King Charles I of England, who was executed on 30 January 1649, was canonised by the Church of England in 1662 as a martyr and a saint. He refused to yield to Presbyterianism which cost him his throne.

Church of England

However, Charles I was the first British monarch, unlike Elizabeth I or James I, to be raised from childhood as a member of the Church of England, so he never considered the possibility of defending any other faith!

Charles I by Daniel Mytens, 1631. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles I by Daniel Mytens, 1631

Charles was also regular and punctual in his private devotions, as well as public prayers in the Royal Chapel every Sunday. He wrote a prayer to protect the realm from the plague, believing that even kings were men before a powerful God. Charles also heard Confession regularly.

Charles was devoted to the Anglican Church’s elaborate rituals, including prescribed prayers, the calendar of worship, and placing importance on observing Lent and fast days.

It was his faith and political beliefs that kept him going during times of trouble.

Charles found a soul mate, when it came to ecclesiastical affairs, in William Laud, whom he appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. They followed the Arminian tradition which believed in the existence of human free will, and they rejected the doctrine of predestination which had been a part of the Elizabethan and Jacobean church doctrine.

Catholicism By Stealth?

However, out of consideration for his wife, Henrietta Maria, Charles was lenient towards the Catholics at his court during the 1630s, including recent converts. Henrietta Maria believed she would restore the “true church”, but Charles had insisted the royal children must be raised as Protestants.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, c 1636

Charles and Laud envisioned an orderly, ceremonious British church which would inspire religious awe with its “beauty of holiness”.

English churches were transformed, as they were before the Reformation, with the stone altar at the east, separated from the congregation by railings, candlesticks for communion and the priests wore elaborate vestments. The more zealous clergy heard confessions, like their Catholic counterparts.

Charles I’s subjects deemed them “mere Popish superstition and idolatry”, and hated the new ceremonies which were similar to the Catholic Mass. Some thought Charles and Laud were closet papists planning to introduce Catholicism by stealth.

The Scottish Presbyterian Church strongly rejected Charles and Laud’s Anglican-style services, especially in Edinburgh Cathedral. Many signed the National Covenant in protest to have the Prayer Book abolished in Scotland.

Charles tried using force during the Bishops Wars of 1639-1640 but he was defeated. These wars were the prelude to the bloody Civil Wars which was fought in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1642 to 1651.

Eikon Basilike

In February 1649, the Eikon Basilike (Εἰκὼν Βασιλική), or The Royal Image, was published on 9 February, ten days after Charles I’s death by Richard Royston. It became a best-seller despite the Greek title to avoid censorship. Many accepted the contents as the King’s own work, as it helped cement Charles’s martyrdom.

Eikon Basilike was a series of reflections, prayers and meditations, which focused on the main events of Charles’s reign, from the beginning of his troubles until his imprisonment at Carisbrooke.

The book suggests Charles I had sought God’s guidance as he refused to abandon his duties and obligations as a Christian king, acknowledging his mistakes and forgiving his enemies.

Dr John Gauden later claimed he actually written Eikon Basilike, using papers Charles I had allegedly given him around September 1648, to create an incredibly convincing portrait of the martyred king.

Allegorical frontispiece to Eikon Basilike, depicting King Charles I of England as a Christian martyr, published in 1649.
Allegorical frontispiece to Eikon Basilike, depicting King Charles I of England as a Christian martyr, published in 1649.

Saint Charles The Martyr

There was a quick scramble by some, immediately after the King’s execution, to dip their handkerchiefs in the spilled blood, to grab some sort of memento before soldiers quickly cleared the square in front of the Banqueting House.

Mr Trapham, the surgeon who embalmed the King’s body, was pestered with requests for locks of hair and other relics but he refused. According to historian C V Wedgwood, when King Charles’s body was exhumed in 1813, part of the King’s hair had been cut off.

King Charles was canonised, much to the dismay of Protestants who regard praying to saints as idolatry.

However, the Church of England Prayer Book included services until evangelical Protestants lobbied both Church and Parliament to abolish a statute of 1660 which had ordered prayers to be said for “Charles the Martyr”.

Many churches, including three in Australia, have been dedicated to “Saint Charles, King and Martyr.”

The anniversary of Charles I’s death was commemorated every year by a day of fasting and a church service of thanksgiving.

Today, the Society of King Charles the Martyr celebrates his Feast Day on 30 January, with wreath-laying and prayers at the site of execution at 11.40 am outside the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, followed by a mass inside the palace at 12 noon.

A contemporary German print showing the 1649 execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House, Whitehall, London.
A contemporary German print showing the 1649 execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House, Whitehall, London.


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Hibbert, Christopher, Cavaliers and Roundheads: The English at War 1642-1649, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1993

Hibbert, Christopher, Charles I, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007

Houghton, S M, Sketches From Church History, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1980

Kenyon, J P, The Stuarts, William Collins Sons & Co, Glasgow, 1966 (Fifteenth Impression November 1977)

Rodwell, Warwick, and Bentley, James, Our Christian Heritage, Guild Publishing, London, 1984

Smith, Carol and Roddy, Quicknotes Christian History Guidebook, Barbour Publishing, Uhrichville, OH, 2001

Stubbs, John, Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, Viking [Penguin Books Ltd], London, 2011

Toynbee, Margaret, King Charles I, Morgan-Grampion Books Limited, London, 1969

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Wedgwood, C V, The Trial of Charles I, Penguin Books, Harmondworth, 1983

Weight, Richard, Reluctant Regicides, History Today, February 2014

Whitaker, Katie, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I & Henrietta Maria, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2010

Saint Charles The Martyr was article was originally published on Carolyn M Cash’s blog on 30 January 2014.

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