Simon Parke introduces his new book in a short series of blogs. We begin today with 'The biography of a book':
It’s now three years since the idea formed.
The strange events of Charles 1st’s final year on earth...it felt like a ‘Whodunnit’, in a way, as I groped towards the truth of this impossible execution.
And the answer may surprise you.
I did wonder why no one had told this story...it seemed too good to miss. But should I tell it? I wasn’t sure.
And then a few weeks later, a mustard seed moment.
I was working in Southwell. During my stay, I walked past a well-beamed pub with a plaque on the wall... and I always read plaques.
To my surprise, I discovered this pub was the place where the defeated Charles spent his last night of freedom before handing himself over to the Scots. (Who then handed him over to the English.)
I felt that Charles was chasing me, that the story was chasing me, insisting on being told; and of course the hostelry in Southwell, with prophetic foreboding, was called The King’s Head.
The era I describe in the book is complex and crazy, like our own. Who saw Brexit coming? Who saw Trump coming? And who, in the early 1640’s, saw the execution of the king around the corner?
It was an unimaginable event, an impossible occurrence.
So how did that happen?
History, like the sea, is moved by currents; but it’s human personality which sails them, which puts the currents to use, and I employ four particular characters as conduits of the story.
The soldier is Oliver Cromwell, brilliant in battle but confused by peace, desperately seeking heaven’s way in a very earth-bound struggle for power.
The gaoler is Robert Hammond, the new governor of the Isle of Wight and despairing guardian of a most difficult royal prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle.
The spy is Jane Whorwood, the persistent and inventive royal secret agent, who called her daring adventures a ‘romance’.
And the lover is the kind, stubborn and deceiving king himself, drawn into an affair with his spy-mistress while his queen endured exile in France.
Historical fiction – two words at odds with each other - is a varied genre, an unregulated relationship between truth and invention, where each author (including Shakespeare with his historical plays) must give their own weight to those two words.
Is this fiction with the history as scenery? Or is the history the story itself?
‘The soldier, the gaoler the spy and her lover’ is the latter – an imaginative rendering of the events as they occurred.
I have no story to tell other than the remarkable scenes which unfolded in England 1647 – 1649, finishing up on a cold scaffold in Whitehall.
There are many different moods to the narrative. There’s the high comedy of some of Charles’ attempts at escape; there’s pure farce in the king’s trial, with the president opting for a tin-lined hat in case anyone attacked him.
There’s dark and devious political scheming as the king, the Scots, parliament and the army all arm-wrestle for supremacy, each offering very different religious visions for England.
Everyone was certain... and God was on everyone’s side.
And families disagreed. The civil war was poorly named, it had been most uncivil - a brutal and bloody season, which left many families split...including Cromwell’s. His wife Elizabeth and children were all on the king’s side.
Oliver had introduced her to the Charles in the summer of 1647 and may have regretted it...for she was a royal fan thereafter.
It’s an era of new and outrageous thinking, with the Levellers demanding universal male suffrage, while the Ranters declared that the monarch should be elected rather than hereditary.
Three hundred and seventy years on, they still sound radical.
And of course there’s the sex, which - along with self-justification and escape plans – do concentrate the mind of a prisoner, even a royal one.
It was a complex and crazy time, when authority in the kingdom was uniquely up for grabs.
And with a fascinating cast of the convinced, the conniving and the confused, a story is played out which, well - you couldn’t make it up.
So I haven’t.
I commend to you and your genius the strange tale of the last year in the life of Charles 1 in ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover.’