30 January 2018

Charles I: remembered today
as king, martyr and art collector

Charles I, executed on 30 January 1649 and remembered in London today as king, martyr – and art collector (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The residential meeting of trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) came to an end today at the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine.

Saint Katharine’s is in the heart of the East End in London, and we met there for two days. We discussed climate change, ethical investment, budgets, and USPG’s work with global partners in mission.

Each day began and ended with prayer. But the variations in the calendars of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland can sometimes catch me by surprise, and I was not prepared for this morning’s commemoration at the Eucharist of ‘Charles King and Martyr, 1649.’

Charles, King and Martyr, or Charles I, was king from 1625 until his execution on 30 January 1649, and his feast day in Anglican calendars falls on 30 January, the anniversary of his execution.

This observance was one of several ‘state services’ removed from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland in 1859. But there are churches and parishes dedicated to Charles the Martyr in England, and the former chapel in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, was also dedicated to him.

King Charles is still named in the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship and is commemorated at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, Pusey House in Oxford, and by some Anglo-Catholic societies, including the Society of King Charles the Martyr founded in 1894.

King Charles is regarded by many as a martyr because, it is said, he was offered his life if he would abandon the historic episcopacy in the Church of England. It is said he refused, however, believing that the Church of England was truly Catholic and should maintain the Catholic episcopate.

Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, wrote, ‘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 Charles stood firm: for this he died, and by dying saved it for the future.’

The political reality, though, is that Charles had already made an Engagement with the Scots to introduce Presbyterianism in England for three years in return for the aid of Scots forces in the Second English Civil War.

However, High Church Anglicans and royalists fashioned an image of martyrdom, and after the Restoration he was added to the Church of England’s liturgical calendar by a decision at the Convocations of Canterbury and York in 1660.

The red letter days or state commemorations in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer included the Gunpowder Plot, the birth and restoration of Charles II, and the execution of Charles I. These were marked with special services and special sermons.

The State Services were omitted from the Book of Common Prayer by royal and parliamentary authority in 1859, but without the consent of Convocation. Later, Vernon Staley would describe the deletion as ultra vires and ‘a distinct violation of the compact between Church and Realm, as set forth in the Act of Uniformity which imposed the Book of Common Prayer in 1662.’

Of the three commemorations, only that of King Charles I was restored in the calendar in the Alternative Service Book in 1980, although not as a Red Letter Day. A new collect was composed for Common Worship in 2000.

I was reminded in London later today how King Charles I amassed an extraordinary art collection, acquiring works by some of the finest artists of the past, including Titian, Mantegna, Holbein, Dürer, and commissioning leading contemporary artists such as Van Dyck and Rubens.

After his execution in 1649, his collection was sold off and scattered across Europe. Many works were retrieved by Charles II after the Restoration, but others now form the core of museums such as the Louvre and the Prado.

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘Charles I: King and Collector,’ has brought together great masterpieces from this collection for the first time. It includes over 100 works of art, ranging from sculptures to paintings, and from miniatures to tapestries.

For the first time since the 17th century, this landmark exhibition brings together the astounding treasures that changed the taste of a nation. By bringing these works together, the exhibition demonstrates the radical impact they had at the time and sheds light on how they fostered a vibrant visual culture that was hitherto unknown in England.


King of kings and Lord of lords,
whose faithful servant Charles
prayed for those who persecuted him
and died in the living hope of your eternal kingdom:
grant us by your grace so to follow his example
that we may love and bless our enemies,
through the intercession of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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