Saturday, 28 April 2018

White King

As I mentioned a while ago, historiography becomes fun when a view different from the mainstream is offered. One such book I reviewed here was Jenny Wormald’s re-evaluation of why Mary Queen of Scots failed. Another such is the subject of this post (I said I had a pile of books to review; this is another):

de Lisle, L., White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr (London: Chatto & Windus, 2018).

The first thing to note is, of course, that this is remarkably up to date for something I read. Older books tend to be cheaper, but this one was, firstly, a birthday present and, secondly, cheap at Amazon, even in hardback. The economics of publishing and bookselling are way beyond my ken, so I cannot account for this largesse from one of the most aggressively profiteering companies on the web. Still, who am I to grumble?

The book is a biography of Charles I, and it is, in my view anyway, something of an attempt to rehabilitate the man as a king. De Lisle is aware of his faults, but casts the blame for a lot of the problems of the early 1640’s, at least, on a clique of protestant, Calvinist politicians, including Warwick and Pym, who had been engaged in treasonable correspondence with the Scots before and during the first Bishop’s War and needed to cover their traces in a hurry. Thus they attacked royal prerogatives, royal favourites and policy in an attempt to arrogate to Parliament the powers that they needed not to be executed fro treason.

De Lisle also believes that this clique controlled to London mob, which they used when their arguments were failing to intimidate their colleagues in both Lords and Commons to get their way. Thus assorted Lords, Bishops and royalist inclined MPs excluded themselves rather than face the mob surrounded the Houses of Parliament.

So far as it goes, I think this argument is reasonable. However, to be convincing I think we would need to look at the behaviours of London mobs more widely in the early modern period. Certainly there was a fair bit of anti-Catholic and specifically anti-Spanish sentiment around at the time, which the clique, (de Lisle calls it a junto) could and did whip up. However, I suspect it might be a mistake to suppose that the mob were controlled by the junto completely. Other seventeenth century (and even eighteenth century) riots happened both with political sponsorship and without.

The book, therefore, is an effort to shift blame for the civil wars from Charles himself to the wider, although still elite, political classes. It is probably true that Charles gets rather a bad press in much current and modern historiography. The Whig interpretation of history, after all, sees Charles as a conservative block to inevitable progress and his execution as a ‘cruel necessity’ along the way to the development of true democracy, unity, financial power, imperialism and empire. Progress, the implicit argument goes, cannot be blocked forever.

On the other hand, although oddly similarly aligned, goes the Marxist theory that economic development, the rise of the merchants, made the tussle for power between king and legislature inevitable, and, given that the rising merchant class had the money and were in Parliament, meant that the king would lose. Again, the development of something (the bourgeoisie, in this case) is historically inevitable and attempts to block it land up in disaster.

The effect of both of these theories is to place the king and his supporters on the wrong side of history. Which, of course, given that they lost (at least from a 1649 perspective) they were. De Lisle does us a favour in drawing our attention to the contingent in history. For example, she blames Lucy Carlisle for tipping off the five members that Charles I was on his way to arrest them. If this had not  happened, and the members been arrested, who knows what might have been next. A cowed Commons, its radical leadership in the Tower and on trial for their lives, would probably not have attempted to wrest control of the armed forces from the Crown when the Irish rose in 1641. But who knows, really?

I think that de Lisle overstates her case a bit. Charles did make bad decisions and followed them up with worse ones, on occasion. The ultimate problem he faced was that, for assorted reasons to do with contingent events and royal policy, he lost the trust of a sizeable chunk of the political nation. The junto may have had specific reasons for doing what they did, but they were not just attempting to cover their backs. The tensions in the political nation were real; personal concerns and political concerns do go together.

There are of course other questions outside the scope of de Lisle’s book. For example, given that battles are notoriously contingent affairs, could the royalists realistically have won. If, say, Rupert had won at Marston Moor, would Charles have felt able to offer some decent terms to the peace party in Parliament and find a settlement. Again, maybe and maybe not.

Overall this is a provocative, rather populist, book. It is an easy read, and you do not have to be a specialist to grasp the argument. That said, sometimes the names and their links can be a bit bewildering. Whether the argument that the whole mess of the 1640’s was not Charles I’s fault is made strongly enough is a bit moot. In the conclusion de Lisle argues that Charles’ vision of society was one of hierarchy and mutual support. The higher support and protect the lower; the lower owed service to the upper. A meritocracy by contrast permits people to achieve by their own merits. However, this suggests that the less successful have less merit that those who rise to the top. On the other hand, she concedes that Charles felt any threat to the order of society had to be squashed, and he did not have the practical power to do so.

The problem with Charles’ view of society, it seems to me, is that there is an assumption that those further up the ladder are inherently able to lead. My experience of management is that this is spectacularly not the case. Meritocracy may not work, but nor does hierarchy. Charles failed in the basic requirements of kingship, by a good number of measures at least. Why should anyone lower in the social ranks than him have obeyed?


  1. Fully appreciate your summation here, and sounds like a fascinating book.
    Yes - the assumption that higher ups display more than adequate leadership skills has seen the downfall of both monarchies and companies that I have worked for.
    Case in point at the minute where the 'troubleshooter' has now assumed the mantle of Director. It does somewhat remind me of James II taking over from Charles II. Unfortunately we are now facing our industry's equivalent of the Battle of the Boyne, and he's over on the flank somewhere, blaming the Irish.

    1. Charles I's troubleshooter was Strafford. Charles seemed to have believed that his signing of Strafford's death warrant was the reason for everything else - divine punishment on him for agreeing to the execution of an innocent man.

      It also didn't help that the rest of Charles' ministers started to show some concern for their necks after the execution. Quite a few bailed out.

  2. It sounds like de Lisle has got his/her inspiration from the conspiracy theories on RT/Russia Insider about the Maidan. That's not to say it's not true but....

    1. My reading of the book is that she is trying to shift the blame onto the Warwick connection. Maybe, and maybe not. As some wise man once said, the best assumption is cock-up rather than conspiracy...