10th Grade: The Death of a King

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the building tension between Parliament and Charles I.  The civil war that eventually came would, in the long term, change the way the western world thought of political power.

As I mentioned last week, Charles inherited the ideas of absolute monarchy from his father James.  As some commentators, have suggested, however, there was a difference.  For James absolutism was an intellectual question, and thus a conviction he could dispense with, or at least minimize, when the time called for it.  For Charles, absolutism was a emotional issue, and one associated with his religious convictions.  It ran deeper for him, he believed in it with his heart instead of his head.

It would be wrong to say that Charles coveted power for the sake of power.  His conception of England was a realm that needed a shepherd.  He viewed England in personal terms.  His “High Church” Anglicanism serves as an example of this.  Yes, Charles liked ceremony, but also believed ceremony and pageantry appealed to masses, many of whom could not read.  He saw himself as their protector from the more “intellectual” Puritans.  His parliamentarian opponents saw England I think, in terms of institutions, and these institutions for them were the guarantee of the people’s liberties.  Both sides saw the same picture from different perspectives, and different aspects of the picture had different meanings for them.

Among the issues at stake:

Should something be considered legal if it is within the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the law?  Is the letter or the spirit of the law a better guarantee of liberty?

To understand this question, the issue at hand was Charles’s refusal to rule with Parliament, and his collection of the ‘Ship’s Tax.’  Being an introvert and socially awkward, I think Charles hated Parliament.  He did not hate every MP, but he did hate the crowd, the glad-handing, the politicking of it all.  Charles lacked people skills. It was just so much easier, on a number of levels, for him to rule alone without Parliament’s help.  As king, he was not required to call Parliament at all, except when he wanted new taxes.
Charles tried to keep expenses down but every government needs money at some point.  The ‘Ship’s Tax’ was a law still on the books from a few generations prior, but it had fallen into disuse.  It was used as a war-time measure to raise money when under the threat of invasion.   The last time it had been collected was back in the days when Elizabeth used it as a special measure to help prepare defense against the Spanish Armada.  Charles resurrected the tax.  Technically it was not a ‘new’ tax, for it had been collected before.  But Charles was using the tax as a means of general, not special revenue, and he did so to avoid calling for Parliament’s approval for any new taxes.  Charles was within the letter, but not the spirit of the law.  The tax was not “new” in the sense that it had once been collected, albeit with a different purpose in mind.  But Charles revived the tax not under threat of invasion, but as a loophole to avoid Parliament altogether.
By definition, can the king be a traitor?  If so, what would he have to do to merit that approbation?  If one conceives of the king personally embodying England itself then the answer is no.  But if one sees the king as a steward over something outside of himself, then it becomes a possibility.  Charles obviously viewed himself in the former sense, and Parliament the latter.  But at the time, no consensus existed on this question.

Should a bad, or ineffective king, be given complete loyalty?  Does the power of the king depend on how he rules, or on his office?

In the end, Parliament put Charles on trial for treason.  He had, they claimed, made war on his own people and trampled on the Constitution.  Furthermore, he had lied to them and negotiated with the Scots to invade on his behalf, while negotiating in supposed good faith with Parliament.  But the Parliament that tried Charles was not the full Parliament.  The army booted out those whom they suspected that Charles bought off, including the whole House of Lords.  Parliament may have the power to try the king, but was this Parliament?  Charles, at the trial, refused to enter a plea for this reason.  He argued that while “a power” faced him, law did not, which the following clip illustrates. . .

Charles never actually had a trial.  When he refused to enter a plea Parliament found him guilty “in abstentia” (though of course it did not take 2:30 as in the movie clip!).  Though I personally think that Parliament had a good case against Charles, they forced the issue and gave Charles back some dignity and legitimacy when they did not use the full Parliament to put him on trial.

At the end of this week we assigned lawyers to prosecute and defend Charles, as well as witnesses for the defense and prosecution.  I hope the students will have fun with our own mini ‘mock-trial’ and come away with a greater understanding of England during the mid-1600’s.  But as we will discuss next week, the past is not wholly “past.”  Our own ‘War on Terror’ has raised many of the same questions that faced the English.  Should torture ever be used, as Charles did, in time of war?  How far does the power of the president extend in war time?  Bush, for example, defended his extensive wire-tapping as a necessary war-time measure even if it was in a distinctly grey constitutional area, as this article notes.
These are many of the same dilemmas, in an obviously different context, that the English dealt with in 1650.  I hope students will make the connections.
Dave Mathwin
*Observe, for example, how in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” the kings of France and England call each other “Brother France,” and “Brother England.”