The Murder of King James I

The Murder of King James I
Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell
Yale University Press  664pp  £30

I have been studying Stuart history for 50 years without encountering George Eglisham. He was a Scottish Catholic with a dodgy reputation as a physician and man of letters, whose long struggle for recognition and wealth came crashing down when his patent for manufacturing golden foliats was revoked by Parliament in 1621 and a brief pogrom was launched against furtive papists. He poured out the bile of disillusion as he withdrew to renewed poverty in the Spanish Netherlands and used all his expertise in making bricks without straw (as a doctor and would-be courtier) into a sensational pamphlet alleging that the Duke of Buckingham had poisoned James I. This tract caught the popular mood and was endlessly reprinted. It suited the purposes of Buckingham’s political enemies in the later 1620s and of Charles I in the 1630s and 1640s to take these allegations seriously. The charge played a significant part in the impeachment of Buckingham in 1626 and fed and focused the inner rage of John Felton, the lone fanatic who assassinated Buckingham in 1628. It fuelled muttered claims in opposition politics that Charles I was at the least involved in a cover-up that stoked the hysteria of the early 1640s and the road to Regicide. Enlightenment historiography marginalised such elements in a grand narrative of the 17th century, as the high road to religious and civil liberties and the allegation has become a footnote in textbooks and Eglisham a lost name.

Cogswell and Bellany are accomplished storytellers and their collaboration is much more than the sum of their considerable parts. Modern security services on the trail of a terrorist network and its sympathisers could not have been more thorough in their investigations or in their careful sifting of the evidence. This is an astonishing detective work. It is also a magnificent piece of political reconstruction, locating each twist and turn in the plot within a fully international, as well as national, series of contexts. It is a major contribution to the history of print culture and to the complex interaction of underground printing and the even more radical circulation of manuscripts. It does what the best history does in that it recreates the mental world of the past and shows how the historian must engage with and seek to understand the dross of the particular, the contingent, the specifics of the past and not just extract the residual gold of whatever it is in the past that inhabits the present. This book does more than anything published in the past 20 years to explain why Charles I never really had a chance and indeed why there was a civil war. It does so with a delight in storytelling that is truly infectious. Wolf Hall meets Scandinavian noir: a great way to spend cosy evenings in whatever weather the New Year hurls at us.

John Morrill is General Editor of the new five-volume edition of all Oliver Cromwell’s recorded words for OUP. 

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