The challenge Charles I prepared to fling at his accusers on 22 January 1649 has conditioned the thinking of generations of historians. “No earthly power can justly call me, who am your king, in question as a delinquent,” he proclaimed. He reminded those who presumed to judge him that they had been “born his subjects and born subjects to those laws, which determined, ‘that the king can do no wrong,’” a maxim that “guards every English monarch, even the least deserving.” Indeed, there was no established legal process that could hold Charles personally accountable for his actions, even if, as charged, he meant to overthrow the rights and liberties of his people. The tenet the king can do no wrong shifted responsibility onto those who carried out royal orders. Proponents of royal supremacy had seen in that maxim proof that kings were not only legally unaccountable but actually above the law.
However, an equally venerable English maxim explained that although “the king was under no man, he was under God and the law; for the law maketh the king.” To modern historians the two maxims seem contradictory. And the dramatic failure of the law in Charles's case has induced scholars to doubt the efficacy of this second maxim, to accept Charles's interpretation of its counterpart—that the king could do no wrong—and to shrug off as fine-sounding but unrealistic the strategies early modern Englishmen relied on to control kings. Both maxims, the one Charles sheltered under and the one he rejected, were designed to control his behavior.
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