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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

“Charles II: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland”, by Ronald Hutton

568 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0198229117

Charles II: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland is an in-depth narration of Charles II and his travels and travails in the 1650s and through the tortuous machinations of Restoration politics. The book’s strengths are many: 1st, it is supported by a range of archival research that is uncommon in historical biography and that is used to excellent effect; 2nd, it is a rich and full account of Charles’ life and career during the Interregnum; 3rd, it is a bold attempt to write about the problems of multiple kingship over three very different realms. It is, then, an overwhelmingly detailed yet entertaining book and has much to teach the student and scholar alike. Not that it is not without its flaws; the attempt to keep the story moving occasionally leads to some oversimplifications of complex issues, such as the account of the Worcester House Declaration, or the Savoy Conference, or the build-up to the Exclusion Crisis, or the arguing away of the evidence for Charles’ dalliance with Roman Catholicism. Also, while Hutton obviously knows his stuff, he is evidently incapable of even courteous debate with those whose interpretations differ from his own, thus creating a discourtesy to his readers which he is seeking to avoid in his dealings with colleagues (as an example, see the remarkable footnote spanning pages 496-7. Ouch).

For all that, this rich and satisfying life and times, which does so much to illuminate the history of the period, leaves Charles II as a living, breathing, human being, though surprisingly fuzzy. We understand his predicaments and his responses to individual issues, but the deeper, inner drives remain surprisingly unclear. Charles gives the book its shape and purpose, but he is more catalyst than principal. This deeply private king who disguised himself as successfully from his biographers as his father has. The diffident, rather grudging, conclusion confirms that limitation on Hutton’s achievement. His book avoids the indulgence of some biographers and the moral prurience of others, but it makes sense of Good King Charles’ Golden Days without quite making sense of Good King Charles.

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