A recording from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018
Lauded by his friends, condemned by his enemies, remembered as a failed king, Charles I remains an elusive figure. Highly acclaimed author Leanda de Lisle uncovers a king who was radical, principled and brave, but also fatally blinkered, and who was loyally supported by his beloved wife, Henrietta Maria, a warrior queen and political player as impressive as any Tudor consort.

Henrietta Maria – The lost letters of Britain’s last Warrior Queen

Best selling historian Leanda de Lisle talks about Henrietta Maria of France, queen consort of England, Scotland, and Ireland and loyal wife of King Charles I.

Leanda de Lisle is the highly acclaimed author of three books on the Tudors and Stuarts, including the bestselling The Sisters Who Would Be Queen and Tudor: The Family Story. A former weekly columnist on the Spectator, Guardian and Daily Express, she contributes to numerous national publications.

Leanda will be speaking about the White King at Chalke Valley History Festival on Saturday 30th June about the WHITE KING: CHARLES I – TRAITOR, MURDERER, MARTYR. Tickets are available here.


Myth has an insidious way of working into way into history. Stories that ring true, that appeal to our prejudices, become ‘fact’. Sometimes they are rooted in contemporary propaganda, the old lies giving a veneer of respectability to the new.  But they are also nurtured by attitudes hard-wired into us over centuries.

In my Tudor books I described how our patterns of thought have distorted the reputations of historical figures, particularly women. But in the case of my latest book, White King, a biography of Charles I, there was still more to do. The character of the king and the women around him have been so maligned that readers have turned away from one the most dramatic reigns in British history: a tale of court glamour and political populism, of misogyny and religious violence, that speaks to our time.

The title of this book – White King – is drawn from a sobriquet used by Charles’s contemporaries, and was inspired by the story that he was crowned in white. It is a sobriquet that is unfamiliar today. I hope it inspires curiosity and encourages readers to approach the biography of this damned monarch with an open mind.

Charles the Martyr, and Charles the Murderer, lauded by his friends, and condemned by his enemies, is now largely forgotten, but in popular memory something just as extreme remains. He is pinned to the pages of history as a failed king, executed at the hands of his own subjects, and now preserved like some exotic, but desiccated insect. In many accounts it seems that Charles was doomed almost from birth, his character immutable.

We like to believe we have turned our back on our old prejudices, but the way we remember him shows they lie just below the surface, still influencing the way we think.

In the past disabilities were seen as marks of man’s fallen nature. The twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III was an outward sign of a twisted soul. We still use the same shorthand (think of the disfigured Dr Poison in the current film Wonder Woman). And it is common for Charles’s fate to be read back into the physical difficulties of his early childhood, as if his weak legs were physical manifestations of weakness of character.

The determination and resilience Charles showed in overcoming his disability, emerging as an athletic adult, is surely more interesting. But instead of the narrative of a courageous survivor we are told childhood stories that predict only failure.

Notable is the story that when Charles was badly behaved, his father, King James, insisted that another child – a boy called Will Murray – was beaten. The tale of the whipping boy even appears under Murray’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is an important work of record.

Yet the first reference to Charles’s whipping boy dates to over seventy years after his death, in Gilbert Burnet’s ‘History of my Own Times’. There is an earlier reference, dating to only six years after Charles’s death, to the Tudor King Edward VI having a whipping boy. But there is no contemporary evidence for this either. Indeed the very earliest reference to any whipping boy (that I have found) appears in Samuel Rowley’s Jacobean play ‘When you see me, You know Me’ in which Henry VIII has a ‘whipping boy’, ‘Browne’.

The play was written the aftermath to the English publication of King James’s tracts on divine right kingship, with their assertion that no subject could legitimately raise their hand against God’s anointed – and this is the true origin of the myth. It has been accepted by repetition and because it fits the script that Charles alone was responsible for the suffering of the civil wars.

From the sickly child, for whose failings others were punished, the traditional story then has Charles maturing into an effete adult. There is little hint of the virility a king who sired a brood of children Henry VIII could only have envied. Indeed, the happiness of Charles’s marriage is grist to the mill.

In the early modern period, ‘effeminate’ was not a term of abuse for homosexuals. It described men who enjoyed female company. This attitude remains evident in the vogue for the ‘bromance’, with its philosophy of ‘bros before hoes’, and was expressed succinctly by the character in the movie Layer Cake who observes,  ‘f****** females is for poofs’.  Charles is judged less than a man because he loved his wife, and her reputation is itself shaped by misogyny as well as the anti-Catholic attitudes that are almost in British DNA.

Since Eve, women have supposedly seduced men into evil. So (according to the propaganda of their enemies) Henrietta Maria, persuaded Charles to become a Euro-Catholic-tyrant in Protestant, parliamentary, Britain, and sets him on the path to ruin. This propaganda is still embraced as fact and even inflated. In biographies of Henrietta Maria it sometimes seems she is never allowed to grow up from the child bride of 1625. She is depicted as silly and petulant, a reflection of the belief, drawn from ancient Greece, that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. The word ‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek word hersterika for uterus, the source, supposedly of women’s extreme and uncontrollable mood swings.

Conversely in appearance she is painted as the crone, even when only a bride of fifteen.  Contemporary comment on Henrietta Maria’s appearance in middle age, when she was sick and traumatized, is taken out of time and context and used to describe her when young, so that the beauty of her youth vanishes, as if it was only ever a witch’s spell that masked the hag ( for behind the seductive Eve lies the serpent). In one book published in 2017 the teenage Henrietta Maria is described with teeth ‘protruding like javelins from a fortress’, and her arms withered. That Charles would listen to a woman so worthless is another reason to despise him.

Yet Charles was a passionate Protestant, and the real Henrietta Maria a ‘lovely’ girl, with a ‘brilliant mind’, who rode with her own armies and proved every bit as remarkable as any of Henry VIII’s wives.

White King does not seek to restore Charles to the pedestal of the peoples martyr some placed him on after his death, but to rediscover the man of flesh and blood, to place him in the context of his times and amongst his contemporaries – the women who led events, along with the men. Principled and brave but also flawed, Charles inspired both great hate and great loyalty, and died on a scaffold loved in a way his son, the merry cynical Charles II would never be. In the truth lies his tragedy, and in myths we see only ourselves.

An edited version of this appeared in Waterstones earlier this year

Leanda de Lisle is the highly acclaimed author of three books on the Tudors and Stuarts, including the bestselling The Sisters Who Would Be Queen and Tudor: The Family Story. A former weekly columnist on the Spectator, Guardian and Daily Express, she contributes to numerous national publications.

Leanda will be speaking about the White King at Chalke Valley History Festival on Saturday 30th June. Tickets are available here.

Anne Boleyn’s last secret

Why was the queen executed with a sword, rather than an axe?

Anne Boleyn's SecretWith his wife, Anne Boleyn, in the Tower, Henry VIII considered every detail of her coming death, poring over plans for the scaffold. As he did so he made a unique decision. Anne, alone among all victims of the Tudors, was to be beheaded with a sword and not the traditional axe. The question that has, until now, remained unanswered is — why?

Historians have suggested that Henry chose the sword because Anne had spent time in France, where the nobility were executed this way, or because it offered a more dignified end. But Henry did not care about Anne’s feelings. Anne was told she was to be beheaded on the morning of 18 May, and then kept waiting until noon before being told she was to die the next day. At the root of Henry’s decision was Henry thinking not about Anne, but about himself.

When Henry VIII fell in love with Anne in 1526, he represented an ideal of chivalric kingship come to life: handsome, pious and martial. In Europe it was said ‘his great nobleness and fame’ was ‘greater than any Prince since King Arthur’. There could have been no greater compliment for Henry: Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was woven into the Tudor family myths. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, had claimed the Welsh bloodline of the Tudors made them the heirs to King Arthur. He even gave the name to his eldest son. Only when the boy died, shortly after being married to Catherine of Aragon, did Henry VII lose his enthusiasm for the Arthurian myths. Henry VIII turned to them again.

In 1516 Henry VIII had the round table which still hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, and which it was believed dated back to Camelot, painted with the figure of Arthur bearing Henry’s features under an Imperial crown. It was Henry’s belief that England was, historically, an empire, and he Arthur’s heir, that later became the basis for his claim to an imperium — command — over church as well as state. It justified the break with Rome and the Pope that allowed him to marry Anne in 1533.

But, like Catherine of Aragon, Anne failed to give Henry the son he wanted, and when she miscarried in January 1536, he lost hope that she would. He began complaining that Anne had seduced him into marrying her — an accusation carrying suggestions of witchcraft — and he showed a growing interest in her maid of honour, Jane Seymour.

Dissolving the marriage to Anne was a complex issue for Henry, who feared it would re-confirm ‘the authority of the Pope’. But Anne was also making an enemy of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, with whom she quarrelled over the burning issue of what to do with the money raised from the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne hoped to see the money go to charitable enterprises, while Cromwell intended to pour it into the king’s pocket.

On 2 April, the chaplain in charge of Anne’s charitable giving delivered a sermon at court that suggested a comparison between Cromwell and a character from the bible called Haman, the corrupt minister of an Old Testament king. The sermon noted threateningly that Haman had died on the scaffold. Anne’s anger with Henry was also evident during these weeks. Her brother, George, had let slip that she had complained Henry had ‘neither talent nor vigour’ in bed. Some wondered if she had a lover, a view encouraged by her sometimes outrageous flirting — and it was to be this that triggered her downfall.

On Saturday 28 April, when the king’s body servant Sir Henry Norris came to her household, Anne asked him why he had not yet married the maid of honour he kept visiting. When Norris shrugged that he preferred to ‘tarry a time’, Anne joked: ‘You look for dead men’s shoes, for if ought came to the king but good, you would look to have me.’ Imagining the death of the king was a treasonous offence, and Norris replied, aghast, that ‘if he should have any such thought, he would [wish] his head were off’.

The next day a young court musician called Mark Smeaton, who had been seen moping after Anne earlier on the Saturday, was taken secretly to Cromwell’s house for questioning. Anne’s conversation with Norris gave Cromwell a means of accusing her of treason. But Norris was unlikely to confess to adultery and so make a charge of plotting the king’s murder plausible. A weaker man was required if Anne’s chastity was to be besmirched — and Smeaton was to fill that role. Before that evening Henry had learned that Smeaton had confessed to adultery with the queen. He postponed, but did not cancel, a trip he had planned to take with Anne to Calais in June. He could not be certain what else Cromwell might uncover. The next morning, May Day 1536, he attended a joust with Anne at Greenwich Palace. As the tournament ended, a message was passed to the king. Abruptly, he rose from his seat and left for Westminster by horse, taking a handful of attendants. Norris was called to join him, while an astonished Anne was left to oversee the closing of the competition.

As the king’s party rode off, Henry asked Norris if he had committed adultery with the queen, offering to pardon him if he confessed. Norris, a fellow member of the Order of the Garter, Henry’s equivalent of the knights of the round table, found himself cast in the role of Lancelot to Anne’s Guinevere. He desperately asserted his innocence. It did him no good. He joined Smeaton in the Tower that night. Anne was taken there the following day along with her brother, accused of adultery with his sister. Two further courtiers would be convicted at trial of plotting Henry’s death with the queen.

As Henry’s sexual inadequacies were paraded during the trials, he responded by advertising his virility, staying out all hours, banqueting with beautiful girls. In private, however, he comforted himself in a different way, obsessing over the details of Anne’s coming death. In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Guinevere was sentenced to death by burning. Henry decided Anne would be beheaded with a sword — the symbol of Camelot, of a rightful king, and of masculinity. Historians argue over whether Anne was really guilty of adultery, and whether Henry or Cromwell was more responsible for her destruction. But the choice of a sword to kill Anne reflects one certain fact: Henry’s overweening vanity and self-righteousness.

‘I heard say the executioner was very good and I have but a little neck,’ Anne said the day before her execution, and laughing, she put her hands round her throat. It was, at least, to be a quick death: her head fell with one blow, her eyes and lips still moving as it landed on the straw.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 August 2013

leanda-delisleAcclaimed author, Leanda de Lisle will be speaking at CVHF on 25th June 2014 –  Tudor: The Family Story.

Looking at the Tudor dynasty from before the Wars of the Roses up to the death of Elizabeth I, she will present new perspectives on key figures and show a family who will stop at nothing to secure and protect their own bloodline.

The Family Story is published in paperback on 5 June 2014 by Vintage (£9.99)