The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr
by Leanda de Lisle.
PublicAffairs, 2017.
Hardcover, 464 pages, $30.

What most of us know about the reign of Charles I we know by way of myth. From Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers we know of the warmongering Duke of Buckingham and the English enchantress Milady de Winter. By way of political myth, Americans remember Charles’s reign as the one that drove dissenters seeking religious freedom to the shores of New England. Modern liberals on both sides of the Atlantic remember the English Civil War as a heroic struggle for democracy against superstition and tyranny.

In The White King, Leanda de Lisle masterfully shows that the true story of Charles I is far more interesting than any myth. De Lisle’s book is unique in the saturated field of Charles’s biographies due to the recent discovery of letters to and from Charles and his court. These letters are quoted liberally to provide an intimate portrait of Charles and, most interestingly, his queen. The French Henrietta Maria—vilified in the Puritan press of her day as a witch and papist agent—finally gets her due as a steadfast advisor, tragic lover, and even capable warrior. The letters between Charles, Henrietta, and their court (including Lucy Carlisle, the real Milady de Winter), help the reader see through so much of the political and religious rhetoric that still surrounds these events.

Charles was born in 1600 in a time of relative peace and prosperity. His father, James I, ascended to the English throne from Scotland in 1603. The Elizabethan settlement of Anglicanism seemed largely secure. The King James Bible was finished in 1611. Shakespeare died in 1616. England was relatively secure after defeating the Spanish Armada twelve years earlier. In 1607, the first permanent English colony in the New World was settled at Jamestown.

But England still lagged as a major power internationally. It was a Protestant kingdom, and international Protestantism was suffering major defeats at the hands of the Counter-Reformation. The meager English settlements in the New World paled in comparison to theSpanish Empire. Spain had conquered the Aztecs almost ninety years earlier and ruled an empire that stretched from the Caribbean to the Philippines. The French were not far behind their Spanish co-religionists. England’s advantage lay in the fact that France and Spain were rivals despite their shared Catholicism. James I planned to exploit this weakness by marrying Charles into either the French Bourbons or the Spanish Hapsburgs. The Spanish princess believed marrying a Protestant would imperil her soul. The French proved to be a bit more practical.

The wedding ceremony between Charles and Henrietta Maria has become infamous for its strangeness. The wedding occurred in Paris, but because Charles was in mourning for his recently deceased father, he sent a proxy to the ceremony. The proxy said the vows on behalf of Charles, but would not enter the cathedral for the wedding mass, as Charles, a Protestant, would not have either. The proxy “consummated” the marriage by symbolically touching his knee to Henrietta’s in the marriage bed as the French court looked on.

When Charles and Henrietta finally met in England, they fell truly and deeply in love. But their marriage was to be the source of much unhappiness and tragedy. English Puritans were already upset that their king was to marry a Catholic. They wanted an aggressive anti-Catholic regime at home and abroad. A Catholic queen might hamper English aid to the embattled French Huguenots. Charles, however, remained all too eager to send aid to Huguenot forces. But the Puritan Parliament refused to raise money for adequate men and arms unless Charles agreed to other demands. And it was due to Parliament’s obstinacy that the aid missions failed and the Huguenots were crushed. But Charles would take the blame.

Public relations disasters were to become a hallmark of Charles’s reign. His political opponents made good use of the relatively new ability to mass print and distribute political pamphlets. The quality of the commentary was just as outrageous as anything found in the darker corners of the modern Internet. The Queen was depicted as a witch for her Catholicism. The King’s allies were accused of being papists, murderers, and sexual deviants. The Puritan opposition rose to power on outright bigotry. Charles was never charismatic enough to counter it. The motto on the Cavalier banner was, uninspiringly, “Give Caesar His Due.”

It was true that Henrietta lobbied for toleration for England’s Catholic population. And she had some success. Charles was soft on Catholic Ireland compared to other English rulers. But Charles remained a committed Protestant—albeit a more catholic Anglican than his Puritan antagonists were comfortable with. With the help of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles sought to restore some of the pre-Reformation beauty to Protestant worship. The stained glass and altar rails were returned to many churches. This had long been the norm in Elizabeth’s private chapels, but Charles sought to make it standard practice. The Puritans thought all of this smacked of popery. In truth, Charles was only exhibiting a typical Anglican obsession with practicality. Charles did believe the episcopacy was divinely instituted (and refusal to compromise on this belief would cost him his head), but he was mostly concerned with advancing the religious practice that would ensure social stability. If, as the Puritans believed, religious practice and works had nothing to do with salvation, then anarchy and lawlessness would follow.

The Puritans also had a more earthly agenda. Many of the more wealthy Puritans were concerned about Archbishop Laud’s plans for the Church of England to take back much of the land that Henry VIII had confiscated. Laud wanted the property to serve the poor. The Puritan landowners who had profited considerably since the dissolution of the monasteries objected—and in Laud’s preference for Catholic aesthetics they found they could use base bigotry to attack him.

Charles and Laud did persecute Puritan dissenters who objected to their Anglican establishment. But the persecution was much less severe than it had been in recent memory. The Tudors—including Elizabeth—persecuted and executed both nonconformists and Catholics indiscriminately. The Stuarts were a bit less severe. Under Charles, Protestant dissenters could expect to be branded or have their ears clipped. Atrocious, but nothing like the extrajudicial executions that the Tudors used to keep dissent in line. Several convicted dissenters still served in Charles’s Parliament and wrote and published their opinions widely.

In nearly every matter, it was the Puritan opponents who come across as the more tyrannical. It was the Puritan Parliament and a Puritan mob that had an eighty-one-year-old Catholic priest drawn and quartered. Charles never signed the death warrant and his attempt to stay further executions failed. When the Puritans finally gained control of the government, they banned Christmas, executed Archbishop Laud, and intentionally imposed starvation on Catholic Ireland—murdering a quarter of the population. If anything, the Puritans who left England for the New World—and then returned to fight against their king—were upset that Stuart England had too much religious freedom.

Puritan political rhetoric about liberty and democracy was likewise a mirage. Charles made some unpopular political decisions, but contrary to the Puritan contention, his reign was not unlawful. The closest he came was in forcing the gentry to loan him money when Parliament would not raise it. But this was rather light fare when compared to the abuses of his opponents. It was Parliament, after all, that sought to violate the traditional separation of powers and gain absolute rule. It was Parliament, during the Bishops’ Wars, that treasonously funneled money away from the King and sent it to the invading Scottish armies. And it was the Puritan Parliament that used the infamous bill of attainder to unilaterally convict and execute Royalists and Anglicans when no legal evidence or grounds existed to secure a judicial conviction. The bill of attainder was so hated by the American Founders that it is specifically prohibited in the Constitution. But it was a power of mob democracy, not of divine kings.

Although contrary to much accepted opinion, de Lisle is convincing that Charles’s execution was an act of sheer power rather than law. The Puritan Parliament included many moderates who wanted reconciliation with the King. But when the time came, they were rounded up by Cromwell’s army. The Parliament that tried and executed Charles was under the firm control of a military junta that was able to exercise more tyrannical power than Charles could have ever imagined. And indeed, under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, religious persecution was harsher and taxes were higher.

De Lisle portrays these events in a measured tone, but the takeaway is clear: in the end, there was little admirable in the Puritan cause. Charles’s defeat to the Puritans was a defeat of culture to barbarism. Charles cultivated the greatest art collection ever seen in England. The Puritans unceremoniously destroyed it. Where Charles was merciful, the Puritans were cruel. Where Charles’s army was made up of Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, Cromwell’s was made up of single-minded fanatics. No one is left in any doubt that the Puritans of the Stuart era deserve to be remembered only as despicable enemies of freedom and the rule of law.

Charles was not a perfect king and had his faults. He was indecisive, a poor military tactician, and spectacularly failed—to the very bitter end—to accurately judge the surrounding political situation. As Henrietta frankly wrote to him, “You should not take half-measures. This is what you have always done, started well and continued badly.” But these faults are rather innocent ones. Elizabeth was able to achieve the Anglican settlement only with a heavy hand and much bloodshed behind the scenes. Charles was more merciful.

Charles’s story has many parallels to our own day. Like social media mobs that have ruined the lives of so many, the bigoted puritan pamphlets of Stuart England inspired mobs and murder across the country. And, like in our day where the language of rights and liberty is so often weaponized as a means of crushing dissent, the Puritans largely fought for the right to suppress their enemies. As one Interregnum official put it, Catholics had to be “taught liberty.”

All of this flies in the face of modern political assumptions. After all, it was the more hierarchical religion and government that was the more liberal and that cared the most for the poor. It was the revolutionaries that were bigoted, selfish, and even superstitious. All of these insights are made patently real in light of the effect they had on Charles’s personal life. To read his private and affectionate letters to Henrietta alongside the brutal attacks on her in the popular press—all while knowing the coming end—is to be heartbroken. The real story of Charles Stuart is that of timeless tragedy. And tragedy followed him to his grave. Over three centuries later children are still being taught that Puritans fled to America to escape the tyranny of an evil king. Not even death has spared him from public relations disaster. The White King is a long overdue correction on his behalf.  

Brian K. Miller is the Director of Legal and Public Affairs at the Center for Individual Rights and an opinion contributor to Forbes Magazine. He was named to Forbes 30 under 30 for his work in law and policy. His writings have appeared in National Review, Library of Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Quillette Magazine, and elsewhere.