A bloody history of treachery and retribution told with zest.
Jordan and Walsh (The King’s Bed: Ambition and Intimacy in the Court of Charles II, 2016, etc.) follow their examination of Charles II’s sexual escapades with a close look at his career after claiming the throne in 1660. Vowing revenge, Charles set out “to chase, pursue, kill and destroy” the 59 men who executed his father. The authors reprise the downfall of Charles I, who ruled tyrannically, incurring the wrath of Parliament, the gentry, and the aristocracy, inciting many to question the legitimacy of the monarchy. Civil wars ensued, resulting in the rise of Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector for life.” Cromwell’s reign—he staged his own coronation—infuriated his enemies. When he died in 1658 from malaria (he “had survived myriad battles, intrigues and assassination plots only to be laid low by an insect”), Charles II saw his chance to return from exile. The authors characterize Charles as a cynical pragmatist who handily quashed his opponents, claimed the property and estates of those he identified as threats, and refused any compromise to his royal power. He was not beloved: among his detractors was John Milton, who bitterly condemned a restored monarchy. Edmund Burke derided Charles as “dissolute, false, venal, and destitute of any positive good quality whatsoever.” Still, Burke noted, England yearned for a king, to promote “peace and liberty.” As king, Charles displayed traits “developed over long years of exile and futility”: predilection for philandering, inattentiveness to governing, and laziness. His court was “wonderfully corrupt and licentious.” The authors chronicle the arrest of the regicides and their sensational mass trial, and they focus especially on the lives of 20 fugitives in America and Europe, eluding capture by Charles’s henchmen. The authors praise the “odd coalition” of regicides as “men of principle” who ushered in Britain’s modern constitutional monarchy.
An absorbing narrative that shifts the focus from monarchs to rebels.