Review of Kevin Sharpe's Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660
Yale University Press, 2010
When James Stuart, King of Scotland, acceded to the English throne in 1603, he inherited a kingdom and a royal propaganda tradition that were largely unknown to him. As Kevin Sharpe emphasises early in this impressive, meticulously-researched account, James was not familiar with the highly sophisticated, message-laden images which the Tudor sovereigns had so successfully manipulated to present to different audiences the sense of an essentially English authoritarian monarchy, unique in the world. James failed to understand the significance of the public images that adorned his palaces or were printed in books or broadsheets, while, in contrast, his surviving son did appreciate the power of the royal image, but failed to match its majesty with his actions.
The use of the portrait as royal propaganda can be said to have begun with Henry VIII’s monumental family portrait, completed at Whitehall in 1537 by Holbein. Painted almost life-size, this shows the figure of Henry surrounded by his parents and current wife (Jane Seymour) while he stands, hands on hips and legs apart, the personification of legitimate royal authority. Elizabeth learnt the propaganda lesson from her father, and throughout her reign images were commissioned which both asserted her royal supremacy and celebrated her achievements, as in the Armada portrait.
The portraits of James I are a complete contrast to this iconography. He was a reluctant model, and the few portraits completed in his lifetime lack the moral authority of the earlier images of Henry and Elizabeth. The last surviving portrait of James, finished in 1621 by the Dutch artist Daniel Mytens, is discussed at some length by Sharpe, as it encapsulates in many ways the image that the king was content to project. In this portrait he is shown as he would have appeared in life, an elderly man worn down by the pressures of his responsibilities. While Charles would later hide his own personality behind the trappings of royal authority, James wears his robes uneasily, the strain of balancing the social and religious tensions of his kingdom etched into his solemn face. It is not an image that conveys the monarch’s infallibility —a message which Henry, and especially Elizabeth, had excelled at communicating.
Instead, the medium in which James asserted his authority was the written word. Throughout his reign he published, or allowed to be published, several tracts and treatises on subjects ranging from witchcraft and tobacco smoking to the Basilikon Doron, his own personal guide to his son Henry on how to reign effectively. Underpinning all of his writings, although they acknowledged many of the era’s complexities, was his unwavering belief in the divine right of kings to rule as they saw fit. It was this issue which was to cause his youngest son Charles such problems, for, as James argued, a king was answerable only to God for his actions, not Parliament nor a court of law. As he made explicit in his writings, only a king can make a law, a law cannot make a king.
This issue came to significant prominence when, in January 1649, Charles was brought to trial. What is often forgotten now is just how many difficult legal issues were involved with the bringing of a charge of treason against the king, by the commissioners appointed by Parliament itself. Treason, at that time, was solely defined as an act, or even thought, which threatened the person of the king, not the state, as is now the case. As Sharpe correctly notes, traditionally justice was the prerogative of the king, and therefore to put the king on trial for treason was legally impossible, as laws were established by the king himself. The end result, of course, we all know, but the social, political, and religious consequences of executing the lawful monarch would be argued over, and opinions divided, for years to come.
Sharpe spends some time discussing the political issues which faced the Commonwealth immediately following the execution. While the army generally supported the regicide, there was significantly less enthusiasm within the population at large. Indeed, for the supporters of the king, the Commonwealth was predicated on an unlawful murder. Just at the time when the Commonwealth needed to publicly assert its authority and emphasise the king’s crimes and his (as they would argue) lawful execution, a book appeared which portrayed Charles as a Christian martyr who had died in the same manner as Christ himself, condemned by an unlawful court and made to suffer for his faith.
The book, which appeared just ten days after the execution, is the Eikon Basilike, or Royal Image, and it was political dynamite, as it placed Charles in the role of victim rather than tyrant, and therefore by implication positioned the Commonwealth —led by Parliament and the army— as an illegal junta stained with the blood of the innocent king. The book purported to be a collection of writings and meditations by Charles himself, complete with prayers at the end of each section. It is unlikely that he was the author, although whoever compiled the book clearly had access to Charles’s writings. At the start is a famous frontispiece by William Marshall which shows the devout king kneeling, looking towards heaven while holding a crown of thorns, thus establishing the connection between Charles and Christ. The book ran through some thirty-five editions within a year, and although Milton published a poorly-received counterpoint to its principal claims that Charles was a friend to his people, and a martyr to both his faith and his royal authority, Eikon Basilike laid the foundations for the durable image of a king unlawfully deposed and executed. It demonstrated, above all, that the relationship between the king, Parliament, the law of the land, and religious faith was interlaced with unfortunate ambiguities, easily manipulable by the different sides.
It can be argued that the Commonwealth never really recovered the moral high ground after the publication of Eikon Basilike. Although in political control, Parliament struggled to assert its legitimacy when the real power lay with Cromwell and the army. No foreign power recognised the new government for more than two years, but when ambassadors began to arrive from Spain, Holland, and Sweden, they were greeted with ceremonies similar to those with which Tudor and Stuart monarchs had honoured these representatives from important foreign states. It was the beginning of a process that Sharpe describes in minute detail, the gradual assimilation by Cromwell of the trappings, ceremonies, and mannerisms of kingship in all but name.
The political situation after December 1653 changed dramatically after the Instrument of Government was first issued. This document changed the dynamic of the Commonwealth completely, as can be seen in its opening declaration. It states that “the Supreme Legislative Assembly.....shall be and reside in one person and the people assembled in Parliament, the style of which person shall be the Lord Protector.” From this point on Cromwell was essentially the king. As subsequent events unfolded, he alone was able to dissolve Parliament and then call a new one more to his liking. In his speeches and declarations, he increasingly made reference to his actions and decisions being guided by God. This is not significantly different from the Stuart kings’ belief in their divine right to rule.
Additionally, Cromwell increasingly linked his political authority with the equally powerful tropes of patriotism and anti-Catholicism. This combination is most clearly visible in a speech that he made to the MPs of the ‘Barebones’ Parliament, the one he had personally summoned after dissolving the previous ‘Rump’ incarnation. Sharpe examines this speech in some detail: it shows just how much Cromwell had come to depend upon the kind of imagery which the Stuart kings had embraced. Cromwell mentioned that his calling was “from God,” thereby making it clear that his actions were beyond human challenge. He continued in the same vein, later stating that “I am deriving a title from God.” He then outlined his intentions for the new Parliament —he told them that no MP would be admitted who had not subscribed to the ‘fundamentals’ of the Instrument of Government. Like Charles before him, he was trying to restrict the membership of the House to his trusted supporters. In a later speech in July 1656, he focused on the need to challenge Spain —as the centre of the efforts to destroy European Protestantism— and went on to describe all his opponents in England as “papists and cavaliers.”
A famous direction that Cromwell was supposed to have given to Peter Lely while sitting for a portrait, to show him “warts and all,” has passed into historical folklore. Whether he ever actually used these words is debatable, but the visual representations of Cromwell created during the Commonwealth can all be situated within the tradition of Tudor and Stuart royal imagery. Nowhere is this better shown than in an anonymous portrait of 1654. Cromwell, pictured upon a prancing horse, is looking directly at us, a stylistic mannerism most commonly employed in portrayals of royalty. It is an image reminiscent of those pictures of Charles which celebrated his royal status. In the background is the city of London, the heart of government and the seat of Cromwell’s political authority. He is, evidently, king in all but name. Finally, Sharpe reminds us that like his royal predecessors, Cromwell had copies of his portraits sent abroad to other European monarchs, and many engravings were made so that ordinary people would become familiar with his authoritative image. Although he declined the title of monarch, in both his speeches and his visual representations Cromwell used the same easily understood regal symbolism to promote and maintain his own political legitimacy.
This is a carefully researched and authoritative account of how imagery and rhetoric were employed to support two ostensibly opposing political positions. The Stuart kings buttressed their royal authority with the dogma of the divine right of kings, ultimately answerable not to their subjects but to God. A vicious civil war saw the king finally defeated and executed outside his banqueting house in Whitehall, and a republic established with Cromwell at its head. However, as the realities of replacing the institutions and practices of royal patronage became more apparent and problematic, so too did the need to demonstrate that those in positions of power —namely Cromwell, Parliament, and the army— had the authority to instigate permanent change. To convince the country of this, they had to fall back upon the same kind of imagery and rhetoric that had served the previous regime. The medium may not be the message, but, as we see in our own era, the manipulation of modes of communication by the powerful is still of significant consequence.--Paul Flux