“The Man of Blood” to his opponents, a man who had killed the Lord’s People, and was tried and executed accordingly, emerges unusually sympathetically in The White King, Leanda de Lisle’s engaging and well-written biography of Charles I of England, king from 1625 until 1649. This biography is one that puts personality first, and, in doing so, devotes due and excellent attention to the role of women, particularly Charles’s dynamic French wife, Henrietta Maria. Indeed, Charles repeatedly appears in this account as the blinkered prey to the ambitions of others, notably the Duke of Buckingham; Henry, Earl of Holland; and Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. The king emerges as honorable and uxorious, but a withdrawn and rigid individual who lacked the flexibility and intelligence necessary to avoid the problems that stemmed from the partisan and divisive policies he supported.
To be a successful monarch required both character and talents, and Charles was insufficient in both. His inheritance was a promising one, and if the reign of James I (r. 1603–1625) had been troubled in England and, as James VI (r. 1567–1625), even more so in Scotland, there had at least been no collapse into civil war. Charles, however, lacked common sense and pragmatism, and could prove both devious and untrustworthy. Moreover, Charles’s belief in order and in the dignity of kingship led him to take an unsympathetic attitude to disagreement. After encountering severe problems with Parliament over his financial expedients, especially the forced loan of 1626, Charles dispensed with the legislature in 1629 and launched his “Personal Rule.”
Charles lacked both character and talents.
In this, Charles proved isolated from the wider political world, and the informal channels of royal authority did not work well. There was tension over his novel financial demands, especially the extension of Ship Money, the levy paid by coastal areas in support of the navy that Charles decided to extend inland in 1635, but most did not follow John Hampden in refusing to pay. The toleration of Catholics at court was very unpopular; so was the Arminian tendency within the Church of England associated with William Laud, whom Charles made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Arminianism was seen as crypto-Catholic and thus conducive to tyranny by its critics, and Charles could be harsh towards critics. He saw difference as subversive, and equated Puritanism with Calvinism, and the two with opposition to due authority. His political thought and manner were divisive. Prerogative courts under royal control, especially the Star Chamber and High Commission, gave out savage penalties. Most people, however, were reluctant to enter into rebellion, and it was a tribute to Charles’s political incompetence that he transformed dissent into political disaster.
The outbreak of civil war in England in 1642 reflected a spiral of concern arising from Charles’s mishandling of serious crises in Scotland (1638) and Ireland (1641). In Scotland, Charles proved a poor political manager. His commitment to religious change—towards a stronger episcopacy and a new liturgy—and his aggressive treatment of Scottish views led to a hostile national response. Instead of compromising with the 1638 National Covenant (an agreement to resist ecclesiastical innovations unless they were appointed by the General Assembly), Charles tried to suppress the Scots in the Bishops’ Wars (1639–40). This was the start of the Civil Wars, and it was symptomatic of the whole period of conflict: Charles mishandled the situation and lost, and religion played a major role in the war.
To help deal with the crisis, Charles summoned Parliament in England, but this “Short Parliament” refused to authorize money until grievances had been redressed. The impatient Charles dissolved it after only three weeks, infuriating many MPs. Threatened with bankruptcy as a result of the Scottish invasion, Charles then had to summon what became the Long Parliament. The period of “Personal Rule,” however, had generated a series of grievances and much fear about Charles’s intentions. Previously loyal gentry turned against the king, making it difficult to settle or ease serious disputes over politics and religion.
When civil war broke out, Charles received significant support because he was the focus for powerful feelings of honor, loyalty, and duty. Charles, nevertheless, lost. Once imprisoned from 1646, he showed himself untrustworthy, and this helped undermine the chance of any agreement. In 1648, his stance and policies encouraged the outbreak of the Second Civil War, in which both the Royalists and Scots were crushed.
The army followed up this war by purging Parliament in order to stop it negotiating with Charles. It then tried and executed Charles for treason against the people, declaring a republic. Thanks to religious zeal, the army had not been intimidated about confronting their anointed king. It claimed that Charles had given his word of honor not to fight again, and that he had broken it when he encouraged the Second Civil War.
Sad but firm in the portrait at Antony House, painted at his trial by Edward Bower, Charles refused to plead. He claimed that subjects had no right to try the king and that he stood for the liberties of the people. Charles was executed at the center of royal power, outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. The execution made compromise with the Royalists highly unlikely, and entrenched the ideological position of the new regime.
Leanda de Lisle ably captures the drama of the reign. She is parti pris in favor of Charles, but that is not itself a flaw. The preface, with Charles arriving in Paris in 1623 en routeto Madrid, nicely captures the international context of the reign that she discusses so well. The book also presents much of the physicality of the age, its splendor, and the role of individuals in what was very much a court society.
Charles is seen as a keen family man, his many children with his wife a contrast to his predecessor, James I, and successor, Charles II. In that respect, as with many others, there is a clear contrast between father and eldest son. Instead, Charles I was more similar to his rigid second son, James II. That both monarchs ended their reigns in defeat and failure raises interesting questions about the circumstances of monarchy in Britain in this period. This was also of relevance for Americans as the overthrow of the Stuarts also meant the overthrow of their rule in their North American colonies. Charles’s failings and failure look less unusual in the context of monarchs elsewhere. Take Louis XIII and Philip IV, both of whom he met in 1623. To note that all monarchs faced challenges does not free Charles from blame, but it does help explain his difficulties.
Louis faced aristocratic factionalism, opposition within the royal family, and armed resistance by Protestants. He had to campaign in person. Under his successor, Louis XIV, uprisings from 1648 to 1653, called the Frondes, forced the government to flee Paris. Louis XIII’s two predecessors, Henry III in 1589 and Henry IV in 1610, were both assassinated by Catholic fanatics. In 1640, Philip IV faced rebellions in Catalonia and Portugal, the latter leading to independence. Under his father, Philip II, aristocratic factionalism at court had become literally murderous. So also elsewhere. In Russia, the “Time of Troubles” earlier in the century led to assassinations—including that of the Tsar—pretenders, rebellions, and foreign invasion.
Charles should be judged in the context of his age.
In China, in 1644, the last Ming Emperor was overthrown by a combination of foreign invasion and domestic rebellion. He hanged himself as Beijing came under attack, bringing to an end a dynasty that had ruled since the fourteenth century. In Japan, the Emperor was pushed into the shadows. These and other failures raise questions about the very weaknesses of monarchy as a system, and even in a pre-democratic age the flaws of the individual could lead to the overthrow of the dynasty and also of political order. Looked at differently, our assumptions may be misplaced. The notion that politics should be peaceful may say more about aspiration than reality. At any rate, Charles should be judged in the context of his age.
I am less certain of the author’s claim that this “is a story for our times, of populist politicians and religious war, of manipulative media and the reshaping of nations.” Instead, alongside arresting similarities, the differences between the ages emerge clearly. A perfect book for a relaxing, but interesting, dip into a fascinating period of history.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 74
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