[Review] The White King by Leanda de Lisle

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Less than forty years after the golden age of Elizabeth I, England was at war with itself. The bloody, devastating civil wars set family against family, friend against friend. At the head of this disintegrating kingdom was Charles I. His rule would change the face of the monarchy for ever.

Charles I’s reign is one of the most dramatic in history, yet Charles the man remains elusive. Too often he is recalled as weak and stupid, his wife, Henrietta Maria, as spoilt and silly: the cause of his ruin. In this portrait — informed by newly disclosed manuscripts, including letters between the king and his queen — Leanda de Lisle uncovers a Charles I who was principled and brave, but also fatally blinkered. He is revealed as a complex man who pays the price for bringing radical change; Henrietta Maria as a warrior queen and political player as impressive as any Tudor. Here too are the cousins who befriended and betrayed them: the peacocking Henry Holland, whose brother engineered the king’s fall; and the magnetic ‘last Boleyn girl’, Lucy Carlisle.

This is a tragic story for our times, of populist politicians and religious war, of a new media and the reshaping of nations, in which women vied with men for power. For Charles it ended on the scaffold. Condemned as a traitor and murderer, he was also heralded as a martyr: his reign destined to sow the seeds of democracy across Britain and the New World.

I clearly remember when I was studying my A-Levels, sitting in my history lesson and learning about Charles I and the Divine Right of Kings. I remember studying the causes of the English Civil War and thinking “this has to be the most boring part of English history I have ever had the misfortune of studying”. Little did I know that when I moved on to University I would end up falling in love with the English Civil War and specialising in the battlefield archaeology of the Battle of Cheriton for my dissertation. I’m not sure what it was that suddenly changed my mind, only that all of a sudden I realised that there was so much more to it than the Divine Right of Kings and ship money. I began to find the whole era incredibly romantic. I became embroiled in the history of the battles. I even, for my sins, joined the Sealed Knot as a musketeer in the Royalist Henry Tilliers Regiment of Foote. A life long love had been sparked and I devoured anything I could get my hands on about those torrid years of war. In the past few years that love has taken a bit of a back seat to the Italian Renaissance, but it’s always been there niggling in the back of my mind, and when I heard that Leanda de Lisle was working on a biography of Charles I I knew I had to read it.

De Lisle’s “The White King” was one of my Christmas gifts and I got stuck into reading it as soon as I possibly could. Now, I don’t want to sound cliched, but from the moment I opened it I literally could not put it down. And it was the first time that any biography on Charles I had gripped me in such a way. I’ve read a lot on the ill-fated King and I will be the first to admit that a lot of it is incredibly heavy going, dry reading. In “The White King”, de Lisle does the near impossible – she makes the history of Charles Stuart accessible. She makes it exciting. She goes beyond the whole ‘these were the mistakes Charles made and they were the only causes of the war’. It truly makes a refreshing change in pace.

This book is a balanced view of the man that many in England saw as a tyrant and a traitor. Not only that but de Lisle gives a sympathetic view of the King and his beliefs. She weighs the causes of the War up and comes to the conclusion that although Charles did make mistakes, he wasn’t the only cause of a war that literally split England right down the middle. We see a man who loved his family and who believed that what he was doing was right. We see him fighting for what he believed in and at the same time we see parliament doing the exact same thing – they believed that what they were doing was for the good of the country, as did Charles.

Charles I wasn’t all black and white. His grey areas proved to be his ultimate downfall – despite being brave, he believed so wholeheartedly in his divine right that it proved to be his end. And what a sad end it was. I have never read a better account of King Charles I’s trial and execution, nor have I been practically moved to tears when reading about his incredibly brave end.

This wonderful biography is truly a pioneering work in the history of the Seventeenth Century and I would even go so far as to say that this book should be considered the Bible on the history of Charles I. Whilst it tells his story, it also offers insights into lesser known parts of his history – including a short affair towards the end of his life as well as offering up previously unknown correspondence between him and his wife. Reading this book has rekindled my love of the English Civil War and made me want to pick up my own work on it again.

An excellent biography and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the Caroline Court.

The Coronation of Charles I – A Guest Post by Jennie Gillions

Today’s post comes courtesy of Jennie Gillions, author of the fabulous blog “Ink Under Skin” which is all about tattoos and skin art in history. Now, I adore tattoos; heck I’m even planning on getting one of Cesare Borgia’s motto but that’s a different story – so her blog is definitely a must read if you like fun stuff like that. Anyway, I’ll stop rambling and let Jennie take over with her post on Charles I’s Coronation!


Charles I by Van Dyke
2nd February 2013 is the 387th anniversary of the coronation of England’s arguably most rubbish king.
He has some stiff competition – Henry VI was pretty useless, and Edward II was deposed by his own wife – but Charles I, I think, wins out for managing to be the only British monarch to annoy his own people so much that they, state-sanctioned, murdered him.
And it wasn’t even as if it started well. Charles had been ruling since his father James I died in March 1625, but plague had postponed the coronation. In case that wasn’t sufficiently ominous, his wife refused to be crowned alongside him, and the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke too quietly for the congregation to hear when they were supposed to start applauding.
* * *
Charles, born a second son of James VI of Scotland in November 1600, was never meant to be king. He was, by all accounts, an unattractive child, weak and with a pronounced stammer that he retained throughout his life – his father kept him in Scotland until a year after his own accession to the English throne, in 1603. Charles’s older brother Henry was, in contrast, glorious, and Henry’s death from tuberculosis in 1612 was as tragic as it was unexpected.
Charles I in his Garter robes by Van Dyke
 Charles therefore started training for kingship late, and a combination of naivety and supreme arrogance meant he made some grave errors even before he was crowned. Charles, like his father, was an ardent believer in the concept of Divine Right, that a king was annointed by God and therefore no other man had the authority to challenge him. Unfortunately Parliament tried to challenge him in its first session of his reign, by trying to impeach Charles’s beloved best friend, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham had risen to prominence under (if rumours are to be believed, quite literally under) James VI and I, becoming the preeminent figure at court, obscenely wealthy, and in charge of pretty much anything he wanted to be in charge of. This included, in 1625, an expedition to take the Spanish port of Cadiz, which ended in ignominious failure. Parliament blamed Buckingham for the men, the money and the dignity that had been lost but Charles, in an early display of the jaw-dropping inability to compromise that would eventually kill him, dissolved the session in a huff rather than risk Buckingham.
His early reign was also characterised by his disastrous marriage, to a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. Henrietta Maria was only 15 when she arrived in England, already married by proxy to a nervous 25-year-old virgin who was a strict Anglican in a country that outlawed Catholicism. Charles had agreed with her brother, Louis XIII, that she should be allowed to practise her faith openly, which didn’t go down well with her new Protestant subjects. She and Buckingham hated each other, and because Charles loved his friend far more than he loved his wife, Henrietta Maria’s first months in England were unhappy ones.
Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Mytens
 So there was no glorious victory at Cadiz to celebrate, no heir to the throne and no harmony between Protestants and Catholics at court. There was no huge parade, and the Queen, refusing to be crowned in an Anglican ceremony, watched proceedings from an upstairs window. In the embarrassing silence that followed the Archbishop’s largely unheard call for cheering, it fell to one of the Lords to whip up some enthusiasm by shouting: ‘God save King Charles!’
* * *
God didn’t. Eventually, on 30th January 1649, after an eleven year rule without a single session of Parliament, followed by two bitter, bloody civil wars, England sent its king to the scaffold.
Further Reading
David Starkey & Christopher Hibbert: Charles I: A Life of Religion, War and Treason