33. Charles I, A.D. 1625—1649
So many of the great nobles had been killed in the Wars of the Roses, that the barons had lost all that great strength and power they had gained when they made King John sign Magna Carta. The kings got the power instead; and all through the reigns of the five Tudors, the sovereign had very little to hinder him from doing exactly as he pleased. But, in the meantime, the country squires and the great merchants who sat in the House of Commons had been getting richer and stronger, and read and thought more. As long as Queen Elizabeth lived they were contented, for they loved her and were proud of her, and she knew how to manage them. She scolded them sometimes, but when she saw that she was really vexing them she always changed, and she had smiles and good words for them, so that she could really do what she pleased with them.
But James I. was a disagreeable man to have to do with; and, instead of trying to please them, he talked a great deal about his own power as king, and how they ought to obey him; so that they were angered, and began to read the laws, and wonder how much power properly belonged to him. Now, when he died, his son Charles was a much pleasanter person; he was a gentleman in all his looks and ways, and had none of his father's awkward, ungainly tricks and habits. He was good and earnest, too, and there was nothing to take offence at in himself; so for some years all went on quietly, and there seemed to be a great improvement. But several things were against him. His friend, the Duke of Buckingham, was a proud, selfish man, who affronted almost everyone, and made a bad use of the king's favor; and the people were also vexed that the king should marry a Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, who would not go to church with him, nor even let herself be crowned by an English archbishop.
You heard that, in Queen Elizabeth's time, there were Puritans who would have liked to have the Prayer-book much more altered, and who fancied that every pious rule of old times must be wrong. They did not like the cross in baptism, nor the ring in marriage; and they could not bear to see a clergyman in a surplice. In many churches they took their own way, and did just as they pleased. But under James and Charles matters changed. Dr. Laud, whom Charles had made archbishop of Canterbury, had all the churches visited, and insisted on the parishioners setting them in order; and if a clergyman would not wear a surplice, not make a cross on the baptized child's forehead, nor obey the other laws of the Prayer-book, he was punished.
The Puritans were greatly displeased. They fancied the king and Dr. Laud wanted to make them all Roman Catholics again; and a great many so hated these Church rules, that they took ship and went off to North America to found a colony, where they might set up their own religion as they liked it. Those who staid continued to murmur and struggle against Laud.
There was another great matter of displeasure, and that was the way in which the king raised money. The right way is that he should call his Parliament together, and the House of Commons should grant him what he wanted. But there were other means. One was that every place in England should be called on to pay so much for ship money. This had begun when King Alfred raised his fleet to keep off the Danes; but it had come not to be spent on ships at all, but only be money for the king to use. Another way that the kings had of getting money was from fines. People who committed some small offence, that did not come under the regular laws, were brought before the Council in a room at Westminster, that had a ceiling painted with stars—and so was called the Star Chamber—and there were sentenced, sometimes to pay heavy sums of money, sometimes to have their ears cut off. This Court of the Star Chamber had been begun in the days of Henry VII., and it is only a wonder that the English had borne it so long.
One thing Charles I. did that pleased his people, and that was sending help to the French Protestants, who were having their town of Rochelle besieged. But the English were not pleased that the command of the army was given to the duke of Buckingham, his proud, insolent favorite. but Buckingham never went. As he was going to embark at Portsmouth, he was stabbed to the heart by a man named Felton; nobody clearly knows why.
Charles did not get on much better even when Buckingham was dead. Whenever he called a Parliament, fault was always found with him and with the laws. Then he tried to do without a Parliament; and, as he, of course, needed money, the calls for ship money came oftener, and the fines in the Star Chamber became heavier, and more cases for them were hunted out. Then murmurs arose. Just then, too, he and Archbishop Laud were trying to make the Scots return to the Church, by giving them bishops and a Prayer-book. But the first time the Service was read in a church at Edinburgh, a fishwoman, named Jenny Geddes, jumped up in a rage and threw a three-legged stool at the clergyman's head. Some Scots fancied they were being brought back to Rome; others hated whatever was commanded in England. All these leagued together, and raised an army to resist the king; and he was obliged to call a Parliament once more, to get money enough to resist them.