Rector’s Ramblings: Commemoration of King Charles the Martyr

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

It is not the Court of Star Chamber or of High Commission which we commemorate today; it is the sentence, the axe, and the block, and the royal blood staining the January snow.” – Ronald A. Knox


January 30th is observed in many Anglican churches, of many jurisdictions, as the commemoration of the regicide by beheading of King Charles I Stuart, on the orders of the “Roundhead” (Puritan) Parliament, headed by self-proclaimed “Lord Protector” of England Oliver Cromwell, in 1649, beginning the period known as the Puritan Interregnum (“Between the Reigns”) following the English Civil War.

Charles was first commemorated as “King and Martyr” in the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, two years after the Restoration of Monarchy and Episcopacy in England, and was thus the only person “canonized” by the reformed Church of England – as Anglican priest, author, and liturgist Vernon Staley notes, “by the combined authority of the Church and Realm; that is to say, by the joint authority of Convocation, Parliament, and Sovereign.”

This commemoration was removed from the calendar in 1859, along with other “state services” like the thanksgiving for deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot, by Act of Parliament and with the Royal Consent of Queen Victoria – but notably without the consent of the Convocation of the Church of England. In recent years his commemoration has been restored to the sanctoral calendars of several Anglican Churches, and is commonly observed within our own jurisdiction.

The late James Kiefer notes, in his excellent series of “Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past” (affectionately known as “James Kiefer’s BIOs”), 

Charles was born in 1600, son of James VI of Scotland (who upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 became James I of England as well). In 1625 he became king of England and Scotland, although the governments of the two countries continued to be independent until the time of Queen Anne. Most of his reign was devoted to a struggle with the House of Commons of the English Parliament, a struggle that erupted into civil war and ended with the beheading of the king for treason by order of Parliament. 

A war which was, in one sense, about taxation, was in another sense about religion. The Parliamentary armies were led by Oliver Cromwell (a collateral descendant of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell), a staunch Puritan and a military genius. He began by opposing Charles in the name of liberty, but since it soon became clear that Cromwell himself was no friend to liberty, his battle cry became the Puritan faith. Wherever his troops went, they smashed stained-glass windows and pictures and statues, stabled their horses in churches, and burned vestments and Prayer Books… 

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.”

Fr. Tom notes: this may sound very different from our own American conception of liberty. But it should be noted that our own Founders were careful to establish not a pure democracy – which they perceived could quickly devolve into demagoguery and thence dictatorship – but a constituitional, representative republic in which powers were carefully balanced, the rights of minority views were preserved, and the continuity of institutions respected.

(And we might also ask ourselves whether we do indeed have that government, and those laws, whereby our lives and goods may be most our own – or whether we may be living under a modern incarnation of secularized Cromwellians! But I digress…)

Kiefer continues, 

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.” 

Had he consented, he would have almost certainly have saved his life, and likely his earthly crown as well (albeit as a figurehead). But he did not, and for that he is accounted, by many, a martyr: for the Church – as apostolically constituted, passed down through the ages, and received by the Church of England – and thereby for the faith itself. I conclude with this excerpt from a sermon, on the occasion of King Charles I’s commemoration, by Ronald A. Knox: 

“We are met, dearly beloved, to celebrate the festival of Charles, King and Martyr, who laid down his life in defence of our most holy religion in the year of grace sixteen hundred and forty-nine. Discrowned by his people, we dare not doubt that he has been crowned in heaven…. [We honor him] because he lived a life of personal holiness and devotion unexampled among the princes of his age…. We venerate him also as a martyr, because he might at the last have saved his life if he had been content to lose it by helping to destroy the order of Apostolic succession handed down to us from Augustine [first Archbishop of Canterbury, 597]. We do not thereby necessarily assent to the policy he pursued while yet on the throne, a policy which to him, thinking with the mind of his times, seemed the only possible one for the maintainance of religion in England. It is not the Court of Star Chamber or of High Commission which we commemorate today; it is the sentence, the axe, and the block, and the royal blood staining the January snow.”

And with this prayer, from his commemoration in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: 

O most mighty God, terrible in thy judgements, and wonderful in thy doings toward the children of men, who in thy heavy displeasure didst suffer the life of our gracious Sovereign King Charles the First, to be, as this day, taken away by the hands of cruel and bloody men: we thy sinful creatures here assembled before thee, do, in the behalf of all the people of this land, humbly confess, that they were the crying sins of this nation, which brought down this heavy judgement upon us. But, O gracious God, when thou makest inquisition for blood, lay not the guilt of this innocent blood, the shedding whereof nothing but the Blood of thy Son can expiate, lay it not to the charge of the people of this land: nor let it ever be required of us, or our posterity. Be merciful, O Lord, be merciful unto thy people whom thou hast redeemed; and be not angry with us forever: but pardon us for thy mercies sake, through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

King Charles I of England was a controversial figure in his own time, and remains so in ours. Yet I honour him for his defense of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church in its Anglican expression, against those who – following sectarian ideologies – sought to destroy it by violent means. I also honour him for seeking to serve, as well as govern, his people according to the best of his understanding and belief, and especially because he died by violence – at the hands of men more oppressive, by far, than he ever was – for those beliefs.


In his last words before his execution, King Charles stated, “I have a good cause and a gracious God on my side… I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.” He publicly forgave those who were responsible for his execution, affirmed that “I declare before you all that I die a Christian, according to the profession of the Church of England,” and exhorted his faithful people to “Remember!” In the end, it was the King himself who gave the sign for the executioner to let fall his ax.


Faithfully yours in Christ,

Fr. Tom Harbold 


Compiled and edited, with reflections, by the Rev’d Thomas H. Harbold, Rector, Christ Church Anglican, Southern Pines, North Carolina, from sources including

Charles I, King of England and Scotland, Marty, by James Kiefer (short version; long version may be found here)

“Charles, King and Martyr, 1649” (“For all the Saints” blog)

“About St. Charles,” The Society of King Charles the Martyr

“The Commemoration of King Charles the Martyr,” by Vernon Staley

“Why we should remember St. Charles, King and Martyr,” by Joseph Laughon

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