Charles I in Three Positions by van Dyck, 1635–36.

Charles I in Three Positions by van Dyck, 1635–36.

The Rehabilitation of Charles I

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.

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