Do you know who the first Anglican
saint was? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t Henry VIII. The title of this article says it all, but don’t feel embarrassed if you are unaware of King Charles the Martyr. Since the founding of the Episcopal Church (USA), Anglicanism’s first and longest-loved saint has been curiously absent from our province’s liturgical calendar — and this despite repeated and growing calls for his reinstatement.
Sadly, the American case is not unique. Anglicans today pay scandalously little attention to the saint whose cult fueled the Anglican imagination for centuries. Yet King Charles the Martyr witnesses to important facets of the Anglican heritage, especially the Anglican Counter-Reformation and the importance of martyrs, miracles, and relics. If it is true, as many now claim, that Anglicans are out of touch with their history and tradition, then the life and legacy of King Charles the Martyr are important for our reintegration.
When Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649, the large crowd that witnessed his execution rushed the scaffold. But they weren’t fueled by rage or hatred; their concerns were quite different, with roots reaching back to the medieval period. The onlookers wanted access to the king’s miraculous blood.
This undoubtedly sounds strange to us, but in the mid-17th century it was wholly normal. Beginning with King Edward the Confessor in the 11th century, English kings were known as miracle workers. This was popularly known as “the royal touch,” a gift bestowed by God through the anointing that English monarchs received in their consecration. And, as the influential French medievalist Marc Bloch noted decades ago, the royal touch remains the longest lasting and most widely attested miracle in human history.
The ritual itself was quite simple. The monarch made the sign of the cross over the sick, touched the infected part(s), and prayed for healing. Initially used to cure scrofula, a widespread disease consisting of painful bodily inflammation, the royal touch was later used more widely. Kings consecrated and distributed coins called “angels”; they also blessed “cramp rings,” which were used to heal those racked by bodily pain. By the 15th century, much of this was synced with the English liturgical calendar, and Good Friday was the most popular day for performing royal miracles.
The English Reformation did not diminish the importance of the royal touch, but amplified it, along with other medieval traditions. One of the fault lines that defined the Middle Ages was the constant tension between the papacy and European monarchies. The papacy claimed to possess “plenitude of power” in both the spiritual and the political realms, but the validity of this assertion was undermined by the continued presence of wonder-working kings and queens.
Thus, in the 16th century, Roman Catholicism became the major opponent of this popular and ancient pattern of royalist piety; the Church of England, however, was one of its defenders and preservers. From the Anglican perspective, the monarch—not the pope—was the defender of the English church, and the royal touch was a God-given, miraculous vindication of this conviction.
The Anglican Counter-Reformation
Why, then, was King Charles I beheaded? The answer is found not in controversies between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but in those between Anglicans and Puritans. Most importantly, the reign of Charles I saw the full flowering of the Anglican Counter-Reformation, a movement that began under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and steadily gained momentum under James I (1603-25), Charles’s father.
On the one hand, the Anglican Counter-Reformation was a literary renaissance. Poetry saw a breathtaking revival in the early- tomid-17th century—John Donne and George Herbert are, perhaps, its best known representatives. No less importantly, during these same years Anglicans began composing devotional prose.
Rooted in the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer, this literature was nurtured by the vividly emotional language of the Psalms. Lancelot Andrewes’s Private Prayers remains the apex of such writing. Anglican literature of the early 17th century was defined by unflinching, personal introspection, and the intervening centuries have not eroded its inspirational power.
On the other hand, the Anglican Counter-Reformation was a liturgical movement. Its ideals can be summed up in the phrase “the beauty of holiness.” Today, every Anglican parish bears the marks of the Anglican Counter-Reformation. One such legacy is altar rails, a unique feature of distinctly Anglican architecture.
During the reign of Edward VI (1547-53), altars were destroyed and replaced with movable tables, thereby symbolizing the Eucharist as a communal meal, rather than a sacrifice. The Anglican Counter-Reformation sought to unite the imagery of “the Holy Table” with the example of the early Church, which used altars. Together with altar rails, altars became visible reminders that the parish was a sacred space and should be reverenced as such. This dignified, outward liturgical expression perfectly mirrored the introspective drive of the movement’s devotional literature.
The development of rich ceremonial in many English parishes outraged Puritans. They believed such ceremonies were blasphemous. Furthermore, as if adding insult to injury, Charles I maintained his father’s prohibition on public speculation about the doctrine of double predestination, a prohibition aimed directly at Puritan theology. These religious tensions, which were joined to political grievances of questionable integrity, ignited the English Civil War in 1642. It quickly became clear that this was a zero-sum affair; monarchy and episcopacy, traditional institutions of authority that many believed were divinely ordained, were under attack. Their enemies wanted nothing less than their complete obliteration.
The king’s capture in 1646 aroused sympathy and support for him. So too did his continued administration of the royal touch, which galvanized pious Anglicans, and also converted some of his opponents – including his own jailers — to the royalist-Anglican cause. Nonetheless, the king was executed on January 30, 1649. In his own words, he lived and died “according to the profession of the Church of England.” This was a clear affirmation, on the king’s part, of the necessity of episcopacy and monarchy, and the validity of the Anglican Counter-Reformation.
Two developments sustained Anglican identity in the dark decade that followed. First was the cult of the king’s relics. The royal touch continued to function through items such as handkerchiefs, which were dipped in the martyred king’s blood. These miraculous events were well known and widely reported, by word of mouth and in print. The location of such relics — usually private homes—became important sites of pilgrimage for Anglicans who refused to accept that the end had already come.
The second important development was the appearance of the king’s autobiographical Eikon Basilike, or The Royal Image. A collection of 28 meditations, each of which concluded with a prayer, Charles I used his book to defend himself, pray for his people, and meditate upon death. Like other writings of the Anglican Counter-Reformation, Eikon Basilike frequently drew upon the Psalms. Its first edition, printed on the day of the king’s death, was hugely popular; 39 editions were printed in 1649 alone. But the book was quickly proscribed, and became the target of a scathing, government-sponsored polemic written by John Milton. Nonetheless, Eikon Basilike was a force to be reckoned with, and its influence proved unmatchable.
On May 29, 1660, Charles II returned to England after more than a decade of exile. With his return, the English monarchy and the Church of England were restored amidst a surging tide of popular support. One of the new king’s first acts was the commemoration of his father as King Charles the Martyr, the first Anglican saint. A number of other saints’ days were brought back into the Anglican calendar, several of which were dedicated to royal saints such as King Edward the Confessor. The date of the Restoration, which was also Charles II’s own birthday, became an Anglican feast day.
These developments were given their final form in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which included liturgies for King Charles the Martyr and the Restoration. According to the commemorative liturgy for the royal saint, he was murdered by “wicked men.” Such liturgical sentiment reveals that the Anglican Counter-Reformation emerged victorious in the Restoration, and that honoring martyrs, believing in miracles, and reverencing relics are part of being Anglican. King Charles the Martyr’s last words included the simple statement, “Remember.” Why don’t we?
Benjamin Guyer is a graduate student in British History at the University of Kansas
[This article was originally published by The Living Church