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 Austriaor 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.