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White King: Charles I: Traitor, murderer, martyr by Leanda de Lisle

20 April 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on a life of Charles I that gives his wife her due

THIS biography explores the life of the second Stuart King of England, Charles I. Born in Scotland in 1600, he died on the scaffold at his palace of Whitehall in January 1649. He succeeded his father in March 1625, two months before he married the sister of Louis XIII of France, Henrietta Maria, nine years his junior, but an astute and intelligent independent woman.

Was this elusive monarch a saint or a foolish sinner? His obstinacy certainly made a settlement impossible to reach after the Civil Wars broke out, first in Scotland in 1638, which ultimately led the English Parliament to seize political control. The vicissitudes of the period are the world of The Three Musketeers; readers of Dumas will be pleased to find that Milady de Winter appears here, unmasked as the historical Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle.

Contemporaries called Charles the “White King”. Was the sobriquet chosen because he wore white when he was crowned on Candlemas Day in 1626, despite his father’s commending that the purple dye of the coronation robe put a king in mind “not to prove unworthy of so ancient a crown and dignity”. Or was he the evil and tyrannous figure of Merlin’s prophecy?

De Lisle contrasts these images of the King and offers a clear assessment of the strength of his Queen’s contribution. For this, she makes extensive use of the Queen’s private correspondence held by the Dukes of Rutland. She provides fuller transcriptions than published and calendared in 1885, but the letters are almost always factual, and give little insight into the personalities of either the King or his royal correspondent. Nor does she use the letters found by Robert Beddard of 1648 showing the Queen’s vital part in trying to bring the King to safety from Calais.

For what purports to be a historical biography, de Lisle writes somewhat loosely. She sees the Parliament of 1625 as positively Blairite in size, alleging an influx of 600 MPs and 150 peers. Only 23 Lords Spiritual, 74 Lords Temporal, and 487 members of the Commons attended sessions in Westminster and at Oxford. It may surprise users of the BCP that the Te Deum is called a “Catholic hymn”.

The best date that de Lisle can offer for the Ashdown House (National Trust) portrait by Honthorst of Prince Rupert is “1630s-1656”, and in the acknowledgements she confuses the Milton Organ in Tewkesbury Abbey with that at Stanford on Avon, which remains in Northamptonshire, not Leicestershire.

Why the fingernail relic of the Venerable Thomas Holland SJ is illustrated at all is a mystery. In 1623, Holland led a seminarian delegation from Valladolid to assure Prince Charles of their loyalty when the luckless man sought to marry the Spanish Infanta; so maybe Charles touched his hand then.

Readers might hold out for a more reliable biography.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

White King: Charles I: Traitor, murderer, martyr
Leanda de Lisle
Chatto & Windus £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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