Quarrel with the King tells the story of the first four earls of Pembroke, their wives, children, estates, tenants, and allies, following their high and glamorous trajectory from the 1520s through 1650—the most turbulent and dramatic years of English history—across three generations of change, ambition, resistance, and war. The Pembrokes were at the heart of it all: the richest family in England, with old blood and new drive, led as much by a succession of extraordinary women as by their husbands and sons.
It is also the story of a power struggle, over a long century, between the family and the growing strength of the English Crown. For decades, questions of loyalty simmered: Was government about agreement and respect, or authority and compulsion? What status did traditional rights have in a changing world? Did a national emergency mean those rights could be ignored or overturned? These were the issues that in 1642 would lead to a brutal civil war, the bloodiest conflict England has ever experienced, in which the earl of Pembroke—who had been loyal till then—had no choice but to rebel against a king who he felt had betrayed both him and his country.
At other times, the Pembrokes both threatened the Crown and acted as its bruisingly efficient and violent agents. They were ambivalent figures: flag bearers for an ancient England and time servers in some of the most corrupt courts England has ever known; fawning courtiers and indulgent landlords; puritanical aristocrats and rebel grandees. Nicolson's book amounts to a study in all the ambiguities involved in the exercise and maintenance of power and status.