One of my favorite works of 20th century history is C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. I read it on a plane on the way to Phoenix when going to deal with the death of my (somewhat estranged) grandfather. It left an immediate impression on me, and combined good prose with good history in a way that is difficult to manage. I looked forward to last year’s reprinting of her work on the trial and death of King Charles I Stuart, (now entitled) A King Condemned. It isn’t quite as good of a read as The Thirty Years War, because the sources are more dominant. The analysis of record and contemporary journalism is really good.
As shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has read The Thirty Years War, Wedgwood is sympathetic to Charles, while admitting his faults… and not being particularly fond of his Cavalier supporters. It contains some sad details that were unfamiliar to me before, such as how the news was broken to Charles II:
The Prince of Wales, at the Hague, had heard nothing but doubtful rumours since he despatched a Sir Henry Seymour with the Dutch mission on 23rd January. Not until 4th February, five days after his father’s death, did any certain information reach Holland. It came then, not in any despatch or message to the Prince, but in the general newsletters from England. His advisers knew it first and debated how to tell him. In the end, one of his chaplains, Stephen Goffe, went in to him and, after a preliminary hesitation, addressed him as “Your Majesty”. He needed no further words; overcome with grief he signed to Goffe to leave him and remained for some hours alone with his grief.
The most interesting thing to me was how the trial supplies a model for revolutionary tribunals that happened later. The dissolution of the legislative body that originally sanctioned the revolution, the rejection of legal precedent, the set–up of an effectively dictatorial separate court to carry out the proceedings. In many ways, it’s obvious that they were inexperienced and later revolutionaries learned from that fact: They let dissenting lawyers and parliamentarians run off to their country estates to avoid the perception of having assented, they even forced very few signatures (if any).
By the time of the Soviets, this was all perfected.