The late Michael Foot used to say that the first thing he needed to know about a new acquaintance was, on which side he or she would like their forebears to have fought in the English Civil War. He himself, of course, was firmly for Parliament. But having read Leanda de Lisle’s book, it is hard to imagine how anyone could possibly want to have Roundhead ancestors.
King Charles I is among the most baffling figures in English history, as the subtitle makes clear. Failing to avoid the the Civil War and letting Lord Strafford, his loyal chief minister, go to the block, are scarcely peccadilloes. ‘The man of blood, with his long, essenced hair’ aroused real hatred among enemies who eventually killed him. Yet he had a magical quality that inspired lasting devotion, and died for his principles. In the author’s words: ‘To supporters he was the saintly White King, crowned in robes the colour of innocence. To opponents he was the White King of the prophecies of Merlin, a tyrant destined for a violent end.’
Lord Macaulay’s portrait still influences how we see him. Admitting he was ‘a scholar and a gentleman, a man of exquisite taste in the fine arts and a man of strict morals in private life’, he then put the knife in: ‘false, imperious, obstinate, narrow minded … The whole principle of his government was resistance to public opinion.’ In his verse Macaulay revealed what he really thought of him — ‘accurst’. A fairer minded historian, Veronica Wedgwood was more sympathetic in her The Trial of Charles I (1964); yet in the end he eluded even her. There can be few more daunting subjects for a biographer.
De Lisle is in a better position to understand Charles than either Macaulay or Dame Veronica. This is because of sources unearthed since they wrote, and in particular because of lost letters between the king and Queen Henrietta Maria that she has recently discovered in the Duke of Rutland’s archives at Belvoir Castle.
After the early years when Charles was dominated by his father’s favourite the Duke of Buckingham — terminated by the duke’s assasination — she conjures up the halcyon decade when he and his queen presided over the most elegant court in Europe. It was a world immortalised by Van Dyck, a time during which the king amassed his superb collection of paintings (later sold off by Parliament). Everything depended on the survival of a fragile regime that tried to do without Parliament — perceived as tyranny by some of his more articulate subjects.
Then came the 1640s, with rebellions in Scotland and Ireland, followed by Parliament’s attempt to turn the king into a figurehead and force a Presbyterian structure on the Church of England. Charles’s blunders made the Civil War inevitable. Although a poor general — if one who never lacked courage — he seemed at first to have the upper hand, but the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army doomed him to defeat. The second Civil War, against Parliament, his inept attempts to profit from it, and the rise of the Independents (Puritan extremists) within the army brought chaos. Seizing power, Cromwell and his allies decided they would never be safe while Charles remained alive.
There has never been a better account of his trial than De Lisle’s, not even Wedgwood’s. By refusing to acknowledge the House of Commons’s right to judge him, the king signed his death warrant. When he was beheaded, many in the crowd wept — one man dropped dead from shock. Yet far from destroying Charles, his execution made him a martyr for the laws of the land and for the Anglican church. With Cromwell’s own death, Britain became a failed state, making inevitable the restoration of the monarchy
Instead of the petulant doll of Whig legend, Henrietta Maria emerges as a brave, doggedly resourceful woman who more than once risked her life for her husband. The description of Charles saying goodbye to her at Dover in February 1642, riding along the shore and waving his hat until the mast of her ship was out of sight, is unforgettable. There can have been few happier royal marriages.
Throughout, De Lisle effortlessly carries the reader along with her as she recreates the tragedy of Charles I and the Civil War. Her book is beautifully constructed, telling the story chronologically with a nice eye for detail, illuminating each period and major character by a vivid tableau, but with plenty of analysis. The adventures of the colourful Devereux family — the Earls of Essex, Warwick and Holland, and Lady Lucy Percy — make a neat subplot. This is the most gripping piece of revisionist history I have read for a long time.