ’One of the consequences of Buckingham’s early strangle hold on access to the King was that disagreements between courtiers tended to be played out in parliament rather than being settled within the court through the mediation of the King’(Coward 1987: 137).

The course of Charles’s relationship with parliament has probably been more closely charted and argued over than for any other British monarch. His first active involvement with the institution was in the  1621 when he attended 63 out of 89 sessions and also sat on a number of committees, not surprisingly Cust notes that his, ‘interventions were rather naïve and ill-judged’ (Cust 2007: 7) but Coward feels that there were, ‘promising signs of co-operation’ (Coward 1987: 136). Perhaps the most positive view is Sharpe’s  who suggested that Charles, unlike his father, was ‘hardworking with an eye for detail’ (Sharpe 1992: 198). From other readings one might be tempted to add that he had a tendency to attempt to micro-manage situations which were perhaps inherently chaotic or simply misunderstood. Like his father Charles struggled with expenditure within the royal household and probably suffered the consequences more whilst paradoxically managing them better. His use of monopolies and  other measures fund-raising measures such as the notorious ‘ship money’ did provide a better cash flow but, ‘the increased revenue which these measures bought in was hardly worth the hostility to the crown’ (Smith 1997: 283). As late as 1635 we see Charles apparently giving away the concession to mine silver in north Wales to one Thomas Bushell in exchange for a look round his garden at Enstone in Oxfordshire (Strong 1998: 132).

As ever, key points of conflict  centred on finances. Am ambitious new king ‘Charles approached his first parliament of 1625 with a planned budget of close to one million pounds but his requests for finance fell on deaf ears, the MPs remained deeply unconvinced by Charles’s war strategy and affronted by the fact that Charles refused to, explain his position to parliament or even ask for a specific subsidy’ (Coward 1987: 139). This represents the beginning of a long chain of failures on Charles’s part to communicate his true intentions. By standing on his own dignity and often refusing to explain his position Charles is a marked contrast to his father who clearly relished the rough and tumble of debate. By1627 with the country at war and the city unwilling to lend more than £20,000, Charles’s decision to take emergency powers and institute forced loans with imprisonment without trial as a penalty for non-payment was severely misjudged (Coward 1987: 139). The resulting 1628 Petition of Right which demanded the King recognized the illegality of extra-parliamentary taxation and other unpopular measures such as billeting and the application of martial law was probably not seen at the time as ‘one of the great landmarks in England’s constitutional development’ (Coward 1987: 140). Unfortunately the King was not in a mood to learn from the experience and so, ‘the disagreements between Crown and parliament in the 1620s were universally regarded as shameful, a sign of failure’ (Smith 1997: 274). It has to said that this does represent failure on both sides characterised by the absence of any systematic programme of legislation, an inability to manage business effectively and too much time wasted on side issues such as impeachment.

The breakdown of an effective working relationship with parliament lead in to the period of ‘personal rule’  that ran from 1629 to 1640. The traditional view, expressed by Coward,  was that  decade saw an increasingly disastrous distance opening up between the King and his people. ‘In the period after the dissolution of parliament in 1629 it was not yet clear that Charles’s unapproachability, his financial policies and especially his religious beliefs would eventually make it impossible for the people to be loyal both to the court and their “counties’ (Coward 1987: 141). More recent commentators have taken a more positive view, ‘The navy was strengthened, royal finances were improved, local order was by and large maintained and some of the much criticized “projects’ did produce positive results’(Cust 2007: 195). Quite predictably Charles’s period of personal rule was brought to an end by the needs for cash to fight the hugely unpopular war against the Scots and it is remarkable  how quickly everything then started to unravel for Charles.  His weak position was exposed both by his failure to protect his favourite Strafford and by his having to give in on the question of the Triennial Act, whereby parliament should meet every three years, irrespective of the King’s wishes. This scenting of real power on the part of parliament marks the beginning of the spiraling down to civil war. Coward describes the process thus: ‘The novel means proposed by the parliamentary leaders to ensure the permanence of the constitutional gains made in the first session of the Long Parliament provoked a conservative reaction which culminated in civil war; the radicalism produced by the war caused a second conservative reaction which, in turn, forced the army to make its drastic intervention in the political arena, and so on’ (Coward 1987: 161). Could Charles have done anything to counter this downward spiral into conflict? It seems that part of Charles’s strategy was to assent to increasingly oppressive legislation as far the royal prerogatives were concerned on the understanding that eventually they could be repealed on the basis of ‘passed under duress’ once the crisis had passed, unfortunately the crisis did not pass.

In summing up it is difficult to disentangle the personal strengths and weaknesses of James and Charles from the strengths and weaknesses of the system of which they were part. It might be argued that they could stand condemned to the extent that neither of them attempted thorough-going reform of the body politic but then as neither of them was especially visionary or even a deep political theorist it seems unjust to criticize them for not undertaking something which they neither could have  imagined nor comprehended. The key question is with what success did they operate within the existing framework to meet their own goals and fulfill the aspirations of the wider populace? A king is both a leader and a manager, the first role cannot easily be delegated whilst the second can be and perhaps generally should be. In terms of management Charles had too much of what James was deficient in, Kishlansky expresses it eloquently this way, James’s, ‘taste for platitudes was larger than his stomach for business. Charles’s appetites were just the opposite: he spoke infrequently and governed incessantly’ (Kishlansky 1997: 117). Even the time they did spend in governing was rarely spent to good effect, given that: ‘ when there was a genuine attempt to by the crown to produce some effective reformative policies… one has to recognise that the achievement fell far short of the aim’ (Coward 1987: 142). Was it their fault or the fault of an unwieldy and inefficient method of managing an increasingly modern state? Several historians have commented that James, to a lesser extent, but certainly Charles, were wedded to this tendency to policy make on the fly and there is little evidence that any administration systematically developed long term policy objectives (see Coward 1987: 145) and once again perhaps it is a little unfair to have expected them to. It is tempting to pass this particular baton on and suggest that Charles II managed, if not brilliantly, then rather better than his grandfather or father, albeit in different circumstances.

To the reader of parliamentary histories it is easy to gain the impression that the main business of parliament was to wrangle over the King’s expenses and although ultimately these disagreements had deleterious effects in terms of not only wasting parliamentary time but also contributing to a general perception of waste, luxury and incompetence on the part of the royal household in many ways these issues are peripheral. Of course James and Charles fell into the practice of essentially summoning parliaments when they were short of cash but we should not forget that productive and effective legislation was passed from time to time. In other words for much of the period the country ticked over quite nicely, there is no sense in which it was a failed state. Good relations with parliament were a means to and end rather than an end in itself that end being effective government to deliver the appropriate benefits to citizens. In attempting to evaluate these we have examined a comparatively limited set of indicators. No mention has been made of the ‘great rebuilding’ of the first half of the seventeenth century which certainly saw the day to day comforts of many householders improved, nor have we touched on the cultural achievements of the two reigns or the wakening of early scientific endeavour some of these things taking place under direct royal patronage. The sad fact is that whatever the ups and downs experienced by society during the period it did end with one massive down, the English Civil War which cost the lives of an estimated 190,000 people ( Carlton 1992: 211).

How did James and Charles fare then as leaders? Well it is clear that they both established a personal following and were able to command impressive displays of dedication and loyalty amongst some of their subjects. Of course Charles was put to the test to a far greater extent than his father in having to lead his party in out and out warfare but neither of them seemed to have had much time for actively cultivating popular support. James just ‘couldn’t be arsed’ (literally) and Charles was too shy. Whilst Elizabeth I was perhaps the supreme maker and manipulator of the royal image and related political perceptions neither James nor Charles quite appreciated that, ‘what people believed to be true was more important than the truth itself in influencing events’ (Coward 1987: 142) and Charles particularly suffered as a result.

For James practically every strength could also be read as a weakness and vice versa: his learning could shade into pedantry, his administrative laziness made way for the careers of more able administrators to develop, his desire for peace could be seen as appeasement and his spendthrift ways spoke of a generous spirit attracting loyal supporters. Perhaps because of his ultimate lack of success Charles’s failings are more unequivocal and towards the end, time after time, opportunities for a settlement which would have spared the country on-going agony were passed by, something that is hard to forgive but did Charles forgive himself? Indeed this leads to the broader question of how would they have seen themselves in terms of their own strengths and weaknesses and their successes or failures in living up to their own high ideals of kingship? We can never know.

I was recently in my  local primary school to discuss with year 6 the causes of the English Civil War. One girl remarked, ‘It was because King Charles had no friends and then he fell out with everyone’ (Milly 2015). It took some time to explain why she was so wrong and so right.


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