This blog usually marks this day, the anniversary of the judicial murder of King Charles I, and Chalcedon has written on this for us here. The Book of Common Prayer once recognised this in its liturgical calendar, and as I remain an Anglican, it seems fitting to mark this day with some reflections about this commemoration, which, to many, may seem odd. Charles I was, after all, not a very successful King, and his reign ended in civil war, and with his own execution. All of that is true but beside the point, and the fact that our society does not get the point says more about it than it should feel comfortable with.
Charles I died for a principle. Had he been willing to renounce episcopacy and the Established Church, he would not have been put on trial and would have been allowed to live; this he would not do, and he died for his faith – that is what makes him a martyr. At his coronation he swore an oath to defend the Catholic Church, and that is what he did, even though it cost him his life. At the Restoration the Church he had died for recognised his sacrifice, proclaimed him a martyr and added his name to its liturgical calendar. It would be nice if one could say that the Church remained grateful to him, but that is not the way of fallen mankind, and by the early nineteenth century his cult had been all but abandoned. It was the men of the Oxford Movement who restored it. John Keble, the priest and poet, wrote movingly of the
True son of our dear Mother, early taught
With her to worship and for her to die,
Nursed in her aisles to more than kingly thought,
Oft in her solemn hours we dream thee nigh.
It was apt that it should have been the Oxford men who defended Charles the Martyr as their fire was aimed at the way in which a non-Anglican parliament was the only source of legislation for the Church and sought to pronounce even on matters of doctrine. It was, it is said, a parliamentary draughtsman who removed the commemoration of the King from the calendar in 1859, but for loyal sons and daughters of the Church, he remains there – long before there was any procedure to pronounce someone a saint, it was the love and the memory of the people which did the job. As Andrew Lacey shows in a very fine book on the King, relics were gathered and miracles attributed to their healing power.
Jane Austen, a devout Anglican with Jacobite sympathies, was familiar with the service of commemoration, and there is another literary link through George Herbert, whose family served the King, and thence to T.S. Eliot and Little Gidding:
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.
Nicholas Ferrer, Herbert’s literary legatee, founded a religious community at Little Gidding, in Huntingdonshire (about ten miles north-west of Cambridge), and it was thence that Charles I resorted after his defeat at Nasbey, arriving there on the night of 1 Mary 1647. The Cromwellians destroyed the community later that year in one of their many acts of vandalism, but after the Restoration, a church was once again established, and an armorial window installed in the King’s honour:
Charles was a man of deep personal piety, and it is the manner of his death which made him a martyr. As Marvell wrote of the execution: “He nothing common did or mean / Upon that memorable scene”.
To an age where every political problem can be fudged, and where the only question appears to be how much someone wants to surrender a ‘deeply-held’ principle, Charles I’s act must seem quixotic, but to anyone familiar with Christian history, it is recognisable. Charles died a martyr to his Church – and it is high time, and beyond, that the Church restored this commemoration to its liturgical calendar. I asked Chalcedon whether the Ordinariate celebrated the day, but he tells me not. I suppose that if the Church for which he died won’t, it is too much to expect anyone else to. I am sure that members of the Society of King Charles the Martyr will be commemorating him, and in my own little community we remembered him at Matins and will at Compline tonight. Of your mercy, pray for the soul of the martyred King.