When Your Hero Turns Out to be a Hero

Michael Dean, author of A Diamond in the Dust, takes a fresh approach to the life of Charles I from his birth to the age of twenty-eight. He shows England’s most maligned monarch, Charles I, as he really was, defined by his passion for all the arts, especially theatre and painting. A Diamond in the Dust is the first in the trilogy The Stuarts: Love, Art, War.

When Your Hero Turns Out to be a Hero – Charles I Re-imagined.

Charles I was authoritarian. It says so in every biography of him. But when I came to write about him in my novel A Diamond in the Dust (Holland Park Press, 2022) a very different character came to life. 

Charles – the Charles of the novel – was a diffident, insecure, brittle character. He was tiny. His tongue was thick. He was malformed by the rickets which bowed his legs and twisted his body, all expertly hidden in the sublime portraits of Anthony van Dyck. 

A sense of insecurity and inadequacy never left him, leading to what we would today call ‘overcompensation’ in formal dealings. This was misread as authoritarianism. But what mattered to me about Charles was that he ruled over a period that was arguably the apogee of English culture. Here is Sir Roy Strong on the subject: 

Charles I and Henrietta Maria reigned over the most brilliant and civilized court in Europe … (Roy Strong, The Times Saturday Review, Saturday July 7, 1973) 

Charles had brought van Dyck to the English court to produce some of the most glorious portraits in English art history. Van Dyck was as physically diminutive as Charles and their friendship was touching. (Although, lest we get too sentimental, Charles was bad at paying, even by Stuart standards. Van Dyck’s last letter before he died of overwork was a polite request for outstanding payment). 

As is well-known, Charles was the greatest of the royal art collectors. He bought the Gonzaga collection of paintings in Mantua, 400 pictures and statues costing a massive £18,000. They formed the basis of the Royal Collection. Perpetually short of money, Charles had to choose between art and war: buying the collection or financing an expedition to La Rochelle, in western France, to aid beleaguered Protestants. The expedition was the pet project of Charles’s friend and mentor, the larger-than-life George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Charles chose art and bought the collection, though the expedition went ahead anyway, financed largely by Villiers himself and even some of the sea captains. 

In architecture there was the amazing polymathic Inigo Jones. Private palaces (Somerset House, Greenwich Palace) and public spaces (Covent Garden) rose up in beauty from his sketches. Charles worked with him on many projects, designing and redesigning his unfulfilled dream of a new Whitehall Palace all his life. 

Inigo and Charles also designed masques played out at court. The masques were pictures with light and motion – Inigo’s phrase. Revolutionary mechanical devices created frequently changing backdrops showing representations of real places. It was like a moving art gallery. Against this backdrop actors and the audience danced. Charles and Henrietta-Maria were enthusiastic participants. Inigo also designed all the lavish costumes from drawings van Dyck thought were good enough to be exhibited. 

Charles was also a literary patron, making the court a centre of literary life with over a dozen poets on the royal list (Robert Herrick, Sir John Suckling). 

He loved theatre, too, much as our own Prince Charles does. He gave Henrietta her own theatre company, Queen Henrietta’s Men, as a birthday present. The company had a resident playwright, James Shirley. Shirley wrote a play defending her after she was called a whore in print for dancing on stage in a masque.

More happily, Henrietta used to go off to watch plays at the Blackfriars Theatre while Charles had his portrait painted by van Dyck, whose house was just down the road. 

Of course, the quality of the drama was not as high as Elizabethan or even Jacobean theatre, but theatre in Charles’s reign was extensive, vibrant and important politically – the nobles used to come in from the country, spend a couple of hours in Parliament then repair to the theatre in the evening. There, they could roar at satires of Charles’s policies by radical playwrights like Richard Brome. (It would be good to report that Charles laughed with them but he didn’t. Brome had to flee London)

Charles was also a practitioner of the arts: He found dancing easier than walking on his damaged legs. He played the bass viol well, having, typically, engaged the best teacher, Alfonso Ferrabosco. Indeed, the youthful Charles had formed a violin and viol ensemble, called Coperario’s Musique, which included the famous Orlando Gibbons as a guest player. 

He also wrote poetry. My title ‘a diamond in the dust’ is derived from a poem attributed to him:

        With my own power my majesty they wound.

        In the king’s name the king himself they uncrown.

        So does the dust destroy the diamond. 

In his artistic interests, as in much else, he was supported, abetted and to some degree educated (especially regarding masques) by his wife. Charles is the only monogamous monarch in English history. His and Henrietta’s marriage is a twenty-four carat love story. 

Henrietta-Maria de Bourbon was a French Catholic. She was feisty, witty, coquettish, brave and passionate. A surprisingly modern figure in some ways, she dressed in male clothing during her idyllic childhood at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, and again for some of the masques at Charles’s court. Later, at the start of the civil war, styling herself tongue in cheek as ‘the generalissima’, she would dress in men’s clothes to purchase arms for Charles and the royalists in Holland. 

Soon after that Charles stood a prisoner in the dock with Henrietta fled back to France. 

A Diamond in the Dust opens with a reminder of one of the most shameful episodes in English history – the judicial murder of Charles I by public execution in 1649. The fragile artistic figure deserved so much better. I hope readers of A Diamond in the Dust will agree with me on that and be as moved as I am by the injustice.

Many thanks, Michael. It’s both a challenge and a privilege to interpret a historical character. Best wishes for A Diamond in the Dust.

A Diamond in the Dust by Michael Dean is a fictionalised account of the life of Charles I from his birth to the age of twenty-eight.

It shows England’s most maligned monarch, Charles I, as he really was. Dominated by his debauched father, James I, he grew up a diffident, stuttering, dreamy figure, wracked by a crippling disease – rickets.

But he was lifted and defined by his passion for all the arts, especially theatre and painting.

Brutal real-life caught up with him, however, spinning him at the centre of a whirlwind of love, art, war and even murder, as he struggled unsuccessfully to keep control of his life and his kingdom.

This first novel in the trilogy The Stuarts: Love, Art, War, shows Charles I growing up and finding love. It puts the vilified king in a different light. Under the wing of his precocious sister Elizabeth he blossoms and his interest in culture and the arts grows into a passion or some would say an obsession.

Michael Dean has other novels to his credit. The Darkness into Light omnibus (Sharpe Books, 2017): The Rise and Fall of the Nazis which is comprised of five titles; Thorn, about Spinoza and Rembrandt; I, Hogarth about the artist Hogarth; The White Crucifixion, about Marc Chagall, and True Freedom, or how America came to fight Britain for its independence.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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Meet M.K.Tod

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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3 Responses

  1. Sounds like a terrific book, Michael. Your first line resonated with me. I recently completed a novel about a historical figure whom I thought biographers had been a little hard on. A different person emerged in my mind and low and behold, a softer side of her showed up on the page. Good luck with your novel!

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