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When Oxford was the capital of England


For a few years during the English Civil War, Oxford acted as the royal capital. This article presents an extremely fine “triple unit” of Charles I from this period of time, which will be put to auction in the upcoming Künker auction on June 21, 2018.

The situation was too tempting: Germany was already in the middle of the Thirty-Years-War when Charles I was made king of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland on March 27, 1625. Surely there was something to gain! In those days, most European powers tried to win territories from the Holy Roman Empire.

Charles I of England, painting by Anthony Van Dyck around 1635. Hover to zoom.

Charles wanted to take part in this endeavour as well. Unfortunately, the young king did not have enough money, as the English Parliament was in charge of approving taxes at the time — and Parliament was not interested in blowing money on foreign wars. Consequently, they did not give him access to large sums. Usually, the king would receive the profitable tolls for harbours at the beginning of his reign, but Parliament only gave Charles access to these tolls for a year — a rather unfriendly gesture — and it would not be the only one.

When Charles summoned Parliament in the year 1628, members were only willing to pay taxes if the king would adhere to the following four regulations:

1. The use of martial law should be restricted.

2. No citizen should be executed without a legal trial.

3. Billeting of soldiers should be abolished.

4. All taxes and dues would have to be authorised by Parliament exclusively. If anyone would react against an unauthorised tax, they could not be prosecuted.

A depiction of the English Parliament from the 16th century.

The last point was crucial. It made the king dependent on his Parliament. Charles signed the petition anyway. Parliament approved the funds, and then the king did what he wanted and simply did not summon Parliament anymore afterward. More than 10 years went by. It was only when the Scots declared war on him that Charles had to bite the bullet once more. He needed more money, but it was not that simple.

The first problem was that many members of Parliament, mostly landowners from the country, sympathised with the Scots. They were fighting a war because they did not want to give up their Presbyterian faith for the Anglican Church. Let’s not forget that Germany was at war for the same reason. Subjects were simply no longer willing to sacrifice their freedom of conscience to the royal aspirations to a state religion, and this also applied to English members of Parliament, many of which belonged to non-Anglican denominations.

The fact that Parliamentarians also wanted to have a determining influence on politics which were financed by their money, turned the matter into an explosive situation.

Charles I. Triple unit 1644, Oxford. Very rare. Almost Extremely Fine. Estimate: 50,000 euros. From Künker auction 310 (June 21, 2018), No. 6144.

How did Charles think about the matter? It is shown on the obverse of a coin which was minted in Oxford in 1644, to finance the war against the Puritans. It reads (in translation): “Charles, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Spain.” By the grace of God, mind you! No word about a Parliament. The king is the mediator between God and his subjects. And that is why Charles is depicted with the splendour of his crown. He is holding the executioner’s sword, to punish all those who did not adhere to his law.

Parliament doubted this divine grace. And they were scared. After all, Charles had military command and he even wanted to enlarge his army because of the Scottish threat. As commander-in-chief, it would have been all too easy for him to get the idea of proceeding against Parliament. This fear fuelled a resistance, and when Charles actually ordered the arrest of one of the worst agitators on January 4, 1642, Parliament mobilised the people of London. They turned against their king, and he had to flee.

Above the roofs of Oxford. Photo by David Iliff.

He made himself at home in Oxford and already founded a new mint in January 1642. After all, he needed coins to pay the soldiers who should fight for the king. The mint was at the New Inn Hall, where St. Peter’s College is located today. Thomas Bushell and Sir William Pankhurst were appointed mintmasters. They had managed the Shrewsbury and Tower Mint before the uprising. They had large amounts of silver and gold at their disposal — at least in the beginning — as all colleges had kept their saved money by fashioning wonderful vessels from the redundant silver and gold. These vessels, which had been used to display the college’s wealth during banquets, were now taken and thrown into the melting pot.

During the initial phase of the civil war, the royal armed forces were quite successful, so everything was still up in the air when this coin was minted in 1644. Nevertheless the king still explicitly expresses his desire for peace. He is holding an oil branch in his left hand as a symbol for peace.

He used the reverse to sum up his alleged principles: the Protestant religion, the laws of England, and the freedom of Parliament. In this case, the Protestant religion meant the Anglican Church, which Charles hoped to install as the state church. The laws of England were royal laws and freedom of Parliament meant that it would have been free from the grace of Charles.

The inscription on the reverse is taken from the Bible. Psalm 68:2 is a threat to his enemies: “Let the wicked perish in the presence of God.”

But his opponents also claimed to have God’s support, and they were much more successful than Charles. After the execution of King Charles I, Cromwell issued coins in the year 1649 and depicted himself as the defender of the Republic of England, Scotland, and Spain by the grace of God.

Whether the Anglican or Puritan God actually wanted a civil war which cost countless lives is in modern times commonly doubted.


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