Is King Charles I a saint?

There is good reason for thinking the king died a martyr

This last January 30, I was present in London for two very interesting occurrences. The first was a wreath-laying ceremony at the equestrian statue of King Charles I in Trafalgar Square; the second was an Anglo-Catholic style Anglican Mass at the Banqueting House. That evening, at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, there was a service of Evensong honouring the murdered Monarch. In all three ceremonies, Charles was referred to as a Saint.

Indeed, surprising as it may sound to Catholics, the King is the only individual the Church of England has ever tried to canonize. The reason is that it was made very clear that his life would have been spared had he been willing to sanction the abolition of bishops in the Church of England by Cromwell.

His feast day was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by a Whig government in the mid-19th century, but the Anglo-Catholic wing of the CofE fostered devotional societies who ever since have tried to bring the holiday back. Chief among these are the Society of King Charles the Martyr and the Royal Martyr Church Union.

Interesting as all these facts may be to students of English history and Anglican beliefs, what interest could the question of Charles I’s sanctity possibly have for Catholics? Quite a bit, really.

For one thing, his cultus plays a prominent role in that Anglican Patrimony which Pope Benedict XVI created the Personal Ordinariates to preserve within the Catholic Church. When various Eastern Orthodox groups have been reconciled to the Church, they have been allowed to continue to venerate a number of post-1054 figures as Saints. So, might our newly admitted brethren of Anglican background be able to do the same with Charles I?

A close reading of his life and reveals some striking points. Raised by a Catholic mother and married to a Catholic Queen, Charles demonstrated a sympathy for Catholics unseen since Mary I died. At various times throughout his reign he negotiated with several Popes for reunion, assuring them that his beliefs were the same as theirs – a fact that helped bring him to the axe. He venerated Mary and the Saints and believed in the Real Presence.

It must be remembered that this was two centuries before Apostolicae Curae, meaning Rome had not yet ruled Anglican Orders invalid and it was still very much an open question whether Anglicans had the Apostolic Succession. Though in retrospect they did not, it was a doctrine Charles was willing to die for.

Moreover, shortly after Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, Urban VIII twice offered him the Red Hat: something that could not have been done without Charles’s permission. (Laud refused the offer.) The King vowed to return Church lands – including monastic properties – to the Church if he won the war. The famed Bishop Bossuet declared that Charles’s blood was in atonement for Henry VIII’s great sin.

Although feeling unable to release the imprisoned Catholic priests in London he inherited from his father, he allowed them to visit their flocks by day. Charles was no more able to save them from the Long Parliament then he was Laud or Strafford. As a husband and father, he rates with Bl. Emperor Charles I of Austria.

At the end of the day, Charles I certainly considered himself to be of the same religion as the Pope – and died for his actions based upon that belief. Miracles were attributed to him after his death.

Catholics may not venerate him publicly as a saint. So, in Ordinariate parishes, Requiem Masses (such as are offered for Louis XVI – despite Pius VI’s private opinion that he, too, was a martyr) would be more appropriate than Masses honouring him as a saint. They may also pray privately for his intercession, given his prior cultus and efforts toward reunion.

His is certainly a unique status, but every cause for canonization begins in such a manner. His own words and deeds proclaim him more of a Catholic than many whom the world considers as such. The American branch of the Society of King Charles the Martyr has such prayers in stock. If he is indeed in Heaven, eventually he’ll make it known.