Celebrating a royal tyrant

While reading the Church Times in bed last night, I flicked over to the adverts and saw an announcement that disgusted me. It was advertising the “Commemoration of the martyrdom of King Charles I”. It listed two eucharistic services, in London and Edinburgh, each led by a bishop, to mark this “martyrdom”. 

All tyrants have their fans. Joseph Stalin is still popular with certain people both inside and outside Russia. I’m sure there are people who think that the Roman Emperor Nero was a good bloke. What is surprising is not that a tyrant is being celebrated, but that this celebration is listed in the official calendar of the Church of England and marked in church services led by bishops. 

The Church of England lists 30 January as the “Feast of King Charles the Martyr”. This was the date in 1649 when Charles I was executed following his conviction for treason. Charles was one of the most vicious and oppressive rulers that Britain has ever known. Convinced that God had given him the right to rule, he tried to exercise power without Parliament. He levied heavy taxes that hurt the poor and people in the middle rather than the rich. He used many of these taxes to fund very avoidable wars. Eventually, of course, he waged war against his own people.

I am not suggesting that Charles was solely responsible for the deaths of the thousands of people who were killed in the civil war. But no-one bears more responsibility for those deaths than he does. He was rightly found guilty of treason. This was an important moment, as treason had generally been defined as the betrayal of a monarch. Convicting a king of treason made clear that a ruler is expected to be loyal to the people; not the other way around.

As an opponent of the death penalty, I do not condone the execution of Charles I – or of anyone else. This was a time in which the death penalty was used for a wide range of crimes, certainly including treason and murder – and Charles was guilty of both of these. 

The services listed in the advert, which I assume take place every year, seem to be organised by a group called the “Royal Martyr Church Union”. I suspect they may be a very small group, as they don’t appear even to have a website. I would be inclined to dismiss them were it not for the people presiding at their services – Robert Ladds, Assistant Bishop of London and John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh. 

More worrying still is that the “Feast of King Charles the Martyr” continues to be listed in the Church of England’s calendar. It was instituted after the republic was overthrown in 1660 and Charles I’s son returned from exile in France to take the throne as Charles II. He did so on the basis of promises of religious and political liberty that were almost immediately broken. 

I understand that high church Anglicans may share some of Charles I’s views on church government, although Anglo-Catholicism has included a strong left-wing strand since the nineteenth century. But it is one thing to agree with a ruler’s views on a particular issue, quite another to overlook oppression. I’m sure that many Anglicans find this celebration repugnant. Why are others continuing with it?