Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Embroidered Portrait of King Charles I

by Rebecca Hackett

Made in England, ca. 1645
Located in Agecroft Hall, Richmond, VA

This miniature portrait of King Charles the First, who reigned from 1625 to 1649, is a masterwork of delicate and naturalistic embroidery. Charles is depicted in a red doublet with a falling band of white lace and (presumably) a medallion on a thick blue silk ribbon hung around his neck. His brown hair appears soft and natural, his upturned moustache and pointed “Van Dyck” beard reflective of the King’s customary appearance and the style of the day. His expression is saint-like and contemplative. The background is of a green that contrasts nicely with the red of his doublet. Encircling the serene image of Charles is a border, also of embroidery, that seems to have a series of small sequins appliqu├ęd into it. The whole item is housed in an oval frame made of metal with a loop at the top in order for the image to be suspended from a ribbon or chain for display.

A similar miniature depicting Charles resides in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The same reference image was very obviously used for both portraits, as the King is depicted in the same position and attitude in each. According to the description of the MET miniature in the exhibition catalog, the images are both based on a series of engravings by Wenceslaus Hollar in the 1640s, which are based in turn on the many portraits of King Charles by Anthony Van Dyck (Watt 116). The MET miniature is more vivid in coloration (the Agecroft miniature has faded or been otherwise worn over the centuries) and shows more of Charles’ figure, as well as displaying a motto embroidered over the top of the image. The motto is a quotation from the Psalms and associates Charles with the Biblical King David, referencing both Charles’ divine right as ruler of England and his sainthood as recognized by the Church of England upon his execution in January of 1649 (Watt 118).

According to the MET, these miniatures of the deceased martyred King were intended not to be worn, like other miniatures of the day, but rather displayed in a cabinet or upon a wall. A 1650 portrait of contemporary playwright Thomas Killigrew by William Shephard depicts the playwright seated with a similar, if not identical, picture of Charles on the wall behind him. The image of the King is included as an attribute to Killigrew, defiantly showing his continued Royalism and loyalty to the Stuart line even after the Parliamentarians had come to power and poor King Charles had been beheaded. This painting shows how such miniatures of the deposed King would have been utilized by the people of the time. Despite intense antagonism by the Republican Roundheads to any and all shows of Royalist support (or any opposition to their militaristic rule), it seems that such displays of loyalty were not uncommon, especially since “no serious attempt seems to have been made to prevent the display of the King’s portrait in private houses” (Tavares).

Most fine embroidered works, such as this miniature and other, larger works of art, were crafted by professional embroiderers within guilds (Brooks 10). These people were men who had been extensively trained in the art in order to maintain a high standard of production associated with the guild’s work. A similar process of educating embroiderers is continued today in England’s Royal School of Needlework, which was founded in the 1870s, although the student body largely consists of women (RSN History).

Other works were created by the daughters of the wealthy, who saw such “curious” work as beneficial to display the girl’s talents and to fill her idle hours, instead of the Latin and rhetoric learned by her brothers. Many young women were able to produce embroidered work similar or equal in quality to that of the guildsmen’s. These young ladies were often educated on a large scale in schools such as the one at Hackney Church, located just outside of London and called colloquially “The Ladies University of the Female Arts.” According to Brooks, over 800 girls were educated in needlework at the Hackney School during the span of years between the Civil War and the Commonwealth alone (11).

Despite the strictly regimented teaching of embroidery both in guilds and in schools of “female arts,” ingenuity seems to have been particularly valued by seventeenth-century embroiderers. Names of stitches changed frequently over the years as well as popular techniques. As one rather accomplished young lady bragged in the 1660s: “I never was taught one stitch and most what I do now is all from my own fancy” (Brooks 22). The subjects of the embroideries also reflect this ingenuity, as even biblical scenes were often populated with mermaids, unicorns, and other fantastic creatures.

Popular motifs for embroidered scenes were animals, flowers, and biblical tableaux. Many of the pictures from this period have hidden meanings or images, often in support of English monarchy or in commemoration and sympathy for Charles I’s execution. Caterpillars and butterflies are often interpreted as representing, respectively, Charles I and the Restoration (Brooks 14). In one post-1634 embroidered portrait, Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria are shown alongside Adam and Eve, with the royal couple’s pose and physical appearance mirroring that of the biblical first couple. The juxtaposition of the subjects is meant to trace Charles’ God-given right as ruler all the way back to before the Fall, an interpretation that was favored by Royalists, who viewed Adamic patriarchy as the basis of Divine Right of kings (Watt 122). Depictions of the story of Moses seem to have a link to Charles II, who was seen as a Moses-like figure who “delivered his people through the restoration of the monarchy,” although this interpretation of deliverance could also pertain to Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, who had delivered the people from the monarchy (Brooks 15).

Charles I was not a popular monarch, but even after two bouts of Civil War in England, no one expected that he would find himself on the executioner’s block. His reign was quite controversial because of both political and religious matters.

Politically, Charles believed in the Divine Right of Kings. He felt he had no need for Parliament unless they were serving his needs and ideals, a belief that would lead to his dismissal of Parliament for over ten years of his reign: from 1629-1640. Although he was entirely within his rights to refuse to call a Parliament, many of the people of England disagreed. Charles’ desperate needs for funds caused him to exploit loopholes in English law, scouring old medieval documents for lapsed laws that could gather some revenue. Some of these exploitations were more palatable than others, such as his practice of rewarding his allies with trade monopolies, but others, such as the “ship money,” became a huge source of tension and ill feelings toward Charles as a monarch. Originally written during medieval times to help protect the coasts of England, the ship money law stated that coastal towns were required to provide a certain number of ships. Charles reinstated this law, only allowed the towns the option to send him cash instead (Daems 42). At first it seemed all would be well, since the law seemed to make sense. However, as Charles demanded ship money from towns further and further inland, it became clear that he was simply using them to fill the depleted royal coffers.

Religiously, Charles was a lover of music and ceremony during his church services. Born and raised a Protestant (the first monarch to be raised thus), Charles did not wish for the Anglican Church to revert back to Catholicism, but the staunchly Puritan sects within his congregation did not trust him, especially since his beautiful French wife, Henrietta Maria, was a practicing Catholic who was permitted to practice her religion within the confines of her private chapel (Watt 66). William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, was also an advocate for the restoration of pomp and circumstance to the Anglican services. With the power of the Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber, Laud and Charles began to strip the Puritan elements from the Anglican church: clergymen who voiced Puritan sympathies would be dismissed, vestments would be made mandatory, and imposition of a new Book of Common Prayer on largely Presbyterian Scotland. These measures frightened many of the more conservative Puritan Englishmen, who worried that “Popery”, would return to England.

The Scots opposition to Charles’ promulgation of Anglicanism within Scotland led to, in 1640, the Bishop’s War, a Scottish invasion of England that had Charles even more badly in need of money than before. He called Parliament, hoping that his previous difficulties with them would have dissipated in the long years since they had last been in session. This would not, however, be the case, since House of Commons leader John Pym had strong Puritan sensibilities and sympathized with the Scottish plight. In three weeks, nothing had been accomplished and King Charles dissolved Parliament, determined to raise an army without the assistance of Parliament.

Charles went to war against the invading Scots, but his forces were quickly defeated. A tentative peace was reached, but all the power was left firmly in the hands of the Scots, who were permitted to continue their occupation of English soil with all their expenses paid until the church question was at last settled.

Reluctantly, Charles had to call Parliament into session again, the second time that year. This Parliament, which would last until 1660, would be called the Long Parliament. Charles, badly in need of Parliamentary funding and assistance especially after his rather embarrassing defeat, was forced to stand by as the long-ignored MPs began proceedings to reduce the power of the King. Many of Charles’ supporters were attainted and executed, including William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. Parliament also made it illegal for the King to dissolve Parliament and demanded it be convened at least every three years. Ship money was abolished, as were the Star Chamber and Court of High Commission. Charles’ absolute reign was at an end.

As if all this humiliation at the hands of Parliament and the Scots was not enough, the Irish, no longer able to bear the yoke of the plantation system, rebelled. The Irish, even in the seventeenth century staunchly Catholic and firmly against Protestantism, drove ten thousand English plantationers off their land, stripped them of clothing and property, and drove them naked into the wilderness. Ordinarily, a drastic and terrifying rebellion such as this one might have driven Parliament and the King into an alliance. This time, however, the Parliament’s mistrust of the King and their fear of Catholicism ran too deeply. The rebellion was magnified by the London Press, and the fear of Catholicism grew stronger.

In 1642, with his power fading and Parliament firmly set in their ways against him, Charles stormed the Parliamentary chambers in order to arrest several MPs who were suspected of collusion with the Scots of the Bishop’s War. His attempt failed, as the MPs had been warned beforehand of his impending attack. With this one foolish move, Charles lost the last shreds of remaining support and was forced to flee London. Now, both sides began to arm themselves: the Civil War had begun.

Parliament allied itself with the Scottish Covenanters who had so recently invaded, on the condition that the Scots would be paid and that Presbyterianism be taken up in England after the war was won. Parliament also raised a “New Model Army”, small in size but heavily disciplined. Charles allied himself with the Irish Catholics, a move which lost him further support from those who demonized Catholics. Despite having the Irish on his side, Charles was still defeated by the Parliamentary forces. In 1646, a truce was declared. Charles, in the hands of the Scots, was transferred to the custody of the Parliamentarians (Corns 60).

Even at this late date, it seemed impossible that Charles would be executed. The Moderates within Parliament wanted to decommission the New Model Army and put Charles back on the throne, albeit within the confines of the new laws instated by the Long Parliament before the Civil War. The Radicals, however, especially the Levellers, a small group of extreme radicals, wanted a huge change to occur: there would be a republic, with absolute sovereignty of the people, as well as social equality, total religious toleration (except for Catholics), manhood suffrage, and an end to monarchy in England. These Levellers, though small in number within Parliament, were strong within the New Model Army. When the moderate Parliament moved to disband the army with no back pay, war broke out once again. Now Parliament itself was divided.

The Army, led by Oliver Cromwell, routed the Parliamentary forces. Military rule was instated. Negotiations about what would happen to the King were silenced. Monarchist MPs were purged from the seats of Parliament. The 50 radical MPs who were left put Charles on trial in January 1649 for high treason.

On January 30, 1649, Charles was led out to the block, and executed.

During the Restoration in 1660, Charles was elevated to the status of Martyr. Yearly on the anniversary of Charles I’s death, congregations would gather to hear sermons and prayers asking for forgiveness from God for the sin of regicide. He, King Charles the Martyr, is the only saint officially canonized within the Anglican church.

A book was published almost immediately after Charles’ death, purporting to be his last thoughts and prayers. This was the Eikon Basilike, which became extremely popular and contributed immensely to his portrayal as a “Christ-like martyr king” (Watt 69). The Scots who sold him into the hands of Parliament were labeled Judas, traitors not only to King and country but to their brother Scotsman (Corns 60). The Christ-like image of a lonely king, forsaken by his family who had been forced to flee the country, and forsaken further by his subjects who had murdered him, was an amazing piece of Royalist propaganda. More than thirty-five English language editions of the book were published in 1649, the same year of Charles’ death, and more editions in languages such as Latin and Dutch would quickly follow (Corns 122).

Charles’ last words were “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown” (Daems 323). These words, taken from Corinthians 9:25, suggest a movement from the state of humanity to the state of divinity; not just a transfer of the immortal soul from Earth to Heaven, but a change in its very essence (Carrol 214). This moment, immortalized in the Eikon Basilike, further contributed to his saint-like image in the minds of the Royalists. The embroidered miniatures depicting a gentle and saint-like Charles with his eyes raised pensively heavenward were now to be created in a great quantity by professional embroiderers for sale to the growing Cult of the Royal Martyr, which would remain popular even into the eighteenth century (Watt 69).

"By decapitating Charles I, Parliament...created a myth which covered all the flaws in the king and revealed only the virtuous martyr" (Stewart  175). The ensuing Cult of the Royal Martyr built itself up around the anniversary sermons preached yearly on Charles' death date. Not only did the cult practice religious veneration, but the continued observation and discussion of Charles' execution served as a cautionary tale for extremists on both the royalist side as well as the republican (Stewart 175).

Even through the reign of Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1707, the Cult of the Royal Martyr continued to revere the sacred personality of Charles I. By this time, the worship of the Stuart King had gathered somewhat of an unsavory reputation (Stewart 185). The Glorious Revolution, where again a King was overthrown (no beheading and martyrdom this time, only forced abdication), made the House of Orange the legitimate rulers of England and called the Stuart line mere pretenders. Jacobites, as the supporters of the overthrown King James II were called, could be tried for treason. As the Cult of the Royal Martyr venerates the father of this King, it is easy to see how the Cult could have become attainted. After this point, the popularity of the Cult waned into obscurity and the observation of the anniversary of his death as written into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was eventually removed by Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901).

Brooks, Mary M. English Embroideries--16th & 17th C. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2006.

Carrol, Robert, and Stephen Prickett, eds. The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. New York: Oxford World Classics, 1997. 
Corns, Thomas N., ed. The Royal Image: Representations of Charles I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 

Daems, Jim, and Holly F. Nelson, eds. Eikon Basilike: The Portrait of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings: with selections from Eikonoklastes, John Milton. Sydney: Broadview Press Ltd, 2006.

Royal School of Needlework. "Royal School of Needlework History."

Stewart, Byron S. "The Cult of the Royal Martyr." Church History 38, no. 2 (1969): 175-187.

Tavares, Jonathan. "Embroidered Miniature of Charles I." Bard Graduate Center.

Watt, Melinda, and Andrew Morrall. English Embroidery in the Metropolitan Museum: 1575-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Embroidered Miniature of Charles I, artist unknown, 1640, located in Agecroft Hall, Richmond, US. Image taken from postcard.

Portrait of Thomas Killigrew, by William Shephard, 1650, located in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image taken from Watt book.

Adam and Eve with Charles I and Henrietta Maria, artist unknown, post-1634, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, US. Image taken from Watt book.

John Pym, by Edward Bower, 1640, located in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image taken from NPG Website.

Miniature of Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper, 1656, located in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Image taken from NPG Website

Frontispiece of Reliquiae Sacrae Carolinae, post 1651, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, US. Image taken from Watt book.

Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles, 1636, located in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, UK. Image taken from Draw-Paint-Sculpt.

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