Our book today is John Adamson’s 2007 tome The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I, another addition to our roster of very good very long books (it’s so long that one rather wimpy soul, upon seeing it, kept mechanically blurting out “It’s the longest book in the world!” over and over again)(but it’s not). It’s the natural follow-up to the Kevin Sharpe’s equally-massive, equally fantastic 1994 tome The Personal Rule of Charles I (Sharpe’s book is actually 100 pages longer, but don’t tell that to the aforementioned wimpy soul); both are about that most problematic of English monarchs, Charles I, a man so punctilious that he’d refuse to eat a meal if the place-settings were even slightly wrong, and a man who brought that ironclad sense of entitlement especially to his rule – and at one of the worst possible moments in English history.
Charles I had the misfortune to believe completely in the indivisible divine right of kings at just the time when large numbers of his subjects were beginning to feel real power for themselves. His great noblemen and merchant princes had long since begun to bridle at his thoroughly medieval views of what was due him, and matters weren’t helped by the fact that Charles himself was not a commanding presence – personally, he was far more fit to be a local deacon or perhaps an overweening schoolmaster than to be king; he was physically tiny, possessed of a shrill, high voice, and prone to mincing. Mentally, he was one of those sticklers-of-pointless-detail whose own friends often want to punch them in the face. Even his dogs preferred to take their food from someone less apt to make pointers on their chewing methods.
Little surprise, then, that Charles I tussled with his Parliament often, and the title of Sharpe’s enormous book refers to the King’s idea of a solution to that friction: his infamous period of ‘personal rule,’ where used sub rosa foreign loans to render himself free of Parliament’s financial support and so rule without them. Such an approach for a mightier king in mightier times, but a great many of the men in Charles’ Parliament not only wanted more of the power they’d begun to accrue to themselves, they wanted more of that power to be specifically over the King himself. Rudely, awkwardly, the idea of the figurehead monarch – an expression and relic of pomp, possessing little or no real power – was being born. The Stuarts were the last English kings to hold vast monarchical powers personally in their hands, and they naturally fought to keep it.
Adamson’s enormous book chronicles that fight in a minutely detailed virtually day-by-day fashion, and his prose is throughout so clear and forceful that, believe it or not, the reader is swept along. Adamson is perfectly aware of the larger societal forces at play over his vast canvas, but he never forgets that his is an intensely personal story – people always come first in his accounts, and he’s very talented at delineating them, as in the case of Thomas Wentworth, the much-maligned Earl of Strafford, when the anti-monarchy forces of Parliament were baying for his blood:
This outward confidence and good humour, a facade seemingly maintained with immense emotional and physical effort, had defined Strafford’s public performance from the moment the treason accusations had first been made. Although granted the favour of legal counsel to assist with the preparation of his case, a privilege usually denied to those accused of treason, Strafford’s command of law and factual detail was nevertheless formidable. Ignoring his physical infirmities (he had been suffering acutely from the stone since the previous spring), he brought the full force of his intelligence and his devastating powers of sarcasm to bear against his accusers. He mastered his brief and had a command of detail and a quickness of repartee that repeatedly confounded his slower-witted opponents. To cite but two examples: his retort to th chart that using soldiers to enforce decisions of the Irish Council amounted to ‘levying war against the king’ (a long-established treason) is characteristic of his style: ‘These be wonderful wars if we have no more war than such as three or four men are able to raise. By the grace of God, we shall not sleep very unquietly.’
Historians who can make politics this interesting are rarer than you might think – Adamson is to be commended all the more that he maintains the great tension of his story (whose famous outcome even most historical neophytes already know), shifting from broad-view to the specific personal details he clearly enjoys so much:
with the two Houses locked in immovable stalemate, it was becoming clear that the struggle for supremacy within Parliament would be determined not inside, but outside the Palace of Westminster; above all, by what happened on London’s streets. For those vying for power, violence and coercion had once again become an indispensable element of their political calculus.
When it came to control of the capital, Charles believed that he started with one pre-eminent advantage over his enemies: Sir Richard Gurney, the City’s fussy, elderly, but devoutly royalist Lord Mayor …
And because The Noble Revolt is so long, the reader gets to experience not only the momentousness of this unprecedented struggle but all its peaks and valleys, all the moments when the whole contest seemed to teeter on the edge of mob violence, or sudden unexpected reconciliation. It’s a prolonged, enormously complicated chess match between Charles I and the men in his three kingdoms who were gradually, almost unwillingly coming to realize that their efforts could have only one end result, and it certainly wasn’t Charles living in comfortable exile somewhere near the Hague.
I admit it: I absolutely delight in massive histories like this one (and Sharpe’s). I want a historian to do the gigantic amount of work necessary to make the past live again, the gigantic amount of work necessary to present the whole of their mammoth subject, not just the banner headlines. Adamson’s 200 pages of end-notes amply demonstrate that he’s just that kind of historian – they’re practically worth the price of admission all by themselves. In them, we see the infinite care he took in his researches:
I use the term ‘protege’ in the relatively strict sense of someone who received the protection of a peer, whether formally a member of the nobleman’s household or not. Thus, for example, Calybute Downinge was ‘protected’ by Warwick and allowed to reside for a time in his country seat, even though (so far as I have been able to establish) he was never formally one of the earl’s household chaplains.
How I’d love to see volumes this vast on a whole shelf of vital historical subjects! Every time one surfaces (and two very promising examples are expected later in 2011), I dive into it with avid joy – not only because I’m an enthusiastic fan of historical writing, but also for the reason that started off this whole epic digression: I love losing myself in a good book.