Reviewed by Julie Barham
This is a book that in many ways reads like a novel. That said, it is also a non- fiction history book, well presented with at least some of the hallmarks of a scholarly book: extensive notes on the chapters with bibliographic details and full index. As with her previous book on the Tudors, de Lisle manages to combine her research with an eye for a readable story in which seems an effortless combination, though I am sure it is the result of living with the research. This is the story of a king whose fate is well known, as he literally fought for his throne only to die in a public execution. Despite this, the book manages to convey the humanity of not only Charles “Traitor, Murderer, Martyr” as it states in the title, but also his family and those who followed him, even to their own executions.
The Author’s Note at the start of the book describes de Lisle’s attitude to the “White King”: “The real Charles was neither a saint, nor his wife’s puppet, but a man of strengths and failings”. She does not worship the man that this book portrays so well; she knows that his “flaws and misjudgements lead to his ruin”, and that he is not a victim of a long and exhaustive plot. However, she undoubtedly recognises him as courageous and with high ideals, and this book is the story of a man whose dependence on the self-interested and misguided led him into many difficulties, as well as a role as king of an uneasy combination of English and Scottish interests. His father’s example was one of personal unattractiveness but overset by sufficient statecraft to maintain his uneasy kingdom; Charles was forced to deal with all the problems of a religious settlement challenged by the perception of continuous Catholic threat personified in his wife. The problems of a Europe riven by discord that he felt obliged to involve himself in meant continuous strains on a royal purse that was far from bottomless, and laid him open to disloyalty and even attack. He was loyal to those around him; eventually his wife and children were his first concern and when they were under perceived threat his political judgement was less than acute. This is a decidedly chronological story as de Lisle works through the life of a man beset with difficulties, whose tastes for the beautiful and visual in his collection of art works are not matched by a political intelligence which might have saved him and his throne. He was arguably more sinned against than sinning; he ascended a throne in default of an elder brother and perhaps never replaced him in his own eyes let alone those of people around him. This book conveys so much of the humanity of those involved, as his family’s reaction to his execution shows. Charles is shown as a man in the midst of difficulties, whose inability to see the long term effects of his actions probably led to his downfall.
There are many possible readings of the reign and death of Charles, as with so much of history. In this confident and controlled book de Lisle makes her account an intensely human one, full of the small details that make up a complex life in which Charles is more than a victim, yet flawed and often struggling to assert an authority he was uncertain of, despite his high ideals of kingship. This book offers much to the non-specialist reader who is interested in the story of a king and those around him. It also serves as a basis for further study for those willing to pursue his story. It is essentially a good read, and would recommend it as a book for all those intrigued in the story of this most ill-fated of kings, and a man in an impossible situation.
Julie blogs at Northern Reader
Leanda de Lisle, White King (Chatto & Windus, 2018). 978-0701185862, 432pp., hardback..
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