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The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I.

Thomas N. Corns, ed., The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xvi + 316 pp. incl. 38 illus. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-59047-7.

This collection of essays is an ambitious and successful attempt to deal with literary and artistic representations of King Charles I of Great Britain before his accession and during and after his reign. The authors rightly see the king's execution as a critical turning-point for writers, sculptors, and painters who dealt with the king. The posthumous images of Charles were radically different from those that were common in the king's lifetime. The authors, all of whom are literary scholars except for the historian Kevin Sharpe, are very sensitive to the political uses made of images of the king. The book is elaborately illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of paintings, title pages, coins, sculptures, costumes, building designs, and broadsheets.

In his preface Thomas N. Corns sums up the cultural aspirations and achievement of the king in the years before the outbreak of civil war in all three of his kingdoms: "Charles promoted and stimulated a court culture that projected regal splendour with a refulgence unmatched in English history. Painting and sculpture, among the finest in western Europe, music, masque, poetry and song proclaimed his pre-eminence among men and celebrated the affection and fertility of the royal couple ..." (xv). Yet, as Corns shows in his opening chapter on "Duke, prince and king," negative images of Charles began to emerge soon after his accession in 1625 over issues of foreign policy, the influence of the Duke of Buckingham, parliamentary privileges and subjects' rights, and the theology and liturgical practices of the Church of England. After the period of the personal rule, these images re-emerged in the 1640s with a new intensity during the king's prolonged struggle with Parliament and the eruption of civil war in Scotlan d, Ireland, and England. Occasionally, Corns lacks a sure touch in dealing with the Thirty Years' War. He refers misleadingly to Frederick, the Elector Palatine, James I's son-in-law, as becoming a Protestant martyr "quite soon" after he became a Protestant hero (9). But Frederick actually lived for more than a decade after his acceptance of the crown of Bohemia and his defeat a year later at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Corns also refers to Spain as "still relatively aloof from the conflict" in the early 1620s, when negotiations for the Spanish match were under way (11). In fact, Spain backed Austria in the Bohemian conflict, and Spanish troops occupied the Palatinate of the Rhine in the early 1620s. Focusing on the period of Charles I's personal rule, 1629-40, Ann Baynes Coiro shows that poets, whether cavalier or not, were attracted to the subject of "highly sexual, prolific marriage" (27). Poetry on this theme with reference to the court could be reassuring to English men and women by remindi ng them of Charles's and Henrietta Maria's provision of heirs to the throne, but it could also be disturbing, as she shows, by suggesting that the king was too much under the influence of his foreign, Roman Catholic queen.

The nature of representation changed after 1640. As Joad Raymond observes, Charles was the first British monarch "to be represented by a popular press beyond his control" (47). Following the convening of the Long Parliament, the system of licensing publications broke down. As a result, public expressions of political opinion became strident, especially in pamphlets and broadsheets. The vehemence of attacks on the king's evil counsellors was matched by that of defences of his sacred character and unlimited power. A thoroughgoing discussion of political and constitutional issues ensued, in which the king himself and his advisers participated. Raymond skilfully captures the excitement and sense of urgency in these exchanges as "Parliamentary propagandists... challenged the king's authority in sharpening, radical terms" (54). Martin Dzelzainis, in his essay, "'Incendiaries of the state': Charles I and tyranny," argues persuasively that parliamentarians had difficulty representing Charles I as a tyrant when they themselves exceeded their constitutional powers by passing the Militia Ordinance (1642) and other measures without the royal assent. These actions allowed the king to claim the middle ground, as one who ruled, or sought to rule, as one of the three estates. Again, after the second civil war in England in 1648, when army officers purged Parliament and put the king on trial, the argument that the king was a tyrant was upended by actions that made his opponents seem equally guilty of arbitrary and illegal measures. Nevertheless, as David Loewenstein shows, radicals -- Republicans, Levellers, Diggers, and Fifth Monarchists -- justified the king's trial and execution on the grounds that he had tried to supplant Parliament, subvert the laws, deprive subjects of their rights and privileges, and extend his power to all aspects of church and state.

It was, as Elizabeth Skerpan Wheeler shows, the king's autobiography, Eikon Basilike (1649), "offered on the streets on the very day of his execution" (122), that established an impression of his character that still endures. This work, edited by John Gauden, presented Charles in a highly favorable light, as a father and Christian, a man of patience and wisdom, a victim of injustice, and as more sinned against than sinning in the political conflicts of his reign. Immensely successful at the bookshops in Britain and on the continent, it moved the discussion of monarchy to a new level. Wheeler contends that the book, by making its appeal to the general public, helped to democratize the monarchy. Eikon Basilike, she argues, was not a single text, but a series of cultural events, as the book was translated, augmented, set to music, and rendered in verse. The frontispiece, an engraving by William Marshall that shows Charles down on one knee, looking heavenward, as he is about to don a crown of thorns, became almo st a religious icon (123). Milton, according to Sharon Achinstein, tried to put a halt to "the rising cult of King Charles the martyr" (153), by arguing in his Eikonokiastes (1649) that the king had repeatedly acted to further Spanish and Roman Catholic interests. In the highly charged atmosphere produced by the Thirty Years' War, Milton thus played on fears of a popish plot, accusing the late king of having been not only an absolutist ruler but an agent of Catholic forces threatening to dominate the whole of Europe. Achinstein herself exaggerates Charles's Spanish proclivities by writing: "It is true Charles was hispanophilic between 1625 and 1640" (149). In fact, when Charles returned from his and Buckingham's whimsical trip to Madrid to court the Infanta, in the autumn of 1623, Charles was strongly anti-Spanish. He led his country into war against Spain after his accession in 1625. The pro-Spanish policies came later, after peace was made with Spain in 1630. That the court was receptive to cultural influen ces from Catholic Europe is shown by Jonathan P. Wainwright in his essay on "The King's Music." At the English court, Italian styles emanating from the circle of Monteverdi were far more prevalent than in the rest of the country. Had the disruptions of continental and British wars not occurred, Charles's court might well have been at the center of European baroque music. What has this to do with the royal image? Wainwright shows convincingly that music was as important to the masques at court, where the king's policies were presented to the courtiers and leading nobles, as were literary texts, dances, and theatrical spectacles.

The most widely-ranging of all the essays is that of John Peacock, who writes about "The Visual Image of Charles I," using as evidence not only the celebrated paintings of Anthony van Dyck and others, but coins, medals, prints, sculptures, and masques. The image of Charles, which he himself deliberately fostered, was that of an imperial general, aloof, serene, and highminded. Charles's military persona was one he took over from his older brother Henry, who had died in 1612. The medals and coins represented the court's attempt to disseminate this image broadly across all classes. Sculptures, paintings, and masques reached not only the elite at home but distinguished visitors from abroad. Was this cultural offensive effective? From an esthetic point of view, generally yes -- though the king's military prowess fell short of the image the court promulgated so assiduously. Charles's burial in 1649, as Lois Potter says, was an austere affair, costing a fraction of what his father James I's funeral had cost or wh at Lord Protector Cromwell's funeral would cost, and no period of mourning was prescribed by the regime then in power. Nevertheless, as Potter shows, accounts of his sufferings and death found a receptive public and were included in editions of his "Works," published several times during the l650s and after the Restoration in 1660. These books, under the title of Basilika, referred on the title page to Charles's death as a "martyrdome" (256), and it was this characterization that was cherished by his followers. The engraved portrait of Charles on the title page is shown as being supported by angels and displayed within a rounded classical structure that suggests a shrine. A rotunda intended as a monument to Charles I was, in fact, designed by Christopher Wren in about 1678, but its construction was never undertaken, perhaps, as Potter says, because Charles II's relations with Parliament deteriorated. After 1688, as Laura Lunger Knoppers notes, sermons on the anniversary of the king's execution, prescribed at the time of Charles II's Restoration, became "an ambivalent public exercise" (263). This was because, as she argues, the deposition of Charles I's second son James II and the accession of William and Mary contradicted the principles Charles had stood for, namely divine-right monarchy, the subjects' duty of obedience, and the indefeasibility of hereditary rule. Yet Jacobite writers preserved the memory of Charles as king and martyr until well into the eighteenth century. Not until the defeat in 1746 of the forces of Charles I's great-grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie," did the idea of Charles I's direct descendants as the rightful successors to his throne gradually fade away.

Historians, as Kevin Sharpe points out in the final essay in the volume, can and should learn from literary scholars that texts are not to be read as objective descriptions or even, strictly speaking, as expressions of opinion. They are representations, intended to convince, to create impressions, to advance a program, to influence events. The same is true of works of art of all kinds. Indeed, the king and court, in the reign of Charles I, were themselves "very much works of art" (289), representing monarchy in a way that has, in one form or another, long endured. Texts such as Eikon Basilike and paintings such as those of Van Dyck, moreover, have an influence that far outlasts the historical cirumstances that prompted them. Sharpe is surely right to point out that "the representations of Charles I, of the royal image and text, are at the core of the history of the Civil War, Restoration and 1688 Revolution" (290).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:PATTERSON, W. B.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Words:1846
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