The Personal Rule of Charles I

Charles I of England
Charles I of England

English Civil War historians have sometimes focused on the debate surrounding the attempt of King Charles I to establish non-parliamentary government and whether the king’s policies proved successful. Historical labelling of in this period reflects the differing interpretations of the extent of success the king achieved during the years 1629-1640. To the Whig historians these were the "eleven years tyranny", a period of absolute government by an autocratic monarchy that ensured that England swiftly travelled down a 'high road to civil war.' Recent historiography has generally identified this period as the ‘Personal Rule’ of a monarch, who according to the revisionist argument, "governed so ambitiously and so successfully" that the road did not inevitably lead to the triumph of Parliament. Indeed, Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon, attested to the king’s achievement recalling that there was 'so excellent a composure throughout the whole kingdom that the like peace and plenty and universal tranquillity for ten years was never enjoyed by any nation." However, Derek Hirst (1986) is of the opinion that there were no clear signs of innovation in the ‘personal rule.’ Hirst argues that there was no ‘watershed’ in Charles’s ecclesiastical policies, and previous levels of consultation with Parliament were ‘exaggerated.’ Was the ‘Personal Rule’ as revisionists argue, a time of stability, peace at home and abroad, or "a deeply appropriate label for a regime devised and ultimately destroyed by the visions of one king"? Firstly, in order to evaluate the king’s success it is important to ask why Charles was determined to implement his own vision of ‘thorough government,’ and how the king proceeded in achieving his objectives.

In 1624, Charles responded to political pressure to wage war against Spain even though the king was not generally in favour of hostile action against the Catholic ‘superpower’. However, having summoned a Parliament, the king felt understandably disappointed by lack of parliamentary support in financing the conflict. Charles remained forever wary of equivocal parliamentary judgement, and his suspicions were further aroused by the events surrounding the death of his military commander, George Villiers the first Duke of Buckingham. Parliament had conducted a forthright campaign of criticism levelled against Buckingham’s conduct in the wars against France and Spain, and when the Duke was assassinated, Charles duly blamed Parliament’s virulent persecution as the reason for Buckingham’s death. In addition, Charles found going ‘cap in hand’ to Parliament for money demeaning to the royal personage. Even more annoying for the king, such financial affairs would often be frustrated by parliamentary demands for the redress of grievances. Between 1625 and 1629, Charles faced a series of early crisis in his reign. Conflict with France and Spain had caused numerous diplomatic and political problems and the cost of the war was depleting the royal coffers. Religious issues continued to be divisive, the ‘forced loan’ had met with varying degrees of success, legitimate collection of ‘tonnage and poundage’ had been refused, and Charles found himself facing questions over his ability to administer his three kingdoms. The last session of Parliament in 1629 proved 'contentious, abortive, unproductive and chaotic,' and Charles’s answer was to approach the 1630’s with a determination to rule effectively without the aid of Parliament.

Revisionists would argue that Charles was prompted to establish a non-parliamentary government and create reforms in Church, State and society through fears of a collapse in authority and a disordered society. Therefore, Charles had begun to implement a policy of social and legal order upon his kingdoms, a practice that reflected the king’s wish to regulate the Royal Court in order to establish formality and dignity. In a bid to apply effective ‘domestic government,’ Charles issued ‘books of ordinances’ that specified in detail the routines and procedures of the royal household. According to David Smith (1998), these ordinances were "undoubtedly a qualified success," although attempts to restrain the Court’s financial costs appear more ineffectual. It has been argued that Court order was Charles’s "private religion," and therefore this was not a retreat from reality but "a model for the reformed government of Church and State."

Nevertheless, it is possible that Charles set in motion a deliberate policy of isolation from the outside world by attempting to replace the more intimate style of kingship that characterised his father’s reign. Individuals had previously been able to enter the royal residence and ask the king to personally address their grievances. Charles severely limited this tradition and more provocatively, imposed restrictions on the ceremony of touching for the ‘King’s Evil.’ David Smith (1998) concurs that it was "surely unwise to spurn customs which offered the King such excellent opportunities to meet informally with a cross-section of his people." If this was the king’s intention than not only is this a sign of ineffective kingship, but also that Charles totally misunderstood the realities of day-to-day life for the common people, and accordingly, definitely guilty of neglecting a duty to his subjects. Therefore, rather than a successful attempt to install effective uniformed government, the personal rule could be viewed as an autocratic crusade for self-fulfilment and self-glorification. The king’s enforced ‘social exclusion’ only served to alienate him from those whose support might have steadied the monarchy’s critical position after 1640. As David Smith (1998) points out, the "1630’s prompted a widespread unease about Charles’s kingship and generated a climate of mistrust without which the rapid breakdown of 1640-2 is impossible to explain."

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to criticise a royal policy that instigated separation from the masses. However, by issuing the ‘Book of Orders’ Charles did attempt a "programme for the reformation of society and the reinvigoration of local government," and at first glance, this "statement of Caroline social policy" does appear to substantiate the revisionist claim that it was a "remarkable…and innovative" endeavour to reform local governmental practice. The Book of Orders offered directives for "laws and statutes tending to the relief of the poor, the well-ordering and training up of youth in trades, and the reformation of disorders and disordered persons." These directives may have been successful in relieving some problems in the economic crisis of 1629-30, and it does appear to have helped organise licensing of alehouses. Some poor children were aided in gaining apprenticeships and petty meetings were regularised; nevertheless, it is difficult to ascertain the true extent of co-operation from the localities. In the northern and western shires, the directives were resented as centralised interference in the ‘autonomy’ of the local communities. Even Kevin Sharpe concedes that outward support could have concealed "diligent activity, grudging compliance, at times even outright resistance." Certainly, Charles’s cause was not aided by his proclamation in 1632 that the gentry should "depart from the cities of London and Westminster…and resort to the several counties where they usually resided." Along with the Book of Orders, the proclamation’s intention was to ensure that local nobility and gentry executed their local governmental duties more efficiently, and Charles would fine those who failed to discharge their directed responsibilities. The unpopularity of this directive can be judged by the number of individuals who applied for ‘special dispensation licences,’ and the prosecutions in the Star Chamber for non-compliance. In addition, the fact that the proclamation was issued several times suggests that some local officials were unwilling to yield to the royal policy, and although the king achieved what he wanted "it only served to make the court even more isolated from the wider world". Certainly, the collective grievances of gentry and nobility contributed to Charles’s downfall from 1640.

If royal relations with the nobility were strained, Charles could at least take pride in the measures taken to reverse the royal financial deficit, a policy that was substantially successful, and arguably the most prosperous aspect of the ‘personal rule.’ By 1629, the royal debt stood at approximately £2,000,000, but by 1637, Charles’s financial directives were bringing in annual revenues of over £1,000,000 mainly due to a succession of measures designed to aid the recovery of royal debt back into the black. Over £600,000 of crown lands was sold in the first 5 years of Charles’s reign, and in 1634, a revival of antiquated ‘Forest Laws’ generated gains of about £40,000. In 1635, a new ‘Book of Rates’ on customs revenue resulted in an increase of income from £270,000 in the first half of the 1630’s to £425,000 a year in the latter half. Monopolies and patents were granted, in particular the ‘soap monopoly’ that brought the Crown £30,000 a year until 1637. Charles fined the gentry and nobility who had ignored a historical precedent that required them to present themselves to be knighted at the King’s coronation. During the personal rule, the fines raised a total of £174,284 from 9,280 individuals. The success of Charles’s financial expedients in the 1630’s could indeed justify a noteworthy accomplishment for the monarchy. Nevertheless, although Charles deemed his fiscal measures a success, the policies induced bitter debates and resentment. Knighthood fines affected individuals who owned freehold land worth £40 a year, establishing a sense of anxiety and mistrust from a section of society with considerable amount of local influence, thus adding to the accumulation of grievance’s that would later generate accusations of failure within royal government. John Pym would later argue the immoral connotations of the Knighthood fines, that they were "stretched for another end, for money," and Pym also complained that monopolies were such that "a burden is laid not only upon foreign but upon native commodities." Hampden’s ‘ship money’ case ignited a ‘major constitutional’ challenge through a debate that questioned the royal prerogative and the king’s ‘absolute authority,’ and therefore suggests that the monarchy was already facing the prospect of a future constitutional crisis. Nevertheless, the judgement in the Hampden case reveals the ‘absolute’ nature of the divine right of kings, and certainly established the status that Charles preferred to enforce. In the closing stages of the case, Sir Robert Berkeley declared that "the law is of itself an old and trusty servant of the king’s; it is his instrument or means which he useth to govern his people by," and more ominously, "that the king cannot do wrong." In addition, Charles saw ship money as not just an ‘ordinary’ levy, but a royal duty to be enforced with rigour. Nevertheless, the reinvigoration of ship money was perhaps the most contentious issue in Charles’s fiscal policies. It has been claimed that the greatest success was the extension of ship money to the inland counties to cover the construction costs of a peacetime navy. Indeed, it has been argued that, even compared to modern forms of taxation, ship money was a ‘remarkably effective seventeenth century levy.’ The equivalent of three parliamentary subsidies, about £200,00 was levied each year, and the income did not go to the Exchequer but to the Treasury of the Navy. Between 1634 and 1638, 90% of ship money was paid, and an approximate total of over £800,000 was spent on constructing a sizable English fleet, indeed a notable success. However, although Charles had thought it imperative to maintain the strength of the English fleet, the problem was the levy was originally meant for wartime emergencies and traditionally from the coastal counties. Charles bypassed the specific purpose of ship money and instigated a regular, annual tax that proved unpopular in the localities, due mainly to the difference in county ratings. John Pym was to declare that the annual and extended levy was "against all former precedents and laws."By defending the tax, the king must have known that his "reputation and conscience" was at stake.

However, in 1629, peace was the immediate answer to the drain on the royal finances. Although Charles realised that he could not wage war without Parliamentary subsidies, the Crown could manage its budget more effectively in peacetime. As David Smith (1998) notes, Charles I "began to cut his foreign policy to suit the cloth of non-parliamentary government" by concluding the Treaty of Susa with France in April 1629, and the Treaty of Madrid with Spain in November 1630. However, as Ann Hughes (1991) correctly points out, "Charles’s personal rule was viable only as long as he avoided war," and this tenable position was eventually destroyed by the Bishops’ Wars with Scotland. A peace lasted for eight years out of the eleven that constituted the personal rule, and in itself could be considered a relative success compared to the periods of conflict that preceded the royal government and the civil wars that followed on from 1637. Indeed, there is some justification in Kishlansky’s claim that "considering what came before and after, it was indeed a golden age."

Charles’s motivation for imposing religious reform in Scotland may have come from a personal desire to unite his kingdoms. Nevertheless, the king severely underestimated opposition to his Laudian policy and was woefully unprepared for the resistance he encountered. Charles needed an army, but previous royal demands for an ‘exact or perfect militia’ had, as even revisionists conceded, fallen short of expectation. The king’s methods of maintaining a militia left a lot to be desired, and John Pym would later highlight the whole affair as a major factor of grievance towards the king. Charles had ‘pressed’ men into service, a policy that was opposed on grounds that it restricted civil liberties, and the ‘muster masters’ became a particular focus of opposition due to wages being paid through local levies only authorised by royal prerogative. The war against Scotland highlighted that "many county militias fell far short of the exact ideal." The 1625 Act of Revocation, "the grindstone of all the mischief that followed," had created a cauldron of resentment that boiled over when Charles threatened the foundation of Scottish religious and nationalist pride. War with Scotland was the direct consequence of the attempted introduction of the new ‘prayer book,’ and Charles’s own initiatives to impose his ‘personal’ will. The conflict with Scotland resulted in a bankrupt Crown that depreciated all Charles’s efforts to raise royal income and obliged the King to recall a Parliament. By suppressing Scottish passive resistance with force the king was "largely responsible" for the collapse of the personal rule. The rebellion in Scotland resulted from perhaps Charles’s most disastrous intervention, and was indeed a catastrophe that affected all of Charles’s three kingdoms; hardly the success that the king had anticipated. The crisis of 1639-1640, as Derek Hirst (1986) notes, "revealed how fragile had been the apparent tranquillity of the 1630’s."

Perhaps the key factor in the personal rule was the attempted introduction of a Laudian religious policy supported wholeheartedly by the Stuart monarchy. Once again, historical hindsight provides a cautious ‘justification’ for condemning Charles’s implantation of religious reform. There is no doubt that Charles intended to be successful in ending theological controversy and establishing a common liturgy and hierarchy to religious practice. In their determination and zeal to reform the established patterns of worship, Derek Hirst (1986) suggests that it is plausible to see Laud and Charles as religious ‘innovators’ in early Stuart England. However, such a policy would have affected all regions of ‘country’ and ‘county,’ and in general, Charles’s religious reform courted much controversy and opposition. The Laudian church had raised religious hackles over the concept of predestination by arguing that God’s grace was open to all, thus uniting many Protestants against the king. In 1637, Bishop John Williams was imprisoned for publishing The Holy Table, Name and Thing in which he argued against the Laudian alter policy, and Alexander Leighton questioned the episcopacy in a written work entitled ‘Sion’s Plea against Prelacy.’ The determination and ruthlessness of the king to enforce retribution on those who opposed religious reform is clearly illustrated by the punishments inflicted on the puritan pamphleteers, William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick. Prosecutions in the Star Chamber invoked sympathy for the victims and unease towards the suspected tyrannical nature of royal authority. The introduction of the ‘Book of Sports’ inflamed many among the Puritan factions of society, indeed, it has been expressively argued that the ‘corpse’ of puritan opposition was ‘disinterred’ and brought back to life "with the electric shock treatment of Laudianism!" Charles provoked a Puritan backlash from those who feared the return of Catholicism through the introduction of Arminian and Laudian policies. In the Parliaments of 1640, Puritan attempts to readdress the king over a possible return to Catholicism may have hastened the onset of the English Civil War. As early as 1629, the Commons had warned "whoever shall bring in innovation of religion" or "seek to extend or introduce popery or Arminianism…shall be reputed a capital enemy to this kingdom and Commonwealth." Nevertheless, as late as 1637, not only did Laud adamantly defend the jure divino of the calling of bishops, but he also declared, "my power of jurisdiction, is by divine apostolical right, and unalterable." Moreover, Laud presumably spoke for the king as well as himself when he protested "I have not assumed tyrannical power in matters ecclesiastical." Charles tried to enforce a religious uniformity that divided his kingdoms. He reinforced the notion that there was a Catholic conspiracy determined to return England to the bloody reign of Queen Mary I. In the 1630’s, threats to personal religion motivated 16,000 men and women to abandon England and settle in the American wilderness. This was perhaps understandable when even music associated with the Catholic Counter Reformation found patronage under Charles I. Barry Coward (1994) considers that "Laudianism made the greatest contribution" to the growing dissatisfaction with Charles’s personal government, and by combining the affairs of state with ecclesiastical policy, Charles ensured that any opposition to the Laudian church would involve an attack on the monarchy. By demonstrating a spectacular lack of foresight and understanding of individual faith, the religious reforms were far from being the success that Laud and Charles had desired. Nevertheless, if Laudianism characterised the religious policies of the 1630’s, and as Kevin Sharpe points out "it was the king who led and the archbishop who followed," it is possible to argue that the personal rule was successful in that all directives came from the king himself, and that it was his will alone that established the task of reform.

There is no doubt that Charles was applying his own volition. To a degree, he was successful in enforcing many of his ‘personal’ policies, and although he received advice from Laud and Strafford, it was Charles’s decision to appoint the two men to high office. Charles had supported a more high church ceremony and believed more in the ‘communion and altar’ than in the ‘pulpit and preaching,’ and Laud, that "little thief put into the window of the church to unlock the door to popery," only saw himself as doing the king's bidding by implementing the new ‘altar policy.’ It has been suggested that the personal rule saw the reinvigoration of the Privy Council, and that after 1628, "the Council was formed into an efficient advisory body and an effective organ of government." However, the Privy Council appears to be a ‘tool’ with which the king used to expedite his own whims. Charles was not impervious to advice, but he did remain "distinctly selective in his adoption of it." Even a revisionist argument concludes that even though there was a degree of consultation, "the decisions made, the aims and priorities pursued were often those of Charles himself." The standing committees were established to oversee trade, foreign and domestic affairs, and therefore Charles has to bear responsibility for the failures that resulted through ineffective administration. Wentworth’s appointment in Ireland proved a shrewd move in that he successfully imposed effective financial and administrative measures, but again, a price was paid in that the ‘old’ and ‘new’ English were to unite against the king in an ‘unnatural alliance.’ Archbishop Laud and Strafford came to represent the provocative and subversive nature of the personal rule precisely because they did exemplify the wishes of King Charles. Strafford in particular would help promote the notion of a ‘popish plot’ supported by the monarchy. In the minds of contemporary opposition, the continuation of the personal rule would result in a country dominated by absolute tyranny. It was imperative to establish a forum to limit the king’s authority. Kevin Sharpe has argued that the king never intended to rule permanently without Parliament, noting that Charles declared in 1629 that he would call another parliament "when our people shall see more clearly into our interest and actions." However, the emphasis on ‘our interest’ is clearly highlighting the desires of an autocratic king, and not to the advantage of future parliaments. Even in 1641, Charles felt that parliamentary inconvenience had only "irreverently interrupted…(the) divine service."

Charles had tried to organise his kingdoms as though they were a "gigantic Court masque," however, it is perhaps possible to view Charles’s ‘Personal Rule’ as the ‘anti masque’; an ignorant, grotesque and autocratic display of clowning that preceded the main performance in the Short and Long Parliament’s. It appears that the king’s ‘obsessive concern with order’ actually helped create disorder within localised government, a factor that would severely undermine his later military campaigns against Parliament resulting in a British Isles bereft of a monarchy until the Restoration settlement of 1660. It appears that ‘personal success’ only aroused division and not the unity and order that Charles had desired. Although Charles had gained a ‘legal’ judgement in the prosecution of John Hampden, the king’s real crime was the deliberate isolation of the monarchy from the nobility, gentry and the common people. Charles may have solved the monarchy’s immediate fiscal problems and initiated a ‘genuine’ attempt at religious uniformity, but the resentment it caused and the loss in popularity among the majority of his subject’s sparked debate over fundamental constitutional and religious issues. Charles appears to have sacrificed long-term viability for short-term modest gains that scarcely justified the amount of resentment they provoked. As David Smith (1998) points out, royal policy in the 1630’s was "intensely divisive," and underneath the apparent calm, "lurked deep-rooted tensions and grievances." All the royal polices introduced in the personal rule on their own did not, and arguably could not, instigate a constitutional crisis that inevitably would lead to revolution. Religious reform did not create a ‘wall of opposition,’ but instead divided opinion and provoked heated debate. Many of the royal policies were relatively successful, and ship money remains a notable highpoint. Nevertheless, the most critical failure was the actual choice to govern without Parliament. The very nature of personal rule without a parliament meant that the essential forum for discussing grievances against the king was not available, so any grievances that arose due to royal policy could not be expressed in and of its time. Charles denied the opportunity for all sections of society to air their opinions and only when the king was reluctantly forced to summon a parliament in 1640, did all the accumulative effect of stored resentment find a mouthpiece in the protestations of local MP’s. As Derek Hirst (1986) correctly points out, "the speed of the collapse of Charles’s position showed how limited had been the gains of the 1630’s." Limited success, a lack of prudence and authoritarian kingship would determine Parliaments list of grievances in the Short Parliament. The king stood accused of failure by undermining "the liberties and privileges of parliament," introducing "innovations in matters of religion," acting against the "propriety of our goods." The result was a parliamentary attempt to restrain the royal authority. Royal government came under criticism and scrutiny by Parliament, and every aspect of royal policy was investigated on all levels. If the initial policies of ‘personal rule’ were immediately successful, then the conclusion was truly disastrous for the Caroline monarchy. Even in the last days of his life, the king remained defiant towards Parliament and defensive of his personal rule. Eight days before he was executed, King Charles I declared that, "the commons of England will not thank you for this change, for they will remember how happy they have been of late years under the reign of…myself, until the beginning of these unhappy troubles, and will have cause to doubt that they shall never be so happy under any new."