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Book Review: Charles I & The People of England

By (June 16, 2015) No Comment

Charles I & The People of Englandcharles_i_cover_3278493a

by David Cressy

Oxford University Press, 2015

The title of Stuart England historian David Cressy’s new book Charles I & The People of England would at first sight promise a very slim tract. After all, this was a king who believed very strongly that he was God’s Anointed, a king who had very little contact with his ordinary subjects and taxed them extravagantly, a king who ruled without a Parliament from 1629 to 1640, and, ultimately, a king who lost both his crown and his head to an armed uprising by factions of his own people. These facts tempt historians and biographers to write accounts of Charles’ life and reign that are, as Cressy points out, a parade of “kings and queens, courtiers and councillors, members of parliament and the elite groups they represented,” even though such people constituted “never more than 1 or 2 per cent of the population.”

Cressy here has set out to write a different history of the reign of Charles I, and he succeeds on all counts: here is a view of that reign seen as much from the bottom up as from the top down, a long and sensitive analysis of the many ways the king and his people interacted (or didn’t, in the case of the numerous urgent petitions Charles tended to dismiss, or the numerous letter-writers of dubious sanity who wanted either to save Charles from some imagined evil or else kill him and maybe marry his queen). More so than any book since C. V. Wedgwood’s The King’s Peace, Cressy paints a vividly panoramic picture of Stuart England and a richly thought-provoking look at the vital relationship at the heart of that kingdom (at least in London and its immediate environs):

The king of England was public property, even as he guarded his privacy and privileges. His subjects had an interest in the king’s welfare, his actions, and his health, because kingship implicated everyone’s security and wellbeing. Royal policies determined the course of peace or war. Crown appointments and royal patronage ramified across the commonwealth from the national to the local level. The king’s religious preferences shaped the culture and practice of the church. His parliaments drew representatives from across the country and his taxes touched property-holders in their pockets. If the king died, his successor could alter the religion of the nation, involve England more actively in European conflict, and even raise the risk of foreign invasion. Subjects high and low took note of the king’s movements as well as his policies, because royal activity affected everyday lives, security, and aspirations.

Cressy reminds his readers that in practice, it remains “a matter of style and taste, as well as judgement, how a king should exercise his kingship,” and Charles I & The People of England, grounded in a hundred pages of notes and sources (including, unfortunately, no less than thirteen of Cressy’s own works in his Bibliography; historians really ought to drop this vaguely obscene vanity – a Bibliography is a list of older works cited in the researching of the present volume, and it’s no more possible to consult a book you wrote yourself than it is for you to notarize your own will or act as your own corroborating eyewitness), gives the fullest and most enjoyable history of the particular “style” Charles chose to exercise.

His choices along those lines did him few favors, as Cressy’s masterful summing-up makes plain:

It is hard not to conclude that King Charles was the author of his own troubles. His haughtiness did not preserve him. Like any other monarch he had choices, room for discretion. There was no need for him to adhere so devotedly to the Duke of Buckingham in the early years of his reign, nor to rely so heavily on a coterie of nobles or a particular faction of the church. He would have been better served by a statesman of the calibre of a William or Robert Cecil, if he could find one. There was no need to make war against Spain and France, sequentially and simultaneously, and to launch operations for which resources and preparations were lacking. There was no need to pack the episcopal bench with hard-liners, or to reissue the Declaration of Sports with demands for strict compliance. There was no need to disrupt parish culture with the demands of ceremonial uniformity, or to impose a new prayer book on Scotland. The King did not need to frame every initiative as a test of authority, or every objection as refractoriness or malignancy. These were King Charles’s own choices, and his kingdom was saddled with their repercussions.

As an anatomy of the dynamics of this particular king’s rule, this book is a wonderful kind of counterpart to the late Kevin Sharpe’s work The Personal Rule of Charles I. Students of the pivotal Stuart era shouldn’t miss it.