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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 fact, it contained a clear statement of the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people expressed in a representative body, and of the obligation of all rulers, even kings, to pursue the public interest; a justification of forcible resistance to tyranny on the grounds of salus populi suprema lex, and a detailed and convincing exposé of the futility of treating with a King whose views of his powers were unyielding and who regarded agreements with his subjects as of no legal or moral force. It concluded by pointing out that nothing could so effectively destroy the pernicious doctrine of the divine right of kings as the trial and execution of one of them.

How far were the Army officers drawn on by pressure from the rank and file? The importance of the Levellers, the doctrines they held, the degree to which Cromwell was prepared to accommodate them, the doubts and hesitation of Cromwell and the officers right up to the last minute, the anxious discussions of alternatives to trial and execution, are all very summarily treated, if at all. Ideas don’t seem to interest Miss Wedgwood very much. Who were summoned to sit as judges in the trial? Miss Wedgwood declares that the members formed “a Court chosen as far as possible to represent the most respectable and substantial elements in the country.” This statement is quite untrue, for the pre-war leaders of county politics and society were hardly represented at all. Was the execution an inescapable political necessity if internal peace was to be restored? Where Miss Wedgwood stands on this vital question is never clearly stated, though the obvious conclusion the reader must draw is that it was illegal (which it certainly was), unpopular (which it probably was), and an unnecessary act of cruelty. The last word on this, as indeed on the whole subject matter of the book, was said by S. R. Gardiner seventy years ago: “As long as he [Charles] remained a factor in English politics, government by compromise was impossible.”

The King’s death was seen to be more startling in itself than in its consequences.” Such is Miss Wedgwood’s judgment on the whole episode. Subsequent events suggest a totally opposite conclusion. The reaction was one of stunned passivity: not violent indignation against the deed and the doers of it, but merely a resigned and thankful acceptance of the internal peace which followed. Royalist risings had no support, and the unstable regimes which followed in the next decade collapsed more from internal dissension than the strength of royalism. As Charles II knew very well, he was not put back on the throne by the overwhelming pressure of Cavalier sentiment. And when in 1688 James II overplayed his hand, it was surely fear of suffering the fate of his father that induced him to flee, thus allowing the revolutionaries to declare the throne vacant and so pretend that nothing had happened. There is strong reason for thinking that the execution of King Charles the First was not only necessary at the time to secure internal peace, but was in the long run an essential factor in the development of constitutional monarchy.

If Miss Wedgwood hardly answers at all, or answers wrongly, the major questions at issue, one must ask how far her narrative is “careful, thorough, accurate.” Like so many of us, myself included, she has difficulty in copying accurately, and there is hardly a quotation of any length without some trivial error. She does not seem to have checked her transcripts. She has made extensive use of contemporary pamphlets and newspapers, from which she has culled a certain amount of fresh detail. But when a tough question arises, she puts in a disarming footnote: “The background of all the men named to serve on the Court of Justice would repay investigation. My necessarily brief comments are chiefly drawn from…” Why “necessarily”?

Miss Wedgwood often does some baroque embroidery on the margins of the evidence in order to heighten the dramatic impact of her narrative, as is shown, for example, by comparing the sources with the text of Charles’s leave-taking with the Parliamentary commissioners or the sufferings of the M.P.’s arrested in Pride’s Purge (the latter being almost entirely composed of factual error and pure invention). It is arguable that this is harmless enough, but other, less innocent, forms of manipulation are also resorted to. For example, during the trial, the King is described as serene, cool and fluent, strong and clear, quick and pregnant, eloquent, clam; he spoke with ironical courtesy, contemptuous indifference, ringing scorn, ironic forbearance, resigned irony, scornfully, vigorously, drily, so reasonably and with so much feeling, serenely, calmly. Bradshaw or Prosecutor Cooke was incensed, irritable, ferocious, furious, unconvincing, curt, threatening; he glared, blustered, glared, lost his head and his temper, hurried on, hurried on, hurried on; he spoke feebly, hurriedly, weakly, irritably.

The objection to all this, which is largely surmise on Miss Wedgwood’s part, is not that it shows proof of systematic bias. Professional historians are free to select their evidence to support their theories, and that process of selection is also frequently the subject of systematic bias. But whereas the latter deploy facts and appeal to reason, Miss Wedgwood uses her imagination and appeals to the emotions. It is this which I find objectionable, indeed repugnant. If the study of history has any social utility, it is that it subjects the experience of the past to intellectual analysis; it is a force against unreason, not a stimulus to the passions.

Miss Wedgwood’s moral position is often very puzzling. The extreme duplicity of King Charles, which even extended to planning to break his parole, is explained as “the only weapon left to him for defense of the things in which he believed.” The cold-blooded murder of Colonel Rainsborough by a gang of royalist toughs is described first as “an unlucky accident,” and then in the next sentence as a “gratuitous murder.” It cannot have been both. The explanation is that Miss Wedgwood has been caught on the horns of a dilemma from which she has hardly extricated herself. For the sake of the drama, and to please the bulk of her readers, she must tell the the story in terms of a personal tragedy, of right versus wrong. The moral crisis of men like Ireton and Cromwell, who felt that they had to kill the King in the interests of peace and national settlement, is never fairly set out, indeed the character of the regicides is subtly denigrated throughout. Only very rarely does she admit that the King’s political behavior had left something to be desired.

Some years ago an irritated critic observed that according to the theory and practice of Miss Wedgwood “history becomes literary sentimentality for the sake of literary aesthetics.” Harsh though it is, this judgment aptly describes both title and contents of her latest book. Miss Wedgwood’s exceptional talents deserve a worthier and a weightier cause.

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