Mr. Ackroyd continues his “History of England” series with this book, which describes the accession of the first Stuart monarch James VI and I after the death of the last Tudor, Elizabeth I. James unites the kingdoms of Scotland and England, but as a man more prone to scholarship than leadership, James has a difficult time ruling. When James first arrives in London, his foreignness combined with his bombastic, combative personality, his propensity for the luxurious and excessive, his male favorites at court (which may or may not have been his lovers), religious strife between the Catholics and Protestants, and his perpetually cash-strapped coffers set the country down a rocky path. The tales of young Charles who went incognito to woo the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain, only to be recognized and held captive by his hosts, characterizes the absurdity often portrayed by the Stuarts. Things only worsen for bumbling Charles I, who is eventually executed in the English Civil War. Ackroyd details the incredible rise of Oliver Cromwell, a virtual nobody who essentially becomes the uncrowned king of three countries. Cromwell’s government was marked by nationwide logistical improvements, including the treasury, but Cromwell’s death created a power vacuum and he was posthumously executed when Charles II regained the throne. Charles II, the “merry monarch”, rather inexplicably converts to Catholicism on his deathbed, and the book concludes with his brother James II, the final Catholic monarch ever to reign over the three counties, who is deposed in the Glorious Revolution by his daughter and son-in-law, Mary and William of Orange.
I read this book via Audible, and perhaps because of it, I found the momentum quite slow. I have listened to narrator Clive Chafer before and haven’t had any complaints. This narration, however, felt like it lumbered along. The scope of the book is enormous, and yet even so, the tale still takes off on many cultural tangents, including one chapter that goes into the masques performed at James’ court. Although it’s always interesting to get a social/cultural flavor of the times, it is easy to get lost in these long, divergent anecdotes and scramble to reconnect with the main storyline. Other non-fiction accounts (such as Kirstin Downey’s excellent “Isabella: The Warrior Queen, reviewed here) are also filled with facts but seem to flow much better than this one did. Also, so much of the book is taken up with James I, Charles I, and Cromwell, while everything that follows is squeezed into the last third of the book. I think the book would have been much more intriguing had less space been devoted to cultural background in favor of more time spent at the end of the period.
Amazon link is here.