James’ journey south was an amazing scene.
The people cheered their new King to the skies.
To James, of course, this came as no surprise:
A reigning monarch in the prime of life,
With two young sons and quite a lively wife,
Handsome, athletic (so at least said some),
He knew, by God’s decree, his time had come.

The twilight years of Elizabeth’s reign
Were rife with tricky issues: war with Spain;
Inflation; failed harvests; shortage of grain;
Relations with the Commons under strain;
Taxation; monopolies; high prices;
Crisis after economic crisis.
The old Queen’s failure (there, I’ve said it)
Was much, by contrast, to King James’ credit.

When the sad news reached him (oh, happy day!),
James set off for London without delay.
Peers and paupers rushed forward to greet him –
Gawp at him, touch him, eager to meet him.
A peaceful accession! Blessed relief!

On his way through Newark James hanged a thief.
This is true. Ignorant of English law –
In a King, I’d say, a terrible flaw –
He spotted a cut-purse filching money.
If not so tragic this might have been funny.
“String the villain up!” cried James in a fury,
Whereupon, with neither judge nor jury,
The felon was dragged to the nearest tree
And hanged on the spot. The land of the free,
Our England, hung her head in shame that day,
As James continued blithely on his way.

Perhaps to take his mind off the poor thief,
He wittily ‘knighted’ a round of beef.
“Arise, Sir Loin!” Only a bit of fun,
You understand – but James enjoyed a pun.
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Extremism sadly raised its ugly head.
There were still those Catholics who wanted James dead.
An awful plot was hatched to kill the King, his Queen,
And Henry, Prince of Wales (I ask you, how obscene).

The Palace of Westminster was the target too,
Along with all the King’s ministers. In my view,
For what it’s worth, the conspirators misjudged James,
Who was fair and just. Be that as it may. Their names:
Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Guy Fawkes
And Thomas Winter. They plotted, held secret talks,
And Catesby, their ringleader, nominated Guy
(His knowledge of explosives was the reason why)
To conceal twenty barrels of ammunition –
The best gunpowder, in tinder-dry condition
And camouflaged with faggots – in the Palace vaults.

The conspirators dispersed. All men have their faults,
With the wicked no exception. Catesby, the fool,
Recruited more rebels. Had he only kept his cool
(And his counsel), the entire course of history
Might well have been different. It’s no mystery
Why the plot miscarried. Catesby must take the blame.

One of the new recruits, Francis Trensham his name,
Gave warning to his Catholic brother-in-law
To stay away from Parliament, but forbore,
Even under pressure, to say why or wherefore.
The relative in question, one Lord Mounteagle,
Sniffed mischief and, suspecting something illegal,
Alerted the authorities. There, underground,
All set to ignite his barrels, Guy Fawkes was found.
They stretched him long upon the rack until he squealed:
Catesby, Winter, Percy – all their names he revealed.

Some of the plotters perished resisting arrest.
They were the lucky ones. Guy’s guilt was manifest.
Along with his surviving co-conspirators
He was tried, sentenced to death, then dragged out of doors
To face public execution. His severed head
Was stuck on a pike, cruel proof that he was dead.
We still commemorate the 5th of November
With fireworks and bonfires, a day to remember.
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In 1612 there also sadly died
Henry, Prince of Wales. Athletic, bright-eyed,
Slender and tall, he was only eighteen
When he breathed his last. Oh, what might have been!
King Henry the Ninth! Moral, resolute,
Intelligent, refined, and kind of cute –
Imagine, had he lived. No Civil War!
No Cromwell, regicide or martial law!

His early death shocked England to the core.
Lords and Commons, both, smelt trouble in store:
Poor ‘baby’ Charles, aged twelve, was next in line –
A sickly child, withdrawn, inclined to whine,
And something of a prig. Henry’s demise
(Alas, from typhoid) robbed us of a wise,
Good-natured, clever, promising young Prince,
Whose loss has scarred our country ever since.
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Young George was prettier even than Carr.
His sponsors, it appears, had raised the bar.
A fine painting by William Larkin
Suggests a relaxed man. His legs are thin,
But slender and lithe. He’s showing them off –
Vain and conceited, got up like a toff.

His waist, if anything, is set too high.
Yet the King was smitten. I’ll tell you why.
George was simply gorgeous, with rich brown curls,
Deep-set azure eyes – and no time for girls.
His skin was divine, and even his foes
Spoke in hushed whispers of his perfect nose.
Sent as a youth by his mother to France
To master the arts of fencing and dance,
He returned in peak condition: well toned,
Supple and athletic, fit and strong-boned.
How could poor James resist? George, unlike Carr –
Apart from being more dishy by far –
Was blessed with that rarest of things, a brain.

He swept through the Court like a hurricane.
His ascent, wrote Clarendon, was “so quick”
It “seemed rather a flight”. Some felt quite sick,
As I’m sure may readily be perceived.
The Howard faction was mightily peeved.
But Villiers wisely held back at first.
Although his rapid rise was roundly cursed,
He was well content, in the early days,
To bask in the old King’s favour and praise.

In the fastest promotion ever seen
George became ‘Sir George’ in 1614.
People predicted it would end in tears,
But no – three years on: Viscount Villiers.
The Earl of Buckingham (1618)
Was followed by Marquis. See what I mean?
By 1623 it was ‘the Duke’.
In private this earned many a rebuke,
But as Buckingham grew in influence
Few dared say so – if they had any sense.
The King even declared: “Christ had his John
“And I have my George.” And so it went on.
He showered Buckingham with gifts of cash,
Land and high office – financially rash,
But James was enthralled. In truth he was lost,
Indulging his love whatever the cost.

He even gave his darling a pet name:
‘Sweet Steenie’ – just a silly kind of game.
Buckingham in time came to call the King ‘Dad’,
Signing his letters “humble slave and dog” (sad),
While James would paw and pet him in public (bad).
Prince ‘baby’ Charles, as you can well imagine,
Was far from enamoured. Could he never win?
But Buckingham was bright and made Charles his friend,
Standing by him, when King, to the bitter end –
His own end, that is. That’s another story.
Suffice it here to say the end was gory.
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The new King, where his father could be lewd,
Was shy and strait-laced, something of a prude.
Where James could be politically shrewd,
Charles was inflexible, wilful and crude.

The old King believed in the divine right –
As did his son. But Charles was far less bright:
Defensive, resistant to compromise,
Dogmatic, proud and stubborn. In his eyes,
Parliament was just an ‘awkward squad’.
A King’s authority derived from God,
As simple as that. Too simple in fact.
Charles the First was sadly lacking in tact.
He was clumsy and over-sensitive
In the defence of his prerogative.
Any hint of doubt or opposition
Tended to feed a fatal suspicion
Of perfidy or, at worst, sedition –
A quite intolerable position.

A psychologist would have a field day.
Charles was a delicate child, slightly fey,
With a stammer that lasted all his life.
The youngest child of James and Anne, his wife,
Poor wee Charles was never born to be King.
Henry eclipsed him in everything:
His elder brother was the rising star –
Clever, athletic, destined to go far.
Charles adored Henry. He’d follow him round,
Fawning, obedient, his little hound.
At eighteen, however, the Crown Prince died.
Charles was eleven. He’s said to have cried,
Non-stop, for a month. As for James – his heir,
His best hope, was gone. It didn’t seem fair.
His second son, Charles, was sickly and short;
Henry had been tall and wizard at sport.
Charles didn’t walk till he was four years old:
He suffered from rickets, or so we’re told.
James had little time for his younger son,
Who was prim and reserved and not much fun.

Charles was deserted too by his sister.
Devoted he was. Few could resist her.
Princess Elizabeth, fair and refined,
Was the perfect sister, loving and kind.
But when Charles was just twelve, she upped and left –
Queen of Bohemia. Charles was bereft.
The double loss of sister and brother,
Coupled with the ‘problem’ of his mother
(A frivolous woman, aloof and cold,
Who’d farmed Charles out when he was two years old),
And the distant King, was a severe blow.
They were not bad parents as royals go.

When they left Scotland in 1603,
Bound for London, the infant Charles, you see,
Was unfit to travel. A frail baby,
No one was sure that he’d make the journey.
So off they sped leaving the bairn behind,
Which wasn’t considered odd or unkind.

It was not until he was nearly four
That Charles saw his parents again. Oh, lor!
Any surprise he grew up insecure?
His attachment to his siblings makes sense.
His passion for Buckingham (no offence),
Though of a different kind and degree
From his father’s, was, it appears to me,
Quite understandable. In his childhood
He suffered loss. He wept (I know I would)
But found little comfort. Now that’s not good.

You can accuse me of cynicism,
But Charles could never take criticism.
This may well be explained, in part at least,
By his repressed nature. Fear’s a strange beast,
And lack of affection can breed distrust,
Arrogance and dread. He might have survived (just)
Had he learned the subtle art of compromise.
He failed – and that’s no very great surprise.

Enough of amateur psychology.
Let’s get to grips with the chronology.

By 1613 Charles was quite alone.
Henry was dead; Elizabeth had flown.
His time, however, was hardly his own.
As well befitted an heir to the throne,
Charles’ education was a prime concern.
He was busy. There was Latin to learn,
And Greek, mathematics, theology
(The usual subjects), philosophy,
French, modern European politics,
Ethics, Italian – a heady mix.
In the visual arts the Prince acquired
A passion for paintings. He was inspired.

He also discovered with some surprise
The joys and benefits of exercise.

He’d rise with the lark and go for a run,
Then off for a cold shower. Then, for fun,
He would take his pleasure tossing the pike
Before going hunting. What was he like!
Hours he spent in the royal tiltyard,
Delighting in the sport and training hard.

All this was quite a turn up for the books,
Given his sickly start in life. His looks,
To be honest, left much to be desired.
His guts, however, were widely admired.
Charles’ grit and dogged determination
Impressed the Court as well as the nation.

For all these splendid accomplishments, though,
The Prince was frustrated. Those in the know
Regretted James’ coolness towards his son:
For all he cared, Charles could be anyone.
His appearances in public were few.
James even refused point-blank (this is true)
To allow his son and heir, now sixteen,
To visit Scotland with him. Charles was keen,
Of course. He would govern Scotland one day.
But James was stubborn and wouldn’t give way.
Charles never understood the Scots. He tried,
On this occasion at least, but James’ pride,
Folly, selfishness (call it what you will)
Did poor Charles no favours. A bitter pill
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After the stormy start to their conjugal life
These were joyous times for Charles and his loving wife.
They set about a family without delay.
In 1630, on the 29th of May,
Their first child was born – the future Charles the Second.

The birth of an heir is generally reckoned
To strengthen a monarch. To press his advantage,
Charles fathered (well above the Stuart average)
Five more royal babes in eight years – I kid you not:
Mary, James, Elizabeth, Anne and Henry. What,
You ask, could this betoken but passion for the Queen?
Nothing, for I guarantee that there has never been,
Between a King and his Consort, a more tender love
Than that of Charles and Henrietta. Heavens above,
I’m waxing sentimental and we can’t have that.
But if ever a King loved more I shall eat my hat.

The Court to Charles was England in miniature –
Ordered, respectful, hierarchical and pure,
Moral and respectable. Who could ask for more?
Safe in his royal cocoon, his throne was secure –
Highly naïve in retrospect and immature.
The country existed for seven years or so
Ill at ease, though at peace – in a sort of limbo.
Laziness and lethargy are no policy
And reap their own reward, as we shall shortly see.

The grievances of which Parliament complained
Didn’t simply disappear. Rather, they remained –
But were left to fester. Grumbles couldn’t be aired.
This was very dangerous. Puritans despaired.
Some set sail for the New World; they had lost their voice.
Others sat silently at home; they had no choice.

All Charles desired was to uphold the status quo
And to live a quiet life. As ambitions go
This was frankly pathetic. His only concern
(Apart from hunting), as far as I can discern,
Was to raise enough funds to support his household
And to restore St. Paul’s. This is what I’ve been told.
His domestic expenses increased multifold
With his burgeoning family. He didn’t care.
And the costs were quite colossal. Were you aware,
For instance, that they accounted for almost half
(Yes, half) of his income? Was he having a laugh?

Well, his Lord Treasurer didn’t find it funny.
Charles, like James, was usually short of money.
Despite his good intentions, despite peace with Spain,
Despite peace with France, the chief problem, yet again,
Was cash. He had to find the means, you understand,
But the methods he chose were deeply underhand.
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Ship money was a source of irritation.
A local tax, for the defence of the nation,
Its largely benign impact shouldn’t be ignored.
Coastal communities raised what they could afford
To build and refurbish ships to protect their shores –
Willingly contributing to the worthy cause.
The levy went back centuries and was revived
Only in times of crisis. That’s how it survived.

Charles harboured an ambition to build up the fleet.
Some vessels from his father’s time were obsolete,
Others unseaworthy. After hunting and art,
The navy was the subject closest to his heart.
Piracy was seriously damaging trade:
The town of King’s Lynn lost twenty boats in one raid.
Hardly surprisingly, in a bid to survive,
The shipbuilding levy, in 1635,
Was paid in full against little opposition.

Charles, sadly, was quick to exploit the position.
The following year saw the first imposition,
Ever, of ship money on areas inland.
This new extension, far from being underhand,
Was blatant. Ministers expressed reservations,
But Charles ignored all legal considerations.
Besides, the King argued, the precedents were clear.
A challenge in the courts? There was nothing to fear.
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Charles finally lost patience. He charged John Pym,
Arthur Haselrigg, John Hampden (remember him?),
William Strode and Denzil Holles – five members
From the Commons – and one whom no one remembers,
A single peer, Lord Kimbolton, of high treason.
“Designing war against the Crown” was the reason,
Also “subverting the rights of Parliament”
(Ironic, that) and the treasonable intent
To “deprive the King of his powers”. God forbid
That Charles should seek to arrest the five – but he did.

On January the 4th he marched to the House,
Attended by a small army. Pym had the nous
To draw the King into his web like a spider.
He took his seat in the Commons. An insider,
Pym’s spy, sent word to the Court that the five traitors
Were in their places. Various agitators
(Petitioners and the like) delayed the King,
Giving time for the accused, without hurrying,
To slip out by a side door (they’d been warned, you see)
And make their escape by riverboat. Suddenly,
With an impressive display of martial force,
The King burst into the Chamber. The birds, of course,
Had flown. Charles, seeking leave,
borrowed the Speaker’s chair,
Courteous to a fault. From his vantage point there
He excused himself for intruding as he did,
But requested to know where the traitors were hid.

Kneeling, but looking the King squarely in the eye,
Mr. Speaker Lenthall was moved to this reply.
The House was hushed. “May it please your Majesty”
(His exact words) “I have neither eyes to see
“Nor tongue to speak in this place” (he spoke calmly)
“But as this House is pleased to direct me,
“Whose servant I am here and, humbly,
“Beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give
“Any other answer than this”. Well, as I live,
Lenthall fully deserves his place in history,
Though how he kept his nerve remains a mystery.

Charles then hastily issued a proclamation
For the members’ arrest. His humiliation,
However, was assured. “Privilege!” was the cry –
“Privileges of Parliament!” Why, oh why,
Did the King act so rashly? Harangued in the street
And in danger from the mob, his shame was complete.

They even jostled his coach. Rumours abounded
Of treason and popish plots. Pym was astounded
At the sheer speed of events. The greatest surprise
Was Charles’ flight from the capital. This was unwise.
Within a week of his attempted royal coup
The King abandoned London. Of all things to do,
This was the most foolish. For the next seven years –
Of bloodshed, treachery, brutality and tears –
Charles struggled against all odds to wrest back control
Of his capital city. Pym was on a roll.
The King had surrendered, at quite enormous cost,
His seat of government. Consider what he lost:
The hub of finance, administration and trade,
Law, business and politics. Charles, I’m afraid,
Was blinkered and arrogant. Why did he do it?
I haven’t a clue, but I know that he blew it.
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In August the King wrote a stern letter
To the Earl of Essex. He had better,
Charles warned, surrender immediately
His commission in the rebel army
Upon pain of treason. Essex, of course,
Declined. So the good King got on his horse.

He rode to Nottingham. There, formally,
Attended by three troops of cavalry,
A small battalion of infantry
And six damp dogs (it was raining, you see),
He declared war. “God save the King!” they cried
(Not the dogs) as the trusty herald tried,
Against the groaning storm, to read aloud
Charles’ declaration. His standard stood proud
On Eastbrook Common until, round midnight,
The wind blew it down – a pitiful sight.

How had this come to pass? Was Charles to blame?
Though tens of thousands rallied in his name,
Conflict was hardly a necessity.
Charles was a man of rare complexity
Who craved, throughout his life, simplicity –
A cruel, sad and crowning irony.
Life he perceived in terms of black and white:
A critical rebuke, however slight,
He readily construed as treachery,
A mildly lewd remark as lechery.
A wrong could never be an oversight,
For Charles had ever to be in the right.
So challenges which in his father’s day
James would quite happily have laughed away,
Were cancers in the body politic.
By 1642 England was sick.
Parliament or King? You took your pick.
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York became the next focus of the war,
Resulting in disaster: Marston Moor.
Rupert – the Earl of Newcastle in tow,
Not a happy bunny I’ll have you know –
Was heavily outnumbered. The Prince, though,
Had orders from the King to lift the siege.

He faced three rebel armies, if you please:
Fairfax’s, Manchester’s and Lord Leven’s –
Some 30,000 men! Odds? Not evens!
Rupert had half that number. Yet in June
He marched on York and not a day too soon.
The starving people had run out of rats
And, sad to say, had begun on the cats.

The three rebel commanders (was this wise?)
Advanced to meet the Prince, quite a surprise.
This lifted the siege, to the vast relief
Of the stricken Yorkists. It’s my belief
That had this happened the other way round –
If the rebels, that is, had held their ground –
The chances are they might have won the day.
But what do I know? Be that as it may,
Prince Rupert, the first master of strategy,
Saw off the rebels, to the citizens’ glee.

What then? Charles’ instructions hadn’t been clear.
To lift the siege, of course. But then, I fear,
His orders had been vague to say the least.
Triumph can be a pretty fickle beast
And Rupert, against Newcastle’s advice –
He patronised the Earl, not very nice –
Engaged the enemy at Marston Moor,
Eight miles to the west. You may ask, what for?
Outnumbered two to one, why not just wait
For reinforcements? I’d not hesitate:
Fortify the city; call it a day.
But that, as we know, was not Rupert’s way.

He chose to take the rebels by surprise.
Newcastle was to meet him at sunrise:
He and the Earl would cut ’em down to size.
On three armies already in retreat
Their men were certain to inflict defeat:
Glorious the outcome! Victory sweet!

Little, though, worked out according to plan.
Newcastle’s forces, almost to a man,
Were hungover and, when they arrived (late),
Just one quarter of their full strength. That’s Fate.
Rupert lost the advantage of surprise,
So postponed the order to mobilise
Until the evening. He made this choice
After Lord Eythin’s influential voice
Was raised in favour of a strong defence.
Let the enemy advance. This made sense:
The Scots’ force stood overlooking the moor
From a strategic hilltop. Furthermore,
Storm clouds were gathering. In heavy rain
Attack was risky, with little to gain.

So Rupert broke for supper. Not clever.
The rebels – no warning whatsoever –
Attacked at seven. Despite his error
Rupert recovered, inflicting terror,
Death and confusion on the enemy.

His cavalry (also his infantry)
Appeared at first to be winning the day,
Till the devil arrived: “Take it away!”
Cried Oliver Cromwell, cutting a swathe
Through the royalist lines. Ruthless and brave,
His valiant horsemen (‘Ironsides’, so-called)
Were the certain victors. Rupert, appalled,
Rallied his forces again and again,
To no good effect. 3,000 were slain
That terrible day from royalist ranks –
Fewer rebels by far. Cromwell gave thanks.

The cries of the injured rent the chill night air.
They sent to Charles a message of despair.

Rupert survived. He hid in a bean field,
The shame of which was cruelly revealed
In a cartoon of the time. On the ground,
In the far right corner, lies his pet hound –
His beloved dog, Boy. He slipped his lead
To follow his master, who watched him bleed.
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The King slipped out of Oxford, in disguise,
The last week of April. Before sunrise
On the 27th, a broken man,
He slunk furtively away. Thus began
His final adventure. Charles had no plan.

Parliament, of course, now called the shots,
And yet a half-baked promise from the Scots
To treat the King with honour caught his eye –
An outside chance, perhaps, but worth a try.

Charles headed for Newark and it was here –
His motives, I confess, were far from clear –
That he ‘surrendered’ to the Scots. What for?
Perhaps he thought that having lost the war
He’d try to ‘win the peace’, divide his foes,
Exploit the tricky issues which, God knows,
Were festering within the rebel ranks.
Parliament, for instance, gave scant thanks
To the New Model Army, pay arrears
A source of great resentment it appears.
But that’s for later… As for the present,
The Scots were not pleased. They came to resent
Quite bitterly the King’s intransigence.
Frankly, to treat with him only made sense
Were Charles to sign up to the Covenant.

Yet this to him was quite inconsonant
With his deepest religious beliefs. So,
Straight back to square one. What a fiasco!
Now time for the English to have a go.

The Newcastle Propositions, so-called,
Were put to Charles, who was duly appalled:
Cede control of the armed forces for twenty years. No!
Abolish episcopacy (that old chestnut… ). No!
Become a Presbyterian (I mean, as if… ). No!
Rubber-stamp all Parliament’s ordinances. No!
To Charles these betokened one long catalogue of woe.
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On the 30th of January
Charles met his Maker. A bitter, cold day,
He dressed that morning with the utmost care.
He asked for two shirts, all too well aware
That the crowd might think that he quaked for dread.
Yet the King feared nothing. To lose one’s head?
A trifle! Standing upon the scaffold,
Charles looked about him (he wasn’t blindfold)
And addressed his subjects for one last time.
He’d caused no offence, committed no crime.
He was dying for justice and for liberty,
In defiance of arbitrary tyranny.

Few of the people, alas, heard his speech.
They were blocked by the guards and out of reach.
But Charles lost his stammer (there’s a strange thing) –
A patient, relaxed and submissive King.

He observed that the block was just too low.
He couldn’t kneel. Did this upset him? No.
He resolved, as he must, to lie quite flat,
His arms out sideways, as simple as that.

His hair he tucked tightly into his cap –
Charles, to the end, was a finicky chap.
He desired no obstruction. One swift blow,
One strike, was the way he wanted to go.

The axe fell. The crowd let out a groan.
The deed was done. England stood alone.
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