AoH Book Club: Leanda de Lisle on The White King

The Historical Writer Association winner talks about the book that won her that award with historian and writer Steven Veerapen.
Home » Author interviews » AoH Book Club: Leanda de Lisle on The White King

I’m curious as to whether your agent and/or publisher were enthusiastic about White King or whether they were, at least initially, unsure of his popularity as a biographical subject. Did you find everyone involved eager from the outset or did you have to do some persuasion at the beginning of this project?

My agent and editor were enthusiastic – both know the period and were excited by the outline I wrote. The marketing people were much more nervous.

On that note, did the success of the book surprise you or anyone involved in its publication, and do you feel any sense that interest in the Stuarts is now rising?

I was very surprised to won the HWA prize! Apparently my face revealed total shock: I had told my husband not to come to the ceremony as I never imagined for a second White King would win it. I was delighted readers enjoyed White King – and it inspired a two part BBC documentary. But I think there is still a way to go for readers to understand that the Stuarts are every bit as fascinating as the Tudors.  The problem is we are battling national myths: especially concerning Henrietta Maria. I hope my next book will help with that.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process behind turning the book into its documentary series?

The production company got in touch because I had done a programme series about Lady Jane Grey and they wanted to do another similar programme based on a number of key days in the life of Charles. I came up with the idea of fifty days leading up too the turning point when he was forced to abandon London. I was the historical consultant – and that was a very interesting experience as I had to stop the myths about Charles sneaking in. They wanted him presented as an effete weakling scampering around in lace – and they had discovered that Pym had been known as the ox. Accordingly, he, Pym, was going to be presented as a big, bullish man of the people, rippling in muscles.

I had to explain that he was in fact a short, fat lawyer, who worked like an ox, and Charles, far from being a fairy-princess, was an extremely fit man: an expert horseman who, rather than skipping about, strode so quickly that men had to run to keep up with him. They were also going to present Henrietta Maria as an adulteress – but I talked to the presenter Lisa Hilton, who I just about managed to convince that this was contemporary slander: that it was, in fact, piffle. Nevertheless, some questionable scenes and depictions got through – including scenes depicting Henrietta Maria as a Marie Antoinette figure, swirling around in a pretty frock in the Queen’s house, like a demented chicken. But the programme did gather a great deal of interest. T, representation, and iconoclasm. The people involved are fascinating, and there are interesting philosophical questions arising from the period.

Charles I has had a mixed press. To some he is a tragic figure; to others he is a fool; to some he is a tyrant. How do you tend to think of him, and did writing White King modify your existing perception at all?

The Stuarts and the Stuart period have a lot to offer which relates to our times, and a lot which connects to our period’s ‘culture wars’ and ideas about voting

Charles was a good man who was also a failed king, and that was down, at least in. part, to flaws in his character. In this he was really a classical example of a tragic figure. I wasn’t so surprised by that, although I enjoyed overturning some myths: the invented story of the ‘whipping boy. being one. I was much more surprised by the extraordinary qualities of his wife, which is why she is my current subject!

As he was born in Scotland and lived his early years as a Scottish prince, do you think that he viewed himself, ultimately, as a Scot, an Englishman, or – as his father would have preferred – a Brit?

What an interesting question! I think he saw himself as a Stuart, as the head of that dynasty and as a king of Scots and England.  He was Danish and French by blood as well as English, Welsh and Scots. He embodied Britain, rather than aligning himself with either kingdom.

Charles is often depicted as a ‘second best’ sovereign – the weak follow-up to his brother, Prince Henry, the ebullient heir to the thrones who never attained them (he having died unexpectedly in 1612). What were the differences between Charles and his elder brother? Were they as marked as historiography suggests?

There exists a myth of Henry being a strapping, golden, Protestant youth: the king who never was. We still see discussion of what might have been had he lived. In fact, Henry’s suit of armour shows he was not particularly big. Contemporary accounts also indicate that Henry, like Charles, lived with a stutter. The much-discussed differences between the Protestant-ideal image constructed of Henry and the reality of Charles (which invariably paint the latter in a poor light) were just that: idealised. Henry became used as a stick to beat Charles with later – and we shouldn’t fall for it now.

As White King demonstrates, Charles was an aesthete and an incredibly discerning patron of the arts. Having recently finished writing about his mother, Anna of Denmark – who refashioned the role of consort as a principal sponsor of the arts – do you think he inherited his tastes from her? She, after all, nicknamed him her “little servant” and made every effort to influence him.

Yes I do, very much so. They had a lot in common: the same interest in theatre, an understanding of the importance of ritual and ceremony in kingship. I was very interested in her encouraging his love of the Order of the Garter.

It’s well-known that King James’s last favourite was the Duke of Buckingham, who often receives an unfairly negative press. What’s less well known is that the canny Duke maintained his influential role into Charles’s reign, having won the new King over in about 1618. Do you think Charles ever knew or suspected anything about the nature of his father’s relationship with Buckingham – or did he simply not care?

I’m sure he knew and chose not to dwell on it. He would have been scarred by the fact his father lavished love on Buckingham while he was in his early teens and his father would take Buckingham’s side in their quarrels. My parents had something of an open marriage and believe you me, knowing you come below your parents’ lovers in the pecking order is not a nice feeling. It clearly came as a huge relief to Charles when his greatest antagonist recast himself as Charles’s closest friend.

Buckingham knew about the assassination in France of Marie de Medici’s favourite  at the behest of her sons, and didn’t want to end up killed or, more likely, simply overthrown at the behest of James’s heir – so he decided to attach himself to Charles. Charles was an isolated figure who didn’t have a huge number of friends in his teenage years – and then suddenly he had the full beam of Buckingham – an immensely charismatic man – on him. Suddenly Charles found he was the important one in a pair of ‘boys’, and James became the outsider, with Charles and Buckingham conspiring together, sometimes against James.

I wonder if it gave Charles some satisfaction that he became more important to Buckingham than his father? He may have repressed in his memory – or diminished in importance –  the sexual nature of Buckingham’s relationship with James. Or perhaps he imagined he was rescuing Buckingham in some way, so evening up the power dynamic in their friendship. Buckingham was older and more worldly, but Charles was his protector – and became very much his protector after he became king, risking his crown to save his friend, time and again. Buckingham was family to him and it is telling that he had Buckingham buried in the Henry VII chapel. Buckingham was a remnant of his father, a weird kind of brother.

There exists a lingering stereotypical – and rather misogynistic – view of Charles as a henpecked husband who listened to his wife far too much. Why do you think this view arose, and why has it persisted? Are there any other popular misconceptions about Charles – or anyone connected with his life – which you have consciously found yourself battling against?

After the death of Buckingham, Henrietta Maria was cast in the role of evil councillor. The fact she was a woman helped – she was Eve to Charles’s Adam, seducing him into wickedness. She was also a Catholic and this helped tar his reforms of the Church of England with claims of Popery. The belief that Protestantism is responsible for the emergence of democracy is amongst our most reassured national myths and so Henrietta Maria, the Popish Catholic, it still judged responsible for Charles’s authoritarianism – it is even still said that she ‘turned him Catholic! This is quite bizarre when you consider that Charles believed in Divine Right kingship before he had ever met her and that when he began raising large sums of money under the royal prerogative – so threatening the existence of parliament – it was in order to attack France, a war she opposed.

As for turning him Catholic – he persecuted Catholics right up to the civil war, and during the war he then refused to grant Irish Catholics the same religious rights as Scottish Presbyterians even when he needed their help to win, and he died a martyr to the Protestant Church of England.    There are so many myths about him  you would be reading a whole book for me to cover them here!  But I will mention three – he wasn’t a physical weakling as an adult, there was no whipping boy when he was a child, and being a second son did not mean he was unprepared for kingship. Henry VIII was also a second son…

As you say, the relationship between the King and his wife seems to have been grist for the mill of his political opponents (and their slanders have had extraordinarily long lasting afterlives). How would you describe the relationship between Charles and Henrietta Maria?

Well, I think it changed over time. I think they were attracted to each other from the beginning but obviously they quarrelled a great deal. She had been given a ‘mission statement’ by her mother before leaving France and she, like her new husband, wanted the marriage to work. However, at the same time the Anglo-French alliance was collapsing, and Buckingham and her French household were adding to the pressures on the marriage in its early days. There were bitter quarrels in the early years. However, it is important to note that things had taken a turn for the better in the royal marriage before Buckingham died – the marriage was working before his assassination and it in fact became a great love affair. Far from being a malign Catholic influence Henrietta Maria accepted a Protestant blessing on her marriage, and she had all her children baptised Protestant (against the terms of the marriage treaty). She refused to attend the coronation as a mark of solidarity with Catholics who were undoing a particularly brutal period of persecution by her husband, for attending the Catholic mass.  After that she persisted in trying to make the lives of Catholics easier, but she never thought for a moment Charles would convert, nor did she waste her time making any serious effort to encourage him to do so. Though she is not as well known in popular history as previous English consorts, she has in fact much in common with Anne Boleyn. Both were French educated, spirted, intelligent, fashionable; both were victims of sexual slander; and both were associated with ‘foreign’ religions that were seen as a threat to the traditional faith of the majority.

Your enthusiasm for Charles and this era is infectious. Could you name what you consider to be his primary contribution to British history?

He was a failed king – and his failure led to a very grim period that taught us to distrust ideologues, standing armies and having politicians as head of state.

White King won the Historical Writer’s Association Crown in 2018 and it was described as ‘the definitive modern work on Charles I’, but is there anything you’d change if your publisher was to bring out a new edition?

I’d make it twice as long – a lot of people seemed to find it quite short. I think that was because I made it easy to read – it is actually well over 100,000 words (Maybe 120,000), but there was a lot more to say, so perhaps I could have got away with a longer book.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

Henrietta Maria, which I have loved – and which I hope you will find is full of surprises.

When will we be able to get our hands on the book on Henrietta Maria?

I believe – and hope – that it will see publication August or September 2022 – and that it will be available in audiobook form too.

Leanda de Lisle is an acclaimed historian and author of Tudor: The Family Story and The Sisters Who Would Be Queen. White King is highly recommended.

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