Linda Porter on why she’s happy to leave the sixteenth century behind.
Last year I appeared in two programmes in the Channel Five ‘Last Days’ series, talking about Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I. Much of my contribution on Mary was eventually edited out because it did not fit the overall ‘well, she was a hopeless nitwit’ view of most of the other contributors. Subtlety of historical analysis often plays second fiddle to talking heads desperate to promote themselves once placed in front of a camera. I had actually felt less secure talking about Charles I as I had not finished my book about the experiences of his children during the Civil Wars but, strangely, the end result was, I thought, much stronger. And it was just after I had finished filming my bit that I met the actor and writer Mark Gatiss, who was scheduled to be interviewed after me.
I had written three books on the Tudor period and he had played the irascible churchman Stephen Gardiner in Wolf Hall (as well as Oliver Cromwell on stage) but we agreed that the national obsession with the Tudors was mind-boggling. He said he could not understand the continued fascination of ‘a fat king and his six wives.’ Neither can I. So, having had enough of it, I was delighted to move on to the Civil Wars, a period I specialised in at university. But I am still puzzled as to why this pivotal period of our history does not capture the popular imagination in the way that the fat king does.
The battles are, of course, remembered in the re-enactments of the Sealed Knot and Oliver Cromwell, the nemesis of the Stuarts, remains, in the words of John Morrill in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘one of the most contended of Englishmen.’ Yet few people now, watching the colourful fights of ‘Cavaliers and Roundheads’, appreciate the nature of the crisis that tore the British Isles apart in the 1640s or know much about Charles I, other than that he was executed.
This extraordinarily rich period, which introduced many of the ideas by which we think we would like to live today, such as freedom of thought, religious toleration and inclusion of everyone in the political sphere, is in danger of becoming lost to several generations brought up on the Tudors and the First World War. It has a direct link, through the republican tradition that was taken to the American colonies by Commonwealthsmen fleeing the retribution of the Restoration, with the American and French Revolutions and thence the modern world. Although contemporaries, seeing the apparent overthrow of their ideals and the return of a privileged class of rulers, might have agreed with John Dryden’s cynical comment that ‘thy wars brought about nothing’ the longer view scarcely supports this. The English had put their king on trial for treason and found him guilty. In his last speech he reiterated the belief that had ultimately cost him his life: ‘a subject and a sovereign are clean different things.’ Nothing could ever be quite the same again.
The seventeenth century, with the notable exception of Charles II’s libidinous court, is often viewed as a dull time. After all, wasn’t it Oliver Cromwell who abolished Christmas? The answer is no; the suppression of the celebration of Christmas and the closure of theatres was ordered by the Presbyterian majority in Parliament in 1647, a group with whom the army and Cromwell were increasingly at odds. It is true that both Charles I and Cromwell led exemplary personal lives and were very much family men, which means there is no procession of queens or mistresses to engage the interest of a wider audience. Cromwellian London, however, was certainly not boring. It was a hotbed of spies and informers, as fictionalised in SG MacLean’s fine historical crime novel, The Seeker, and it remained still the place to see and be seen. The teenage Barbara Villiers, soon to become notorious as Lady Castlemaine, the greedy but fertile mistress of Charles II, started an affair with the earl of Chesterfield at the height of the Protectorate and exchanged erotic letters with him. London was where they wanted to be.
I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing my latest book, Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars and hope it may introduce a wider readership to this wonderful period. I have no regrets about leaving the 16th century behind, except, perhaps, that I found 16th century historians, by and large, a congenial and collegiate bunch. The Civil Wars have, for the most part, been the preserve of male historians who do not, rightly or wrongly, enjoy quite the same reputation. I do not expect rave reviews from some of the specialists, though it would be nice to be proved wrong about this. Meanwhile, it seems it may never be possible to escape the Tudors entirely. I am due to give a paper on Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise at a conference to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Mary Tudor’s birth and I’ve been working as the historical consultant on the major new BBC1 series, Lucy Worsley’s Six Wives, which will be broadcast this autumn. Something of a case of déjà vu.