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Response to Review no. 375

On approaching a review of my work I feel very much as I did as a schoolboy being handed an envelope containing my end of term report to take to my parent; namely, an initial apprehension followed by relief when I discovered – having surreptitiously opened the envelope on the way home – that it was, on the whole, ‘alright’. Indeed, Professor Knoppers’s review of my book is much more than just ‘alright’ and I would like to begin this response by acknowledging, with gratitude, a very fair, balanced and constructive review. Therefore this response will be addressed to certain specific points raised by Professor Knoppers.

The work of Sean Kelsey is mentioned as giving a very different view of the regicide from mine; one in which, if I have read Kelsey correctly, the execution was a mistake caused by Charles’s intransigence and an outcome not seriously intended by the Army and the Rump when they set up the High Court of Justice. Certainly the work of John Morrill, amongst others, has revealed the confusion in the minds of Cromwell and the grandees over what God intended for Charles, as well as the tensions created by their desire to visit judgement upon ‘that man of blood’ on the one hand and their fear of social revolution on the other. We have also been reminded that for both Cromwell and Charles, providence and necessity were often intimately linked.

It has always seemed to me that the one thing Charles’s judges had not anticipated was that Charles, like his grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots before him, would be willing to use his own body both as a shield against challenges to the sanctity of kingship and a weapon against his enemies. When faced with Charles’s intransigence – or bravery, depending on ones point of view – the trial slipped inexorably out of the regicides’ control and became a propaganda triumph for the royalists. Whilst I would go along with Kelsey’s thesis to this extent, I feel that there is a danger that too close a reading of the tactical events of the trial blinds us to the wider millenarian and biblical contexts in which the principal protagonists operated.

A good example of this wider context is the extent to which Charles’s demeanour at his trial conformed to tropes of martyrdom familiar to an age brought up on the Acts of the Apostles and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In this context, for example, the fact that Charles spoke at his trial without his customary stammer was not interpreted in a psychological sense, as it would be today, but glossed as a sign of grace bestowed on a true martyr by God who was thus enabled to speak ‘boldly’ before his judges in the service of the truth. This is trope that goes back to the proto-martyr St. Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and similar instances of martyrs speaking ‘boldly’ can be found in Foxe.

Moving on, Professor Knoppers quite rightly discusses the question of change and continuity in the cult, pointing out that I have stressed continuity rather than change in my account. This charge I fully accept, and Dr Michael Mandle, in another recent review of the book, points out that I do not mention Marvell’s poetry of the 1670s which is profoundly critical of the cult. I acknowledge these omissions, although I hope I have demonstrated that whilst there was continuity the cult was never static. In particular I cite the use made of the cult by establishment Whigs after 1688. I have to admit that when I started this work I tended to assume that Tories and Jacobites would use it, whilst Whigs and radicals wouldn’t; in other words, I assumed fairly clear party lines in attitudes to the cult after 1688. I quickly realised that life is not that simple and the use of the martyr by William III and the establishment Whigs is a fascinating example of the way in which the cult is adapted to suit new circumstances. They were concerned to retain the essential features of conservatism and deference, yet discarded inconvenient aspects such as indefeasible hereditary succession. This follows on from the work of Straka and Clark who have emphasised the extent to which the post-1688 regime wished to rest, as far as possible, on established custom and precedent rather than presenting itself as a radical departure.

This process of change and adaptation is also seen in the development of the Eikon Basilike and Professor Knoppers rightly points out that the Eikon is a collaborative effort, from editors such as Hammond and Gauden who worked with Charles on the original manuscript, to the printers and publishers who added prayers, elegies and accounts of the trial and so on, to subsequent editions. I will admit to not having faced the implication of this collaborative authorship as squarely as perhaps I should, but the effects of the additions were, surely, merely to emphasise the central theme: namely, that Charles was the Lord’s anointed, an innocent martyr for his people and that England would never prosper until his murderers were brought to justice and the legitimate hierarchy restored in church and state. Additions such as Charles’s tearful parting from his children only underline the epideictic technique adopted throughout, of evoking in the reader sympathy for Charles the man, rather than a judicious evaluation of his actions.

One of the problems of works of this type is the difficulty of assessing the effects of these texts on its intended audience. Just as historians disagree over the extent to which the royal image was disseminated in the 1630s, so it is difficult to evaluate the response of readers to the Eikon. In this I acknowledge the point Professor Knoppers makes about the lack of manuscript sources in my work. In my defence I would point to the mountain of printed sources available about the cult and the fact that I am not a full-time academic. But, having said that, I fully acknowledge that manuscript sources might give some clue to the reception of the Eikon and it is an area of research I would wish to pursue. It has also been suggested to me by Dr Carol Barton that the popularity of the Eikon may be explained in part by its talismanic powers. The idea being that many people may have acquired a copy either as a badge of loyalty to the Stuarts, or – and this is even more difficult to prove – as a protection against the possibility of a divine inquisition for bloodguilt, a fascinating idea to pursue.

What a lot of these lines of investigation have in common is the fact that it is difficult to come across the ‘real’ Charles. Indeed, even during his days of power the elaborate court etiquette, the masque and Charles’s shyness all contributed to the projection of an image rather than a person. As I have said in the book, Charles is always playing a role on a public stage; indeed Charles personifies the renaissance ideal of ‘the world as a stage’. The cult depended upon the reception of an image of Charles as suffering king, whilst the Eikon depended upon the acceptance that his good intentions justified his actions, a point Elizabeth Skerpan Wheeler makes very well. This is why I did not spend a lot of time discussing the historical events of Charles’s life and reign.

It is no coincidence that so much cult literature is written using epideictic techniques; this acknowledges that a cool examination of the facts of Charles’s reign often reveals Charles to have been weak and ineffectual. Yet the proponents of the cult would point out that many saints are so despite rather than because of themselves, and that God uses very unlikely material to reveal his glory and purpose. This is what makes the cult of Charles I so important and the discussions so stimulating. Professor Knoppers’s review has highlighted areas that are open to discussion and where my work can only stand as an introduction. This is as it should be, for such discussion and research is the very stuff of academic history.