King Charles and his Happy Death

(I had posted this at The American Catholic, and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)
The phrase “happy death” is no stranger to Catholics, a death where a person takes advantage of an awareness of approaching bodily death to confess sins and to appear before God for the particular judgment as a penitent.  I think the phrase can be used occasionally for the secular life.  Such an example was King Charles I.  Wrong-headed and far from wise, he had the chief responsibility for the civil wars that ravaged his country.  Defeated, he was brought by the victorious Parliament to trial for his life 367 years ago this month.  Based upon his past record, the expectation would have been that Charles would have cut a poor figure at his trial:  brave but stupid.  Then a marvelous thing happened.  Charles, who had never been eloquent, defended himself with a verve and skill that many an attorney would envy.  Under no illusions that he could save his life, he was determined to go out with the best arguments he could muster to defend his cause.  He argued that the court had no rightful power to judge him, and that he was the champion of the people’s liberty against the naked power of the sword.  He mused about how other people would be treated by the Army dictatorship when the King was treated with no mercy. Here are some of the arguments he made at trial in his own words:

I would know by what power I am called hither … I would know by what authority, I mean lawful ; there are many unlawful authorities in the world; thieves and robbers by the high-ways … Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the judgement of God upon this land. Think well upon it, I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater … I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent, I will not betray it, to answer a new unlawful authority; therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me.I do stand more for the liberty of my people, than any here that come to be my pretended judges … I do not come here as submitting to the Court. I will stand as much for the privilege of the House of Commons, rightly understood, as any man here whatsoever: I see no House of Lords here, that may constitute a Parliament … Let me see a legal authority warranted by the Word of God, the Scriptures, or warranted by the constitutions of the Kingdom, and I will answer.

It is not a slight thing you are about. I am sworn to keep the peace, by that duty I owe to God and my country; and I will do it to the last breath of my body. And therefore ye shall do well to satisfy, first, God, and then the country, by what authority you do it. If you do it by an usurped authority, you cannot answer it; there is a God in Heaven, that will call you, and all that give you power, to account.

If it were only my own particular case, I would have satisfied myself with the protestation I made the last time I was here, against the legality of the Court, and that a King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth: but it is not my case alone, it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England; and do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties. For if power without law, may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the Kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life, or any thing that he calls his own.

I do not know the forms of law; I do know law and reason, though I am no lawyer professed: but I know as much law as any gentleman in England, and therefore, under favour, I do plead for the liberties of the people of England more than you do; and therefore if I should impose a belief upon any man without reasons given for it, it were unreasonable … The Commons of England was never a Court of Judicature; I would know how they came to be so.

It was the liberty, freedom, and laws of the subject that ever I took – defended myself with arms. I never took up arms against the people, but for the laws … For the charge, I value it not a rush. It is the liberty of the people of England that I stand for. For me to acknowledge a new Court that I never heard of before, I that am your King, that should be an example to all the people of England, for to uphold justice, to maintain the old laws, indeed I do not know how to do it.

This many-a-day all things have been taken away from me, but that that I call more dear to me than my life, which is my conscience, and my honour: and if I had a respect to my life more than the peace of the Kingdom, and the liberty of the subject, certainly I should have made a particular defence for my self; for by that at leastwise I might have delayed an ugly sentence, which I believe will pass upon me … Now, sir, I conceive that an hasty sentence once passed, may sooner be repented of than recalled: and truly, the self-same desire that I have for the peace of the Kingdom, and the liberty of the subject, more than my own particular ends, makes me now at lest desire, before sentence be given, that I may be heard … before the Lords and Commons … If I cannot get this liberty, I do protest, that these fair shows of liberty and peace are pure shows and that you will not hear your King.”

After his condemnation, Charles went to his death calmly, stating that he was trading a perishable crown for an imperishable one.  Historians would note in full his folly that led him to the headman’s block, but they would also recall that in the last days of his life, Charles acquitted himself well, and that by his manner of passing from this life, he breathed new life into his cause.

 

 

 

 

 

SOMBRE and rich, the skies,

Great glooms, and starry plains;

Gently the night wind sighs;

Else a vast silence reigns.

The splendid silence clings

 Around me: and around

 The saddest of all kings,

Crowned, and again discrowned.

Comely and calm, he rides

Hard by his own Whitehall.

Only the night wind glides:

No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.

Gone too, his Court:and yet,

The stars his courtiers are:

Stars in their stations set;

And every wandering star.

Alone he rides, alone,

The fair and fatal King:

Dark night is all his own,

That strange and solemn thing.

Which are more full of fate:

 The stars, or those sad eyes?

 Which are more still and great:

Those brows, or the dark skies?

Although his whole heart yearn

In passionate tragedy,

Never was face so stern

 with sweet austerity.

Vanquished in life,

 his death By beauty made amends:

 The passing of his breath

Won his defeated ends.

Brief life, and hapless?

 Nay: Through death, life grew sublime.

 Speak after sentence?

Yea: And to the end of time.

Armoured he rides,

 his head Bare to the stars of doom;

 He triumphs now, the dead,

 Beholding London’s gloom.

Our wearier spirit faints,

 Vexed in the world’s employ:

 His soul was of the saints;

 And art to him was joy.

King, tried in fires of woe!

 Men hunger for thy grace:

 And through the night I go,

 loving thy mournful face.

Yet, when the city sleeps,

 When all the cries are still,

 The stars and heavenly deeps

 Work out a perfect will.

Lionel Johnson, By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross

 

Advertisements
Published in: on January 22, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on King Charles and his Happy Death  
Tags:
%d bloggers like this: