Was Charles I trying to create ‘absolutism’ during the Personal Rule?


Many historians argue that after the dissolution of Parliament in 1629 Charles attempted to establish an absolutist political system, whereby all authority is vested in one ruler. When considering the evidence of Charles’ autocratic nature, the reforms of religion can be said to support the view that Charles was attempting to establish absolutism, whereas the financial and local government reforms challenge the idea. The most important argument against the idea that Charles was attempting to create absolutism was that England was in dire need of reformation; local government was inefficient and England was in severe debt, reaching nearly £1 million pounds by 1630. Consequently rather than attempting to establish a totalitarian regime, Charles was simply reacting to the inefficiencies and issues that existed within England at the time, implementing the reforms necessary if England were to remain a powerful and competitive state. 


The most important evidence that disputes the idea that Charles was attempting to create absolutism were the financial reforms that Charles implemented. By 1630 England was in severe debt at around £1 million pounds and without Parliament’s subsidies Charles needed to find another method in order to raise revenue. Charles chose to raise revenue by employing William Noy, the Attorney General, to search through England’s history and find forgotten laws, lapsed policies and medieval precedents that could be used to raise income. An example of this was the revival of forest laws, which allowed Charles to fine landowners who estates now encroached on the ancient boundaries and Ship Money, an ancient tax used to build ships and protect trade from piracy, which Charles implemented in 1634. The revival of these old taxation systems dispute the idea that Charles was attempting to create ‘absolutism’, as they had been forgotten under the wealthy Tudor monarchs who had no use for them, and other monarchs such as Elizabeth I had employed similar methods. Furthermore the fact that 98% of the Ship Money tax was collected in 1635 demonstrates that the nation was not greatly opposed to Charles’ new forms of raising revenue. An alternative reason for Charles’ financial reforms can be explained by the fact that prior to 1630 England had been involved in a number of failed Foreign policy escapades with France and Spain; the La Rochelle expedition of 1627 and the Cadiz expedition of 1625. Since Parliament had refused to grant any subsidies and been dissolved in 1629, Charles recognized the need to find another method to raise revenue to improve England’s weapons and training. Charles’ financial reforms also link to Charles’ reforms of the Church and local government; he needed to raise money to restore the impoverished Church buildings to their former glory and many of the issues regarding the inefficiencies of local government resolved around the fact that Charles could not afford to pay local officialsConsequently it can be argued that rather than trying to create ‘absolutism’, Charles’ was acting within his right as King to impose the financial reforms required to address England’s debt crisis, and build up the financial security that would allow him to improve the militia in order to face the foreign powers.   


Charles’ reforms to local government can also be used to argue against the belief that he was trying to create ‘absolutism’ during the Personal Rule, as his lack of interest in politics demonstrate that his decision to rule without parliament was more likely to be a result of frustration rather than a strategy to create ‘absolutism’ – a frequent comment on papers sent to him for a decision was ‘Do it if you find it suit my service’ and he rarely attended meetings of the privy council. Furthermore many of Charles’ problems during the 1620s originated in the inefficiency of local government who were unpaid and expected to carry out unpopular policies such as the Ship Money tax in1634; therefore the King needed to make local officials fear the Crown more than they feared the disapproval of their neighbours. The King chose to appoint around 50 Justices of Peace to each county who met four times a year at the Quarter Sessions. These sessions created a court of law and administrative forum, that examined whether the counties were being well run, it also allowed directives to be passed on from the Privy Council – improving the communication between central and local government. This illustrates that Charles’ reforms were focused on improving the political system in England, and due to his lack of interest in politics, demonstrates he was willing to delegate power to the Privy Council and officials rather than attempting to concentrate all power within himself. After the worst harvest of the early Stuart period in 1630 and food riots breaking out, many feared that more unrest would erupt. In reaction to this, Charles administered the Book of Orders in 1631. This instructed justices to supervise local officers and make quarterly reports to the sheriff, who would then pass the information on to the Privy Council. This was put in place to see that justices prevented vagrancy, placed poor children in apprenticeships, punished delinquents, put the idle to work and kept the roads repaired. The fact that the Book of Orders was instigated as a response to the food epidemic also demonstrates that rather than attempting to create ‘absolutism’, Charles was reacting to events and hardships that existed at the time. Furthermore Charles was careful to remain within the law when implementing his policies, as if his actions were seen as illegal he may have jeopardized the co-operation of the county elites, without which royal authority could not be sustained. The reforms made to local government can be linked to the reforms of the Church, as they were both focused on ‘Thorough’; improving the accountability of local government and the Church to the King. Consequently, as with Charles’ financial reforms, the changes made to local government lay within his right as King. Charles’ attempt to improve the efficiency of government challenges the view that he was implementing the changes to create ‘absolutism’, with the most important evidence of this being his lack of interest in politics.  


On the other hand, Charles’ reformations of the Church arguably demonstrate that Charles was in fact attempting to establish absolutism. Charles employed Archbishop Laud to coordinate his policies with the Church in 1633, which concentrated on two main areas in particular: the suppression of preaching and changes to the conduct of services. Laud attempted to supress religious liberty, imposing uniformity in Church worship; for example in 1629 Charles ordered that each lecturer ‘read divine service according to the liturgy printed by authority, in his surplice and hood before the congregation’. This was because religious freedom was too difficult for Charles to control the content of, and a threat to the authority of the bishops, therefore by eradicating religious freedom Charles was evidently attempting to control and influence people’s beliefs– indicating his desire to create ‘absolutism’. Furthermore in order to make sure his policies were carried out and efficiently administered, Laud used ‘Thorough’, which was designed to improve accountability. This involved ordering Bishops to live in their diocese and either he or his commissioners visiting each one to see whether the Bishop was enforcing uniformity, known as Metropolitical Visitations’. Clergy infringing these new reforms were brought before the Court of High Commission, a prerogative court allowing the King to control the sentence. An example of this was Alexander Leighton’s case in 1630, where he was fined, pilloried, lashed, had his ears cut off, his nose slit and ears branded for attacking the bishops in ‘Sion’s Plea Against the Prelacy’. Additionally, hostile books and pamphlets were censored. This is a further example of Charles’ endeavour to create ‘absolutism’, as it demonstrates Charles’ willingness to persecute those that exerted resistance towards his reforms. Furthermore the fact that Archbishop Laud was Arminian meant that many of the new reforms were heavily influenced by Arminianism. The most radical change of the Church service was that the altar was to be placed in the east end and railed off from the rest of the Church; this created the impression that the minister was of a separate class and able to mediate between the people and God. This alteration to the Church service resulted in a service similar to the Catholic mass, causing much opposition – alienating and offending large sections of the population, and thus demonstrating Charles’ disregard of the will of the people. In 1640 the Crown issued a set of ecclesiastical canons, which stated that every parish priest had to read a doctrine on the Divine Right of Kings four times a year. This stressed the King’s importance to the people, and detached himself from the rest of society as the ruler chosen by God, isolating himself as an authoritarian ruler. Consequently Charles clearly attempted to establish a form absolutism through the Church, as he imposed religious uniformity and prosecuted those that opposed his reformations. However it could also be argued that Charles was forced to intervene with the Church, due to the fact it had become impoverished since the reformation and the gentry were taking advantage of taxes meant for the Church. Furthermore there was not universal dissatisfaction to the Church reforms and Charles was prepared to tolerate different theological views from his own, provided that those who held them maintained outward conformity and submission.  


In conclusion, Charles’ reformations to a variety of areas across society can be argued to be a response to the inefficiencies that existed within society during the 1630s in England. Charles’ reforms were therefore an attempt to maintain England’s authority with regards to foreign powers such as France and Spain. The religious reforms can also be linked to this, as the uniformity of the Church that Charles and Laud attempted to establish would present England as a unified state to foreign powers, rather than a divided society that may pose as a threat to the King. Furthermore the fact that Charles’ reforms remained within the law and had also been implemented in the past by other monarchs challenges the idea that Charles was trying to create ‘absolutism’, but rather acting within his right as King. Finally, Charles’ lack of interest with politics suggests that he had no intention or desire to create ‘absolutism’. 


Answered by Ella S. History tutor


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