Charles I of England and Scotland, King and Martyr: 30 January 1649
(from today’s entry in the late James Kiefer’s excellent series of hagiographies)
At the end, when Charles was Cromwell’s prisoner, he was required to assent to a law abolishing bishops in the Church of England. He had previously given his consent to such an abolition in Scotland, where the Puritans were in the majority, but here he dug in his heels and declared that Bishops were part of the Church as God had established it, and that he could not in conscience assent to Cromwell’s demand. His refusal sealed his doom, and it is for this that he is accounted a martyr, since he could have saved his life by giving in on this question. He was brought to trial before Parliament, found guilty of treason, and beheaded 30 January 1649. On the scaffold, he said (I quote from memory and may not have the exact words):
“No man in England is a better friend to liberty than myself, But I must tell you plainly that the liberty of subjects consists not in having a hand in the government, but in having that government, and those laws, whereby their lives and their goods may be most their own.”
That is to say, one may reasonably ask of a government that it establish justice in the land; so that judges do not take bribes, so that innocent men are not convicted of crimes, while the guilty are convicted and punished, so that honest men need fear neither robbers nor the sheriff. One may further ask that taxes be not excessive, and that punishments be not disproportionate to the crime. Charles would have said,
“Do not ask whether the laws were made by men whom you elected. Ask whether they are reasonable and good laws, upholding justice and the public weal.”
He would have invited comparison of his record in this respect with that of the Long Parliament (which sat for twenty years without an election, and whose members came to think of themselves as rulers for life, accountable to no one) and Cromwell (who eventually dissolved Parliament and ruled as a military dictator, under whose rule the ordinary Englishman had far less liberty than under Charles).
In his struggle with his opponents, Charles considered himself to be contending for two things:
(1) the good of the realm and the liberty and well-being of the people, which he believed would be better served by the monarch ruling according to ancient precedent, maintaining the traditional rights of the people as enshrined in the common law, than by a Parliament that ended up denying that it was either bound by the law or accountable to the people; and
(2) the Church of England, preaching the doctrine of the undivided Church of the first ten centuries, administering sacraments regarded not as mere psychological aids to devotion but as vehicles of the presence and activity of God in his Church, governed by bishops who had been consecrated by bishops who had been consecrated by bishops… back certainly to the second century, and, as many have believed, back to the Twelve Apostles and to the command of Christ himself.
In his Declaration at Newport, in the last year of his life, he said:
“I conceive that Episcopal government is most consonant to the Word of God, and of an apostolical institution, as it appears by the Scripture, to have been practised by the Apostles themselves, and by them committed and derived to particular persons as their substitutes or successors therein and hath ever since to these last times been exercised by Bishops in all the Churches of Christ, and therefore I cannot in conscience consent to abolish the said government.”
In a day when religious toleration was not widespread, King Charles I was noteworthy for his reluctance to engage in religious persecution of any kind, whether against Romanists or Anabaptists.