The English Civil War began in 1642, pitting King Charles I against the English and Scottish parliaments. The King’s army initially held the upper hand, but after 1644 the rebellious Roundheads, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, began to gain ground. Following the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 and a series of Roundhead victories, Charles was eventually captured and imprisoned.
During his imprisonment—initially in Hampton Court Palace, but later Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight—various negotiations for his release took place, but Charles, with his strong belief in the divine right of kings, was steadfast in refusing the Roundheads’ demand for a constitutional monarchy. As these negotiations dragged on, internal divisions eventually split the revolutionary forces, with Parliament voting in December 1648 to continue talks, but Cromwell and the army opposing any negotiations with the king they viewed as a bloody tyrant. A series of machinations put Cromwell’s forces in power and Charles was put on trial for treason in January 1649.
During the failed negotiations for his release, the Royalist negotiators may have presented the blank sheet above as a final concessionary proposal to the Roundheads, leaving Cromwell to unilaterally fill in the terms of Charles’s freedom. It includes the signature and seal of Charles’s son and a note from a later owner of the document: “Prince Charles his Carte Blanche to the Parliament to save his Father’s Head 1648.”
Although early commenters believed the document was genuine, more recent historians are uncertain that Charles would have authorized such a proposal. True, the carte blanche was not an uncommon strategy during the time but blank documents like this were also used simply for convenience in royal administration—and Charles was uncompromisingly stubborn in refusing any concessions to his absolute rule. (See sources here and here.)
Indeed, even on trial for his life—he was, of course, ultimately beheaded—the king argued staunchly but desperately against the very legitimacy of a court that would put a monarch on trial for treason:
The Act of the Commons in Parliament for the tryal of the King was read, after the Court was called, and each member rising up as he was called.
The King came into the Court, with his hat on, the Sergeant usher’d him in with the Mace. Col. Hacker, and about thirty officers and gentlemen more, came as his Guard. . . .
Mr. Cook, Solicitor General. My Lord, in behalf of the Commons of England, and of all the people thereof, I do accuse Charles Stuart, here present, of high treason, and high misdemeanours; and I do, in the name of the Commons of England, desire the charge may be read unto him.
The King. Hold a little.
Lord President. Sir, the Court commands the charge I be read; if you have any thing to say afterwards, you may be heard.
The charge read.
The King smiled often during the time, especially at the words tyrant, traytor, murtherer and publique enemy of the Commonwealth.
Lord President. Sir, you have now heard your charge read, containing such matter as appears in it; you find that in the close of it, it is prayed to the Court, in the behalf of the Commons of England, that you answer to your charge. The Court expects of your answer.
The King. I would know by what power I am called hither. I was not long ago in the Isle of Wight—how I came there is a longer story than I think is fit at this time for me to speak of; but there I entered into a treaty with both houses of Parliament with as much publique faith as it’s possible to be had of any people in the world. I treated there with a number of honourable Lords and Gentlemen, and treated honestly and uprightly, I cannot say but they did very nobly with me, we were upon a conclusion of the treaty. Now I would know by what authority, I mean lawful—there are many unlawful authorities in the world, thieves and robbers by the high ways—but I would know by what authority I was brought from thence, and carryed from place to place (and I know not what), and when I know what lawful authority, I shal answer. Remember I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the judgment of God upon this land—think well upon it—I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater. Therefore let me know by what lawful authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer. In the mean time I shall not betray my trust; I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent—I will not betray it to answer to a new unlawful authority; therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear of me.