Norman St John-Stevas
THIS week and next, by happy ecumenical coincidence, and hot on the heels of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we celebrate the memory of two great Englishmen, both martyred for their loyalty to their Church — St Thomas More and King Charles I.
February 6, 1478, was the birthday of the man hailed by Cardinal Pole on his death day as the greatest of Englishmen, and who gave up his life in support of the Roman See: January 30. 1649, was the day on which King Charles surrendered his life in defence of the freedom and doctrines of the Church of England.
St Thomas is the subject of an article by Mr Speaker on another page so I will confine myself principally to a consideration of "Saint Charles."
Last Monday found me shivering in the cold, such as must have greeted the king on that January day nearly three and a half centuries ago, at the foot of the beautiful statue which looks down Whitehall towards Westminster Hall, where the illegal sentence of death was pronounced by the court on their sovereign.
More than 100 people stood bareheaded as, in a ceremony organised by the Royal Stuart Society, trumpeters sounded a salute to the long dead king, a lament was played by a piper and wreaths of laurel and carnations, with the royal colours of white and blue were laid at the statue's plinth. An Anglican priest in red cope conducted the service for St Charles Day from the 1662 Prayer Book, and we then moved down Whitehall where a second brief service was held beneath the window of the Banqueting Hall from which by tradition Charles stepped to his death on the scaffold. It was an evocative and moving suspension of time amidst the swirl and roar of 20th century London's traffic.
King Charles had spent his last night on earth at St James's Palace where he awoke between five and six in the morning, greeting his faithful friend Herbert with the words: "I will get up, I have a great work to do this day." The day was bitingly cold and the king, anxious that he might feel the cold and so shiver and give the impression that he was afraid, put on two shirts: "I fear not death. Death is not terrible to me. I bless God I am prepared."
Shortly before ten o'clock the king, with Bishop Juxon by his side, set off across St James's Park guarded by two companies of infantry.
King Charles commanded that the troops should move at a quicker _pace because "he now went before them to strive for a Heavenly Crown with less solicitude than he had often encouraged his soldiers to fight for an earthly diadem."
An open wooden staircase led from the park to the adjoining buildings of Whitehall, and the king passed up this stairway and across the Holbein Gate to a small room near the Banqueting Hall, where he awaited the summons to execution.
It was long in coming, and it was not until two in the afternoon that the dreaded knock sounded on the door of the king's chamber. Charles had been fasting since the previous night and had intended that his only food on his death day should be the Sacrament, but the prudent Bishop Juxon, taking into account the long delay, dissuaded him from this course and he partook of a little bread and wine.
The king passed through the Banqueting Hall under the gorgeous ceiling by Rubens and out onto the scaffold draped in black. Controversy has long raged over which window was enlarged to facilitate his exit, and the dispute will probably never be settled.
King Charles addressed the small group gathered on the scaffold, realising that his voice would not carry to the people massed beneath:
"If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I needed not to have come here and therefore I tell you (and I pray God it be not laid to your charge) that I am the Martyr of the people ...
"I die a Christian according to the profession of the Church of England, as I found it left me by my father ... I have a good Cause and I have a gracious God. I will say no more."
Preparing to lay his head upon the block the king declared: "1 go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown" and as the axe fell a youth of 17 standing nearby testified that there broke from the crowd "such a groan as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again."
Charles died for his fidelity to the Church of England and its Order of Episcopacy, a stand formally recognised at the Restoration when it was ordered that January 30 should be kept as a public fast and a prayer drawn up exhorting "a careful and studious imitation of this Thy blessed saint and martyr."
This prayer was annexed to the Prayer Book by authority of the Crown and sanctioned by Parliament in 1661. At the beginning of every reign a royal proclamation sanctioned its use, but in 1859 it was withdrawn from the Prayer Book by royal warrant.
This was a strange reward for the faithful king but his name as "King Charles Martyr" remained in the Calendar although subsequently, without authorisation, the words were removed by the printers!
King Charles died for the principles of the Church of England, and I hope that the liturgical commission now considering the place and number of Anglican saints will soon restore St Charles the Martyr to his rightful place in the liturgy.
As for St Thomas, he is commemorated by a plaque in Westminster Hall, where he stood trial — a memorial in which I played a small part in obtaining.
It fell to me to ask the final question concerning the provision to Mr Richard Crossman, then Secretary of State for the Environment — and turning to Mr Speaker King I pointed out that St Thomas "was the only one of your predecessors to have been both canonised and beheaded, in one of which precedents I trust, Mr Speaker, that you will follow him."
Speaker King, who like the present Speaker had a rcady wit, at once rose to his feet and commented: "Thank you, I hope I have guessed the right one!"