Thursday, 16 October 2014

The church of King Charles the Martyr, Falmouth

Falmouth church in Cornwall is dedicated to "King Charles the Martyr"; which is highly unusual. The church possesses a portrait of King Charles, attributed to Sir Peter Lely (see below), and the east window shows Christ in majesty, looking remarkably like Charles, with Archbishop Laud in attendance alongside the archangels. How had this come about?

Today Falmouth is an important deep-water harbour ont the estuary of the Fal river, but it is actually quite a recent settlement, and the original town was at Penryn, a short distance upstream. The only significant building in Falmouth was the castle at Pendennis, built by Henry VIII.
     Cornwall was strongly royalist in the civil wars in the 1640s. Charles I's queen, Henrietta Maria, fled to France from Pendennis, and so did her son, the future Charles II. When he left, he vowed that if he returned he would build "a chapel for public worship" there, since there was then no church. A prominent local landowner, Sir Peter Killigrew, a staunch royalist, had similar ideas, and after the restoration of the monarchy for a charter for the town, promising to provide land of his own for a church and parsonage.
   He won support. The foundations of the church were laid in 1662, and the building was consecrated three years later. The church was thus built in the classical style fashionable at the time. Since then it has been extensively modified.

   King Charles I was condemned to death and beheaded in 1649, and was soon proclaimed a martyr by his supporters. Although he undoubtedly conducted himself with dignity and courage at the end, it is difficult today to what precise cause he was a martyr, except that of the principle of divine right monarchy. Really, like his equally unfortunate fellow-monarchs, Louis XVI of France and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, he was a well-meaning, rather weak-willed man of limited talents, caught up in a situation which it was beyond his abilities to control - in fact, an argument against hereditary monarchy with real political power.

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