Although no three men could look less alike, short, graceful Charles I of England, fat, lumbering Louis XVI of France and shy, bearded Nicholas II of Russia had a lot in common.
All three men were kindly, generous and of excellent private character. Unfortunately, all three were cursed with a fatal blend of obstinacy and indecision that rendered them incapable of commanding events in turbulent times. And each one of them was married to a foreign wife whose unpopularity with the mob was cynically exploited by his political foes.
Although denounced as tyrants, it was their very lack of ruthlessness and their reluctance to shed innocent blood that contributed to their downfalls. And, in all three cases, their deaths led to far bloodier - and more bloody-minded - usurpers taking their places.
Nicholas was murdered by the Bolsheviks, who created a terror-based, atheist state that made the old Russian empire seem gentle by comparison; Louis was judicially murdered by the men who would put the terror into the "Reign of Terror" and Charles' regicides, after quarreling among themselves, ended up with a grim military dictatorship headed by Oliver Cromwell, a sanctimonious, intolerant religious fanatic far more bigoted and bullying than the man he had helped to behead.
Readers already familiar with the sad story of Charles I - a good man who simply wasn't up to his job when faced with ruthless, unscrupulous opposition - will not find much that is new in Leanda de Lisle's "The White King." But she tells her story well and paints a sympathetic though historically balanced portrait of a failed but heroic protagonist, the "Royal Martyr" whose posthumous legend proved far more powerful than he had ever been in life.
So much so that it was in large part responsible for the restoration of the monarchy, in the person of his son Charles II in 1660, 11 years after his execution.
Charles II, rightly remembered as the "Merry Monarch," had learned the ropes as a hunted, impoverished exile while Cromwell ruled the so-called English Commonwealth as Lord Protector, succeeded briefly by his hapless son, Richard. Cynical, clever, street-smart and adulterous on a monumental scale, Charles II was everything his father wasn't and nothing that his father was.
And he left his mark accordingly. In 1984, while visiting London and staying at the Reform Club, a friend introduced me to a tall, jauntily mustachioed old aristocrat who reminded me of one of the portraits I had written about in a piece on Restoration England a few years earlier. The resemblance to the portrait turned out to be more than coincidental.
The dapper old gent was Charles, Duke of St. Albans and a direct descendant of the illegitimate son that pretty Nell Gwyn, a lady of the night turned actress, had borne Charles II - 13 generations earlier. Like his royal ancestor, the 13th duke had spent some of his lifetime abroad, though much more comfortably as a tax exile in Monte Carlo. Charles I would not have been amused, but Charles II almost certainly would have been.
While the Merry Monarch proved that living well can be the best revenge, his martyred father proved that it can also be true of dying well. At the conclusion of his trial, when his judges tried to silence him, Charles I's final words were prophetic: "I am suffered not to speak. Expect what justice other people will have."
And, moments before his execution, which he faced with a calm, dignified courage, he declared, "I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown where no disturbance can be."
All of it had been foreseen by perhaps the most gallant and prescient of Charles' supporters in the Scottish half of his realm. In researching an article on the poet, soldier and statesman Duke of Montrose for "History Today" in the early 1970s, I came across this remarkable prophecy, addressed to the common people of Scotland by Montrose when he declared his support for the King:
"[W]hen the monarchial government is shaken, the great ones strive for the garland with your blood and your fortune [until] the kingdom fall[s] again into the hands of One, who of necessity must and for reasons of state will, tyrannize over you. For kingdoms acquired by blood and violence are by the same means retained."
A decade later, Oliver Cromwell would emerge as the brutal dictator of all England, Scotland and Ireland.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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THE WHITE KING: CHARLES I, TRAITOR, MURDERER, MARTYR
By Leanda de Lisle
Public Affairs, $30, 401 pages