Friday, 9 February 2018

White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr Hardcover – 11 Jan 2018 by Leanda de Lisle-432 pages: Chatto & Windus.

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it”.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33.


Leanda de Lisle new book continues a trend of modern-day revisionist biographies of Charles I[1]. It is difficult to conceive of this book being written or having the considerable press coverage it has received had it been published thirty years ago.

The dominance of Whig and Marxist historiography of the English revolution would have prevented it or at least provided it with a bumpy ride.If historians like Lisle had dared to raise their head above the precipice, they would have had it shot off.

Another by-product of this revisionist assault has been the attempt to de-politicise the English revolution. A development that was highlighted by Martin Kettle no less when he reviewed the ongoing Charles I: King and Collector exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Kettle makes the point “the 1640s battles between authority and liberty may not have produced another civil war. However, iterations of the divide have resonated down the centuries – from the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, through the Whig-Tory rivalry of the 18th century, the advance of liberalism and reform in the 19th century, and of labourism and equalities in the 20th. It is not hard to see, in contrast between a privileged and dissipated political figure such as Boris Johnson and a puritanical one such as Jeremy Corbyn, that there are 17th-century echoes in our own binary times too.

He continues “most of those who enter the Royal Academy galleries over the next three months for its new exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector will be given no inkling of this. They will come to look at stunning pictures by Van Dyck, Holbein, Titian and Mantegna among many others. Civil war, however, is conspicuous by its almost total absence from the new show. Only the fact that we arrive with some knowledge of Charles I’s notoriety and eventual execution ensures that this absence of politics is itself a huge and silent presence”[2].

While Lisle’s book to date not been seriously challenged, the general dominance of revisionist historiography has been by a new set of historians that are partly influenced by Marxist methodology or in some cases Whig orthodoxy. There is still a long way to go. Historiography today is still dominated by a plethora of obscure revisionist books. A process aptly named by the historian Norah Carlin as Craftism.

White King

Many things will strike the reader when reading this book. My first impression is that Lisle believes that the 1640s English revolution was somehow an aberration and in the final reckoning an event that was not typically English.

The book is part of a tradition believes that “English history has developed by gradual evolution, without sudden or violent transformations, by process of compromise and co-existence”.
Lisle’s prose has a sedateness about it when she writes about Charles I. Compare that to how she writes about his enemies, they are usually described as rabble or a mob. Her use of the word Junto to describe the parliamentary opposition tries to portray them as something foreign.
As one reviewer put it “De Lisle’s parliamentarians are an irascible group, resembling not so much freedom fighters as the tea party; on the other hand, the author’s Charles often seems the voice of reason”[3].

It is safe to surmise that Lisle does not believe a revolution took place at all. However, the problem for Lisle is that facts are a stubborn thing. If a massive civil war, a kings head being chopped off, a republic and a commonwealth do not make a revolution, then what does.
Alternatively, as  Norah Carlin eloquently points out  “many attempts have been made to explain it away. The present favourite among English academics is that it was a result of a misunderstanding and miscalculation among a political elite. These men were not ‘wild-eyed fanatics ... they were men of substance and wealth, men of broad acres with a stake in the country,’ writes J.H. Hexter. They were ‘for the most part deeply conservative men who sincerely believed they were defending ancient and traditional rights,’ says another historian, R. Ashton”[4].

Lisle believes Charles I was “defending ancient and traditional rights” and that parliament was acting illegally against this. Any reader looking for an objective account of the war will have to look elsewhere. Cromwell only appears halfway through the book and is portrayed like many other parliamentary military figures as bloodthirsty maniacs. The treatment of the Levellers reduces them to a footnote of history.


Despite being an excellent narrative driven writer Lisle’s approach can only take us so far in understanding the complex events of the English revolution.Her concentration on the narrative to the detriment of theory does not get us very far.

While it is essential to understand what went through the minds of the leading actors of the revolution such as Charles I, Olver Cromwell, Ireton, and Harrison to do so would only give us a partial understanding of why a king's head was cut off and a republic established. Lisle is free to adopt whatever theoretical approach she wants to portray historical events. However, historians such as Lisle’s preoccupation with narrative is one-sided.

The rise of narrative history has been at the direct expense of Marxist historiography and has done untold damage to our understanding of the English revolution. While I am sure that Karl Marx was not on her reading list for this book, she could have done no worse than to take on board his understanding of the relationship between historical figures and their place in history.

Marx states that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process”[5].


Lisle’s book has been well received by the media. Not surprisingly the right-wing media have gone overboard with praise not commensurate with the actual importance of the book. The reason for this lies not so much in history but politics. In fact, the reviews tell us more about the state of modern-day politics than they do about seventeenth-century politics.

As a reviewer of her book puts it “Recent elections in Britain and the United States have produced surprisingly dysfunctional governments. De Lisle’s fine, revisionist view of Charles may arouse nostalgia for a time when national leaders, elected or not, looked out for the zealous majority”.

One review stands out, the basic premise of which is that we are passing through enormous change. Capitalism is in crisis. We have a growing threat of nuclear and social inequality is at levels not witnessed for nearly a century we need a strong leader to counter the growing threat of the mob.

The author of this review in the Evening Standard is Andrew Marr. His review entitled  Basic civility and respect must prevail over the rule of the mob, according to him “The reign of Charles I shows that the 17th- century’s version of angry social media led to bloody violence”.

Marr continues “I have been reading a fascinating book on British politics which suggests that we really should worry. The bad news is that it shows a direct connection between angry and inflammatory language, and violence, up to and including murder. The better news, I suppose, is that it is about the 1620s and 1630s.

Leanda de Lisle’s White King is a new biography of Charles I, which attempts to make a case for that arrogant, incompetent Stuart monarch who famously lost his head on Whitehall one cold January afternoon in January 1649.

She does a good job. Charles was a sensitive and thoughtful man, a great lover of art who believed himself to be doing the right thing and was a genuinely committed family man. In the end, I was not convinced, however: like so many other British rulers he became too entangled in continental European politics, trying to take this country to war with catastrophic results.

“I was shocked by the behaviour of Charles’s opponents in the lead up to civil war. I had been taught they were parliamentary heroes, and yet they had deliberately fanned religious and ethnic hatreds to recruit to their cause, in the worst examples of populism. This propaganda still informs English culture, not least in popular memory of Charles’s maligned queen, Henrietta Maria.  Incidentally, she was called Queen Mary at the time (they considered calling her Queen Henry!), hence Maryland, which was named after her. I have stuck to Henrietta Maria, so not to confuse”.

So what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with social media? The answer is that the breakdown in relations between Charles and various parliamentary factions, at least one of which was set on Civil War, was hugely influenced by the new media of the day, propaganda broadsheets and the very earliest newspapers”.

The ruling elites answered to this problem in the 17th century is the same as in the 21st century, and that is to censor it. The use of the Star-chamber to kill dissent has chilling resonance with today's attempt by Google and Facebook to do the same. Marr’ solution is that we must we “must hang together in adversity”.


Lisle’s book is not without merit. White King is exceptionally well written and researched. In places, Lisle writes like a novelist. She uses rare and entirely new archival sources. The book would be acceptable to both the general reader and the academic alike. As is usual with Chatos and Windus the book is beautifully bound with an abundance of colour photos.

The book is excellent if you want a read that does not require you to think too much. If you are happy with a book that verges on propaganda and should carry a government health warning, then this is your book. If not steer well clear.

[1] See my review Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836
[4]Norah Carlin-The First English Revolution-(April 1983)
[5]Karl Marx. The German Ideology. 1845
-Part I: Feuerbach.Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook-A. Idealism and Materialism -