This is a combination of three posts I put up two years ago to mark the anniversary of Charles’ execution, his deathday if you like. It covers three letters written by Charles Snr and Jnr and in my eyes they highlight the personal nature of the crisis at hand, the matter of a son about to lose his father.
An act of desperation
Reading an old post by @daintyballerina recently, which featured an account of the ‘last words’ of King Charles before his execution, reminded me of a series of letters send by the King and Prince Charles in the lead up to the King’s execution. To modern eyes they seem highly formal, concerned in restating ideological positions, but I think that some of the emotion and desperation does seep through in the detail. While accounts of the execution are compelling, the letters give us a first hand glimpse into the concerns and fears of father and son in the midst of events that had spiralled from their control.
.On hearing that his father was to be tried the 18 year old Prince Charles wrote a desperate letter to General Fairfax and his Council of War in England. It’s unsurprising that the the letter was utterly ineffective, the tone in which it is written is unlikely to have endeared him to his enemies, though it is fair to say that it would have played to their doubts. The letter is significant in demonstrating both the dawning comprehension of what was to come and the powerless position that the heir to throne was now in. The letter shows that Charles is not part of any official negotiations and claims to be gaining his news through the press. The Prince was to become a better politician and a more eloquent letter writer in his future years, but this letter shows us the desperation of a young man to save his father from the mortal fate that was now sharply coming into focus. With the letter Charles included a single sheet of paper, blank except for his signature at the bottom (see picture above). It was an invitation for the Council to impose any condition on him in return for his father’s life. As we will see in the second post in this series, the King would have been appalled by his son’s action in this respect, but Charles was clearly desperate to save his father.
The Hague, January 13.23, 1648/9.
We have no sources of information regarding the health and present condition of the King, our father, but the common gazettes which come into this country, our servant, Symons, whom we lately sent to present our humble respects to His Majesty, not having been able to obtain permission to do so, or to see him. We have reason to believe that, at the end of the time assigned for the treaty made with his Majesty in the Isle of Wight, His Majesty has been withdrawn from that island to Hurst Castle, and thence conducted to Windsor, with some intention of proceeding against him with rigour, or of deposing him from the royal dignity given him by God alone, who invested his person with it by a succession undisputed, or even of taking his life; the mere thought of which seems so horrible and incredible that it has moved us to address these presents to you, who now have power, for the last time, either to testify your fidelity, by reinstating your lawful King, and to restore peace to the kingdom – an honour never before given to so small a number as you- or to be the authors of misery unprecedented in this country, by contributing to an action which all Christians think repugnant to the principles of their religion, or any fashion of government whatever, and destructive of all security. I therefore conjure you to think seriously of the difference there is in the choice you make, and I doubt not you will choose what will be most honourable and most just, and preserve and defend the King, whereto you are by oath obliged. It is the only way in which any of you can promise himself peace of conscience, the favour and good will of His Majesty, the country, and all good men, and more particularly of your friend.
Charles I during his trial
The next letter was written while Charles was in the hands of the army and prior to the trial that would eventually lead to his execution, on 30th January 1649. It is one of the last pieces of correspondence that he sent to Charles. What stands out about this letter to me is its reflective nature and the air of dignified sadness, even melancholy. While the trial that was to condemn him had not yet begun, I think the letter shows that the writing on the wall was coming into focus for this man and he had begun to put his mind to how he might guide his heir. Some of the lessons that Charles extols to the young Prince in this epistle are ones he singularly failed to adhere to in life, and there is a sense in which the King is acknowledging this. The blame is still in the hands of others, but he has clearly looked deep into his soul at this late point. A final point I would make is that while this is a letter to his son, the future King, it is also written from the point of view of a man who considers himself father of a nation, bear that in mind when reading it.
Newport, November 29, 1648.
By what hath been said, you may see how long we have laboured in search of peace. Do not you be discouraged to tread those ways, to restore yourself to your right; but prefer the way of peace. Show the greatness of your mind, rather to conquer your enemies by pardoning than punishing. If you saw how unmanly and unchristianly this implacable disposition is in our evil willers, you would avoid that spirit. Censure us not, for having parted with too much of our own right; the price was great; the commodity was security to us, peace to our people. And we are confident another Parliament would remember how useful a King’s power is to the people’ s liberty.
Of how much we have divested ourself, that we and they might meet again in a due Parliamentary way to agree the bounds for Prince and people! And in this, give belief to our experience, never to affect more greatness or prerogative than what is really and intrinsically for the good of our subjects (not satisfaction of favourites). And, if you thus use it, you will never want means to be a father to all, and a bountiful Prince to any you would be extraordinarily gracious to… if princes, like the sea, receive and repay all the fresh stream and rivers trust them with, they will not grudge, but pride themselves, to make them up an ocean.
These considerations may make you a great Prince, as your father is now a low one; and your state may be so much the more established, as mine have been shaken. For subjects have learnt (we dare say) that victories over their Princes are but triumphs over themselves; and so, will be more unwilling to hearken to change hereafter.
The English nation are a sober people; however at present under some infatuation. We know not but this may be the last time we may speak to you or the world publicly. We are sensible into what hands we are fallen; and yet we bless God we have those inward refreshments, that the malice of our enemies cannot disturb. We have learnt to own ourself by retiring into ourself, and therefore can the better digest what befalls us; not doubting but God can restrain our enemies’ malice, and turn their fierceness unto his praise.
To conclude, if God give you success, use it humbly and far from revenge. If He restore you to your right upon hard conditions, whatever you promise, keep. Those men which have forced laws which they were bound to observe, will find their triumphs full of troubles. Do not think anything in this world worth obtaining by foul and unjust means. You are the son of our love; and, as we do not more affectionally pray for you (to whom we are a natural parent) than we do, that the ancient glory and renown of this nation be not buried in irreligion and fanatical humour… that you may in due time govern, and they be governed, as in the fear of the Lord.
Charles the Martyr
I switched on the BBC news coverage of the Egyptian protests earlier today [This was two years ago at the height of the Arab Spring]. As I watched the Egyptian people attempt to emulate their Tunisian neighbours in deposing their head of state, I wondered how many people on that chilly London day on 30th January 1649 had felt the same way about their ‘tyrant’ during the war and if they were now happy to be seeing his execution.
.As we saw from the last letter, Charles had begun to prepare for the most extreme outcome of his capture. The King had clearly begun to gather his thoughts in order to prepare his son in case the tide ever turned back in their favour.
.The letter I am featuring in this final post in the series (part 1, part 2) is the last letter that Charles communicated to the world. The letter was to his son, Prince Charles, and was handed over to the Bishop of London as he readied himself for the moment. The full letter is very long and a little repetitive, so I have edited it down to capture its key points. I hope I have managed to capture its nature as well. Here we see a father imparting his last thoughts and hopes to his son, both political and personal.
If these pages, with some others, wherein I have set down the private reflections of my conscience, and my most impartial thoughts, touching the chief passages which have been most remarkable, or disputed in my late troubles, come to your hands, to whom they are chiefly designed, they may be so far useful to you, as to state your judgement aright in what hath passed; whereof a pious us is the best can be made; and they may also give you directions how to remedy the present distempers, and prevent (if God will) the like for time to come.
It is some kind of deceiving and lessening the injury of my long restraint, when I find my leisure and solitude have produced something worthy of myself, and useful to you; that neither you, nor any other, may hereafter measure my cause by the success, nor my judgement of things by my misfortunes, which I count the greater by far, because they have so far lighted upon you and some others whom I have most cause to love as well as myself, and of those whose unmerited sufferings I have a greater sense of than my own.
…But this advantage of wisdom you have above most princes; that you have begun, and now spent some years of discretion in the experience of troubles, and exercise of patience, wherein piety and all virtues, both moral and political, are commonly better planted to a thriving, as trees set in winter, than in warmth and serenity of times, or amidst those delights which usually attend princes’ courts in times of peace and plenty…
I had rather you should be Charles le bon, than le grand, good, than great; I hope God hath designed you to be both…
…Above all, I would have you, as I hope you are already, well grounded and settled in your religion, the best profession of which I have ever esteemed that of the Church of England, in which you have been educated… and not other men’s custom or tradition which you profess.
…Never charge your head with a crown as shall, by its heaviness, oppress the whole body, the weakness of whose parts cannot return anything of strength, honour or safety to the head, but a necessary debilitation and ruin.
Your prerogative is best showed and exercised in remitting rather than exacting the rigour of the laws; there being nothing worse than legal tyranny.
…the troubles of my kingdoms, have nothing else to object against me but this, that I prefer religion and laws established before those alterations they propounded.
…Time will dissipate all factions, when once the rough hours of private men’s covetous and ambitious designs shall discover themselves; which were at first wrapped up and hidden under the soft and smooth pretensions of religion, reformation, and liberty: as the wolf is not so cruel, so he will be more justly hated, when he shall appear no better than a wolf under sheep’s clothing.
…It is all I have now left me, a power to forgive those that have deprived me of all; and I thank God I have a heart to do it, and joy as much in this grace, which God hath given me, as in all my former enjoyments; for this is a greater argument of God’s love to me than any prosperity can be. Be confident (as I am) that the most of all sides, who have done amiss, have done so, not out of malice, but misinformation, or misapprehension of things.
…As your quality sets you beyond any duel with any subject, so the nobleness of your mind must raise you above the meditating any revenge, or executing your anger upon the many.
…And if neither I nor you be ever restored to our right, but God, in His severest justice, will punish my subjects with continuance in their sin… I hope God will give me and you that grace which will teach and enable us to want, aw well as to wear a crown, which is not worth taking up, or enjoying upon sordid, dishonourable, and irreligious terms.
Keep you to true principles of piety, virtue, and honour; you shall never want a kingdom.
… My prayer to God Almighty is (whatever becomes of me…) that He would be pleased to make you an anchor, or harbour rather, to those tossed and weather beaten kingdoms…
… When they have destroyed me (for I know not how far God may permit the malice and cruelty of my enemies to proceed, and such apprehensions some men’s words and actions have already given me) as I doubt not my blood will cry aloud for vengeance to Heaven; so I beseech God not to pour out His wrath upon the generality of the people who have either deserted me, or engaged me…
…And if God will have disloyalty perfected by my destruction, let my memory ever, with my name, live in you; as of your father, that loves you, and once a King of three flourishing Kingdoms…
…At worst, I trust I shall but go before you to a better kingdom, which God hath prepared for me, and me for it…
Farewell, till we meet, if not on earth, yet in Heaven.