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England’s King Charles I is often pictured as arrogant, clueless, and stupid. A less common view, offered by Alexandre Dumas in Twenty Years After, portrays him as a noble martyr. Where does the truth lie? The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr by Leanda de Lisle offers an objective biography of this king.
De Lisle paints a portrait of a Charles Stuart that reveals him more nuanced than the popular image of the man today. He is shown as intelligent and active, acting more out of principle than of self-interest. Indeed, principle would lead to his downfall. As de Lisle shows, he was willing to compromise on many areas, including the power he would exercise as king.
Yet, Charles was unwilling to compromise on religion. His life took place against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War, a convulsion driven by religion. Charles viewed himself as “The Defender of the Faith,” the faith being the Anglican church established by Henry VIII. Charles refused aid from France contingent on a conversion to Catholicism, from the Scots if he became Presbyterian, and rejected a settlement with the victorious Parliamentarians because it required changing the established church along Puritan lines.
De Lisle reveals divisions between Parliamentarians and Royalists during the English Civil War were not as clear-cut as portrayed today. Both Parliament and King claimed to be defending the tradition rights of Englishmen, a case both sides could creditably make. Charles I was attempting to rule without the consent of Parliament. Yet the price Parliament demanded sometimes exceeded the limitations of a legislature (this included the right to conduct trials in Parliament, outside the judiciary).
De Lisle shows Parliament was often unrepresentative, driven by the Independents, a minority determined to force their views. Like today’s Antifa, Independent mobs rioted, preventing members with contrary views from attending Parliament, allowing votes made only by those friendly to the Independents. Eventually, the Independents established a military dictatorship.
The White King offers gripping reading. It rewards those who read it a better understanding of King Charles I and a greater appreciation for the events which shaped his life.