Sunday, 18 February 2018

Comment by Chris Thompson on Leanda de Lisle's White King

 I have been reading your review of Leanda de Lisle's book on your blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. I would agree that it is not a particularly good book and that its attempt to defend Charles I's rule is by no means convincing. But I do not think that it can be described as a "revisionist" work partly because "revisionism" in early modern British history has been dead since c.1990.

Its heyday lasted from c.1976 until the end of the following decade. Whig or whiggish history had effectively perished by the time of the Second World War and the Marxist history of Christopher Hill and his allies like Brian Manning was never as predominant as you, I suspect, might have wished it to have been. It was certainly more influential in the 1950s and 1960s but Conrad Russell's assault in the mid-1970s terminated its influence.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

TheaurauJohn Tany (1608–1659)

This article was kindly sent to me by Ariel Hessayon. Ariel has just finished editing the collected works of TheaurauJohn Tany (1608–1659) to be released by Breviary Stuff Publications in March.You can buy the book here

Now know I am a mad man.  And ye declare me so to be, it will be a weaknesse in you to question me

[TheaurauJohn Tany, The Nations Right in Magna Charta (1650), p. 8]

I say, and many know, that by madness I came to knowing, and in time God will make me speak plain knowledge, that by all shall be acknowledged

[TheaurauJohn Tany, Theous Ori Apokolipikal (1651), pp. 62–63]

 On Friday, 23 November 1649 Thomas Totney, a puritan and veteran of the English Civil War, was working in his goldsmith’s shop at ‘The Three Golden Lions’ in the Strand.  He was to claim that after fourteen weeks of self-abasement, fasting and prayer the Lord came upon him in power, overwhelming his wisdom and understanding, smiting him dumb, blind and dead in the presence of hundreds of people.  Next his body began to tremble and he was tied down in his bed.  During his indescribable sufferings he saw the Passion of Jesus.  Then he was transported into God’s presence in the ‘High and holy Mount’ where he beheld a great light shine within him and upon him, saying ‘Theaurau John my servant, I have chosen thee my Shepherd, thou art adorned with the jewel of Exceliency’.  He was convinced that the Lord had spoken unto him, changing his name from Thomas to TheaurauJohn.

 Totney was baptized on 21 January 1608 in the parish of South Hykeham, Lincolnshire, the third but eldest surviving son of John Totney and Anne, née Snell.  His father, although a poor farmer and never of the parish elite, was a respectable member of the local community.  Nothing is known of Thomas’s education, yet it seems likely that by the age of seven he would have learned to read and by the age of nine, if his family could still cope without him, he would have learned to write.  In April 1626 he was bound as an apprentice in London to a fishmonger but was not taught their trade.  Instead he received instruction in his master’s adopted profession, that of goldsmith.  On receiving his freedom he married a daughter of Richard Kett, a prosperous Norfolk landowner whose great-uncle had been executed as leader of the 1549 East Anglian rebellion; Kett’s uncle was burned for heresy in 1589 and his father imprisoned for the same offence.  Rather than serving as a journeyman, Totney quickly established himself as a householder – a costly progression suggesting he received a charitable loan or financial assistance from family and friends.  He set up in St. Katherine Creechurch, a location favoured by small retailers for its inexpensive rents, his shop marked by an unknown sign near Aldgate.  To ensure that Totney’s business activities fell within their orbit he was translated to the Goldsmiths Company in January 1634.  However, along with the majority of ‘remote’ goldsmiths he resisted a Company initiative which had gained royal approval, to vacate his dwelling and relocate in Cheapside, the hub of the goldsmiths’ trade.

Totney remained in St. Katherine Creechurch for another six years.  There he heard the fiery sermons of Stephen Denison on the immutability of God’s decrees of predestination.  It was a doctrine that troubled Totney until his epiphany.  When his first son was born in December 1634 Totney refused to have him baptized, for which he was presented before an ecclesiastical court.  Following his wife’s death he remarried by licence during Lent, probably on Friday, 25 March 1636.  This was the first day of the New Year in the old calendar and his actions hint at a type of confrontational godliness and perhaps also zealous Sabbatarianism.  Upon his father’s death in 1638 he went to Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire to manage the family farm.  In the summer of 1640, probably while serving as one of the parish’s petty constables, he played an important part in resisting the collection of ship money.  By his own account he was imprisoned in London and his horse distrained on the county sheriff’s authority.  A series of payments in 1642 show his support for those opposed to Charles I.  Moreover, he claims to have witnessed one of Captain Oliver Cromwell’s orations delivered at Huntingdon to newly mustered volunteers.  Totney later possessed a great saddle, musket, pair of pistols and sword, suggesting he served as a harquebusier.  By December 1644 he had returned to Little Shelford where he resumed his duties as a local tax official, as well as taking up sequestered land and providing quarter for Parliamentarian soldiers and their horses.  Following the outbreak of a second Civil War, Totney uprooted.  He rented out his lands to a local villager and moved with his family to St. Clement Danes, Westminster.  In June 1648 his second wife died and was buried in the parish.

After his supposed revelation Thomas Totney assumed the prophetic name TheaurauJohn Tany.  TheaurauJohn he understood to mean ‘God his declarer of the morning, the peaceful tidings of good things’.  While his former surname may have been vocalized as Tawtney, his new last name was usually pronounced Tawney.  Because he had a speech impediment he may have dropped the consonant.  In addition, he appropriated the coat of arms azure, three bars argent surmounted by the crest a hind’s head erased, gules, ducally gorged, or.  This device, borne by Sir John de Tany of Essex during the reign of Edward I, appears on several of his works.  Furthermore, he declared himself ‘a Jew of the Tribe of Reuben’ and took the titles High Priest and Recorder to the thirteen Tribes of the Jews.  Tany justified his claims by inventing a fantastic genealogy that traced his descent from Aaron, brother of Moses, through the tribe of Judah and by way of the ten tribes of Israel, the Tartars and the Welsh.  He also circumcised himself.  Thereafter, believing he had been given the gift of tongues with which to preach the everlasting gospel of God’s light and love to all nations, he went forth armed with sword and word.  Crying vengeance in the streets of London, he declared woe and destruction upon that bloody city, prophesying that the ‘Earth shall burn as an Oven’ and all the proud, the wicked and the ‘ungodly shall be as stubble to this flame’.  Drawing on the potent image of Christ as goldsmith, purging dross and corruption in a furnace, Tany forged his prophetic identity – the messenger foretold by Malachi.  He claimed his authority rested with the one who sent him, God:

but who may abide the day of his appearing? for he is like fullers sope, a refiners fire.

 Insisting that the restitution of the Jews was at hand and that he had been sent forth to gather them and proclaim ‘Israels return’, Tany set about enacting a millenarian mission to restore the Jews to their own land.  In the manner of the children of Israel before him, he began living in a tent, perhaps modelled upon the tabernacle, which he decorated with a symbol representing the tribe of Judah.  He preached in the parks and fields around London and gathered a handful of followers.  His message was strong, denouncing the clergy as ‘diabolical dumb dogs, Tythe-mongers’, who fleece rather than succour the people.  Gospel injunctions also made him demand justice:

feed the hungry, clothe the naked, oppress none, set free them bounden, if this be not, all your Religion is a lye, a vanity, a cheat, deceived and deceiving.

 Tany’s first publication was a broadside entitled I Proclaime From the Lord of Hosts The returne of the Jewes From their Captivity (25 April 1650).  It is likely that Captain Robert Norwood, a wealthy London merchant, paid for its printing.  In early September 1650 Tany was at Bradfield, Berkshire at the same time as William Everard, one-time leader of the Diggers.  There was bedlam.  It was reported that the rector, John Pordage, fell into a trance while preaching and that bellowing like a bull he ran to his house.  There Pordage found his wife upstairs clothed all in white from head to toe, holding a white rod in her hand.  Moreover, an adolescent was said to have fallen into a very strange fit, foaming at the mouth for two hours.  He dictated verses concerning the destruction of London and demanded to go there to meet a goldsmith.

Tany next published two tracts: Whereas TheaurauJohn Taiiiiijour My servant (15 November 1650) and THE NATIONS RIGHT in Magna Charta (28 December 1650).  Both demonstrated his earnest desire for social reformation, the latter exhorting the common soldiers to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.  His next offering Aurora in Tranlagorum in Salem Gloria seems to have been written on three consecutive days in late December 1650.  It was printed by a Baptist who had previously printed a ‘very dangerous’ book.  The publisher was Thomas Totney’s brother-in-law.  It was sold by Giles Calvert from his shop at ‘The Black-spread-Eagle’ at the west end of St. Paul's Cathedral.  In January 1651 Tany wrote the first of the epistles that eventually comprised THEOUS ORI APOKOLIPIKAL (1651) and Second Part OF HIS Theous-Ori APOKOLIPIKAL (1653).  On 6 March he was apparently brought before the Westminster Assembly of Divines, responding to their questions with thirty-seven of his own queries.  Nonetheless, they accounted him mad.  Perhaps shortly thereafter he forsook his trade.

 On 25 March 1651 Tany preached at Eltham, Kent and then again on 13 April at Norwood’s house in St. Mary Aldermary.  In May Norwood was excommunicated from his gathered church.  The following month an indictment was prepared jointly against Norwood and Tany.  The indicters seem to have understood Tany as some type of Ranter, as one of ungodly conduct who allegorized the Bible and internalized hell; as an antiscripturian universalist who repudiated gospel ordinances and averred that men might live as they wished; as one who glorified sin and maintained that the soul is God.  Yet as Norwood recognized, only two of the charges fell within the scope of the Blasphemy Act of August 1650 – the allegations that Tany and Norwood affirmed:

the Soul is of the essence of God
There is neither hell nor damnation.

As their own accounts of the trial’s proceedings make clear, the defendants adamantly maintained that their words had been misrepresented, altered and taken out of context.  Even so, on 13 August 1651 they were convicted jointly of blasphemy by a jury of twelve men at the London sessions of the peace held in the Old Bailey.  They were each sentenced to six months imprisonment in Newgate gaol without bail or mainprize.  Conditions for those that could not afford the services of the gaoler were apparently intolerable.

 On 27 October 1651 legal proceedings were initiated in the Court of Upper Bench appealing the verdict.  After several sessions the case was deferred until the next law term.  More hearings followed.  On 4 February 1652 Tany appeared before the Court.  That same morning God spoke to a London tailor named John Reeve, revealing to him that he had been chosen as the Lord’s ‘last messenger’, or so Reeve was to claim.  Reeve and his cousin Lodowick Muggleton, a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, announced themselves to be ‘the two Witnesses of the Spirit’ foretold in the Revelation of Saint John.  In addition, they denounced Tany as a ‘counterfeit high Priest’ and pretended prophet, marking him as a Ranter, the spawn of Cain.  A few days later the judges of the Upper Bench made their judgement: Lord Chief Justice Rolle washed his hands of the business.  On 16 February 1652 Tany and Norwood having served their sentence were each released on £100 bail pending good behaviour for one year.  Thomas Totney’s former master and another man later described as a goldsmith, provided sureties.  In Easter term Norwood initiated a new legal appeal.  After several hearings the judges deferred proceedings until the following law term.  On 28 June 1652 they reversed the guilty judgement against Norwood and Tany, resolving that their opinions had been made to rigidly conform to the strictures of the Blasphemy Act.  For whereas the Act made it unlawful to maintain that ‘there is neither Heaven nor Hell, neither Salvation nor Damnation’, the defendants who affirmed that:

there is ‘no Hell nor Damnation’, are not within the Statute, for tho by Implication if there be no Hell there is no Heaven, yet the court is not to Expand these words by Implication but according to the Letters of the Stat[ute].

 Within a month of his release Tany published a pamphlet he had written in Newgate entitled High Priest to the IEVVES, HIS Disputive challenge to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the whole Hirach. of Roms Clargical Priests (March 1652).  Echoing Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Tany proclaimed the return of ‘Israels Seed’ from captivity.  About 1 January 1653 it appears from his own account that Tany underwent another purificatory ritual.  He refrained from speaking for thirty-four days, isolating himself for twenty-one of them.  On the fourteenth day he transcribed an edict to ‘all the Jewes the whole earth over’, which was to be engraved in brass and sent to the synagogue in Amsterdam.  He signed this proclamation with his new name and titles, ‘Theauroam Tannijahhh, King of the seven Nations, and Captain General under my Master Jehovah, and High-Priest and Leader of the Peoples unto HIERUSALEM’.  Together with some other material it was issued by an unknown publisher under the title HIGH NEWS FOR HIERUSALEM (no date).  It exasperated one reader, who complained ‘truly I skill not the man, nor his spirit; in his writing he offends against all rules of Grammar, Geography, Genealogy, History, Chronology, Theology & c, so far as I understand them’.

 In March 1654 a list of some thirty ‘Grand Blasphemers and Blasphemies’ was submitted to the Committee for Religion, which included:

XIX. A Goldsmith that did live in the Strand, and after in the City, and then at Eltham; who called his name Theaurau John Tany, the High Priest, & c.  Published in Print, That all Religion is a lie, a deceit, and a cheat.

Writing from ‘the Tent of Judah’ on the ‘Tenth DAY NISAN’ (probably 16 April 1654), Tany addressed a millenarian epistle ‘Unto his Brethren the QUAKERS scornfully so called, who ARE the Children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; who ARE circumcised in Heart’.  He saluted them as descendants of the Jewish race, an elect remnant who spoke a pure language and trembled at the word of God.  On 8 May 1654 he issued an edict to all ‘earthen men and women’ announcing that he would shortly proclaim the Law and Gospel from his tent standing in the bounds of the Middle Park at Eltham, Kent.  On 8 June 1654 he read out a speech in which he laid claim to the crowns of France, Reme, Rome, Naples, Sissiliah and Jerusalem, as well as reaffirming an earlier claim to the crown of England.  He did this by repeating Pontius Pilate’s reply to the chief priests of the Jews after Pilate had written ‘JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS’ as the title to be put on Christ’s cross:

What I have written, I have written.

 On the morning of Saturday, 30 December 1654, in the week that Cromwell was offered the crown, Tany solemnly made a large fire at Lambeth into which he cast his great saddle, sword, musket, pistols, books and bible.  He crossed the River Thames in a rowing boat and made his way to Parliament, ascending the stairs into the lobby outside the door.  Unable to deliver a petition he departed, returning after about an hour oddly attired with a long, rusty sword by his side.  Pacing up and down the lobby he suddenly threw of his cloak and began slashing wildly, but was disarmed before anyone was hurt.  He was brought to the bar of the House and questioned by the Speaker.  He refused to remove his hat, was evidently mistaken for a Quaker and committed to the Gatehouse prison.  Having been examined by the Committee for regulating printing, he wrote to the Speaker requesting liberty to have an audience with Cromwell.  He then attached a great lock and long chain to his leg as a symbol of ‘the people of Englands Captivity’.  Legal proceedings were transferred to the Court of Upper Bench but on 10 February 1655 he was bailed upon habeas corpus.

 Two days later a fire broke out in Fleet Street.  In the following months London was engulfed by several more unexplained fires which were interpreted as a sign of the impending destruction of the world.  Eventually an arsonist was apprehended who may have been in the pay of William Finch, one of Tany’s disciples.  In September 1655, after weeks of heavy rain and widespread floods, Tany ‘in one of his old whimsies’ pitched his tent in the large tract of open ground between Lambeth Marsh and Southwark known as St. George's Fields.  A satirical newsbook writer thought him ‘a madman’ fitter ‘for Bedlam then a Tent’.

 On 7 June 1656 Tany married for a third time at St. Saviour’s, Southwark.  His wife was Sara Shorter, possibly a waterman’s daughter.  Three days later, on 10 June he pitched his tent on Frindsbury Street near ‘The Black Lion’ in Frindsbury, Kent.  That day, according to the title-page of his last known work, Tany read the law ‘unto the people ISRAEL, belonging to the returning from Captivity’.  Then, sometime after 16 June 1656, Tany set sail, perhaps from Kent, bound for the:

Wars, wars, wars, wars, wars, wars, wars.

He crossed the English Channel successfully and at an unknown date arrived in the United Provinces, perhaps to gather the Jews of Amsterdam.  Some three years later, now calling himself Ram Johoram, he was reported lost, drowned after taking passage in a ship from Brielle bound for London.  He was survived by his eldest daughter and probably also a second daughter and second son.

 During his prophetic phase Tany wrote a number of remarkable but elusive works that are unlike anything else in the English language.  His sources were varied, although they seem to have included almanacs, popular prophecies and legal treatises, as well as scriptural and extra-canonical texts, and the writings of the German Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme.  Indeed, Tany’s writings embrace currents of magic and mysticism, alchemy and astrology, numerology and angelology, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Christian Kabbalah – a ferment of ideas that fused in a millenarian yearning for the hoped for return of Christ on earth.  The English Revolution freed men and women both self-taught and formally educated to speak their minds and challenge their times.  But only by contextualizing and then unravelling the mind of this exceptional person can we truly appreciate what it meant to be living in a world turned upside down

(Dr Ariel Hessayon's research interests include early modern ideas, religion, politics, literature and popular culture. Dr Ariel Hessayon is a co-convenor of the seminar on seventeenth-century British History at the Institute of Historical Research and would welcome enquiries from those interested in doctoral research in areas relating to radicalism in early modern England).


1 The images used in this article were given by kind permission of Harvard University, Houghton Library.

2 Ariel's ODNB entry can be found here

3 Wikipedia entry-

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

An Evening with Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer has spent the last few weeks touring the country publicising his new book To Catch a King. The basic story is of Charles II escape from parliamentary forces during the second civil war.

The evening spent at Waterstones Kensington High street with Spencer was a pleasant one, and the event itself was well organised.

The major problem I have in reviewing this event or his books is that we have opposed political and historical worldviews. That will not change.

Having said that Spencer from a human standpoint is a kind man and a skilful narrative led historian.Aside from the rigour of his work he has a passion for history that is admirable in a historian. His book Killers of the King was the second highest selling history book in the UK in 2014[1].

Spencer is a natural speaker almost like a raconteur. In fact, he speaks as he writes. His books are pure narrative, but that does not mean he is sloppy with his research.

He made some interesting points during the evening. Perhaps his most important was a downgrading of the study of the English revolution in schools both private and public.

In an interview, Spencer recounts “‘When I was a boy, you learned about the English Civil War. Now you do not. Part of that is because history is no longer a compulsory subject after a certain age. 'The Tudors and the Nazis are much easier periods to attract students to. If you are a history teacher you want to keep your job, so you go for the easy areas.”

Like many who write on the Revolution Spencer had descendants who were active during the civil war.The windows in his chapel were rescued from another Spencer house that was burned down during the English Civil War.

“I think I would have done what my ancestor did. He was very anti the king during the build-up to the Civil War, but when it came to the actual conflict, he decided he could not draw his sword against his king. 'Reluctantly, he became a royalist.”

Another aspect of Spencer, the historian, is his openness to suggestions for future work from readers. His choice of subject for his latest book was in fact given to him by a reader.

When I asked him a question about Ollards book and other historians such as the great Whig historians he made some interesting points. He saw himself as primarily as a narrative historian, but he believes that parallels exist between the past and the present.

He is not reticent about describing his work as ‘popular history’. A Genre that that was mastered by historians such as Sir Thomas Macaulay, E. P. Thompson and A. J. P. Taylor.

Spencer is not yet in that league, but his work does command serious attention and is well worth the price of his books.

A review of To Catch a King will be done at a later date.


The escape of Charles II after the battle of Worcester Hardcover – 1 Jan 1966-by Richard Ollard
King Charles II Paperback – 6 Jun 2002- Lady Antonia Fraser

[1] See my review -

Claire Canary’s Review of Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue:Lord Rochester, in Chains of Quicksilver by Susan Cooper-Bridgewater ISBN: 9781783063079

Most of those who know of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester have something of a preconceived image of him. While that image is not altogether false, Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue allows us to see a more rounded man and brings into the limelight the side of him that is usually cast in shadow. Here, Susan Cooper-Bridgewater has brilliantly shown how wrong it is to define anyone by reputation alone.

The book is written in the first person, narrated by the earl himself. This is what really gives the readers insight. We get to feel his emotions, see events through his eyes and understand how and why he is who he is. 

The author was very courageous to make Rochester the narrator, but her clear familiarity with the period and subject himself enabled her to handle the challenge perfectly. There is some wonderful 17th-century phraseology to be found in this book, keeping us firmly embedded in the era throughout, but it never goes over the top, so is still easy to follow in a 21st-century head.

The research that must have gone into this is astonishing. The author has had academic work published but this book uses the information in an imaginative way. Tale upon tale is told with amazing detail and many of the locations themselves are described so vividly that it seems likely the author has visited them to get that feel for them. 

Adding extra feel is the picture of the 17th century that’s painted throughout. Through the food, the carriages, the clothes, the theatre and the medicine, we get a real taste of life in Restoration England. Enthusiasts for the period will recognise many of the names that pop up and the number of dates that are given are proof of just how much painstaking effort must have gone into getting the facts right.

As well as fact, though, this is partly fiction, and it’s impossible to tell which is which. In his all-too brief life, Rochester got up to some pretty shock-inducing stuff, so what may seem fabrication is just as easily truth and vice versa.

As can be expected from this infamous rake, he self-indulges in wine and women to a professional standard, but he certainly has a few other tricks up his sleeve too. Even people who aren’t into history will find plenty to entertain and, despite the joy of seeing the lesser-known aspects of Rochester, the accounts of his famous “bad boy” behaviour do not disappoint!
However, it is Rochester as a father, husband and lover that makes this book stand out most for me. Through his sensitivity as all three, we see the John Wilmot that surely existed but is never properly acknowledged.

As promised, there’s ink, wit and intrigue and the intrigue is provided to a T in the epilogue, which takes us right up to Georgian times. I don’t know quite how she did it but Susan Cooper-Bridgewater managed to change the atmosphere to match the new era, so, as well as the Restoration fans, anyone into the 18th century will find something here for them too.

A book to do His Lordship proud! I reckon he’d love to read it, but so should everyone else.

The book can be purchased at or

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 -

Thursday, 1 February 2018

No Newes is Good Newes


An Evening with Charles Spencer- as he talks about and reads from his latest book To Catch A King. Tuesday 13th February 18:30 at London – Waterstones Kensington

To Kill a King-Rebecca Rideal- Thu 26 April 2018-18:00 – 20:00 BST- Guildhall Library Aldermanbury-London-EC2V 7HH


Charles I: King and Collector-27 January — 15 April 2018-Royal Academy


A History of Print and Printing Tuesday 27 February - Tuesday 27 March- Bishopsgate Institute-  This course looks at the history of print and printing in its social, economic and cultural context, exploring: the problems faced by early printers; the economics of early printing and how this affected the printed page; the social, legal and moral position of printers; the techniques of printing and the audiences for art prints; the technological developments of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century revival of letterpress.

Books of Interest

Raymond, J., (2017). Michiel van Groesen, Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review. 132. DOI:

Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason-Francis Young-London, I. B. Tauris, 2017, ISBN: 9781788310215; 272pp.; Price: £69.00

Following the Levellers, Volume One: Political and Religious Radicals in the English Civil War and Revolution, 1645-1649 Hardcover – 23 Dec 2017-by Gary S. De Krey (Author)

Following the Levellers, Volume Two: English Political and Religious Radicals from the Commonwealth to the Glorious Revolution, 1649–1688 Hardcover – 18 Feb 2018 by Gary S. De Krey (Author)

White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr Hardcover – 11 Jan 2018- by Leanda de Lisle (Author)

Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (Christopher Hill Classics) Paperback – 21 Aug 2018 by Christopher Hill (Author)-Reprinted by Verso Publications

Reformation to Industrial Revolution Paperback – 21 Aug 2018-by Christopher Hill  (Author) Verso

To Catch A King: Charles II's Great Escape Hardcover – 5 Oct 2017-by Charles Spencer (Author)

A New Way of Fighting: Professionalism in the English Civil War: Proceedings of the 2016 Helion and Company 'Century of the Soldier' Conference Hardcover – Illustrated, 15 Oct 2017-by Serena Jones (Editor)