David Cressy. Charles I and the People of England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Illustrations. 416 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-870829-2.
Reviewed by Jacqueline Rose (University of St Andrews)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)
Charles I has always seemed more sinner than sinned against: a king who pursued unpopular policies, who ignored or found it impossible to conceive of opposition to them, and who had a genius for making the wrong decision. This image of his reign, and that term “unpopularity,” implies that Charles’s subjects were united in their opposition to him, an assumption that sits uneasily with the overt peace of the Personal Rule in England from 1629 to 1640. The pursuit of the confessional warfare urged on Charles’s father by parliaments and preachers in the early 1620s, a reaction against the potentially socially and culturally disruptive Puritan movement, and the desire for a decent and orderly court should not in themselves have caused a civil war; each might (and did) gain the support of segments of the population. Yet in the hands of an inept monarch, these policies riled subjects; albeit the catalyst for rebellion in England came from outside, from the discontent that exploded in Scotland and Ireland, and then infected the rest of Charles’s composite monarchy.
In Charles I and the People of England, David Cressy seeks to explore reactions to and the reception of royal policy. Through consideration of musters and billeting, access and petitioning, the altar policy and the Book of Sports, he charts the ways in which the population was offended by royal policies. Although he acknowledges that some supporters could be found—those who welcomed the playing of lawful sports, to whom the beauty of holiness appealed, whose petitions were granted—the dominant tone is that of opposition. Charles might have gratified the vice-chancellor of Cambridge by granting a petition, but he then provoked the poor man’s suicide by appearing displeased at the entertainments put on for him. Most responded with hostility rather than despair. By picking sides in conflicts and by suppressing debate, Charles encouraged polarization and raised the political temperature. Even well-meant criticism met with prosecution. While these conclusions are in themselves far from new, Cressy offers a wealth of supporting examples united in a single volume. Partly pitched toward an audience outside academia, the book might be useful for undergraduates approaching the topic; more experienced scholars are likely to find interesting new examples illustrative of specific topics of interest. Cressy also couples a huge range of archival source material with an awareness of historiographical debates. He is sometimes reticent in stating his own opinion on these—perhaps too reticent, as when he declines to specify who was responsible for religious policy (p. 228).
Some of this source material raises unanswered questions. While Cressy’s first chapter surveys the varied ways in which “the people of England” might be categorized, there were a whole spectrum of individuals between the king and the populace who deserve attention. Were churchwardens, constables, parish clergy, and urban common councillors “the government” or “the people”? These were the crucial intermediaries whose mediation and adaptation of royal orders were fundamental to navigating a path between enforcement and communal harmony. Critiques combined with grudging obedience were often their hallmark attitudes, but some policies—such as that on sports—clearly created major casuistical dilemmas for such men. More information on these, or more contextualization of them in their local circumstances, would have been welcome. If the system of checking up on local enforcers tightened in the 1630s, then even the higher echelons of the governing hierarchy could have been reluctant or obstreperous: to pick an obvious example, it is strange not to find a more explicit acknowledgment of Bishop John Williams’s opposition to Laudian policy. Developing the comparisons sometimes made between parliamentary and popular complaints would also have been a useful way of linking the people’s opposition and that of the political elite, the latter of which was arguably the necessary catalyst to turn recalcitrant grumbling into constitutional revolution. Mobilization of the people is briefly surveyed in the closing chapters, but more discussion of the final decade of Charles’s life would have been helpful.
Cressy’s chronological focus on the period up to 1640 thus leaves questions about how Charles recruited a royalist side. There was a civil war because a good proportion of the people of England were willing to fight for both the monarch and the man. Charles made his healing touch available in response to popular demand in 1643 and 1648. Did he also recalibrate his kingly image after 1642, in accordance with the suggestions of the Answer to the XIX Propositions, and did this work? As Cressy demonstrates, faith in the king was slipping, and there was a de facto desacralization of royal authority by the mid-1640s. Yet the people of England overwhelmingly desired to be subjects, not citizens. Indeed, Charles’s rule over multiple peoples as well as composite kingdoms makes one wonder whether his engagement with his other peoples moved along the same paths as those of England.
While these are important questions, it nevertheless remains the case that Cressy combines archival range and fluid writing. It is helpful to have a description of royal progresses, albeit a map would have been of use—indeed, some more images would have been welcome. Cressy firmly repudiates Mark Kishlansky’s suggestion that accessibility can be charted with an odometer: travel, Cressy points out, does not equate to accessibility. This was the king who built a wall around Woodstock Park to keep his people out. While the people of England eventually breached the constitutional as well as physical barriers that Charles tried to erect, ultimately one must conclude that the fate of England rested in royal hands.
. Mark Kishlansky, “Charles I: A Case of Mistaken Identity?” Past & Present 189 (2005): 41-80, esp. 61.
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Jacqueline Rose. Review of Cressy, David, Charles I and the People of England.
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