Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Deciphering the King: Charles I's Letters to Jane Whorwood

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Deciphering the King: Charles I's Letters to Jane Whorwood

Article excerpt

(ProQuest Information and Learning: ... denotes "strike-through" in the original text omitted.)

Thanks to Anthony Van Dyck, we all have a clear picture of Charles I: grave, dignified, every inch the proper monarch, and a good family man. It is an image that goes beyond the visual, given support in contemporary comments on the king, most influentially in Lucy Hutchinson's Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson: 'The face of the court was much changed in the change of the king, for King Charles was temperate and chaste and serious, so that the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court grew out of fashion.'1 If even someone so deeply hostile to Charles on political and religious grounds could write approvingly of his moral uprightness, it must be incontrovertible. Clarendon, too - not afraid to criticise the king's indecisiveness, lack of enterprise and meanness ('he paused too long in giving') - praises his strict temperance and abhorrence of debauchery: '. . . he could never endure any light or profane word with what sharpness of wit soever it was covered: and though he was well pleased and delighted with reading verses made upon any occasion, no man durst bring before him any thing that was profane or unclean'.2 More than three hundred and fifty years later, this reserved, formal, humourless figure still dominates our view of the king, barely qualified by the wild and absurd romanticism of his voyage to Spain with Buckingham in 1623, and his sexual passion for his wife. The idea that he might be at all indecorous seems to be unthinkable even to his most severe critics. Despite substantial and admirable studies of the creation of Charles's image both during his lifetime through masques, visual representation, pamphlet literature and poetry, and after his death through, above all, Eikon Basilike, there has been a marked reluctance to examine how the public image relates to the private man. Hutchinson's description of him as 'temperate and chaste and serious' remains essentially unchallenged.

There can be no doubt concerning his detestation of drunkenness; it is well attested, not only by commentators but by event. Given his tendency to confer benefits on all of Buckingham's friends and relations, for example, his refusal to continue the Duke's brother Kit Villiers (created Earl of Anglesey by James VI and I) in a court post, on the grounds that 'he would have no drunkards of his Chamber', is doubly significant.3 Charles's desire for privacy and formality in the conduct of court life is similarly incontestable, even though his imposition of new rules did little to reduce duelling, gambling and drinking among the unrulier members of the court, and though sexual misconduct was hidden behind the curtains (sometimes literally) rather than disappearing altogether. The evidence for the king's dislike of 'unclean' language or wit is much less clear. It depends, of course, on what may be defined as 'unclean', but I think we can infer from Clarendon's description that it encompassed sexual innuendo and vulgarity, not just gross obscenity and blasphemy. While it is rare for Charles to use coarse vocabulary in his writing, in his most private letters it is not wholly absent. In 1624 during the French marriage negotiations Viscount Kensington (later Earl of Holland) received a furious letter from the Prince addressing him as 'Captaine Cokescombe', and declaring that he 'would not caire a fart for [the] frendshippe' of the 'Moñsers' were it not for his respect for 'Madam' (Henrietta Maria).4 In early 1625, picking up on his father's apparently affectionate term for Buckingham's wife, mother and sister, he wrote to 'Steenie' that James hoped 'that your comming merrilie hither with the Counts [cunts] in your cumpanie to be his Nurses will make him a hole man again'.5 Just prior to Charles's marriage, Walter Montagu reported from court to the Earl of Carlisle in Paris that 'I haue made him in loue with euery hare in Madames head and swares she shall haue no more powder till he powder her and blow her up himselfe' (a sentence that has been cut from the letter as printed in the Hardwicke State Papers in 1778). …

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