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  • Brexit, King Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

    When I look for something in history that is like Brexit, I find the Scottish prayer-book rebellion against Charles I.

    Charles I - poised and withdrawn. Daniel Mytens. (c. Private collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    In summer 1637 the Scots in their thousands rejected the religious liturgy which the king wanted to impose on them. The year before he had introduced new Canons (church law) and now asked his northern kingdom to accept and use a new prayer-book. It was drafted largely by Englishmen under the guidance of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury. The Scots had not objected to the Canons. They said no to the prayer-book.

    On 28 February 1638 the rebel Scottish leaders produced their manifesto: the National Covenant. It was signed throughout Scotland and is one of the great documents of history. The Covenant proclaimed loyalty to the king but said no to the changes he wanted.

    This was the Brexit moment. A nationalist response to foreign imposition. That was then, this is now. The National Covenant of 1638 was an agreement not only with the other subscribers but with God.

    The prayer-book rebellion was not secession. Scotland was a separate and independent country. It just happened to have the same king as England. The Scots had their own Privy Council, their own parliament, their own laws, their own church (the Kirk). They wanted to keep it that way.

    On the path to war

    It began with a riot in church after the congregation pelted the Dean of Edinburgh, when he started to read from the new prayer-book, with whatever came to hand, including the stools on which they sat (23 July 1637). According to legend the first to attack was Jenny Geddes who rose to her feet yelling ‘Daur ye say Masse in my lug (ear)?’ To Jenny the project seemed ‘Romisch superstition.’ The Bishop of Edinburgh was attacked in the street after the service (but survived).

    The Covenanting movement led to war. First the two Bishops Wars of 1639 and 1640, between the Scots and their monarch.

    They were Bishops Wars because the Scots wanted to get rid, not just of the new prayer-book, but of their bishops. In the first Bishops War not a blow was struck. In the second, contrary to the king’s plan, a Scottish army invaded northern England and occupied Newcastle. Incidentally this army was led for a time by the subject of the book I am now writing, James Graham, first Marquis of Montrose.

    More dramatically the Scottish prayer-book rebellion led to the outbreak of civil war in England. There are a hundred twists and turns on the way. But there is no doubt that it was trouble in Scotland that opened the floodgates in England (also in Ireland, the third Stuart kingdom).

    Henriette Marie and Charles I. Engraving by Robert van Voerst, 1634. (c. Rijksmuseum, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast and loose…

    My feeling, when I wrote my biography of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, was that Henrietta Maria would have made a better king than her husband, and it remains my feeling. She certainly did what she could for Charles I and the Stuart family, including literally standing in the line of parliamentary fire. As thing were, could she have prevented the Scottish collapse? It seems unlikely.

    Not that I wish to deny the king’s qualities. He was an admirable person, much more so than some of his predecessors and successors on the throne. He was energetic, high-principled, a devoted family man, aesthetically discerning, a stickler for the law up to a point. His eleven years of personal rule in England (1630-1641), the period when he dispensed with parliaments, were unpopular with many influential people. But they were years of legalistic government.

    Still one cannot deny that Charles I played fast and loose with that delicate animal, the English constitution. He imprisoned a number of the men who refused to pay or assist in the collection of his forced loan of 1628. He imprisoned Members of Parliament after undignified scenes in the House of Commons in the last days of the 1628-1629 parliament. One, Sir John Eliot, died in the Tower.

    Those undignified scenes included physical assault. The Speaker, Sir John Finch, when he tried to adjourn the session by leaving the House, was wrestled and held in his chair by Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine. Finch was held down to allow a protestation to be read (by Sir John Eliot) against royal policy in religion and finance.

    Charles I, at St Margaret's Westminster. (c. Author's collection, Henrietta Maria, Amberley Publishing)

    The nature of the king

    Scholars have gone almost mad trying to pin down what went wrong in the seventeenth century. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Civil War. It scared the life out of the ruling classes of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and led to the parliamentary system which distinguishes British history.

    In the nineteenth century the Civil War became a romantic dream of cavaliers and roundheads. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Scottish nationalism was reborn and is growing up fast helped by the Brexit vote of 2016. This blog is not the time to explore the history of Ireland but that country above all bears the marks of those struggles four centuries ago.

    On the whole historians agree that the character of Charles I was at the heart of the matter. If he was dealt a difficult hand, he played the wrong cards. However it is hard to challenge the proposal that the king, if perhaps he succeeded as a martyr, was a failure as king.

    The failure of Charles I was not the iron fist of autocracy. His failure was political clumsiness. He could not read minds. He could not, until very late in the day, read situations. He did not judge loyalty well. Unlike his father and his eldest son he could not see that even a king must embrace, from time to time, the art of compromise, perhaps a king most of all. And, far from being his wife’s lapdog, as his enemies proclaimed, it could be said he did not listen to her enough.

    Dominic Pearce's new paperback edition of Henrietta Maria is available for purchase now.

  • England’s Reigning Queens, by Elizabeth Norton


    Some of England’s (and later, Britain’s) most memorable monarchs have been queens. It is therefore surprising that only eight women can claim to have ruled as reigning queen in the post-Conquest period and, then, only six effectively. As our current queen approaches Queen Victoria’s record of longest reigning monarch, let’s look at some of the key female rulers who came before her.

    Matilda Matilda

    Matilda, who was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, has a claim to being England’s first ruling queen. She was named as her father’s heir, with his leading nobles swearing oaths to uphold her claim. Most prominent amongst these was Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois. Nonetheless, on hearing of his uncle’s death in 1135, he hurriedly crossed the channel and seized the crown. The two cousins vied for the crown for nearly twenty years, but Matilda’s ‘reign’ proved a brief one. After capturing Stephen in 1141, she was declared ‘Lady of the English’ and travelled to London to await her coronation. Soon afterwards, she was driven out of the capital and forced to release her cousin. It was Matilda’s son, Henry II, who eventually won the English crown.

    Matilda’s ‘reign’ was an unhappy precedent. Although both the House of York and House of Tudor claimed the throne through women, it was only with the death of Edward VI in 1553 that a ruling queen became inevitable. His teenaged cousin, Jane Grey, was proclaimed queen in a bid to keep England Protestant. Yet, her ‘reign’ lasted just over a week, with Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Mary I, sweeping to power as England’s first effective queen regnant.

    Mary I Mary I

    Mary was determined to return the English church to adherence to Rome which, coupled with her marriage to Philip of Spain, caused controversy. Her finest moment came in 1554, when rebel troops entered London. When urged to flee, the queen instead urged those around her to ‘fall to prayer and I warrant you, we shall hear better news anon’. She kept her crown but, following an embarrassing phantom pregnancy, the loss of English-held Calais and a campaign of burning Protestants, her death in 1558 was met with rejoicing.

    Mary’s successor was her twenty-five year old half-sister, Elizabeth I, who was expected to quickly marry and provide England with a king. She surprised everyone by resolutely refusing to marry, although she was close to male favourites, such as Robert Dudley. Her reign saw great advances in technology, exploration and the theatre while her navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Although the myth of ‘Gloriana’ began to tarnish towards the end of her long reign, the Elizabethan era is remembered as a golden age in English history. On her death, she was succeeded by her cousin, James VI of Scotland, heralding the union of the two crowns.

    The Scottish Stuart Dynasty proved to be unlucky in England, with the seventeenth century troubled by Civil War and religious conflict. The Catholic James II succeeded to the throne in 1685, with many in England looking forward instead to the reign of his Protestant daughter, Mary, who had married her cousin, William of Orange.

    On 10 June 1688, however, James’s second wife gave birth to a healthy son, with forty-two people present in the room. This did not stop rumours quickly spreading that the baby was an imposter, smuggled into the royal bedchamber in a warming pan. Indeed, James’s daughter, Anne, was one of the main rumourmongers, writing to her sister that ‘I shall never now be satisfied whether the child be true or false’. Isolated in the Netherlands, Mary agreed. In late June, her husband received an invitation to invade England. William complied, arriving in November with 300 ships. James fled, leaving the way clear for William and Mary to take the throne as joint sovereigns. Mary II largely served the role of queen consort during her reign, before dying of smallpox in 1694.

    Queen Anne in 1705 Queen Anne

    Mary’s younger sister, Anne, supported her brother-in-law’s invasion, but was disconcerted to find her place in the succession usurped by William. She looked forward to her eventual accession as her ‘sunshine day’ and modelled herself on Elizabeth I when she finally took the throne in 1702. By then Anne, who had endured seventeen pregnancies but had no living child, was an invalid and grossly overweight. She was dominated by her female favourites, although she presided over a period of international success for her country. She was the first monarch of Great Britain, with the throne then passing to her German cousin, George I, after her death in 1714.

    Disaster struck the royal family just over a century after Anne’s death when Princess Charlotte, George III’s only legitimate grandchild, died in childbirth. Her death led to a race by her middle aged uncles to marry and beget an heir, with Edward, Duke of Kent, emerging the victor. His eighteen year old daughter, Victoria, became queen in 1837, ruling for over sixty-three years. Personally, the queen’s life was blighted by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Yet, she presided over a remarkable period in Britain’s history, with invention, industry, exploration and conquest.

    Just over fifty years after Victoria’s death, her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, came to the throne. The current queen was not born to reign, with her father only the second son of George V. Nonetheless, she has devoted her life to her role and, at nearly eighty-nine years old, will soon become England’s longest reigning monarch.

    England’s reigning queens have left fascinating legacies. You can read more about them, as well as queen consorts and king’s wives in England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York and England’s Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, which are available now.

    Find out more about Elizabeth Norton on her author page:


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