Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

Charles I.—How a Woman Struck a Blow for Freedom

L IKE Queen Elizabeth, King James had favourites. But unfortunately the favourites he chose were not good and wise men who helped him to govern well, but men who although clever were bad, and who thought only of themselves. Some of these men liked money and fine clothes, and James spent so much on them that he was always poor and in debt, and this led him into quarrels with the people and Parliament.

The Tudors had been a very autocratic race of kings. Autocratic is a word made from Greek words and means that the Tudors wanted to rule quite by themselves without help or advice from any one. During the time of the Tudors, especially in the reigns of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, the power of Parliament had been much lessened. James tried to lessen it still more.

James knew how autocratic Elizabeth had been, and he meant to be the same. But Elizabeth, although she had her own way in many things, knew when to yield and let the people have their way. James did not know how to yield. He wanted to be a despot which is another word taken from Greek and really means "master," but has come to mean "cruel master." "The King can do no wrong," said James. "What he does must be right and the people must obey and ask no questions."

King James wrote several books, and in one of them he set down his ideas about the power of a king. But the people did not agree with these ideas. They thought many of the things which the King did were wrong. As they would not do everything he wished them to do, James dismissed Parliament and ruled for many years without calling another.

When James died, in 1625 A.D., no one was very sorry. He had reigned for fifty-eight years—thirty-six years as King of Scotland and twenty-two as King of Great Britain and Ireland, and his people, English, Scots, and Irish, were discontented with his rule. Yet in spite of all he had tried to do, the people were really nearer freedom than before, for they had shown that they would not quietly submit to the rule of a despot.

James was succeeded by his son Charles. He had been taught by his father to believe that the King could do no wrong, and like his father, Charles wanted to be autocratic.

Charles, too, dismissed Parliament, because he could not have entirely his own way. He tried to make the people pay taxes and give him money without the consent of Parliament, and this made them very angry.

Like King James, King Charles had bad advisers, and one of the worst, perhaps, was his own wife, of whom he was very fond. She was a French princess called Henrietta Maria and was a Roman Catholic. She hated the Puritans, who were growing more and more important in England. Charles hated them too, and, with the advice of Archbishop Laud, who was one of his chief advisers, he treated the Puritans very hardly.

Many of the people in Scotland had become Protestant. They were called Presbyterians, and like the Puritans, they chose to have a very simple form of worship, and very simple churches. This did not please Charles. He said that the Scottish Church must use the same service as the English Church. He ordered a new Prayer Book to be made which was almost the same as the English Prayer Book. This he sent to all the Scottish ministers commanding them to begin to use it on Sunday, 23rd July 1637 A.D.

There was great excitement among the Scottish people when this order became known. On the Sunday morning many crowded to the Cathedral of St. Giles in Edinburgh, wondering what would happen.

When the Dean entered, it was seen that he was wearing a white robe instead of the black one in which the Scottish clergy usually preached.

The Dean little knew of the anger which was rising in the hearts of the stern-faced men and women round him as the words of the new prayers rang strangely through the silent church.

He began the service, using the new Prayer Book. But he had not gone far when an old woman called Jenny Geddes sprang up. "Thou false thief," she cried, "wilt thou say Mass at my ear?" and with that she threw the stool upon which she had been sitting at the Dean's head.

In a moment the whole church was in confusion. "The Mass! the Mass! popery! popery!" shouted the people. "Down with the Pope! down with him!" The women rushed at the Dean and tore his white surplice from his shoulders, and he was so hardly used that he ran the risk of being killed. The Bishop of Edinburgh went into the pulpit and tried to calm the people. But they would not listen to him. "A Pope! a Pope!" they cried, "down with him! down with him!"

At last soldiers were sent for, the church was cleared, the doors were locked and the new service was read to the few who were in favour of it. Outside the crowd yelled and hooted, breaking the windows with stones and hammering on the doors, which were locked and barred against them.

The Bishop barely escaped with his life. He was carried through the crowd surrounded by soldiers with drawn swords in their hands.

All Scotland was in arms. High and low banded together to resist the King. They drew up a paper which was signed by thousands, binding themselves to fight for the freedom of religion. This paper was called the National Covenant, and the people who signed it the Covenanters. Scotland was ready for war, and Charles was forced to recall the Prayer Book and allow the Scottish Church to be free.

Charles promised the Scottish Church freedom, but he could never keep his word. Soon he raised an army intending to force them to do as he wished. But the Scots were ready to fight and they marched into England to meet Charles. The English Puritans were on the side of the Scots and for the first time in all history a Scottish army coming into England was welcomed by the English. The fighting ended in a victory for the Scots, and once more Charles promised them freedom in religion.

If you should ever go to St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh you will see there a brass plate in memory of Jenny Geddes and her deed. It is set there, not because it is right or wrong to use a Prayer Book, not because it is better to worship God in one way rather than another, but because it is right that people should be free to pray to God and worship God in their own way. Neither Pope nor King has a right to say how any man or woman shall pray, and it is not because Jenny Geddes fought against a Prayer Book, but because she struck a blow for freedom, that we remember her.

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