A Bad Year for Kings

Posted Jan 30, 2014

Van Dyck/Wikiart
Source: Van Dyck/Wikiart

For the second time this January, gusts are swirling around the polar vortex. The wind chill is below zero, and the snowdrift in front of my house is at least ten feet deep.

It could be worse. It was probably a milder 30th of January when, 365 years ago, at 2:00 in the afternoon, Charles I was led shivering to a scaffold in London, and his head was cut off. He’d been charged with the advancement of his personal interest against the public interest by a High Court of Justice. A week later, the Office of King was abolished. “To have the power thereof in any single person is unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people, and that for the most part, use hath been made of the regal power and prerogative to oppress and impoverish and enslave the subject,” was the verdict of parliament.

That was the beginning of the end of unpopular government.

Charles’ father, James I, liked to lecture his parliaments. He often reminded them that “Kings are justly called Gods,” that “The State of Monarchie is the supremest thing on earth,” that “You do not meddle with the main points of Government, that is my craft,” that “The King is over-Lord of the whole land: so is he master over every person that inhabiteth the same, having power over the life and death of every one of them.”

Compared to his father, Charles I was uncomfortable with his Houses of Commons. To his friend, the earl of Stafford, he said that parliaments were like “Hidras,” or “of the nature of Cats;” he told one of his viscounts that he “utterly disliked” them, and asked a French bishop how he might do without them. Instead, in the end, they were able to do without him.

In retrospect, the reason seems simple enough. Just four generations before Charles I was brought to the block, his great-great-grandfather, Henry VII, got a visit from Bartholomew, Christopher Columbus’ brother. He was looking for backing for a trip to the West Indies. Henry turned that offer down. But a couple of years later, he commissioned Giovanni Caboto, another Italian explorer better known as John Cabot, on a voyage to Newfoundland; and nearly a century after that, Walter Raleigh got a charter from Elizabeth I to set up a colony on Roanoke Island off the Virginia coast. It was in the spring of 1607 that an expedition backed by James I set up a permanent settlement on the Chesapeake Bay. They called it Jamestown.

And from then on, the death warrants of Old World kings were written in New World colony names.

Virginia was named for Elizabeth, the “virgin” queen. Maryland was named after Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s French wife. Charlestown, and the Carolinas, were named for their oldest son; and New York was named after his little brother, the duke of York. Georgia, the last of the 13 colonies, would be named for George II.  And his son, George III, would lose those colonies—and his mind—after 1776.

But their subjects--like superb fairy wrens, or paper wasps, who explored boldly and found new frontiers to conquer--would live long in the Americas.  And their children would prosper.