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Power and Prejudice: Leanda de Lisle Unwinds the Myth of the White King, Charles I

Posted on 9th January 2018 by Martha Greengrass

In a time dominated by contemporary debates about truth and representation, we’re nevertheless apt to view history without acknowledging the long-standing prejudices which have filtered into commonly accepted mythology. Described by the Financial Times as, "that rare thing, a page turning history that gently but insistently asks provocative questions about a period upon which our opinions have been all too fixed", a groundbreaking new biography of Charles I, White King, illuminates the figures at the centre of one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. Here, in an exclusive article for Waterstones, author Leanda de Lisle discusses the man behind the myth and challenges some of history's most pervasive ideas about identity, disability and gender.

Myth has an insidious way of working its way into history. Stories that ring true, that appeal to our prejudices, become ‘fact’. Sometimes they are rooted in contemporary propaganda, the old lies giving a veneer of respectability to the new.  But they are also nurtured by attitudes hard-wired into us over centuries. 

In my Tudor books I described how our patterns of thought have distorted the reputations of historical figures, particularly women. But in the case of my latest book, White King, a biography of Charles I, there was still more to do. The character of the king and the women around him have been so maligned that readers have turned away from one the most dramatic reigns in British history: a tale of court glamour and political populism, of misogyny and religious violence, that speaks to our time. 

The title of this book – White King – is drawn from a sobriquet used by Charles’s contemporaries, and was inspired by the story that he was crowned in white. It is a sobriquet that is unfamiliar today. I hope it inspires curiosity and encourages readers to approach the biography of this damned monarch with an open mind.  

Charles the Martyr, and Charles the Murderer, lauded by his friends, and condemned by his enemies, is now largely forgotten, but in popular memory something just as extreme remains. He is pinned to the pages of history as a failed king, executed at the hands of his own subjects, and now preserved like some exotic, but desiccated insect. In many accounts it seems that Charles was doomed almost from birth, his character immutable.

We like to believe we have turned our back on our old prejudices, but the way we remember him shows they lie just below the surface, still influencing the way we think. 

In the past disabilities were seen as marks of man’s fallen nature. The twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III  was an outward sign of a twisted soul. We still use the same shorthand (think of the disfigured Dr Poison in the current film Wonder Woman). And it is common for Charles’s fate to be read back into the physical difficulties of his early childhood, as if his weak legs were physical manifestations of weakness of character. 

The determination and resilience Charles showed in overcoming his disability, emerging as an athletic adult, is surely more interesting. But instead of the narrative of a courageous survivor we are told childhood stories that predict only failure. 

Notable is the story that when Charles was badly behaved, his father, King James, insisted that another child – a boy called Will Murray - was beaten. The tale of the whipping boy even appears under Murray’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is an important work of record. 

Yet the first reference to Charles’s whipping boy dates to over seventy years after his death, in Gilbert Burnet’s ‘History of my Own Times’. There is an earlier reference, dating to only six years after Charles’s death, to the Tudor King Edward VI having a whipping boy. But there is no contemporary evidence for this either. Indeed the very earliest reference to any whipping boy (that I have found) appears in Samuel Rowley’s Jacobean play ‘When you see me, You know Me’ in which Henry VIII has a ‘whipping boy’, ‘Browne’.  

The play was written in the aftermath to the English publication of King James’s tracts on divine right kingship, with their assertion that no subject could legitimately raise their hand against God’s anointed – and this is the true origin of the myth. It has been accepted by repetition and because it fits the script that Charles alone was responsible for the suffering of the civil wars. 

From the sickly child, for whose failings others were punished, the traditional story then has Charles maturing into an effete adult. There is little hint of the virility a king who sired a brood of children Henry VIII could only have envied. Indeed, the happiness of Charles’s marriage is grist to the mill. 

In the early modern period, ‘effeminate’ was not a term of abuse for homosexuals. It described men who enjoyed female company. This attitude remains evident in the vogue for the ‘bromance’, with its philosophy of ‘bros before hoes’, and was expressed succinctly by the character in the movie Layer Cake who observes,  ‘f****** females is for poofs’.  Charles is judged less than a man because he loved his wife, and her reputation is itself shaped by misogyny as well as the anti-Catholic attitudes that are almost in British DNA. 

Since Eve, women have supposedly seduced men into evil. So (according to the propaganda of their enemies) Henrietta Maria persuaded Charles to become a Euro-Catholic-tyrant in Protestant, parliamentary, Britain, and sets him on the path to ruin. This propaganda is still embraced as fact and even inflated. In biographies of Henrietta Maria it sometimes seems she is never allowed to grow up from the child bride of 1625. She is depicted as silly and petulant, a reflection of the belief, drawn from ancient Greece, that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. The word ‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek word hersterika for uterus, the source, supposedly of women’s extreme and uncontrollable mood swings.

Conversely in appearance she is painted as the crone, even when only a bride of fifteen.  Contemporary comment on Henrietta Maria’s appearance in middle age, when she was sick and traumatized, is taken out of time and context and used to describe her when young, so that the beauty of her youth vanishes, as if it was only ever a witch’s spell that masked the hag (for behind the seductive Eve lies the serpent). In one book published in 2017 the teenage Henrietta Maria is described with teeth ‘protruding like javelins from a fortress’, and her arms withered. That Charles would listen to a woman so worthless is another reason to despise him.

Yet Charles was a passionate Protestant, and the real Henrietta Maria a ‘lovely’ girl, with a ‘brilliant mind’, who rode with her own armies and proved every bit as remarkable as any of Henry VIII’s wives. 

White King does not seek to restore Charles to the pedestal of the peoples martyr some placed him on after his death, but to rediscover the man of flesh and blood, to place him in the context of his times and amongst his contemporaries – the women who led events, along with the men. Principled and brave but also flawed, Charles inspired both great hate and great loyalty, and died on a scaffold loved in a way his son, the merry cynical Charles II would never be. In the truth lies his tragedy, and in myths we see only ourselves.

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