Michael Fisher reflects on parallels between the times of Charles I and Elizabeth II

‘O holy king, whose severed head

The martyr’s crown doth ray,

With tears for every blood-drop shed,

Saint Charles for England pray.’

30 January is the anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I, the first and only saint to have been formally canonised by the post-Reformation Church of England and designated as a martyr. Although history books generally refer to the event as an ‘execution’, this is incorrect. ‘Execution’ means the implementation of a sentence passed by a legally-constituted court of law following a fair trial, but the king’s trial and sentencing were undertaken by an ad hoc commission—what we might now call a ‘kangaroo court’—and the verdict was in any case a foregone conclusion. It was nothing less than judicial murder. So, following the restoration of the monarchy, a commemoration of the martyred Charles was annexed to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, to be used annually on 30 January and including proper Epistle and Gospel and a Collect in which those responsible for the king’s death are accounted as ‘murderers’. Originally designated a fast rather than a feast, it was intended as occasion for corporate reflection and penitence for the crime of regicide which had tainted the whole nation. It remained in place until 1859 when it was removed from the Prayer Book, but in 1894 the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded with the express purpose of offering ‘intercessory prayer for the defence of the Church of England against the attacks of her enemies.’ With its aims now more broadly based, the society still exists, and every January there is a commemoration outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall where the scaffold was erected in 1649.


‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed king;

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord.’


These words were put into the mouth of the last English king to have been deposed and murdered, namely Richard II, in Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy published five years before Charles I was born. They serve as a reminder of the indelible nature of Christian kingship and of the authority that comes not from the rough-and-tumble of party politics, but from God’s choice, confirmed sacramentally by holy anointing. So as, on 6 February 2018, our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth enters the sixty-seventh year of her reign, she bears those invisible but indelible marks that were traced upon her in holy oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury at her coronation. She may recall too the words spoken by the archbishop:

‘And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be you anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord your God hath given you to rule and govern.’ Note the use of the word ‘consecrated’ and the reference to the divine authority for kingship. It takes us back well beyond the thousand years or so of the English monarchy to the Old Testament origins of what is called ‘sacral kingship.’ It is reinforced by other rituals within the coronation rite, based on the fourteenth-century Liber Regalis and even more ancient sources. Notable among these is the investiture of the monarch, after the anointing, in robes of a sacerdotal nature such as the supertunica, armilla and pallium regale which are recognisably dalmatic, stole and cope.

   The sacral aspects of the coronation rite inevitably raise the question of church-state relations: who holds supreme authority on earth, and where do the boundaries lie between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? In some respects there was nothing new about the dispute between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII, for kings and popes had fallen out many times before. What made this one different is that the breach was permanent, with the substitution of King for Pope as ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church of England. Though Elizabeth I equivocally and diplomatically styled herself as ‘Supreme Governor’, it meant much the same in practice. Cut off from Rome, and distanced from continental Protestantism by its conservative liturgy and its threefold order of bishop, priest and deacon, the Church of England gradually established a new identity as both catholic and reformed, standing in continuity with the medieval church and with the even older British church served by saints such as Aidan, Chad and Columba before the arrival of St Augustine in 597. In the reign of Charles I this identity was reinforced by the theological and liturgical scholarship of the so-called ‘Caroline Divines’, such as Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor and archbishop William Laud, and by a new flowering within the church of music and the visual arts, all with the active support of the king—a subject surveyed in some detail by Graham Parry in Glory, Laud and Honour; the Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation. This naturally displeased the Puritans who sought to push the Anglican church in a radically Protestant direction, to purge the Prayer Book and the churches of any remnants of ‘popery’ and to abolish episcopacy. Bound up with political issues, and King Charles’ passionate belief in rule by Divine Right, it was a major factor in the Civil War. Had Charles been prepared to accept Presbyterianism and a new—Protestant—Directory of Public Worship in place of the Prayer Book, he might well have kept his throne and his head, but he stood firm and paid the price. After the Restoration of 1660, several new churches were dedicated under his patronage; indeed, even during Cromwell’s rule the Countess of Devonshire built the church of Charles, King and Martyr, in the Derbyshire village of Peak Forest as an act of defiance.

Popular histories make much of the year 1588: the defeat of the Spanish Armada and with it the threat of domination by a foreign power. They have comparatively little to say about the Dutch Armada of exactly a century later, or the German Armada of 1714, both of which succeeded in placing foreign kings on the English throne: first the Dutchman William III, and later the German George I who spoke not a word of English. Neither understood what the Church of England was all about, nor did they appear to care very much, but they were Protestants—William a Calvinist and George a Lutheran—and this is what mattered most to the cabal of Whig politicians who dominated the government of England for much of the eighteenth century. In 1688 the word ‘Protestant’, which occurs nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer or in any of the other historic formularies of the Church of England, was inserted into the Coronation Oath, where it still remains. Dare one hope that before the next coronation this anachronism might be replaced by a declaration—similar to that required of clergy before taking office—of fidelity to the Anglican Church and its formularies, as part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?

During the Whig supremacy of the eighteenth century the Church of England fell into a steady decline, its buildings often neglected, the rubrics and liturgical directions of the Prayer Book largely ignored, and the appointment of its bishops governed principally by their political allegiance. It was this state of affairs which led to John Keble’s cry of ‘National Apostasy’ from the pulpit of St Mary’s, Oxford, on 14 July 1833, and all that subsequently flowed from it in terms of revival and renewal. The Oxford Tractarians drew much from the definitive writings of the ‘Caroline Divines’, emphasising the sanctity of the church, its sacraments, and its holy orders; its continuity with the medieval English church, and its status as the via media—neither Roman nor Protestant, but Catholic and Reformed.

Our present sovereign’s deeply-held Christian faith and her devotion to the church are well known, but the royal prerogative, in both civil and ecclesiastical matters, is exercised on her behalf by ministers of the Crown who are in turn accountable to a Parliament that is no longer exclusively Christian, let alone Anglican. There are some warning signs. One of these is the possibility of Parliament using its legislative power to force the church to trim its sails to the prevailing secular wind. Such a situation almost became a reality in 2012 when, outraged by the failure of General Synod to approve the women bishops’ measure at first attempt, David Cameron’s government seriously considered using Parliamentary procedures to override the freedom of the church in matters of faith and order. What next, I wonder? Meanwhile, issues such as lay presidency at the Eucharist, Holy Communion for the uninitiated (already a reality in Wales), the seal of the confessional, clerical vesture, and the Sheffield affair, reveal that subversive forces pose as big a challenge to Anglican identity today as ever they did in the reign of Charles I.

‘For England’s Church, for England’s realm

(once thine in earthly sway),

Lest storms our Ark should overwhelm,

Saint Charles, for England pray.’