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Re-thinking Charles the Martyr

This Saturday past I took the rare opportunity to attend the Annual Mass of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, held at All Saints, Ashmont. (All Saints is, by the way, a delightful Anglo-Catholic parish with a wonderful choir ministry with boys from the neighborhood.) I’ve never had any particular devotion to Charles. I confess that I went — and I probably wasn’t the only one — for the spectacle of it all. Strange as they can be (and SKCM is probably the strangest, from most perspectives), there is something deeply appealing about these old Catholic societies in Anglicanism. It thrills me that they exist at all, and that they continue to exist.

But that is to speak as an antiquarian of curiosities. Certainly we Catholics can stray in that direction and become more interested in preserving odd traditions than in cultivating the life of the Church. My tendency is to ask: Who doesn’t love an occasional solemn choral Mozart Mass with clouds of incense and unique hymns for procession? And the answer is, it turns out: quite a few people indeed. (We might then say that they should love it, but that is another subject.)

Anyway, back to Charles. If we can put aside all the real and interesting questions about Charles and his martyrdom (and these do remain: even his most sincere devotees do not think him perfect!), there are some genuinely compelling aspects of his cult that I found surprising. Take the fourth verse, for example, of one of the processional hymns (“Lord, let the strain arise”), and its shocking argument:

A century before
Great Charles was called to die,
A sinful king laid waste the Church –
Angered our God on high.
The fire of Heaven’s wrath
Waxed hotly more and more;
Until thy Royal blood, O Saint,
Cancelled the sin of yore.

Let that sink in for a minute, if necessary. Yes, it really does say what it seems to say: King Charles’ virtuous witness cancelled out the sinful schism of the English Church.

I find this compelling first because I know that no one will like it. Strict Roman Catholics will find it ridiculous (Charles was an Anglican, after all, and so incapable of true ecclesial virtue); Protestants will find it sickening, both in its historical judgment and in its appalling notion of saintly merit.

Whatever it is, it is anti-puritanical. It is against the simplistic modern legal precisions (both Catholic and Protestant) and their tendency to sever the good and the beautiful from the true. I confess that I love it, and not necessary because it is strictly true, but because it says something true — not that differently, perhaps, from the excessive declaration of the felix culpa that we hear in the Easter Exsultet — in a way that exceeds the normal bounds of language and meaning. Obviously Charles’ blood can’t “cancel” the sin of yore; nor did it, objectively, restore the pre-Reformation Church in any obvious sense; nor is it entirely clear what that would mean. All the same, the idea is that somehow Charles’ blood gave witness to the catholicity of the Church in a way that fittingly reversed another’s witness to its non-catholicity.

All this was driven home for me by Fr. Alexander’s sermon. He spoke on a small line from Dom Gregory Dix which recounts the execution of Charles as the moment “when medieval England came to its final end” (The Shape of the Liturgy, 745). Here, perhaps, is a way of thinking about Charles beyond the limitations of his questionable character: did he, at the end of the day, stand for something commendable? If his witness was, in some way, to the medieval vision of Church and society (to put it anachronistically), his cult today might have a promising role, insofar as it gives us a way, particularly as Anglicans, of purifying ourselves of the dross of modernity’s mercantile individualism and incapacity for thinking of the common good.


  1. I am glad that you enjoyed the mass! I wish that I had been able to make it (hopefully next year!). I hope, of course, that you will consider membership in SKCM.

    Regrettably, I know nothing about the hymn in question. I would, on first reading, assume that perhaps the reference to Charles’s blood has less to do with him as a meritorious saint and more to do with him as an imitator of Christ. And of course, there is the issue of the royal miracle – the Royal Touch – which is precisely about healing. So I’m not sure that the verse (or hymn) in question is making an argument about merit. I would be quick to assume, however, that the hymn is concerned to underscore the Royal Touch, Charles’s imitation of Christ (including praying for his enemies on the scaffold), and that out of the royal saint’s death came new life to the Church of England (and of course, much beautification of churches in England from the Restoration onward).

    I don’t understand the reference to Charles’s ‘questionable character’ (which was, morally speaking, practically flawless; sainthood is hardly dependent upon the contingency of politics). Nor do I believe that there was such a thing as a medieval view of society (although I recognize that some people tease this out of certain scholastics, e.g., Aquinas). Charles died for a vision of ecclesiastical order (episcopacy), for a particular liturgical style (‘Laudian’, to use a word I don’t like), for the Prayer Book and the Articles of Religion (which Anglicans, not Puritans, defended in full), basic Nicene orthodoxy (which the Cromwellian regime was no defender of), and – politically speaking – for the rule of law rather than theocratic tyranny (compare Charles vs. Cromwell on anything from parliaments to Ireland!). So, a martyr indeed and a confessor of the faith! Whether merit accrues to such sacrifice I cannot say, but I would argue that blessing most certainly did (and does).

  2. I do mean “questionable” quite literally: there are plenty of folks who question it, rightly or wrongly. I’m not a historian, and have little knowledge of Charles; what I hear people say is usually along the lines of him being arrogant, stubborn, etc. But the point is that we do not venerate saints, and especially martyrs, because they were perfect in every way.

    I don’t see how a reference to Charles’ blood can be detached from that blood’s merit. (All saintly merit is properly Christ’s, anyway.) To imitate Christ is meritorious.

    You’re right, of course, about “society,” at least in terms of vocabulary. I do think we could speak of a “social vision,” or a worldview of sorts, that is very different from that represented both by the Puritans and by Reform (both Catholic and Protestant) in general. In the sermon I heard several allusions (purposeful or not — I wouldn’t speak for Fr Alexander) to two works that have been very helpful to me, John Bossy’s Christianity in the West 1400-1700 and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

    • Admittedly, I’ve never met a critic of KCM who knew what they were talking about. So if people say that Charles was arrogant, for example, I would just be curious as to what evidence they have. Lots of people question KCM, sure, but what basis (if any) do they have for their questioning?

      I think that hostility to KCM has to do with the late-18th c. revolutions, which have come to be anachronistically justified by claiming that the kings in question were tyrants – and thus, by extension, all kings are tyrants. And, since the 1640s were very much about Puritanism, we Americans like to assume that our Puritan forebears – whom we generally loathe – must have nonetheless been right. Otherwise, what was the point of 1776?

      Of course, the real question is…which king does the hymn refer to – Henry VIII or Edward VI?

      • Interesting. Well, I don’t know what I’m talking about either… my gut tells me that your assessment about monarchy and tyranny is right. My only hesitancy there is with the potential for Restoration propaganda (just because kings aren’t all tyrants doesn’t mean they’re all perfectly wonderful). Perhaps that’s why, without knowing more than I do, I was attracted to the idea of Charles as the last hold out of the English Middle Ages.

        Which king? I wondered that, too.


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