Wednesday, January 30, 2013


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"King Charles the First a Martyr?" you may ask. Yes, and a Saint. That the question can be put is a measure of the failure of the Church of England to maintain the view concerning him which she has never officially abandoned. From 1662 to 1859 it was proclaimed in the Book of Common Prayer, until, in the latter year, by a legal quibble, the special services for the 30th January were removed from it by Royal Warrant.

"It is as natural," said John Keble, preaching before the University of Oxford, "that the Church of England should keep this day as it is that Christ's Universal Church should keep St. Stephen's martyrdom." Bishop Creighton in 1895 observed: "Had Charles been willing to abandon the Church and give up episcopacy, he might have saved his throne and his life. But on this point he stood firm; for this he died and, by dying, saved it for the future."

In the whirlwind of Calvinism which devastated Great Britain during the first half of the seventeenth century arose "the White King", devout, learned, brave: of whom a great preacher eloquently said "that he could defend his Religion as a King, dispute for it as a Divine, and die for it as a Martyr". The oath "to defend the Catholic Faith", administered at his coronation, he made the keynote of his life, striving, as far as it lay in his power, to restore the  traditional teaching and dignified worship of which the shepherdless sheep had gradually been deprived, and strenuously opposing the attempted abolition of the Episcopal Hierarchy and the "sacrilegious invasions" of "the Church's enemies". (Eikon Basilike.)

Clarendon, originally an opponent, and a very critical loyalist, wrote of him: "He was the worthiest Gentleman, the best Master, the best Friend, the best Husband, the best Father, and the best Christian that the age in which he lived produced". B. Disraeli, in Sybil, wrote: "Rightly was King Charles surnamed the Martyr, for he was the holocaust of direct taxation. Never yet did a man lay down his life for so great a cause--the cause of the Church and the cause of the poor," and W. E. Gladstone, a Liberal, agreed with him so far as to admit: "It was for the Church that King Charles shed his blood upon the scaffold".

His attitude to the Saints was definitely traditional and Catholic; the Pope's Envoy, Rossetti, stated that the Queen Mother (Anne of Denmark) told him that in speaking of certain miracles performed by the Saint in whose honour the processions were being made at Antwerp, she observed the King listening attentively, "seeming to have a decided taste for the Catholic religion". We know that by the King's orders, in 1635, the bones of St. William at York were translated to a worthier grave. He also ordered the Windsor tapestries, representing the Assumption and St. George, to be placed on either side of the High Altar at the feasts of the Order of the Garter. It was during his reign that Oxford saw the erection of the crowned image of our Lady and Child over the porch of the University Church.

At the Restoration, Convocation decreed his formal canonization by the threefold method in use till the 10th century, i.e., by appointing the anniversary of his martyrdom to be kept (the Canterbury and York Convocations adding the name of "K. Charles, Martyr", to the Kalendar of the new Book of Common Prayer), the compilation of an Office proper for his Feast-day, and the dedication of churches under his patronage. (To this day the Feast of Saint Charlemagne, although he was never canonized at Rome, is celebrated at Paris and Aix-la-Chapelle.) Churches were dedicated to the Royal Martyr at Plymouth, Falmouth, Tunbridge Wells, the Peak Forest, Newtown in Shropshire, Shelland in Suffolk, Tangier, Kilmainham Hospital in Dublin, recently at South Mimms, and another is in process of building at Oxford.

At Hedgerley, in Buckinghamshire, local tradition has it that the King, halting at the Church to receive the Blessed Sacrament, covered the altar with his cloak, and left it behind on departing. The remains of it are now carefully preserved.

Small wonder that when Charles, through treaties abortive and battles lost, clung firmly--at the price of liberty, revenues, and life itself--to the doctrine of the Apostolical Succession versus Presbyterianism, he should be regarded as a Martyr pro vero articulo fidei, for a true article of faith, by the Church for which he died.

That January day in Whitehall did not wash the balm from Kingship,
but gave it a new anointing. (JOHN BUCHAN)

On the night before his beheading, he made his confession to Juxon, the Bishop of London, and on the day itself, spent an hour in prayer, and then received the Viaticum, after which, we are told, "he rose up from his knees with a cheerful and steady countenance". On the scaffold he forgave his murderers and declared that he died as a martyr for his people. Kneeling to the block as to a prayer-desk, he stretched out his hands for a sign that he was ready. With one blow the execution severed his head from  his body. Andrew Marvell, the Puritan poet, thus described the martyr's death:

"He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene
But with his keener eye
The axe's edge did try;
Nor called the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bow'd his comely head
Down, as upon a bed."

1 comment:

Greg Rogers said...

Thanks for that. It offers a nice bit of perspective.