mon 27/06/2022

Charles I: Killing a King, BBC Four review - sad stories of the death of kings | reviews, news & interviews

Charles I: Killing a King, BBC Four review - sad stories of the death of kings

Charles I: Killing a King, BBC Four review - sad stories of the death of kings

Historian Lisa Hilton's somewhat over-extended voyage round the doomed monarch

Lisa Hilton with the Executioner's Axe

This three-part series by historian Lisa Hilton is a follow-up to her previous effort from last July, Charles I: Downfall of a King (BBC Four).

That examined his disastrous fall from power, and this first new programme opened just before Christmas 1648, with the melancholy monarch incarcerated in Windsor Castle, separated from his wife and children and with only his dogs for company.

In his previous confinement at Carisbrooke, he’d been permitted to engage the services of a mistress, but now the mirthless Puritan grip had tightened around both the king and the nation. Meanwhile in London, Oliver Cromwell, triumphant on the battlefield and keen to impose his authority on the nation’s governance, was living at the Palace of Whitehall and sleeping in one of the king’s own beds.

The camera-friendly Hilton, aided by a squad of historians and legal experts – including a barrister called Harry Potter – painstakingly laid the religious, political and historical groundwork. While Cromwell and the Parliament badgered Charles to reach a negotiated settlement regarding the respective powers of Parliament and the monarchy, Charles’s unshakeable belief in his kingly Divine Right made compromise impossible (pictured below, Will O'Connell as the ill-starred sovereign).

We learned a bit about Oliver Cromwell’s “providential” thinking – since God had granted him military victory, he therefore considered it self-evident that bringing the king to trial was also God’s will. You could see how this sort of thing could cause an awful lot of trouble. Cromwell helped himself to a bit of extra self-righteous justification through a vision experienced by Elizabeth Poole, “the Abingdon prophetess”, though Poole later unhelpfully muddied the waters by reinterpreting her vision as being supportive of the king.

When it was proposed to try Charles for treason against the English realm for the carnage inflicted during the second Civil War, which had earned him the sobriquet of “a man of blood”, even anti-royalists were aghast. Indeed, pointed out Geoffrey Robertson QC, it was technically impossible for the king to have committed treason, since treason is defined as disloyalty to the Crown. Eventually a cunning lawyer came up with the idea of charging Charles with “tyranny” instead.

It’s a morbidly compelling story, and the voguish Hilton brings a Chanel-perfumed air of fashion-conscious chic to the often dowdy world of academic scholarship. Nonetheless, the narrative moved at a funereal pace, padded out with decorative landscape shots or of Hilton strolling past Windsor Castle, while the reenacted historical scenes were wooden at best. Three hours of this seems too generous by about half.


Why is the presenter not wearing protective cotton gloves when handling such old documents and books. Year1648 must be fragile and delicate.

Yes, I wondered about that too.

The programme misses the key point out about why the Army leadership believed it was correct to bring Charles to trial. This is because Charles had made a covenant with God, in which he had promised to protect the people of England. As Charles hadn't done this and had declared war on his own subjects, he had therefore broken his agreement with God. Therefore Charles couldn't claim that only God could judge him. He could no longer have the protection of God. The King's legal position had changed and the decision to put him on trial was justified.

I found this series frustrating. Whilst the subject matter is clearly important, I thought the documentary was tedious and overlong. This three part series could have been made into two, or even one. I also bristled a little bit with the rather overexerted attempts to cast this as the 17th century's Brexit crisis: people fed up, wanting to 'get something done', the (print) media bias, impending civil war. Yes, yes, yes, we get it - you want to make this relevant by casting the similarities with today. It was excessive and really wan't needed to be be so bluntly.. As for Lisa Hilton, I don't wish to sound cold, but I despair why this person presented it. Why not get an actual historian? Contrary to her own self belief Hilton is not a historian, and didn't even read History at university. I feel insulted as a historian when my discipline is downgraded with the belief that 'any Arts/Humanities graduate will do'. As this series attests to, no, they will not do. Lastly, as someone that has worked with rare books hundreds of years old, I am flabbergasted Hilton did not use cotton gloves for any of the fragile books she handled. I suppose she felt that white gloves wouldn't match her scarf....

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