Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd

Those whacky Stuarts. When the Tudor line died out with Elizabeth I, Scotland’s James VI succeeded Good Queen Bess as James I of England. And what a sharp contrast he was from the “Virgin Queen.” For starters, he was a big fan of “the divine right of kings” as opposed to Elizabeth’s largely collaborative rule. Thus Peter Ackroyd continues his history of England with Rebellion, which recounts how the Stuarts managed to squander four and a half decades of goodwill built up by Elizabeth in favor of autocratic rule. It would result in England being a republic for 11 years and the overthrow of two kings.

Ackroyd makes clear the religion of England proved to be the undoing of the Stuarts. James I, already having ruled Scotland with the Presbyterians holding sway, was the most tolerant of the Stuart kings, James I the most defiant. Yet the Church of England, other reformed branches of Christianity, and Roman Catholicism (or “popery!” the common epithet) really proved to be a mask for the real battle. Under Elizabeth I, Parliament enjoyed a freer hand in ruling the country than it had under her sister Mary or father, Henry VIII. Ackroyd, however, reveals how Parliament became the Stuarts’ nemesis and even the architects of their first and second downfall.

But Ackroyd also gives us a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector who almost became king in his own right. He rejected the crown stating that he was a military leader and not a sovereign. Ackroyd shows him treated like one in all but name. However, in this narrative, his son Richard is almost a non-entity, and it’s hardly surprising when Charles II returns from exile and strolls onto the throne, asserting, like his grandfather, the divine right of kings. Of all the Stuarts, Charles II is the most successful prior to his nieces’ reigns after the Glorious Revolution. He is an unabashed autocrat and philanderer and gleefully indulges in Restoration drama and music, which is some of the bawdiest in English history prior to the twentieth century. (Some of it would make Patsy and Edina blush.) The people loved him through most of his reign, and a movement to put his bastard son Lord Monmouth on the throne as successor resulted.

Instead, England was treated to Charles I’s other son, James II. Not only was James a stubborn, unlikeable man, but he committed the cardinal sin of converting to “popery” in an age when England wanted nothing to do with the Pope.

Ackroyd stops at the “Glorious Revolution,” when James’s Protestant daughter Mary II is elevated to queen alongside her husband (and first cousin) William III, prince in the nearby republic of The Netherlands. It is under William and Mary and Mary’s sister Anne that England and Scotland become modern parliamentary monarchies and merge into Great Britain. He doesn’t cover that part because the age of the Stuarts and Cromwell are some of the most unstable years in English history.

It’s a wonder the country made it into the 18th century intact. Even the American colonies at this early stage were ready to bolt.

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