History à la Mode

A Coffin for King Charles

by C.V. Wedgwood
Macmillan, 307 pp., $5.95

In January 1649 an English King was brought to trial on a charge of abusing the trust placed in him by his subjects, was convicted, and was publicly and ceremoniously beheaded, after which the Monarchy was abolished and a Republic proclaimed. Nothing like it had ever happened in European history before. For a thousand years Englishmen had been in the habit of murdering tiresome or inconvenient kings—the most recent examples being Richard II, Richard III, and Edward V—but never before had an anointed king been formally brought to book. A fresh study of how and why this extraordinary event took place, by whom it was conceived and carried out, by what arguments it was justified at the time, what pressures were brought to bear, and what was the effect upon the future would be a work of the greatest interest and importance.

Miss Wedgwood explains that “it is the purpose of this book to describe the events of those ten weeks” leading up to the execution. She tells a story supremely well. Though there are not many competitors in the field these days, the fact remains that she is by far the best narrative historian writing in the English language. She is a superb stylist, her eye for colorful detail is unerring, and she has an unrivaled capacity for catching the signs and sounds and smells of the past. All these qualities are displayed to the full in this volume, which makes compulsive reading and will undoubtedly attract a large audience.

One wonders, however, whether Miss Wedgwood has not perhaps paid too high a price for her readability by the sacrifice of more important things: hard analytical thought, scholarly accuracy, a sense of the infinite complexity and ambiguity of human character and human affairs, emotional honesty if not detachment, and clarity and consistency of moral judgment. Does she, in fact, achieve her results by demanding too little of her readers? Is she serving up baby food disguised as filet de boeuf Chateaubriand? Miss Wedgwood has defended her narrative methods on the grounds that “the careful, thorough, accurate answer to the question how should take the historian a long way towards answering the question why.” We can test this hypothesis by asking whether this particular narrative history answers any of the questions a serious reader would wish to know.

What sort of people were the army leaders who engineered the execution? Apart from a couple of inconclusive pages on the mystery of Oliver Cromwell, and a slightly misleading paragraph on the Independents, Miss Wedgwood tells us nothing. What were the religious, political and philosophical arguments they used? These were set out in The Remonstrance of the Army, an 80-odd-page pamphlet which is summarily dismissed by Miss Wedgwood in the words: “This lengthy document condemned the King’s policy, exposed the folly of attempting to treat with him, summed up the Army’s plans for justice, peace and reform, and openly demanded” that the king be brought to trial. In …

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