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Charles I and the People of England
Charles I and the People of England
David Cressy
Oxford University Press, 2015
416 pp., 49.95

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Joseph Bottum

Charles the Unwise

Why he lost his head.

In October of 1623, Charles Stuart—Prince of Wales and heir apparent of the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland—returned from a trip to Spain to the thunderous applause of the nation. Parades and parties, cheers and toasts, greeted him, followed shortly by praising pamphlets and widely distributed copies of his likeness. He was, by a long measure, the most popular man in England, adored by the people. In January of 1649, those same people would chop off his head.

Of course, since he had gone to Spain to win a Spanish Catholic bride, and returned so insulted and embarrassed by his failure that he urged his Anglican father, James I, to declare war on the Catholic country, there are reasons to think that perhaps his popularity was founded on some misapprehension of his talents and the policies he favored. Still, the question of King Charles' Head, the puzzle of his tumble from esteem to execution, is one that persists among scholars and general readers alike. We have no real, completely persuasive explanation for how it all went so bad so fast.

Not that the writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, confident in their broad views of history, didn't try. On one side stood the Whig historians—Every day in every way, getting better and better!—asserting that the fall of Charles was an unfortunate outgrowth of the gloriously rising democratic spirit of the English constitution. On the other side stood the Marxists—Every day in every way, getting worse and worse!—proclaiming that Charles died as a glorious outgrowth of the unfortunately rising anti-labor spirit of bourgeois English capitalism. And for a long time, the Whigs and the Marxists divided the field between them, with relief found only in C. V. Wedgwood's sane insistence, throughout her books about the English Civil War, on the mad confusion of it all and the problems of knowing what was happening suffered by people of the time.

To the literature of sanity, ...

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