Book Review: White King by Leanda De Lisle

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

The book is a biography of Charles I written in a lively style and presenting some new evidence from the Duke of Rutland’s archives about the relationship between Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria.

It is very well written and held my interest right through to the postscript and appendix. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the period. It is insightful and the arrangement of the information, tracking Charles’ story via the women in his life, is refreshing. It is Charles, however, who is always the centre of the narrative.

The sub-heading of this book is The Tragedy of Charles I and it definitely reads like a tragedy. There were so many misunderstandings, so many poor decisions by Charles, his advisors and his nobles that could have been corrected that may have avoided terrible misery.

No-one, in the 1630s anticipated that their political manoeuvring would lead to the greatest catastrophe Britain has experienced since the Black Death. Miss de Lisle follows Charles’ development from his childhood to his execution. Although my natural inclination is to seek to understand what was happening to the ordinary people during this period, it is fascinating to look through the opposite end of the lens and consider things from the king’s perspective. Royal families are different from over 99.9% of the population, but they are human families nonetheless.

Most histories of this period emphasise his autocratic nature, the stubbornness of the Members of Parliament and the general fear of Catholic Spain and France. Here we get a softer understanding of the royal family. Charles is presented as a thoughtful man, with many admirable qualities. Just the sort of king that the turbulent English needed. But those positive qualities of intelligence, piety, compassion were more than outweighed by his flaws. These included a belief that he had an absolute right, from God, to be king, an inability to act swiftly, a tendency to listen to the wrong advisors and, ultimately, to fatally misjudge the motives and objectives of his opponents.

Charles shines through the book as a misunderstood, family man. All he wanted was a well-ordered society to govern. Unfortunately, he inherited a nation under pressure, politically, economically, theologically and climatically. On the continent of Europe the Thirty Years War was raging between Catholics and Protestants, France and Spain were watching for opportunities to invade (at least many of the people in Britain believed this). His father, James I, had spent more than he had, and Parliament was quite indignant at Charles’ demands for more taxes and fines. The minds of the Protestant population were stretching to breaking point as some groups moved towards rigid Calvinism while others, including Charles, cherished the ritual and visual aspects of Christian worship, and the Church of England strove to hold the country together, culturally and spiritually. On top of all this Europe was experiencing the Little Ice Age, that spoiled harvests, emptied bellies and frayed nerves.

I felt that the King Charles presented to us is one that is, perhaps, more accessible and relatable-to than the stern Calvinists or the rigid honour-based hierarchy of the society. But, ultimately, Charles was the product of his upbringing and circumstances. We can praise his compassion and humanity, his love of family, yet there is still a wide gulf between him and us. A book like this brings the reader closer to his world. It must have been an exciting, infuriating time to live, and for Charles, as for many thousands of his subjects, it ultimately led to ruin and death.

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