The White King

by Leanda de Lisle, Chatto and Windus, 399pp, £20

First, the title – it whets one’s curiosity – for few of us, I guess, have heard Charles I called “the White King”. It was, Leanda de Lisle writes, “a sobriquet used by Charles’s contemporaries. 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.”

The subtitle, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr, may seem more familiar, and certainly reflects the passions he provoked. But in truth, Charles was neither villain nor saint. He was a man of high ideals and narrow intelligence, firm in his opinions but devious in his conduct, a devout defender of the Church of England as established by law and an incompetent, eventually untrustworthy politician. His reign ended in disaster – civil war, defeat, his trial and execution, and the replacement of hereditary monarchy by a Republic which was in reality a military dictatorship.

Yet in the 1630s, the decade when he governed without recourse to parliaments, Charles’s court was reckoned the happiest and most elegant in Europe. He was happily married to the French princess, Henrietta Maria. He collected magnificent works of art and was the discerning patron of Rubens and Van Dyck. Best of all – though some of his subjects objected – he kept England out of the ghastly Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Germany and the Low Countries.

So what went wrong? First, he was king not only of England but also of Scotland. Though born a Scot, he did not understand Scotland. His attempt to force the Presbyterian Church of Scotland into uniformity with the Church of England provoked rebellion. That rebellion gave his English critics, now opponents, their opportunity. He needed money to fight the Scots and, in 1640, had to call a parliament for the first time since 1629. The opposition colluded with the Scots, and then proceeded to dismantle the conciliar state – that is, the means by which the Tudor despots had governed. The king’s ministers were arrested, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, imprisoned in the Tower, the Earl of Strafford impeached.

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