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Book review: 'Rebellion: Britain’s First Stuart Kings' by Tim Harris

Aloofness and taxes saw the King lose his head

When Protestant James VI of Scotland also became king of England and Ireland in 1603 there were reasonable levels of goodwill, although the Catholic “Gunpowder” plot two years later indicated a strong subversive undertow. Yet, only 46 years later, James’s son Charles I was formally executed by his subjects, and historians have tried ever since to make sense of what went so disastrously wrong for Britain’s first Stuart kings between 1603 and 1649. 

“The state of monarchy,” James I proclaimed to Parliament in 1610, was “the supremest thing upon earth and sits upon God’s throne.” Kings, he continued, “are accountable to none but God only”. Such exalted views of monarchy did not make for democratic rule, although they were, according to Tim Harris’s immensely detailed analysis “entirely conventional” at the time.

In those pre Civil List days, kings personally waged wars and often led their armies. The only way a monarch could raise money, other than by levying new taxes, was by summoning a parliament to vote for them, or by marriage to a foreign, dowry-yielding princess. Hence the marriage of the newly acceded Charles I in 1625 to the 15-year-old Henrietta Maria from Catholic France, a union which came after the breakdown of talks for an even better deal with another Catholic power – Spain.

Harris is concerned with the reasons for Charles’s failure as a king – rebellion in Scotland in 1638, Ireland in 1641 and England in 1642 – rather than in the notoriously elusive causes of the English civil war as such. Charles had inherited a divided church – with the anti-ceremonialist puritans refusing to acknowledge the divine right of kings on the one hand versus the group soon to be known, under Charles, as Laudians, after William Laud who eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury, with their reverence for “the beauty of holiness”. This schism, Harris demonstrates, was partly, but only partly, responsible for Charles’s loss of control.

There were also serious political mistakes such as the 11 years of “personal rule” from 1629 to 1640 during which Charles, rattled by the assassination of his close ally, Buckingham, and frustrated with MPs, drew closer to his wife and called no parliament. And, because he was unable to raise money from a parliament, there was the imposition of the detested “ship money” whereby every coastal town – and later other towns as well – had to provide the crown with the cost of a ship. Gradually any rapport he had with his people crumbled although he was never a particularly distant king, and even during the personal rule quite often travelled and went out among the public “touching” people to “cure” them from scrofula, for example.

But petitions against him, hatred of “Popish Lords and Bishops” and his decision to leave London after a series of blunders in 1641 and early 1642 all worsened his position. Harris, an American professor of European history, who writes very clearly but in long 19th-century-style paragraphs, takes a commendably measured approach and scrupulously weighs up all angles before reaching his tentative conclusions – frequently supplying strings of examples to support his points and detailing unfolding events day by day. It’s a good – if very large – read and a useful addition to commentaries on this complex period.