en-fr  The Rehabilitation of Charles I . PartI
The myths that surround the ultimately tragic rule of Charles I mask the realities of a courageous and uxorious king who fell foul of a bitter struggle between two sides of English Protestantism.
Charles I was said to be the only king of England ever to have been crowned in white. To opponents he was the White King of the prophesies of Merlin, a tyrant destined for a violent end. His supporters later declared that the white robes were the vestments of a future martyr. Yet the White King sobriquet is unfamiliar today.

In popular memory Charles is recalled as a failed monarch, executed at the hands of his own subjects. This ultimate defeat is read back across his life, to the moment he was born a frail infant marked out by disability. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king’s twisted spine was an outward sign of a deformed soul. Similarly, the weak legs and lingual incapacity of Charles’ childhood have been depicted almost as physical manifestations of weakness of character and stupidity.

We are told he was outshone by his brilliant elder siblings: his sister Elizabeth, the future ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia (whose depressive husband, Frederick V, lost his patrimony and his kingdom); and brother Henry (who died aged 18, having raised great hopes without having had the chance to disappoint them). Yet contemporaries who glorified Charles’ siblings were the heirs to men who had used the memory of Elizabeth I as a stick with which to beat his father, James I. Nor had they been universally loyal to Elizabeth in her lifetime. Many had been followers of her final favourite, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who had led a court revolt against her in 1601.

The real Charles was far from the pathetic inadequate of myth. He enjoyed the family security and, indeed, the love his father had never had. He was a far better scholar than Henry and had a dry sense of humour. As a boy of 12 he teased his ill mother that he was sorry not only because she was sick and he could not see her, but because he would miss her ‘good dinners’. He overcame his disabilities to become an athletic adult, who spoke concisely but elegantly. In achieving this, he showed the determination, resilience and sense of duty that would be a feature of Charles the king. Unfortunately, however, stories about Charles that ring true and appeal to our prejudices about the weak monarch have become ‘fact’.

Take the story of his boyhood companion, Will Murray, whose uncle, Thomas, was Charles’ tutor. William was not only a friend. According to his biography, he was also Charles’ whipping boy: when Charles was badly behaved, it was Murray that was beaten.

Yet the first reference I have found to Murray being Charles’ whipping boy dates from more than 70 years after the king’s death, in Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Times. The story is used to explain Murray’s undue influence over the king. Only six years after Charles’ execution, Thomas Fuller’s Church History claimed that Edward VI had a whipping boy in Barnaby Fitzpatrick, who was (supposedly) never beaten because the godly king was so saintly. The earliest reference to any whipping boy (that I found) appears in Samuel Rowley’s Jacobean play, When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), in which Henry VIII has a ‘whipping boy’, ‘Browne’.

Whipping boys The story of these Tudor and Stuart whipping boys was conjured up in 1605, in the aftermath to the English publication of James’ tracts on divine right kingship, with their assertion that no subject could legitimately raise their hand against God’s anointed. It has been accepted because it fits with the image of Charles as the man responsible for the suffering of the Civil Wars: he was a bad king, but his people had the whipping.

This negative image of Charles deters readers who are less drawn to the period than they are to that of the Tudors. Good books get overlooked along with exciting new scholarship. Charles needs fresh life, not to be restored to any pedestal, but to be seen to grow and change, to make mistakes and learn, to be judged in the context of his times and among his contemporaries – including women, who were also involved in high politics. In popular memory, the leading figures of Charles’ reign are male soldiers, male MPs and male clerics. Oliver Cromwell and John Pym, Prince Rupert and William Laud dominate the narrative, while the reputation of the most prominent woman, Henrietta Maria, still lies in the eye of a storm of sexist tropes.
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Yet the White King sobriquet is unfamiliar today.
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Nor had they been universally loyal to Elizabeth in her lifetime.
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The real Charles was far from the pathetic inadequate of myth.
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He was a far better scholar than Henry and had a dry sense of humour.
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William was not only a friend.
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The story is used to explain Murray’s undue influence over the king.
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Good books get overlooked along with exciting new scholarship.
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The myths that surround the ultimately tragic rule of Charles I mask the realities of a courageous and uxorious king who fell foul of a bitter struggle between two sides of English Protestantism.
Charles I was said to be the only king of England ever to have been crowned in white. To opponents he was the White King of the prophesies of Merlin, a tyrant destined for a violent end. His supporters later declared that the white robes were the vestments of a future martyr. Yet the White King sobriquet is unfamiliar today.

In popular memory Charles is recalled as a failed monarch, executed at the hands of his own subjects. This ultimate defeat is read back across his life, to the moment he was born a frail infant marked out by disability. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king’s twisted spine was an outward sign of a deformed soul. Similarly, the weak legs and lingual incapacity of Charles’ childhood have been depicted almost as physical manifestations of weakness of character and stupidity.

We are told he was outshone by his brilliant elder siblings: his sister Elizabeth, the future ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia (whose depressive husband, Frederick V, lost his patrimony and his kingdom); and brother Henry (who died aged 18, having raised great hopes without having had the chance to disappoint them). Yet contemporaries who glorified Charles’ siblings were the heirs to men who had used the memory of Elizabeth I as a stick with which to beat his father, James I. Nor had they been universally loyal to Elizabeth in her lifetime. Many had been followers of her final favourite, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who had led a court revolt against her in 1601.

The real Charles was far from the pathetic inadequate of myth. He enjoyed the family security and, indeed, the love his father had never had. He was a far better scholar than Henry and had a dry sense of humour. As a boy of 12 he teased his ill mother that he was sorry not only because she was sick and he could not see her, but because he would miss her ‘good dinners’. He overcame his disabilities to become an athletic adult, who spoke concisely but elegantly. In achieving this, he showed the determination, resilience and sense of duty that would be a feature of Charles the king. Unfortunately, however, stories about Charles that ring true and appeal to our prejudices about the weak monarch have become ‘fact’.

Take the story of his boyhood companion, Will Murray, whose uncle, Thomas, was Charles’ tutor. William was not only a friend. According to his biography, he was also Charles’ whipping boy: when Charles was badly behaved, it was Murray that was beaten.

Yet the first reference I have found to Murray being Charles’ whipping boy dates from more than 70 years after the king’s death, in Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Times. The story is used to explain Murray’s undue influence over the king. Only six years after Charles’ execution, Thomas Fuller’s Church History claimed that Edward VI had a whipping boy in Barnaby Fitzpatrick, who was (supposedly) never beaten because the godly king was so saintly. The earliest reference to any whipping boy (that I found) appears in Samuel Rowley’s Jacobean play, When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), in which Henry VIII has a ‘whipping boy’, ‘Browne’.

Whipping boys
The story of these Tudor and Stuart whipping boys was conjured up in 1605, in the aftermath to the English publication of James’ tracts on divine right kingship, with their assertion that no subject could legitimately raise their hand against God’s anointed. It has been accepted because it fits with the image of Charles as the man responsible for the suffering of the Civil Wars: he was a bad king, but his people had the whipping.

This negative image of Charles deters readers who are less drawn to the period than they are to that of the Tudors. Good books get overlooked along with exciting new scholarship. Charles needs fresh life, not to be restored to any pedestal, but to be seen to grow and change, to make mistakes and learn, to be judged in the context of his times and among his contemporaries – including women, who were also involved in high politics. In popular memory, the leading figures of Charles’ reign are male soldiers, male MPs and male clerics. Oliver Cromwell and John Pym, Prince Rupert and William Laud dominate the narrative, while the reputation of the most prominent woman, Henrietta Maria, still lies in the eye of a storm of sexist tropes.