Book reviews: Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars by Linda Porter

Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars byLinda Porter
Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars byLinda Porter

When King Charles I was executed in January 1649, it ended seven years of bitter civil war and led to a new era of English parliamentary government.

Just eleven years after his father’s death, Charles II was famously restored to the throne and the Stuarts continued to reign for another 42 years.

But the young Charles had five siblings when his father met his fate on the executioner’s block at the Palace of Whitehall on a freezing cold January afternoon. Two of them, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Henry, had been permitted to visit him the day before to bid him a tearful farewell.

What became of this royal brood and the impact on their lives of civil war and their father’s execution is an overlooked aspect of this momentous period of British history and one that award-winning biographer Linda Porter takes up with relish in this fascinating, immensely human and immaculately researched account.

Her vivid story reveals a remarkably loving and secure royal family torn apart by war, death, separation and dislocation whilst shedding new light on the diverse personalities of the doomed king’s heirs and uncovering a legacy of feuds and rivalries that scarred their adult lives.

The seeds of Charles I’s demise were sown when the Protestant king married Henrietta Maria, a ‘sweet and humble’ French princess with a determined streak whose unwavering observance of her Catholic religion made her not just unpopular but a potent and disruptive force that would dangerously impact on her relationship with Charles, their family and English politics.

In comparison to other monarchs, Charles and Henrietta Maria were affectionate and attentive parents to their six children who included Mary, Princess Royal and later Princess of Orange, James, Duke of York and later King James II, Princess Elizabeth, who died aged just 14, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who died when he was 20, and Henrietta (known as Minette), later the Duchess of Orléans.

Each of the children had a staff of their own and their parents regularly walked and talked with them and took an interest in their educational progress. Their development and maturity was movingly recorded by regular sittings with the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, the leading court painter in England.

And yet Charles I was determined to use his children to demonstrate his majesty and power and to reinforce the image of Stuart kingship. He was a stickler for protocol and was keen to ensure his children knew how to behave in public whether that was at audiences with visiting diplomats or at Whitehall entertainments.

By 1640, storm clouds were gathering and the king was trying to impose his will on a realm increasingly fractured by religious differences and constitutional debate.

And when their calm family life was shattered by civil war, Elizabeth and Henry were used as pawns in the parliamentary campaign against their father and Mary, the Princess Royal, was whisked away to the Netherlands, a country she could never settle in, as the child bride of the womanising Prince of Orange.

Minette’s redoubtable governess escaped with the king’s youngest child to France where she grew up under her mother’s thumb and was married to the cruel and flamboyant Philippe d’Orleans, brother of French King Louis XIV.

And when their ‘dark and ugly’ brother Charles eventually succeeded his father to the English throne after 14 years of nomadic exile, he promptly enacted a vengeful punishment on those who had spurned his family, with his brother James firmly in his shadow.

The world had changed beyond recognition for the five surviving siblings of Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, with their lives as severely affected by a series of tumultuous events as the humblest of their father’s subjects.

Their story of love and endurance, of battles and flight, of the personal and the political, of the lonely death of a young princess and the wearisome experience of exile lies at the heart of Royal Renegades.

Written with emotional insight, historical accuracy and Porter’s observant eye for the small details that bring people and the past to life, this is a refreshing new perspective on both Charles I’s family and one of the most turbulent periods of English history.

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)