Underqualified for the Job

In the flurry created by Antonia Fraser’s King Charles II Richard Ollard’s book is likely, undeservedly, to be overlooked. Also it is an odd book—a long essay, attached to a simple narrative structure, or rather chronology, since there is no story in a strict sense of the word. Salient facts are mentioned—the fiasco of the Spanish marriage negotiations of Charles I’s youth, the Civil War, the Execution, the Restoration, the Dutch in the Medway—episodes which are connected by little or no narrative. The one exception, perhaps, is Charles II’s years of exile, where the author supplies more of a story. At times, one almost feels that a larger book was intended, maybe a life of Charles I or perhaps more probably a life of Charles II. Certainly I wished that either biography had been written, and the wish grows stronger as one reads The Image of the King. Nevertheless the book at hand is a remarkable one and immensely readable.

Richard Ollard has devoted a great deal of his career to the seventeenth century, and Charles II appears in all of his four books. What he has written is therefore the result of the research of half a lifetime’s study and contemplation. It does not at all detract from Antonia Fraser’s biography to say that had Richard Ollard’s book appeared first she would have gained by reading it. Certainly it should not be missed by anyone interested in the Stuarts or in the personalities of Charles I and Charles II: indeed any reader will be greatly stimulated by reading it.

Ollard writes compassionately but from strong moral convictions and principles: to some extent from religious principles (although I would hasten to add not denominational in any way). Certainly he is concerned with the morality of actions and of personal relationships. Hence although he realizes and sympathizes with Charles I’s principles—his strict sexual morality, his dedication to Anglican beliefs, and his almost religious sense of the duties as well as the authority of kingship—he condemns his actions, not only his betrayal of his loyal follower Strafford, when he signed the bill of attainder leading to his death, but also his deceit, his chicanery, his devious plotting, the elasticity of his conscience (about which he prated so frequently) when he thought that the means of deceit might serve the re-establishment of his authority.

Ollard is fascinated by the image which Charles I projected of himself—through his court masques, through the Van Dyke portraits, through the Eikon Basilike, his purported spiritual auto-biography, and the final theater of death and martyrdom. And it is Ollard’s intention to show how that image has survived down the centuries as well as assessing how far it corresponds to the reality. And in this analysis are some of the wisest things that have been said about Charles I—for example, Ollard shows how indecisive, how easily dominated first by the Duke of Buckingham and then by his wife Henrietta Maria, was this man of principle.

The only fault…

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