Charles I: Regicide and Republicanism

By Barber, Sarah | History Today, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Charles I: Regicide and Republicanism


Barber, Sarah, History Today


The most public and profound examination of the personal morality of an English monarch was undertaken at Westminster Hall in January 1649. The House of Commons, which had on the fourth of the month declared itself to be the supreme and sufficient power in the land, had established a High Court of Justice to pass judgement on Charles Stewart. 135 men sat as `commissioners', both judge and jury, surrounding and presided over by the lord president, John Bradshaw, who resorted to wearing a specially reinforced hat to protect himself from outraged, sniping royalists. The wife of the general of the New Model Army shouted abuse at the judges from the balcony.

Behind the constitutional debates about whether kings were accountable to anyone other than God or whether there was a reciprocal bond between king and people, the court was deciding whether Charles' private morality had besmirched the pristine display of public morality demanded of a magistrate. The discourse between the notions of public and private morality, illustrated so graphically in 1649, has now entered common speech at the debased level of metaphor and literary trope. The tabloid newspapers, even the heavyweight broadsheets -- one of the interesting cultural products of our current debate about monarchy is that the `quality press' has had to use the same story-lines and techniques as their more despised cousins -- regularly gauge the mood of their readers towards the institutions of monarchy. In general, respect for and love of the person of the queen is largely undiminished. The private behaviour of the queen remains discreet and beyond scrutiny and thus her public image remains untarnished. With the younger members of the family and those less immediately in line to the throne, royalty has become a matter of personalities and league tables. Personal morality is the key to their public reception.

We may consider constitutional monarchy on the British model far removed from the kingship of the past. The debate over public and private morality, however, remains largely unchanged. The wider public has always had concern for the private face of its royal family, as the scandals over the behaviour of Edward 11, George IV or Edward VII testify. Only during and after the Second World War did the monarchy of Britain achieve widespread approbation. A combination of the failure to meet such high public expectations and the unremitting and unforgiving glare of mass publicity makes us now more critical than ever.

The academic tools to examine this phenomenon were codified as long ago as 1957 when the American historian, Ernst Kantorowicz, first published his study of the phenomenon of `the king's two bodies'. Kantorowicz's task, in this instance, was to examine what he called `medieval political theology' or the way in which commentators throughout the Middle Ages engaged in a debate on the personal and spiritual capacities of kingship. It was possible to speak of the personal body of the king, which may be infirm, elderly, young or imbecilic, which could be distinguished, but not necessarily separated from the office of kingship, which was supreme, carried no such personal defects and was immutable through time. The body of the king may become frail and die, but his powers are never in demise, for as soon as the old king expires, someone is on hand to proclaim, `the king is dead; long live the king'. It was a commonplace to say that `the king never dies'.

Although his primary purpose was to discuss the medieval antecedents of this theory, Kantorowicz drew attention to their frequent use by Elizabethan jurists and the ways in which such an understanding of the functions of monarchy had entered the language. Edmund Plowden's Reports made full use of its maxims, but so too did Shakespeare in his study of the kingship of Richard 11. The Tragedy of Richard II is a study of the way in which the personal actions of a monarch precipitate the separation of the mystical and spiritual aspects of monarchy from the person whose embodiment of these aspects we are meant to owe allegiance and respect. …

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