Charles I: Downfall of a King – BBC 4


Apparently, the Civil War was caused by court masques, currants, Henrietta Maria’s make-up, people believing that the Lieutenant of the Tower of London was a cannibal, and the inability of Londoners to hold their drink (especially over the Christmas period). Some interesting theories there. Or else it was all due to a personal feud between Charles I and Pym the Puritan. Honestly, I thought we’d got past all this “revisionist” stuff about it being due to religion and short-term squabbles!  I was impressed that it made it clear that Pym & co were religious extremists, rather than just eulogising them as defenders of rights and liberties, though.  Also, it was history for grown-ups – no dressing up and no racing around – and it improved as it went on.  And Lisa Hilton (who writes “steamy” novels) uses some wonderful flowery language, although I find it rather annoying when Northerners speak in fake posh accents for TV.

However, I wish people wouldn’t keep trying to put a modern spin on historic events, though – talking about “populism”, “radicalisation”, “red lines”, “inclusivity”, “toxic masculinity”, “tabloid stings”, “fake news”, “tabloid sting” and “social media” in relation to the 1640s just sounds silly.   No-one actually used “alt-right” to describe the most extreme Puritans, but they certainly hinted at it … and that was good, because  I can’t stand the way the likes of Pym and Cromwell get idolised.  I also wish someone would write a book discussing how Henrietta Maria, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra Feodorovna all got the blame for their husbands’ stupidity, and was glad to see Henrietta Maria getting some sympathy here.

In summary – and there’s no arguing with this, even if I’d dispute the importance of the masques and the currants – we ended up with a complete mess made by a bunch of idiots and extremists … which is now widely recognised as being a crucial turning point in the spread of democracy across the western world.   History is great.  You couldn’t make it up!

I’m not a great fan of the revisionist theory that the causes of the Civil War were short-term, but, OK, I think we can all agree that it probably wouldn’t have happened if Charles I hadn’t been such an idiot. The focus of this three-part series was all on fifty days in late 1641 and early 1642, though, and there really needed to be more background information. The Personal Rule was barely mentioned, ship money wasn’t mentioned at all, and Scotland wasn’t mentioned until a long way into the first episode. And, without wishing to get too Victorian Whiggish about things, the “seeds of democracy” (Lisa’s expression) were sown well, well before the 1640s, thank you!!

Anyway.  Nice to have a historical docu-drama series with no dressing up or racing about, as I said – although Lisa did quite a bit of posing on staircases and gazing into the camera, not to mention gazing up at nude paintings. Oh, and Earl Spencer needs a haircut. I do wish the BBC would get over this obsession with trying to relate everything historical to the present day, though. But, if you want present day comparisons, then the contents of this programme made a few things very clear. Leaders need to stay in touch with the people and not live in a Westminster bubble. Extremists of any variety are bad news. Religion should be kept out of politics. London is out of step with the rest of the country. And anyone who’s running a country needs to understand that country’s history (let’s not even go there with Donald Trump saying that the Continental Army seized control of the airports).

Whilst I’m really not a fan of the revisionist short term causes theory, this did make everything sound rather dramatic.  You don’t often get such detailed coverage of this period, or indeed any period.  This was three hours of TV covering only fifty days.  And it did quite a convincing job of showing that war wasn’t inevitable – at least at that point. It all came across rather like a five set match at Wimbledon, with the momentum swinging first to one player and then to another! That’s actually quite a good analogy, seeing as they rather bizarrely made it sound as if only two people were involved and all the action took place in London. I don’t do revisionist views of the Civil War. Have I said that enough times now?!

It started off very strangely indeed, making it sound as if the whole country had turned Puritan (er, no) and everyone was narked with Charles I because he put on extravagant masques at court (had they got mixed up with the French Revolution?!). Yes, Charles I was unpopular. Yes, Henrietta Maria was unpopular because she was Catholic. But I think people were rather more concerned about the economic, political and religious issues than about masques at court!

Along came Pym’s Grand Remonstrance … and it was all made to sound like a populist battle, with Charles trying to win hearts and minds by staging grand parades and Pym trying to radicalise disaffected young men. Interesting point about the effect on voting in the Commons of MPs refusing to come to London because of plague. Later on, it was because of bad weather making travel difficult. Maybe that’s the way to deal with the House of Commons – hold votes when MPs can’t or won’t get to London! We didn’t hear that much about everything that was in the Grand Remonstrance, but currants were mentioned. Never mind ship money – apparently the issue with Charles I and his questionable tax-raising was that he was levying taxes on currants.

Then on to the Irish Rebellion – and this was interesting, because, for one reason and another, Cromwell’s massacres of Catholics in Ireland are widely known but the 1641 Portadown Massacre of Protestants in Ireland isn’t known nearly as well. It was horrific. And people were genuinely afraid. Was Pym exploiting people’s fears to his own ends by trying to end the king’s control over the militia? Whatever his reasons, Charles stupidly played right into his hands by turning to the bishops for support.

And, at this point, we got a lot of talk about John Lilburne – which was also interesting, because he’s normally mentioned more in connection with the rise of the Levellers in the mid-1640s, and his role earlier on tends to be overlooked. All so London-centric, though. The programme, I mean, not Lilburne!

Meanwhile, Pym had been banned from publishing the Grand Remonstrance, but he got round this by boring everyone. Seriously. One of his gang made a speech in the Commons that was so long and boring that a load of MPs got fed up and went home … whereupon a vote was held, which, with most of his opponents having left, Pym won. That’s actually a much better way of dealing with things than just keeping MPs away from London.

Henrietta Maria then got blamed for the Portadown Massacre: it was claimed that the rebels had had her authority to stage an uprising. At this point, I’d have really liked some discussion of how often queens get the blame for the stupidity of their husbands. Instead, we were told that her lady-in-waiting had taught her how to apply make-up. What?? Henrietta Maria’s unpopularity was due to the fact that she wore make-up? I don’t think so. Incidentally, who’s the great heroine of English Protestantism. Elizabeth I, who used to keep the Cabinet waiting until she’d got all her make-up on. I think we can discount the argument that the Civil War had anything to do with Henrietta Maria’s make-up.

Charles, getting rather stressed out about all this, decided to replace the incumbent Lieutenant of the Tower of London with an ally of his, one Thomas Lunsford. This was not a great idea, because Lunsford was very unpopular: people thought he was a cannibal. We definitely never heard about currants and cannibals when we “did” the Civil War at school! Then a load of radicalised Londoners had too much to drink over Christmas and started rioting. (Don’t ask me how getting drunk over Christmas was supposed to tie in with the idea that the country had gone really Puritanical.) Charles sacked Lunsford, but the drunken Londoners had got really stuck into the rioting by now. And the bishops were prevented from getting into the House of Lords to vote.

The bishops weren’t very pleased, which wasn’t unreasonable from their point of view, and protested, whereupon Pym’s gang decided that they should be impeached. Several bishops were arrested and locI often find myself wondering just how political leaders can be so bloody stupid. It’s something that doesn’t change from century to century. Lisa Hilton used the word “dim”. Charles had signed a bill which took away his power to dissolve Parliament – although it should be noted that it only applied to that particular Parliament, and that the power to dissolve Parliament in general (before the end of the five year fixed term we’re supposed to have now), or to prorogue Parliament, still lies with the sovereign – and then tried to get Pym on side by offering him the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Pym turned him down.

I was really glad, at this point, one of the historians pointed out that Pym was not some great hero.  We joke about Cromwell banning mince pies and all the rest of it, but there really wasn’t anything funny about Puritan extremism.  There still isn’t: it’s played a large part in the development of some very unpleasant attitudes amongst factions in both the United States and South Africa.  Pym even wanted to make Catholics wear distinctive clothing.  He never actually tried that, but he did try ordering the removal of Henrietta Maria’s household Catholic clergymen.  A very interesting point was made, which I must say I’ve never really thought of before, that Henrietta Maria had grown up in a France where Protestants were not persecuted.  I can reel off the dates of the passing and revocation of the Edict of Nantes without even thinking about them, but somehow I’d never really thought much about this being in between the two.

And, as if Henrietta Maria didn’t have enough problems, her friend and lady-in-waiting, Lucy Hay, was spying for Pym.  Was she Pym’s mistress?  The programme didn’t suggest that, but it’s been rumoured.  Nor did it mention that she was the Earl of Essex’s cousin.  Another person Charles and Henrietta Maria mistakenly trusted was George Digby, who at least wasn’t spying but who did make a complete mess of his task of denouncing Pym in the Lords, and just kind of wimped out.

I’m not keen on Henrietta Maria, but I do think she got a raw deal, and I think it’s very typical of how women so often get the blame for their powerful husbands’ stupidity.  And how people will attack a woman by impugning her virtue (very Victorian term there!).  I think she probably got involved with Henry Jermyn later on, when she was a widow, but I certainly don’t think she’d done so at this point –  but Pym was whipping up rumours that she had.  Everyone was turning against her.  She must have been terrified.  Nice to see the historians, especially the female historians, expressing sympathy for her.  And I rather like the tradition that she yelled at Charles and told him to stop being such a bloody wuss and go and do something about it.

We were into the third episode by this point, and this was by far the best of the three. Big drama!  The famous episode in which Charles barged into the House of Commons, only to find that the five MPs he was planning to arrest had done a bunk – tipped off by Lucy Hay, who was shown creeping around in a hooded cloak, looking rather like Madame in the Dogtanian cartoons.  I love the fact that the State Opening of Parliament still includes the door being slammed in Black Rod’s face, al because of this!  And it’s fascinating that Parliament, and also the people at the Guildhall, who refused to hand over Pym & co when Charles went there, had the authority nerve to stand up to him.  As one of the historians said, you can’t imagine that happening in Henry VIII’s time.  Charles believed in the divine right of monarchs … but there he was, calling out names with everyone refusing to tell him where the people he wanted were, like a hapless schoolteacher who couldn’t control the class.

What a prat, and what a mess.  As Earl Spencer said, anyone would have struggled to deal with all the political, social and religious troubles of the day (hooray – someone who wasn’t trying to make out that the causes of the Civil War were all short-term!), but Charles I didn’t have a clue.  Meanwhile, and rather scarily, radicals were joining the militia to get arms and training in how to use them.  And the Royal Family fled to Hampton Court Palace.

This was in early January, though, and the war didn’t actually kick off until August.  I’m not quite getting the idea of making a three-part series about fifty days in late 1641 and early 1642, with so little attention paid to what happened before and none to what happened after.  But it still made for interesting viewing.  Lisa proclaimed that, without the events of 1641/42, there would have been no American Revolution, no French Revolution and no democracy as we know it.  Yes.  I’ll go with that.  No Civil War, no Restoration Settlement, no Glorious Revolution, no Enlightenment  … no American Revolution, no French Revolution and no democracy as we know it.

Lisa finished off by asking the various historians she’d interviewed which side they’d have taken – and this bit was great, because she put it as it must have looked at the time.  We tie ourselves in knots over both the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.  Social contracts, de facto and de jure, had Charles I betrayed his side of the bargain by refusing to play by the rules, had James II effectively abdicated by running off.  Leviathan was published in 1651 and Two Treatises of Government in 1689: none of this social contract stuff was going in 1642.  We need the Civil War to have happened, and we need Charles to have lost, because there was a danger that, otherwise, we’d have ended up with an absolute monarchy.  But we don’t really do rebellion and revolution.  So we try to justify it by thinking about ancient rights and liberties.  And it works to bad-mouth Henrietta Maria, because she was a foreigner.  But we don’t really do overthrowing the rightful government, any more than we do absolute monarchy.  So we tie ourselves in knots.

But, if you look at things as they’d have looked at the time, no-one could have seen what lay ahead.  There’d been loads of spats between kings and subjects.  Most people must have assumed that there’d be one battle, or maybe even just a confrontation, and it’d all have got sorted.  The rightful king or the defenders of ancient liberties?  Nah.  As Lisa said, it would have been a choice between a useless, unpopular king who wouldn’t play by the rules, or a bunch of radical extremists.  No-one seemed very enthusiastic either way.  And yet it really was one of the great turning points of history.   Sometimes, you just don’t know how things are going to turn out, do you?