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Common(wealth) Knowledge #89: King Charles I and why the monarch doesn't have a driver's licence

January 27th marked the anniversary of King Charles I’s execution. But was the UK’s first and only republican government even lawful?

Since 1066, under the rule of King William the Conqueror, and possibly as far back as King Æthelstan in 925, England has been united under a single monarch, bar a few civil wars.

Over time, a complex and growing society sapped away the monarchy’s power, whether willingly or through force, like when the barons rebelled against King John, of Robin Hood fame, and forced him to sign the Magna Carta.

By the 17th century, there was also a House of Lords of nobles appointed by the monarch, and an elected House of Commons. The Crown needed the House of Commons to raise taxes. To this day, it is why a person must control the support of a majority of the lower house to become Prime Minister.

England had begun to become a constitutional monarchy, with Parliament exercising some powers that the Crown once had.

King Henry VIII also created the Anglican Church, removing the foreign influence of the Catholic Church in England. In theory, at least, because his eldest daughter, Queen Mary, was Catholic.

When Queen Elizabeth I died, the Crown passed on to King James VI of Scotland, who was now King James I of England.

But Scotland had strong ties to Catholic France, and hadn’t experienced the same societal power struggles that siphoned off the English Crown’s power. King James VI and I had absolute power, as an ‘absolute monarch,’ and believed he had a divine right to rule from God.

Thus began the clash between the English constitutional monarchy and the Scottish absolute monarchy. King James VI and I fought with English lawyers and politicians, including Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.

But his son, King Charles I, took things up a notch, trying to find loopholes to raise taxes without Parliament’s support, When Parliament, including an elderly Sir Coke, protested with the Petition of Right to limit his power, and denied him money, he dismissed them.

Although England did not have a written constitution, there were unwritten rules or ‘conventions’ governing how King Charles I had to exercise his power, and he paid them no attention, even declaring martial law at one point.

He also married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, and introduced church reforms that many radical Protestants, including Puritans like Oliver Cromwell, claimed would basically reincarnate the Catholic Church.

Eventually, this backwards-and-forward fighting between the King and the House of Commons caused two factions, the Parliamentarians, who supported the House of Commons’ ability to check the power of the King, and the Royalists, who supported absolute monarchy.

When King Charles I tried to arrest some Parliamentarians, the House of Lords finally turned on King Charles I and backed the Parliamentarians, and civil war broke out.

King Charles I lost, Parliament tried to limit his power again, failed, went back in for round 2, and lost again.

Most Parliamentarians had had enough and put King Charles I on trial for treason. Oliver Cromwell emerged as de facto Parliamentarian leader after the faction’s military leader, Sir Thomas Fairfax, refused to attend.

The problem was that King Charles was the King in right of Crown, a confusing term looked at in Common(wealth) Knowledge #12. He was the physical embodiment of the concept of the Crown, the sovereign and head of state.

If King Charles I is the King, then how can he commit treason? How can he commit a crime against himself?

Although he is universally seen as a tyrannical monarch today, he was right. Civil wars had been fought before, but accusing the King of treason? Never.

Even Parliament convening a High Court of Justice to try King Charles I was unconstitutional.

By now, Sir Coke, who could go toe-to-toe with King Charles I’s father over the concept of absolute monarchy, was dead.

The Parliamentarians eventually decided to make it a fight over whether Parliament or the Crown truly represented the people.

At that very time, the European powers were creating the Treaty of Westphalia, which has given us the modern concept of a ‘state,’ but neither side considered this.

Ultimately, and unlawfully, King Charles I was executed for treason. The High Court of Justice was split over execution, but eventually the republicans, led by the radical Puritans and Cromwell, won.

Cromwell’s republic would not last, and after his death, Parliament invited Charles II back, after the very stringent and strict laws of the Puritans, even banning Christmas.

King Charles II brought back the notion of absolute monarchy, but the end of the republic was more significant.

King Charles II’s brother, King James II, was a Catholic and continued the absolute monarchy tradition until thrown out by Parliament, who brought in his daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange. Finally, constitutional monarchism came out on top.

The story of King William III and Queen Mary II is picked up in Common(wealth) Knowledge #50.

But what’s this got to do with a driver’s licence?

The fact that King Charles I’s execution was actually unlawful, which the High Court of Justice knew, reveals the legal immunity of the monarch through the Crown.

Just as King Charles I couldn’t be executed for treason against King Charles I, King Charles III cannot issue himself a driver’s licence.

Although the inheritance of the monarchy can be changed by Parliament and signed off on by the monarch, laws about the actual monarch are unlawful.

The monarch cannot even be compelled to pay tax. It is done voluntarily. The monarch is voluntarily bound by convention, not by law. In that way, it operates in a similar manner to international law.

But this does raise one final question. A person can’t inherit the throne if they aren’t Anglican. If the monarch is also the head of the Church of England, and the head of the Church of England must be Anglican, then what happens if the monarch converts to a different religion?

Both King Charles I and King Charles II got the boot, or rather the axe in the case of the former, and were accused of being Catholic. Will it be ‘third time lucky’ for King Charles III?

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