The British Revolution of the 17th Century, which resulted in the death of Charles I and the exile of his son, the subject of this book, was the most successful attack on the British throne to date. But we all know this right? Everyone took World Civ in high school. Author Anna Keay gives us at least that much credit.
The Magnificent Monarch is intended as a complement to rather than a replacement for a traditional history of the era. Through this book, she successfully provides a new motivation for Charles II’s insistence on what we would call luxury: he had to convince others that he was the king. This thematic history, while organized chronologically, goes back over several key events repeatedly, which makes me think that each chapter was written at separate times. Keay admits that the book grew out of her work toward her PhD at Oxford, and it reads a little like a thesis. Fifteen examples are used where a mere fourteen would have gotten the point across.
Yet, the repetitiveness of the book suits the content. The daily ceremonies of Charles’ life, including dining, religion, and access to his bedchamber, were not one time events, but details that gain significance in their repeated performance. Through these actions, one begins to see Charles as a man desperate to regain power, aligning himself with ideas that were politically expedient, such as listening to the litany of accusation against his ancestors in order to be declared king by the Scots, or aligning himself with the Anglican Church and Christ, emphasizing his right to rule by performing the Maundy and touching for scrofula or the “king’s evil”. Throughout, Charles uses a system of rules that was intended to limit his power to extend it, most notably by calling Parliament and dismissing them until he got one that would do what he wanted, then refusing to call them again.
Through this repetition, a life is created. I am reminded of Steven Ozment’s Magdalena And Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait , which contains the letters of a 16th Nuremberg merchant and his wife. Both books have a humanity to them that is often missing from history texts. While wars and acts of great men cannot be ignored, to get a real feeling for the age, one has to see the details of a life, to see what people ate, what they wore, and how they had extra-marital affairs.
While this book seeks to elevate Charles II, it also makes him more human, so that at his deathbed when well-intended doctors perform medical practices that make leeches seem like a good idea (anyone want their scalp scalded?), the reader feels a genuine sympathy for him as a man who worked his whole life to build something, only to be cut down by illness. The small section on his deathbed conversion to Catholicism is a touching display of how his national and familial duties were often at odds, and how at the end, he was free to do what his family wanted.
An examination of this type makes one wonder how much of Charles’ time was actually spent governing, since he seemed to spend so much time eating alone, washing feet, and going to chapel. It’s clear that the majesty of the throne plays a part in international relations.
The way dignitaries were treated reflected the relationship between countries, and a slight in courtesy could be construed as an act of war. But because so much of Charles time was devoted to making sure the monarchy stayed in place, one wonders why not let it go? This question was asked in the 2006 film The Queen. I can’t remember the movie’s estimate, but according to an article in the Telegraph, the figure is 40 million pounds per year, or 66 pence, about the price of an iTunes download.
To the majority of readers commenting on this article, the monarchy is definitely worth it. They point to the cost of incarcerating a murder or worse, having a president. Taxpayers are thus able to maintain a national identity as the torchbearers of civilization, the keepers of a foundation myth of that credits Trojan settlers for the nation’s creation. Even the fictional Tony Blair in The Queen recognizes the importance of the monarch in retaining the dignity of the nation.
So while a contemporary American audience might at first find all of Charles’ foot-washing and garter-wearing a little silly and more than a little classist, we should remember how the supposedly classless society on our side of the pond is turning out, and thank Charles II for keeping a little decorum in the English-speaking world. That’s worth a download a year.
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