Leanda de Lisle: In Conversation
Leanda de Lisle is a journalist and best-selling author on Tudor history. Her latest book, White King: The Tragedy of Charles I, was published earlier this year, and we were lucky enough to talk to her about it, the Tudors and Stuarts, and the relevancy of history at the Chalke Valley History Festival.
Apart from After Elizabeth, this is the first time you've strayed from the Tudors into the realm of the Stuarts; how did you enjoy writing about Charles I?
I have done more on the Tudors, but I was keen to write about Charles because I have always been very interested in him. As a teenager I really enjoyed CV Wedgwood's books, The King's Peace, The King's War, and The King's Trial.
The biography was an absolute nightmare when I started to write it, and I remember thinking to myself ‘I can see why there are not many biographies of Charles out there’. There's so much ground to cover, and of course you want to write a book that's easy to read and fun to read. So the work is not only the research, which is actually fun in many ways, but also in writing an engaging story that doesn't cheat the reader either. There’s the serious stuff and the heavy stuff, but you don't want it reading like a lecture or an A-Level essay; you want an exciting narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. history and combining those two things is often the difficult part.
Do you prefer writing about the Tudors or do you prefer writing about Stuarts?
I have to confess that currently I prefer writing about the Stuarts. I know that the public are still completely fascinated by the Tudors and understandably so - the Tudors are very, very interesting - but I wish they would have a look at the Stuarts. Probably my next book will be a Stuart book, although I think if my agent had her way she would like to direct me again at the Tudors as an easier sell. But I think it's just a matter of time before the public discovers the Stuarts. They are fascinating and incredible: wonderful stories, wonderful people to read about, and actually there are lots of things which are very relevant and fascinating for our own time. I think we live in a slightly dangerous moment; people are becoming quite split and divided. Brexit has really divided this country down the middle: families, friends, it's a subject you cannot discuss at dinner. And you see populist politicians, the rise of populist political parties: Italy, the United States, here. You see politics coming out in quite an unpleasant way in social media, with attacks on female politicians in particular. All these things are in this book, White King: populist politicians, the print media of the time and the way that it was used, and, of course, the split in the country. It's a very relevant story.
Tell me a bit more about the research process; you discovered new letters?
Yes, I was very lucky. I found new letters in various places but in particular in the archives at Belvoir Castle. I was very lucky to be given access to them: they are the greatest private collection of Civil War papers in the world and they are closed. There is an enormous amount of material in there, and so I had to choose what to focus on then and what other things I might focus on later. But with this book, I focused on getting out as many royal letters as I could that hadn't been published before, and which I thought would be interesting for readers.
You focus quite a bit on Stuart ladies like Henrietta Maria. Was that deliberate or were you led by the research material?
Funnily enough, I remember when I was young being told women like reading about women, but I was never one of those women. I thought 'really, I'd rather read about interesting people', and often interesting people were men. But actually I now realise women have been very short changed, and in fact there are lots of fascinating women out there. These Stuart women are amazing; Henrietta Maria, for example, is very interesting. I actually had to be quite careful not to get too distracted by her because she was such a powerful personality and such an extraordinary figure before, during, and after the Civil War. And she is not the only woman who is amazing. Lucy Countess of Carlisle, who was an incredibly powerful political figure, spy, and networker, was really very important politically throughout Charles' reign, and I enjoyed bringing that forward. And I do think one of the reasons that the Stuart period isn't as popular with readers as the Tudor period is that it's perceived to be a very masculine story, all about slightly warty-faced soldiers and long-haired men in top boots, whereas in life there were both men and women in the seventeenth century, as there are in the twenty-first century.
Your sympathy for Charles the person comes across well in the book. Did you find it difficult to write a biography?
It was difficult, as he's very opaque. It took a long time to get to know him and get a handle on him. There's something slightly autistic about Charles, about the way he couldn’t read people and situations, and so it also makes him difficult to read. But it was important to do so because I think another reason why people have been more into the Tudors is that they've been much more lively. I think it's important to bring Charles the man back to life, to show his humanity and that he was someone we might now recognise. You may not agree with everything he does or says, but you can see that he's basically a decent person, and you can have some sympathy and interest. And you can see the tragedy of his life and his times. He was someone who was essentially gentle and who disliked shedding blood. But he ended up being king at a time of civil war, where Britain lost more people – as a percentage of the population – than we did in the trenchesLong, narrow ditchesLong, narrow ditches of the First World War.According to the National Archives, about 3.6% of the population died from fighting, accident, and disease during the Civil War, whereas about 2.6% died from the same causes during the First World War.
A few final questions: if you could go back to any day in history, which day would it be?
Gosh, I don't know! There's that wonderful quote around the 1800s, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven'.William Wordsworth, The Prelude, composed between 1798 and 1805 (with amendments), only became known to the general public after his death in 1850. Something about being young then and to have been a part of that moment. It's always good to be young, rich, and healthy! I think with that any moment in history would be tolerable. You would want to be at a time of peace; I wouldn't want to see anything particularly terrible if I was going to go back in time. Would you want to have a gun in your hand and shoot Adolf Hitler in the head? I don't know, it's quite difficult isn't it? Would you want to see the crucifixion, or be there for the resurrection? Was there a wonderful party you might want to attend?
Does history repeat itself?
Yes and no. I think it doesn't repeat itself exactly, but you certainly see patterns with human nature. Human nature doesn't change, so you can learn from history. Unfortunately it's very difficult to predict exactly what you're going to learn, but history is a bit like our own lives: you try to learn from your mistakes but sometimes you just make new ones. Sometimes by trying to avoid the old mistakes you make a new one. And I think that's also true with us as human beings, as a race of animals.
Final question: who's been your inspiration in writing history?
Well, CV Wedgwood really in the case of Charles I. In terms of history in general, I think like a lot of people I was drawn to history as a child through films and novels. I remember reading the novelist Henry Treece as a child, who wrote about a lot of things like the Vikings and Greeks, and I enjoyed films such as Anne of a Thousand Days, and A Man for All Seasons. I remember talking to a friend who's an academic historian and she loved a children's book called The Children of the New Forest, which was about the Civil War. I'm sure it's very much the same for people now.
Leanda de Lisle's moving, relevant and timely study on Charles I, White King, is available to buy from all good bookshops.