Biography of an English king whose “life and reign add up to far more than the sum of his mistakes.”
Charles I (1600-1649) has always received bad press as the villain of “the triumph of virtuous, warty-faced politicians and soldiers over a king who is weak, stupid and backward looking…a mere speed bump on the high road to liberal democracy.” Reading this description on the first page, one may suspect that the author disagrees. Sure enough, veteran British historian de Lisle (Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family, 2013) delivers a more generous portrait. Charles was the son of James I and mostly a chip off the old block: a High Church Anglican who believed in the divine right of kings and clerical authority, which guaranteed trouble with the austere, Protestant Calvinists who were gaining power. Charles ruled without Parliament from 1629 to 1640, but lack of money and war with Scotland forced his hand. Fiercely anti-Royalist, the legislature passed a torrent of laws limiting his authority and expanding its own while persecuting his advisers. Despite plenty of Royalist support, Charles lacked his opponents’ political acumen and ruthlessness, even after raising his standard in 1642. In 1647, after a bloody civil war, he found himself a prisoner of Parliament, the members of which wanted a negotiated settlement that might have happened if extremists under Oliver Cromwell hadn’t expelled that majority in 1649, leaving those willing to condemn the king. De Lisle’s parliamentarians are an irascible group, resembling not so much freedom fighters as the tea party; on the other hand, the author’s Charles often seems the voice of reason.
Recent elections in Britain and the United States have produced surprisingly dysfunctional governments. De Lisle’s fine, revisionist view of Charles may arouse nostalgia for a time when national leaders, elected or not, looked out for the nonzealous majority.