Julian Browning preached on the Feast of the Martyrdom of St Charles at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, under the auspices of The Society of King Charles the Martyr, on 30 January 2018
On the black draped scaffold outside these windows, King Charles I flinched just once. He saw that the execution block was just a few inches off the floor. He knew then that his personal humiliation would continue to the very last minute of his life. Until that moment, on that cold chaotic January day in 1649, as the execution was delayed from the morning to the afternoon, all were agreed that the one person who remained serene, rational and prayerful was the King himself. He had that capacity. As he had written to his son from the Isle of Wight, ‘we have learned to busy our self by retiring into our self.’ That is how we remember him now, in his last few hours of desperate grief. And yet, this attractive, infuriating, obstinate man, this serene and lonely King, has the knack of causing division and civil war even today.
For if you have told a group of your friends that you are going to attend a service commemorating the Martyrdom of King Charles I, there is bound to be one, who has done the Stuarts at school, and says: How can you? Don’t you know that Charles I was weak, indecisive, vindictive, proud, incompetent, The Grand Delinquent, The Man of Blood, as he was called, and—the worst sin that our age can imagine—he failed, he lost. To which you should respond: Sainthood is not about character. That is Humanism. Saints are those who accept their share in Christ’s mission. Martyrs are those who know life is worth living, because there is something or someone worth dying for. If your friend, who hasn’t been listening, rambles on about how the execution had to happen for the sake of parliamentary sovereignty and for that slow dead march of progress towards a Whig democracy, you can spin round, on the raised heel of your Cavalier boot, remarking that King Charles I was not brought to trial because he wasn’t a democrat, nor because of his character. He was not put on trial in the ruthless modern way of digital inquisition and character slander, but because he had made war on his own people, thus breaking a solemn contract. And yet the real object of the trial was not to get at the truth, but to pass a sentence of death. That the prisoner knew.
The King flinched once on the scaffold, but he recovered himself, and tried to make a speech, for which, in his careful way, he had prepared notes on a piece of paper four inches square. The attempt was pathetic because the Army, with this speech in mind, had kept the people out of earshot. There were mounted soldiers facing the crowd. But the wind carried snatches of his speech back through the window to where we are sitting. They are the last words of old Tory England, a nation of solemn contracts agreed and kept between God, the Monarch, and the people. ‘A subject and a sovereign are clear different things… I am a Martyr of the people… I die a Christian according to the profession of the Church of England… I have a good Cause and I have a gracious God.’ Then, as you know, he removed his George, the insignia of the Garter, and gave it to Bishop Juxon with the one word: ‘Remember.’
How can we remember him? Remembrance is much more than recall. Remembrance is the pulse of love. Remembrance is the bloodstream of the past giving life to the present. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this out of love for me. Do this so that you can live with my life. To remember is much more than getting facts right. It requires us to understand deeply our connection as human beings and as Christians with this strange king.
Preachers at this Feast often try to make this connection by drawing a parallel between then and now. It’s tempting to do so: the collapse of church and state then, the divided national church now, we could go down that route with huge enjoyment, but I don’t think it works. It was different back then. Our preoccupations today are as nothing compared to the loss of everything which confronted King Charles as he crossed the park to the beat of the drums to Whitehall and his death—walking not like the proud icon of the portraits you will see at the Royal Academy, but looking old and strained, his hair long and grey. Besides, the study of the past with one eye upon the present is unhistorical. It distorts the past. That distortion leads to the incoherent vengeance being wreaked upon our imperial past in the universities today. So how about a personal approach to remembrance, the sort of sympathy we know when reading a good biography? We understand the subject. We enter his or her life. Surely Christian empathy, we think, can come to our aid, so that we can enter into this tragedy; and it is heartrending when Charles says farewell to his children, Elizabeth aged thirteen and Henry aged eight, when the soldiers jeer at him, when he sees the axe on the scaffold. But I think we overestimate our powers of sympathy. Can we go back and enter the scene? Can we really enter the sufferings of another person? That’s the question. I’m not sure we can. For if you suffer in life, the pain is yours and yours alone. No one else can experience this. If you do suffer, as we all must do, it does not mean that others feel pain even though their love is great; hence the loneliness of life. King Charles remains alone.
And so I bring you to the heart of the matter, as the brave king passes through the corridors of the palace at Whitehall, and then through this room (boarded up it was then, just a guardroom) between two lines of soldiers and walks out to his death; it is his aloneness, his isolation, which he shares with us, and we with him. We are not here to be Royalist for a day. This is not a pageant. We come to this service to commend the King’s soul to God’s care, and also, as at every Communion, to meet our God alone—as Charles meets his God now.
Nothing came easily to King Charles. He wasn’t meant to be King; he was the younger prince. He had to overcome his stammer and a nervous disposition. He needed a rigid timetable to function at all. He used the arts, music and painting—about which he knew so much, as you will discover at the Royal Academy—and the masques in which he acted, to bring some order to the confusion of his experience, the misfortunes of his reign. His devotional life wasn’t easy; it was a hard grind, a heroic attempt at self-control, facing his conscience each day; there was a strictness to his life which was more Puritan than Catholic. It is as if he knew that ultimately he was on his own, and God alone was his friend. And so in his last moments, Charles, whose every move was watched from the day he was crowned, who had played his kingly role so publicly as a player on the stage, he who had no privacy at all in his final days, is the most isolated of Kings. This is the loneliness of the Cross, the experience of the outsider, the rejected one, with nothing left to give but one self. Into thy hands I commend my spirit. And yet, extraordinary as it sounds, in the grim isolation of his final days, as he tried to say his prayers while soldiers tramped through his room, Charles uncovered a reserve of Christian hope. Any Christian vocation to sainthood, yours, mine and that of King Charles, goes through the paschal mystery, through defeats and sorrows to resurrection and perfect freedom. We lose ourselves in order to find the freedom of a child of God. In that surrender, the loneliness of life is dissipated, burned away in the fire of divine love; the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, wrote St Paul to the Corinthians: liberty, freedom, that fruit of the Spirit. We will remember Charles’s martyrdom as we should, when we see passing through this room, not Parliament’s prisoner, but a free man laying down his life. As he said on the scaffold: ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance at all.’ Maybe this might be said about us one day, that, throughout our lives, we were no longer prisoners of our fears, but free spirits, living life with God, an eternal life.
Out on that scaffold, Charles asked again whether the execution block could be raised a little, but his request was declined, and the King of England was beheaded lying down, like a criminal. We who remember that day, and there are fewer of us now, believe we honour his memory by worshipping God in the Church Charles refused to surrender, in the same apostolic faith, with the Sovereign as Supreme Governor, and in a catholic order which was dismantled then and is sorely fractured now; yet nevertheless we are led by the same Holy Spirit which descended on Charles at his coronation, we are accompanied by the same Christ who kneels down with Charles on the scaffold, and all Creation remains under the loving and all-forgiving gaze of the same God, to whom be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and power, henceforth and for evermore. Amen.
Fr Julian Browning is an Assistant Priest at All Saints’, Margaret Street, and a member of the Editorial Board of New Directions.