University of Portsmouth's History Blog

King Charles I – a man of principle, not a “man of blood”?

Many people instinctively blame King Charles I for the British Civil Wars. So recent UoP history graduate Connor Scott-Butcher’s decision to use his dissertation to challenge the idea, perpetuated by the regicides, that Charles was a “man of blood”, and the weight of historical argument ranged against him, always seemed to me a risky and provocative proposition.  Below, Connor writes about how he went about his research.  He gave a few sleepless nights to his supervisor, as well as himself, but the result was a balanced and well-structured argument, based around extensive use of contemporary primary sources. – Dr Fiona McCall.

My topic for my dissertation was a thorough examination of the role/responsibility of King Charles I in the events leading up to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. In particular, I looked at rebalancing the roles of multiple individuals, rather than the historical blame that has been placed on King Charles I.

Bust of King Charles I by Louis François Roubiliac (1759)

Bust of King Charles I by Louis François Roubiliac (1759), Wallace Collection, S23, photograph by Luke Mckernan, Wikimedia Commons


The topic of the Civil War had stuck with me from A-Level. My fascination for the period, as well as the added passion of my teacher, Mr. Andrew Brown, was what inspired me to study history at university in the first place. The reign of Charles I, with personal rule and civil war was particularly interesting, partly due to the decadence of the period and partly because war is almost always fascinating. What stayed with me was the idea that at every hurdle, the King appeared to be undermined by his Parliament, pushed or even bullied into legislation or war. This simple idea, of Charles I being ‘bullied’ by his Parliament, never left me and with a little bit of careful refining, the question of balancing responsibility was what I ended up trying to answer.

To begin my research, I started by going through the relevant literature on the period from the 1630s and early 1640s, examining the politics and religion of the period. The English Civil War has been written about for centuries, so I began with the best historians from the 1970s onwards: John Morrill, Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone, Clive Holmes, and many more. This provided a broad knowledge of the politics and religion of the 1630s and 1640s and although this was useful to a project of this complexity, with so much information, it was often hard to narrow down the question. Under the watchful eye of my supervisor and mentor, Dr Fiona Mccall, I was able to thin out the research to examine the balance in terms of the political and aggressive actions.

English Civil War Society parade to commemorate the execution of Charles I, 27 January 2019

English Civil War Society parade to commemorate the execution of Charles I, 27 January 2019, Wikimedia Commons

While religion was definitely important to the period, I felt it best to take a secular examination of the subject. The significance of choosing political and aggressive actions, is that in the historiography, the pair rarely cross. I could have chosen to only write about one of them, but instead  I choose to look at it from both intertwining sides in order to re-examine the distorted, one-sided view. This is where the history has lacked and where my examination differs from those who came before me.

When I began searching for my sources, I feared how Covid would impact my access to things. I began my research by looking through the National Archives and the State Papers Online. I was fortunate enough to find that in spite of Covid, things appeared relatively accessible and the institutions I contacted were very forthcoming. I was sent a whole collection of sources from the library at Yale University, sources from the Isle of Wight Archives, and even access to a few ledgers when the British Library reopened in early 2021. My search was quite extensive, with the National Archives Discovery search engine proving the best way of finding locations of primary sources. Some were taken from books, both physical and thankfully some out-of-copyright digital versions, while House of Commons journals were easily accessible online. For the printed pamphlets and depositions, I was able to use JISC Historical Texts Online system to track down digital copies of the original works. I even went to the extent of trying to find the Papers of the Earl of Holland, a key player, which after a back and forth with Bonhams auctioneers reached a dead end. Despite the Covid situation, I was rather surprised at how much is out there, which rather put me at ease.

With all the primary sources and secondary readings, it gave a clearer image of the issue of the dichotomy of ‘King Pym’ and King Charles as too narrow a view of the period, giving greater light to the actions of other players on both sides: William Strode, Arthur Haselrige, Sir John Hotham, Queen Henrietta Maria, Colonel George Goring, and Henry Jermyn, to name a few. The ideas of Parliament as principled and Charles as not, was somewhat switched, with pressure, fear and often imprisonment being used by Parliamentary ‘radicals’ to impose law, against the principle of liberty and parliamentary freedom, whilst Charles, though weak to stop his court or oppose his wife’s demands, demonstrated principle and compromise in areas such as Strafford’s execution and the Militia Bill, against the claims of past historians who placed responsibility for war solely or mostly on Charles’ shoulders.

he Earl of Strafford, going to his execution, engraving with etching by J. Rogers after the painting by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), Wellcome Collection, 43468i

The Earl of Strafford, going to his execution, engraving with etching by J. Rogers after the painting by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), Wellcome Collection, 43468i

The whole process was the most amazing amount of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It took many months of work (and a few sleepless nights) but I loved every second of it. Whether it was because of the passion for the subject, the fascinating journey of searching archives and libraries, scurrying through the corridors of the British Library for example, or the fact that I had an enthusiastic, ever-helpful mentor who made the whole thing a joy, I could not have wished for a better thesis to have written.

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