BOOK REVIEW / Tyrant with a limited thirst for power: Richard Ollard on a work that sees Charles I as his own man and challenges existing myths - The personal rule of Charles I: Kevin Sharpe Yale pounds 25

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WHAT A pleasure to read a learned book that challenges all the received ideas on its period in language that does not shut its readers out behind a door marked 'Seminar in Progress'. The mid-17th century has long been the battleground of English historians, as it was in real life for our unfortunate ancestors. The great, the sovereign virtue of the book is its fairness, indeed its courtesy. Everyone gets a hearing, most valuably those such as Laud or Bishop Matthew Wren who in most modern history books are summarily packed off to the Tower and left to rot, as they were by the Long Parliament.

We do not have to accept their views or to admire their wisdom, but we are here enabled to see them in the context of their difficulties - churches tumbling down, hogs kept in the chancel, congregations neither instructed nor reverent. As Kevin Sharpe tellingly shows, by no means all their opponents thought them ruthless bigots, as it has long been the fashion to represent them.

One of the delights of this work, and one of its many strengths, is its sensitive and convincing portraiture of figures in the King's official circle. That of Laud is outstanding. But there are a number of others, such as Cottington, which flesh out the generally rudimentary sketches to be found elsewhere. These are of course subsidiary to the centrepiece, boldly stated in the title, referring to the period 1629-40 during which no Parliament was summoned.

Although luridly nicknamed 'the Eleven Years Tyranny', few historians have seen it, as they all see Cromwell's Protectorate, as an experiment in personal control of policy and administration. On the contrary, the general assumption has been that this fastidious aesthete and connoisseur was bored by the business of government. 'Tyranny' is understood in a negative sense, that is, denying representative institutions any share in the formation of policy and the conduct of affairs, not in the limitless thirst for power that makes it appropriate to Stalin or Hitler.

The character of King Charles I can never cease to puzzle and to fascinate. Van Dyck has seen to that. The pictures on the front and the back of the jacket (beautifully reproduced, like all the illustrations to this volume), the first with his wife and his two elder children, the second the threefold headand-shoulders painted for Bernini to carve his bust, are evidence enough. Most people have been struck by the delicacy and refinement of the features and have either seen, or read into them, a note of tranquillity, of unworldliness, of pathos. Dr Sharpe will have none of this.

'The famous royal countenance painted many times by Van Dyck was not sad or prescient of doom, as popular myth would have; it announced, as did other visual motifs, that meditative control of the self that qualified the King to rule as head of the commonwealth.'

He goes on to argue that in government the King was very much his own man, clear and consistent in his objectives and principles and not, as nearly everyone from Clarendon downwards has suggested, the too compliant listener to the urgings of whoever last had his ear, prominent among whom was the Queen. Not so, argues Dr Sharpe, who paints an altogether charming picture of an unaffected, gay, devoted companion of no political influence at all. Like everything else in the book there is a freshness and unexpectedness about this. But by the later part of the work (on page 841) the author does seem to concede her the deciding influence in one of the most crucial of court struggles, that between Vane and Strafford.

He could argue that by then the years of personal rule were over. The game, which might have perfectly well have been won, had been lost. And it had been lost, as political games so often are, through the unforeseen and unforeseeable intrusion of affairs - in this case the affairs of Scotland and of continental Europe - which had in themselves nothing to do with the success or failure of Charles's political experiment. What then happened - the mismanagement of the two Parliaments of 1640, the military failure in Scotland, the Irish disaster - swept the country into a civil war that five years earlier had been unthinkable. And it is those consequences which have coloured all that has been said and written about Charles I. It is from them, culminating in the final drama on the scaffold outside the Hall built by Inigo Jones, the great designer of the Court Masques so expressive of the personal rule, that we derive our view of the tragic actor; from them that we perceive by hindsight the ethereal melancholy in Van Dyck's portraits.

It is an arresting and original thesis, powerfully argued in trenchant, well-constructed sentences. (There is a refreshing absence of the favourite noun of donspeak, 'discourse', and the favourite adjective, 'significant'). Whether in the end it stands up time will tell. For time will certainly be needed to assess and criticise this remarkable piece of scholarship. The presswork is excellent, the notes, as in the great work of S R Gardiner with which this will be compared, are set at the foot of the page and not, as so often, lumped into a horrid impasto from which the wretched reader must attempt to guess which citation is the authority for which statement. The illustrations are integrated into the text and are, as well as being decorative, exactly relevant to the points being made there.

There are minor blemishes, particularly in the eccentric spelling of place names; a footnote on page 142 repeats a quotation incorporated in the text six pages earlier; but these and half a dozen others are dust in the balance. Both author and publisher merit congratulation, not least on a price which puts so handsome and so valuable a work within the reach of the common reader.

(Photograph omitted)