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Was Charles I a Saint?


January 30 marks the 369th anniversary of the judicial murder of King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland at the hands of the Puritan-dominated Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell. As every well-informed inheritor of the Patrimony knows, one of the reasons the King was murdered was his refusal to sanction the abolition of the Episcopate in the Church of England.  For this reason, said body essayed to canonise him during the Restoration, and his cultus within Anglicanism flourished or declined as the dominant party in the State was Whig or Tory. In 1859, the date of his Martyrdom was removed from the Book of Common Prayer. But by that time, the “Royal Martyr” had already found favour with the Oxford Movement.

John Keble lauded him in verse, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894 to revive devotion to him alongside the other “Catholic Societies” and their attempts to reignite prayer for the dead, belief in the Real Presence, Marian devotion, and sundry other such things. Among its earliest members was Fr. Hope Patten, reviver of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham; the Anglican shrine thereat boasts a statue of the King. A number of the founders were also involved with the Neo-Jacobite Order of the White Rose, which in turn involved several Catholics, including Lord Ashburnham. A few years later both organisations crossed the Atlantic; the American SKCM and its White Rose equivalent featured Ralph Adams Cram and Isabella Stewart Gardner among their first members (meetings of both societies were held in the chapel of the latter’s palatial home, Fenway Court). To-day the OWR is represented by the Royal Stuart Society, while the SKCM continues. It has numbered several prominent Catholics among its patrons, including Lord St. John of Frawsley and Fr. Jean Charles-Roux; to-day, the highest-ranking Catholic layman in the United Kingdom, Lord Nicholas Windsor, the Queen’s First Cousin, once removed, is an active patron and member. Without a doubt, the cultus of Charles I is part of the patrimony – but is it a part of the patrimony that should be brought into the Catholic Church?

Apart from mere anti-Monarchism among Catholics (which half-sympathises with the murders of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and is uncomfortable with Bl. Karl of Austria or any other canonised or beatified Crowned Head), a pathology that cannot be argued with, and often owes its origin to misunderstood Hibernian and Americanist influences, there are some real objections to be answered. Some will claim that the King was weak-willed and vacillating; others point to the Catholics “martyred under Charles I.” In any case, he certainly died outside the visible Communion of the Catholic Church. Yet while these natural questions must be answered, it is exceedingly easy to do so.

When examining the personal character of Charles I, one must admit that his policies do appear to the casual viewer to have gone back and forth. But the truth is he was faced with an impossible situation – humanly speaking – and was forced to deal with it from a very weak position. The British Civil Wars – now more poetically and accurately referred to as “The Wars of the Three Kingdoms” – were just that: conflicts involving an incredibly varied cast of characters and interests at cross purposes in three very different realms, the peaceable rule of any one of which would have been difficult. In England, the King faced a powerful oligarchy (ironically created by Henry VIII’s bestowal of stolen monastic lands upon his allies) desirous of taking complete control of the State and consolidating their economic power by enclosing the remaining Common Lands; Scotland saw Charles inherit his grandmother’s losing coalition of Catholics and Anglicans against the Presbyterians; and in Ireland his rule was upheld by the mutually antagonistic Royalists and Confederates of Kilkenny against the Ulster Scots – and even this quick description is a wild oversimplification. The sad truth is Charles inherited a horrible position, and can only be held responsible for what occurred during his “personal rule.”

This last is important to understand with regard to the Saints martyred “under his rule.”  The fact is that there were a number of priests in London’s prisons under sentence of death when Charles became King. Delicate as his situation was (and given his –as we shall see –well-deserved reputation for philo-popery, to say nothing of his Catholic Queen, whose pilgrimage to the site of countless martyrdoms at Tyburn Hill caused some unrest), he did not believe himself to be in a position to pardon them. What he did do, however, was to allow them out during the daytime to minister to the city’s Catholics, said clerics returning to their prisons each night. This situation continued for years, until the Long Parliament seized power, and murdered them as it did Strafford and Laud – whom the King was also unable to save. That these priests - some of whom have been subsequently beatified and canonised – were true martyrs is indisputable; but the King was no more responsible for their deaths than Charles II was for that of St. Oliver Plunkett. One might as well blame King Baudouin I for Belgium’s abortion and Grand Duke Henri for Luxembourg’s euthanasia – but we do not because they resisted to the utmost of their power. A better case might perhaps be made against the plethora of “pro-life” politicians who somehow are rarely able to effect any changes in the law, but are routinely elected on the basis of their self-proclaimed views; but it is always easier to demand perfection from the dead than from the living.

But what of the King’s own personality, apart from his unsuccessful policies? We have a number of useful contemporary accounts, of whom one is particularly telling – that of Bishop Bossuet, in his sermon on the death of Charles’ Queen, Henrietta Maria:

Charles I, King of England, was just, moderate, magnanimous, well informed about his business and the means of reigning. Never was prince more able to render royalty, not only venerable and holy, but also kind and dear to his people. What can he be blamed for, if not clemency? I will admit to him what a celebrated author has said of Caesar, that he has been lenient to the point of repentance: Caesari proprium and peculiare sit clementiae insigne, qua usque ad poenitentiam omnes superavit. Let it be here, if you will, the famous defect of Charles as well as of Caesar; but that those who wish to believe that all is weak in the unfortunate and the vanquished do not think for that reason to persuade us that strength has failed in his courage, nor vigor in his counsels. Pursued to all excess by the implacable malignity of fortune, betrayed by all his people, he did notbetray himself. Despite the ill success of his unfortunate arms, if we could defeat him, we could not force him, and as he never refused what was reasonable, being victorious, he always rejected what was weak and unfair, being captive. I can hardly contemplate his big heart in these last trials. But he has certainly shown that the rebels are not allowed to take majesty from a king who knows himself; and those who have seen with what bearing he has appeared in Westminster Hall, and in the Place of Whitehall, can easily judge how fearless he was at the head of his armies, how august and majestic in the midst of his palace and his palace courtyard. Great Queen, I satisfy your tenderest desires when I celebrate this monarch, and this heart, which has never lived except for him, wakes up, all powder that it is, and becomes sensitive, even under this mortuary sheet, in the name of a husband so dear, to whom his very enemies will grant the title of wise and righteous, and which posterity will rank among the great princes, if his history finds readers whose judgment cannot be dominated by events nor fortune.

In some Ordinariate communities, devotion has grown up to Bl. Karl of Austria-Hungary, beatified by St. John Paul II in 2004. This makes perfect sense, because so much that can be said of the one Charles can be said of the other. Both were eminent husbands and fathers – not only in love with their wives but seeing their marriages and fatherly roles as important parts of their attempts to win Heaven. Both fathered children while their fortunes collapsed, and provided as well as they could for the education of their offspring as Christians. In terms of personal piety, both Sovereigns were devoted to the Blessed Sacrament (bearing in mind that Charles I lived three centuries before Apostolicae Curae, at a time when the Holy See offered Laud the Red Hat – of which more momentarily), the Virgin Mary, relics, and the Saints. Lastly, both men ruled over and attempted to love incredibly diverse peoples whose internecine scandals in the end both destroyed their Monarchs and cast them into immense suffering and atrocities. The second Charles was not martyred outright; but given the nature of his death, he came close.

All of that having been said, it is certainly true that Charles I died outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church. Should not that, at least, disqualify him from being considered for Sainthood? Not necessarily, and here I leave aside the liturgical commemorations of Dr. Martin Luther King – several of which Masses, as a Knight of Peter Claver, I have assisted at. Rather, we should look at the veneration permitted by the Holy See to be given a number of putatively schismatic Eastern Orthodox figures. There are also Emperors Constantine I and XI (the latter considered a Blessed by the Greek Catholics of Istanbul). It should also be born on mind that Eastern Catholics venerate as well a great many martyrs who died rather than abjure Catholicism for Orthodoxy.

The King was an apostle of reunion of the two Churches, long before it was fashionable (it was indeed one of the things adduced against him at his “trial). Charles I had a Catholic Queen, the French Princess Henrietta Maria; not surprisingly, he favoured Catholics – bestowing on the Lords Baltimore both territory in Newfoundland and the colony of Maryland. Indeed, much to the annoyance of his Puritan and Scots Presbyterian subjects, Charles I kept up a close correspondence with the Holy See. In a letter of April 20, 1623, he wrote to Pope Gregory XV:

Never did they [his ancestors] carry the standard of Christ’s Cross against his most violent enemies with a more cheerful spirit than I will use and endeavour, that the peace and unity of the Christian Commonwealth, which hath been so long banished, may be brought back, returning, as it were, from captivity or the grave; for, since the subtlety and malice of the father of discords hath sown the seeds of such unhappy differences among those who profess the Christian religion this measure I deem most necessary… Wherefore by your Holiness be persuaded that I am and ever shall be of such moderation as to keep aloof, as far as possible, from every undertaking, which may testify any hatred towards the Roman Catholic religion; nay, rather I will seize al opportunities by a gentle and generous mode of conduct, to remove all sinister suspicions entirely; so that, as we all confess one undivided Trinity, and one Christ Crucified, we may be banded together unanimously into one faith. That I may accomplish this, I will reckon as trifling all my labours and vigilance, and even the hazards of kingdom and life itself.

As mentioned earlier, numerous witnesses and later authors attest to the King’s use of images and veneration of relics, Saints, and the Virgin Mary. But despite negotiations with Rome throughout his reign, three considerations kept him from reunion: A) the belief in the power of the Pope to depose Sovereigns (not a matter of Faith, to be sure); B) the intriguing of Cardinal Richelieu with his Puritan enemies (an experience shared with Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III); and C) the probable reaction of a large part of his people. In this last, of course, he was not mistaken. But, as Robin Davies observes: “It is significant that the King, in his last speech on the scaffold, did not make use of the word ‘Protestant,’ but described himself as ‘a Christian according to the profession of the Church of England, as I found it left me by my father.’ It must also be remembered that the word ‘Protestant,’ even in the 18th century, meant primarily, ‘pertaining to the Church of England,’ and that the sectarians, here [England] and abroad, were usually described by names indicative of their tenets – Anabaptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, etc.”  What may be regarded as certain is that the King believed himself to be Catholic, and believed himself to be of the same Faith as the Pope. Much is made of Laud’s laughing rejection of the Red Hat – but it could not have been offered without the King’s consent, and from what we know of Charles’ character, it would have been most unlike him to have insisted that Laud accepted an honour he did not want.

SKCM patron (and honorary Vice President of the Friends of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham) Lord Nicholas Windsor has written “Although a small society we remain very active and lively in providing a fitting organisation to keep the memory of the life and death of King Charles. It was the Blessed John Henry Newman who recalled the Church to remember ‘our own Saint Charles’ and John Keble who wrote, ‘It is as natural that the Church of England should keep this day [30th January] as it is that Christ’s Universal Church should keep Saint Stephen’s martyrdom.’ In the King’s personal piety, devotion and support of the Church, his ecumenical understanding (far advanced for his day), his patronage of the Arts in the service of God, his inspiration of the Christian classic, Eikon Basilike and of course his martyrdom, we have much to REMEMBER and be thankful for.”  It is certainly clear to the premiere Catholic layman of the United Kingdom that Charles I is an important part of the continuing patrimony – even as those figures earlier referred to are part of Eastern Catholicism’s heritage.

No less an Ordinariate figure than Fr. John Hunwicke has opined on the matter: “One may, surely, hope for an ecumenical and ecclesiological climate in which King Charles may achieve the style Blessed Charles; in which he will be regarded as the Ordinariate's Gift to the whole Catholic World; in which the King's weakness in giving his assent to Acts of Parliament under which Catholic priests were cruelly martyred ... to an Act of Attainder under which a loyal servant of the Crown was executed ... will be seen as moments in his growth into holiness and the eventual strength of Martyrdom. If it had not been for blessed Charles, would there now be an Ordinariate?”

Now that the first chapter of the SKCM has opened in an Ordinariate parish, how might Catholic devotees of the “White King” proceed? Since judgement on the Sanctity of Charles I is reserved to the Holy See, at this stage there cannot be, among Catholics in communion with Rome, Masses in honour of Charles as a Saint, which have of course long been the point of the SKCM in its strictly Anglican manifestations. But there certainly can be evensong commemorations and/or requiems on January 30, the day of his murder and December 7, the day of his birth – in similar manner to the way French and other Catholics commemorate Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. On May 29, Restoration Day, Votive Masses of Thanksgiving might be offered. But there is more.

As earlier noted, my late friend Fr. Jean Charles-Roux was a patron of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. A noted Catholic theologian (and, as it happened, chaplain on the set of Mel Gibson’s The Passion), Fr. Charles-Roux penned a pamphlet for the SKCM entitled The Sanctity of Charles I. He opened that work with a startling declaration:

Charles I, sole saint of the Anglican Communion since the Reformation, ought, in my view, to be canonised by Rome and acknowledged by the Universal Church, as one of the great Princes of Heaven, as a living illustration of how the union of Christians is to be achieved, as a major historical figure, meant by Providence, to instruct men about the doctrine and order of salvation. For the sanctity of this King is no mere private, domestic, or inner one, but one stamped with predestination and prophecy, moulded and proven by public events, and thus obviously purposed by the Almighty, to stand out through the succession of centuries, in order to present to the whole of mankind a positive and human image of principles and truths of everlasting value.

He goes on to attempt to prove his assertion, and it would be too long to rehearse the whole of his argument here. But amongst other things, Fr. Charles-Roux quotes a particularly telling letter from the King to Queen Henrietta Maria: “None of the reformed Churches abroad, except the Lutherans, can justify the succession of their priests; which, if the Church of England could not undoubtedly do, she would have one less son for me.” In this we see echoed one of the major concerns which has led many an Anglican to Rome since the 19th century – and even more so since women’s ordination. Thus, it would seem to me that Catholic members of the SKCM have a three-fold mission with regard to the memory of the King: commemoration; education (in the sense of learning and propagating the truth about him, as against the rather shallow prevalent modern view); and lastly – as with any fledgling candidate for beatification by the Holy See – private prayer for miracles through his intercession.

When alive, as did all the Stuart Kings and their predecessors on the English throne, and the Kings of France as well, Charles I was reputed to have the power of healing scrofula – “the King’s Evil” – by laying hands on the afflicted and praying. Samuel Johnson had this done for him by Queen Anne, apparently with success (the Hanoverians ceased the practice, but the Stuarts in exile continued to do so – resulting in the creation of several Jacobites!). But after Charles’ murder, healings of this and other diseases were apparently accomplished by application of various cloths dipped in his blood. If the Royal Martyr is indeed in Heaven, perhaps such miracles will be forthcoming. The SKCM could act as a clearing house for any such reports, until at last a diocese in the British Isles or one of the Ordinariates opened an official enquiry into his cause. At that point, the usual procedures would hold sway.

In addition, Catholic SKCM members should cultivate devotion to the 18 Catholics martyred by Parliament “under” Charles I – who in essence shared their parliamentary murderers with him, most especially Anglican converts William Ward and Henry Morse. Tyburn Convent, a shrine to the martyrs near Marble Arch, should become as much a place of Pilgrimage for Catholic SKCM members as it was for Queen Henrietta Maria (she also played a role in the propagation of devotion to the Sacred Heart). So too should it be with such Martyrs’ shrines as Ladyewell in Lancashire. Indeed, all the English and Welsh, Scots, and Irish martyrs should be foci of our devotion. There is also the approved cultus of Bl. Karl, who, as noted earlier, shares so many traits with the Royal Martyr, and already boasts Ordinariate members among his clients.

But there is yet more that Catholic devotees of King Charles can do. As previously noted, the Neo-Jacobites of the 19th century were of both Communions, as is the current membership of the Royal Stuart Society. As a result, the commemorative calendar of the latter is a useful example for the matters we are discussing. As a general rule, these are: January 30, Charles I (wreath-laying in Trafalgar Square, Evensong at St. George’s Windsor); February 8, Mary Queen of Scots (Catholic Requiem Mass); May 29, Restoration Day (banquet); and James II, June 10 (wreath laying at his statue, and occasionally a Catholic Requiem – being the birthday as well of James III, it is often called “White Rose Day”). On one occasion, 2014, the RSS sponsored a Mass for Bl. Karl I’s feast day (October 21) at the London’s Church of the Assumption and St. Gregory, but this was a one-time event. That church has also hosted Requiem Masses for the deceased members of the House of Stuart on various occasions (in 2014 in cooperation with the Latin Mass Society of Great Britain). It is now the Principal Church of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which covers the British Isles. These commemorations are, for the stated reasons above, all particularly relevant to Catholic members of the SKCM. It is also wise to bear in mind that Henry VI, Katherine of Aragon, Mary Queen of Scots, James II, and his Queen, Mary of Modena have also been the subjects of causes for beatification which – for various reasons unconnected to themselves – are halted at the moment. Perhaps renewed interest, publicity, and prayers can restart them as well.

There are some, Catholic and non-Catholic, for whom the very notion of Charles I’s sanctity is anathema; there others in both camps who are just as convinced of it. It is well that it be so – this is why every Saint’s cause until the time of St. John Paul II had a devil’s advocate, whose role was to disprove the sanctity of the candidate, if possible. This was and is a necessary function, as the Church offers for her children’s veneration only those she is certain are in Heaven. There are an enormous number of Servants of God (folk whose causes have been introduced officially); whether it be Queen Isabel of Spain or Julius Nyerere, most of them come complete with built-in supporters and critics – although, as a Cradle Catholic myself, I wish them all well. At the end of the day, however, opinions do not count in this area – only objective reality; interestingly enough, for most of the office’s history, if the devil’s advocate failed to disprove the sanctity of an individual and canonisation was successful, he did penance at the altar of the new saint. For the Catholic, the ultimate judge of that reality is the Church herself. Until at some level of authority a cause is completed or condemned, Catholics are as free to argue in favour of the sanctity and pray for the intercession of a candidate as to adduce evidence against it – provided, of course, that all is done in the spirit of charity. Without that, it is ridiculous for either side to prattle about sanctity!

But regardless of whether or not Charles I is ever raised to the altars of the Catholic Church, like Louis XVI, Karl I, or Nicholas II, he remains a powerful symbol – a Sovereign willing to shed his blood for Catholic truth and for his people against organised tyranny and what has become the modern State; an entity which in our day has become so bold and so powerful that it presumes to alter at its whim the nature of marriage, of gender, and even of what might be called human. Whatever his or their failings in life, their deaths call for our admiration, and perhaps one day our emulation. Let us leave the White King and his brother Sovereigns with a poem by 19th century Catholic convert Lionel Johnson:


To William Watson.

SOMBRE and rich, the skies;

Great glooms, and starry plains.

Gently the night wind sighs;

Else a vast silence reigns.


The splendid silence clings

Around me: and around

The saddest of all kings

Crowned, and again discrowned.


Comely and calm, he rides

Hard by his own Whitehall:

Only the night wind glides:

No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.


Gone, too, his Court: and yet,

The stars his courtiers are:

Stars in their stations set;

And every wandering star.


Alone he rides, alone,

The fair and fatal king:

Dark night is all his own,

That strange and solemn thing.


Which are more full of fate:

The stars; or those sad eyes?

Which are more still and great:

Those brows; or the dark skies?


Although his whole heart yearn

In passionate tragedy:

Never was face so stern

With sweet austerity.


Vanquished in life, his death

By beauty made amends:

The passing of his breath

Won his defeated ends.


Brief life, and hapless? Nay:

Through death, life grew sublime.

Speak after sentence? Yea:

And to the end of time.


Armoured he rides, his head

Bare to the stars of doom:

He triumphs now, the dead,

Beholding London‘s gloom.


Our wearier spirit faints,

Vexed in the world‘s employ:

His soul was of the saints;

And art to him was joy.


King, tried in fires of woe!

Men hunger for thy grace:

And through the night I go,

Loving thy mournful face.


Yet, when the city sleeps;

When all the cries are still:

The stars and heavenly deeps

Work out a perfect will.

Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is an American Catholic author, historian, and lecturer who is known for his advocacy of monarchism. Mr. Coulombe has a weekly podcast where people ask him all sorts of questions on religion, culture, politics and history.
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