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Failings of the Stuart kings

28 November 2014

Jonathan Clark asks whether a different story could be told

© Holbourne Museum of Arts, bath

Celebrating the restoration of Charles II: a tapestry, c.1665, in the Holbourne Museum of Art, Bath: it recalls his hiding in an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester, 1651, and his escape disguised as a servant. From the book

Celebrating the restoration of Charles II: a tapestry, c.1665, in the Holbourne Museum of Art, Bath: it recalls his hiding in an oak tree after the ...

Civil War: The history of England, Volume III
Peter Ackroyd
Macmillan £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT292 )

THE public's appetite for narratives of British history, of the doings of kings and queens, prelates and politicians, continues unabated. Here, Peter Ackroyd, a writer of genius, reaches the years 1603-88. They are of special interest to Anglicans, witnessing in the 1650s the lowest ebb of the Church of England (at least, until the present).

Why, then, did the Stuarts fail? Successive interpretations have evaporated: the rise of the middle class, Parliament's bid for ascendancy, the first Communist revolution. Three leading options remain: the "three nations" dynamic of England, Scotland, and Ireland; religious conflict; and the personal failings of rulers.

All are present here, including the "Bishops' Wars" of 1639-40 that erupted in affirmation of Scots autonomy; and the Irish backlash against Protestant settlers. Parliament's clashes with James I, Charles I, and Cromwell receive their due. Religion, too, is unavoidable; it "was, in this century, the principal issue by which all other matters were judged and interpreted", and Arminianism drew a battle line against Calvinism. Was the Church of England so securely Calvinist, though? My sense is that future research will qualify that scholarly orthodoxy.

But Ackroyd is most drawn to individual vice and misjudgement. The foul-mouthed and angry James I drove his unwelcome subjects away from court; was profligate towards his favourites; was "acutely aware that his temperament and behaviour were not always impeccably regal".

Charles I's "piety, and sense of divine mission . . . rendered him humourless and strict"; he "seemed to lack both moral and physical courage"; he "could never see the point of view of anyone but himself"; he could be "wily and secretive"; "he feared to appear weak."

By contrast, Cromwell emerges well, despite the Drogheda massacre. Charles II, again, behind his "assumption of good humour", was "calculating and even cunning", "an adept at the arts of dissimulation and hypocrisy". James II was "a staunch, and indeed almost hysterical [Roman] Catholic", in practical matters "the very model of a retired naval officer of moderate abilities".

How could it all have ended otherwise? Ackroyd writes with invariable skill, explaining complex matters in lucid prose, enlivening everything with telling detail. But I wonder whether a different story could be told, giving equal weight to the extraordinary religious bigotries with which these hapless rulers were surrounded.

Dr Jonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas.

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