Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: Charles I: Downfall of a King-Lisa Hilton-BBC Four-2019

Lisa Hilton’s BBC series Charles I: Downfall of a King is a significant but profoundly flawed piece of work. Hilton’s series uses the 50 days over the winter of 1641-1642 to argue that this period sowed the seeds of civil war. For Hilton, there were no long term causes of the English revolution instead she says “I want to discover how our government could fall apart and the country become bitterly divided in just a few weeks”. For her, this was the result of intrigues between the “an arrogant, aloof king out of touch with his people”, and a scheming Parliamentarian John Pym.

Hilton’s series is mainly narrative-driven. She is not entirely out of her depth and is a gifted historian and writer of fiction, but the fact that this is narrative based history shows her inexperience with this subject and severely limits our understanding of what was a complex piece of history that still is fought over by today's historian with a ferocity that would have made participants in the revolution blush.

It would appear that Hilton has not written on the English bourgeois revolution hence her need to attract a large number of established historians to provide some analysis.

Lisa Hilton
One of the most striking aspects of the programme apart from Hilton’s stunningly blue eyes was the number of high calibre historians that were seduced into appearing on the TV series. On Charles side were Leanda de Lisle, Jessie Childs and Charles Spencer. Spencer being filmed in front of his stunning Van Dyck “War and Peace”. The portraits show two aristocratic brothers-in-law who fought on opposite sides. On the side of the “Junto” John Rees, Justin Champion et al.
Even more surprising is the fact that these historians went into this programme blind with their contributions given without discussion on what type of historiography was being used.

Hilton’s narrative concentrates on the MP John Pym and his so-called “Junto” of supporters in and outside parliament. From a historiographical standpoint, Hilton’s examination of Pym and his Junto friends relies heavily on a significant culling from John Adamson’s book The Noble Revolt. This is a little strange given the fact that Adamson does not appear in the series.

Hilton also believes that if Charles had shown a bit more political understanding, then this dirty civil war might have been avoided. Hilton’s philosophy reminded one of Leon Trotsky’s attack on the ‘great’ national historian Macaulay when he said that Macaulay, “vulgarises the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial.”

One disappointment was Hilton’s use of John Rees. Despite being an ex-member of the SWP Rees has written an excellent book on the Levellers. Rees describes in his book the role of the Levellers during this time as an independent political force. Hilton portrays them as bit players in Pym’s Junto and describes and then dismisses the radicalisation of the young London population as being  “radicalised” and having a  “toxic masculinity” fuelled by “testosterone, ale and religious fervour.”

It is to Hilton’s credit that she encourages a study of the various documents issued during the revolution. During the time examined by the programme, there was an explosion of printed documents, the likes of which had never been seen before. Why therefore was more not made of Joad Raymond's expertise in this matter. This is very puzzling.[1]

The most critical document studied by the programme is by Pym, and his Junto called The Grand Remonstrance.[2] Hilton description of  Pym’s pamphlets as “Stuart-age social media” is flippant and lazy.

The Grand Remonstrance is a veritable declaration of war against the king. While careful not to blame the King for all the ills of the country, the document nonetheless outlined the bourgeoise’s defence of its material interests. While commenting on the documents, political importance, Hilton leaves out Parliament's defence of its economic interests. Point 18 describes “Tonnage and Poundage hath been received without colour or pretence of law; many other substantial impositions continued against the law, and some so unreasonable that the sum of the charge exceeds the value of the goods.

Point 19. The Book of Rates lately enhanced to a high proportion, and such merchants that would not submit to their illegal and unreasonable payments, were vexed and oppressed above measure; and the ordinary course of justice, the common birthright of the subject of England, wholly obstructed unto them. Point 20  And although all this was taken upon pretence of guarding the seas, yet a new, unheard-of tax of ship-money was devised, and upon the same pretence, by both which there was charged upon the subject near £700,000 some years, and yet the merchants have been left so naked to the violence of the Turkish pirates, that many great ships of value and thousands of His Majesty's subjects have been taken by them, and do remain in miserable slavery.

The document confirms the unbridgeable schism between the King and Pym. This period was ably described by Leon Trotsky who wrote “The English revolution of the seventeenth century, precisely because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.
At first the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in the civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.[3]

Reviews of the series have been mixed. One review caught the eye, which is indicative of the bad treatment given to a new generation of female historians. Adam Sweeting in a review entitled Charles I: Downfall of a King, BBC Four review - beheaded monarch upstaged by the exotic presenter belittles Hilton’s presenting skills saying she is the “very antithesis of the Mary Beard school of history, Hilton prowls towards the camera more like a catwalk model than a mere academic. With her piercing blue eyes, platinum-blonde hair and collection of fashionably on-trend scarves, she could fit right into the cast of Sky Atlantic’s Mediterranean odyssey of conspiracy, priceless artworks and even pricier sports cars, Riviera. As well as a historian, she is also (as LS Hilton) a novelist. Her book Maestra was compared to 50 Shades of Gray. So was Domina, of which one critic wrote: “It has got sex, shopping, a few Old Masters and plenty of murder. Times have certainly changed since Lord Clark brought us Civilisation, but perhaps Hilton is surfing the zeitgeist, stripping history down to its rawest emotions and primal urges. Watch out, Alice Roberts and Suzannah Lipscomb..”[4]

Sweeting is not the only writer to be unhinged by attractive female historians. The male historian David Starkey has put it on record that he is not in favour of “feminised history”. Starkey was suitably chastised for his entry into the world of male historian’s chauvinism. 


Despite saying some critical things the series is watchable and provides a useful but limited introduction to one aspect of the complex history of the English revolution. It is hoped that some of the more glaring mistakes are corrected or edited out as one reviewer pointed out it “It is the Whore of Babylon, not the Whore of Babel”.

The end speech is also a little strange given that her entire programme was biased in favour of the Monarch Hilton is forced into a silly “attempt to redress the balance with a bizarre speech to the effect that without the execution of Charles I there would have been no French Revolution”.

[1] The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture-Volume One: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660-Edited by Joad Raymond
[3] From Chapter 11 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)