Icon (Close Menu)

Charles the Martyr: What to Read?

By Richard J. Mammana

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music’s Subcommittee on the Church Calendar released the following as part of its substantial pre-General Convention report:

The proposed commemoration of King Charles Stuart, referred to the SCLM by 2015-A057 was controversial within the SCLM, and has likewise proven to be controversial with past General Conventions. Resolutions to add him to the calendar have been previously proposed to the General Conventions of 1985, 1991, and 2003, and they have always been defeated. Within the SCLM we are not of one mind, but we have made a strong effort to develop a calendar that the church can have true consensus behind, and it is clear that Charles is a divisive figure around whom consensus does not exist. We have therefore opted not to include him in either Lesser Feasts and Fasts or in A Great Cloud of Witnesses. We recognize, however, that General Convention has the authority to add him itself if that is the will of the church. (unpaginated)

Several provincial calendars of the Anglican Communion commemorate Charles Stuart on January 30 each year — including the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, and the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil. The following sources offer some background material for this widespread Anglican liturgical observance, its history, reception, and current practice.

The Commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Faith in the Anglican Communion (1957)

This extensive report commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Geoffrey Fisher) examines the theological bases of the commemoration of saints beginning in the patristic period and through the middle ages. It continues with a treatment of the recognition of saints in the Orthodox Church, and the recognition of saints after the Reformation in what became the Anglican Communion in the British Isles, Canada, the United States, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. The report’s attention to the place of King Charles on the calendar of the Church of England is unequivocal:

Of the servants of God entered respectively in the Kalendars of 1662 and 1928, two are exceptional in that they had been canonized neither by tradition nor by Rome. And both are kings. King Charles is a clear example of popular canonization; in which Church, State, and popular feeling concurred, and that with a vehemence surprising to the modern generation. At least four churches bear his name, and one has been thus dedicated in the last few years. The method of “canonization” here was not merely by the insertion in black letters of a name in the Kalendar; but special liturgical services were appointed for the day with proper collect, epistle, and gospel. When, by the statute of 1859 (22 Vict., c. ii, of 25 March), the services for 30 January ceased to be printed in the Prayer Book, the Queen’s Printers considered that the authority of the Act extended to the removal of the name also from the Kalendar. The Propers did indeed reflect the deep emotions of their day too vividly for modern use; but their framing and the Kalendar entry was as genuine a canonization—that, too, of a martyr—as the historic Church can show, Convocation, Parliament, and popular acclaim acting in passionate unity. The 1928 list inserted King Alfred. It is strange how so great a king, man, Christian, and missionary to his people should have escaped kalendrical and liturgical attention for so many centuries. (p. 35)

Primary Source Materials

Project Canterbury includes an extensive directory of material related to the death of Charles and its commemoration for five centuries of Anglican history. Standouts include two 1649 pamphlet accounts of the crowds at Charles’s execution rushing forward to collect relics of his blood on their handkerchiefs, a musical setting of Eikon Basilike (a devotional work long attributed to Charles), the deathbed confession of his executioner, and a 1780 sermon on Charles preached at Trinity Church, Wall Street, by rector Charles Inglis.

A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of King Charles I by Cicely Veronica Wedgwood (1964)

This most accessible of books on the topic is a day-to-day account of the last three months of the life of Charles Stuart. Wedgwood (1910-97) was a prominent historian of England and Europe in the 17th century; her book has seldom been out of print since its publication in 1964. She chronicles the arrest, trial, speeches, negotiations, and various conspiracies about rescue that led to the beheading on January 30, 1649. Her prose is the good popular English of its time — a register not quite academic, and not quite informal, but still readable almost 55 years after it was written.

The Cult of King Charles the Martyr by Andrew Lacey (2003)

This volume, the most important and extensive of modern analyses of the place of Caroline observance in the Church of England, is thorough and academic. Beginning with the final days of Charles I, Lacey traces the tides of popular devotion to Charles as martyr beginning on the day of the execution, and continuing through the 1649-61 Cromwellian interregnum. Observance of January 30 as the day of Charles’s martyrdom begins in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the practice receives a major injection of energy when the king’s son, Charles II, is restored to the throne. Lacey follows Caroline devotion through the next two centuries in a wide survey of sermons, poetry, music, embroidery, and political discourse. He chronicles with care the thousands of published annual sermons on Charles — many delivered before Parliament — and their various emphases amid changing attitudes in English society. He also pays important attention to the threads of opposition to the January 30 observance by both religious and political opponents of King Charles’s various legacies. Lacey carries his account down to Queen Victoria’s 1859 removal of the service from the English Book of Common Prayer, at which time she also removed the other “State Services” for the Gunpowder Treason (November 5) and the Restoration (May 29).

Charles I. Undated engraving. National Portrait Gallergy.


Although not unbiased, the semi-annual periodical of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, published in June and December, provides a wealth of material about the status of current popular observance of devotion to Charles Stuart. In addition to book reviews, reports of local celebrations, historical essays, devotional material, and modern sermons, the journal is the official publication of an organization active in the United States since the 1890s in promoting devotion to the Royal Martyr. The SKCM has 450 members in the United States and Canada (a separate devotional society serves members in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth); there are members in at least 50 of the Episcopal Church’s 100 domestic dioceses, and annual celebrations of January 30 in at least a dozen states. As the devotional society’s baseline requirement is that membership is open to Christians who are interested in the life of Charles Stuart, it also includes a substantial number of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The society’s associated Facebook group has 1,400 followers. Back issues of SKCM Newsare available on the society’s website at a six-month delay, or at the time of publication for subscribers.

The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change: The Changing Concept of the Land in Early Modern England by George Yerby (2015)

This under-noticed book adopts the lenses of land use, land ownership, nascent capitalism and mercantilism, and their several interpretive possibilities for understanding the English Civil War. Yerby’s thesis identifies Charles and the Royalist forces as apologists for older patterns of common farming and small landholding units, with the Parliamentary forces under Cromwell opting for greater centralization, higher economic returns, and a marginalization of peasants concurrent with the emergence of a reading, trading, Sabbatarian middle class. The significant shifts in English economy and society after Charles’s execution — including the intensification of colonialism and mercantile trade — are aspects of a break “away from the restraints of the medieval past in the pursuit of liberal freedoms,” ultimately in the 1640s inimical to monarchical government. Yerby is a careful historian of economy, society, and the environment, and he does not write in black and white strokes; he does, however, open an understanding of Charles Stuart as the martyred, in some respects terminal, representative of the pre-capitalist environmental order.

Richard J. Mammana, founder of Anglicanhistory.org, is archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.


[pdf-embedder url=”https://covenant.livingchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Church-Calendar-Report.pdf” title=”Church Calendar Report”]



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

A Ministry of Christlike Service

A sermon for the ordination of deacons, given at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee, June 1, 2024 Today is...

Only One Future

The story of the Episcopal Church in the modern era is usually reckoned in terms of presiding episcopates,...

At the Heart of All Being

Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics By John Betz Emmaus Academic, 592 pages, $59.95 In this ambitious work,...

What are the Liberal Arts For? The Case of Tom Ripley

Spoilers for Netflix’s Ripley and the Book of Job The liberal arts seem neverendingly threatened, most recently at small...