Commemorating Charles I - King and Martyr?

By Tomlinson, Howard | History Today, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Commemorating Charles I - King and Martyr?


Tomlinson, Howard, History Today


Days of fast or thanksgiving were not uncommonly celebrated in the late seventeenth century. To take a number of random examples: Charles II appointed November 13th, 1678, as a fast day 'to implore the mercies of God' after the Popish Plot revelations. James II, his brother and successor, chose July 26th, 1685 as a thanksgiving day for his victory over the Duke of Monmouth. In the following reign, other days were set aside for thanksgiving or deliverance. January 31st, 1689 -- immediately after the Revolution, but before the coronation of William and Mary -- was assigned a thanksgiving day for the Prince of Orange's deliverance of the kingdom 'from Popery and arbitary power'; April 16th, 1696, was the date for giving thanks 'for the preservation of his Majesty ... from conspiracy' (an abortive assassination plot to murder William III at Turnham Green); and December 2nd, 1697, that given for the Peace of Ryswick.

With the exception of the day of the sovereign's accession and November 17th, (Queen Elizabeth's accession day, still widely celebrated in the late seventeenth century, as the popeburning processions of 1678-79 confirm) most of these celebrations were transient. Once the emergency had passed or the treaty had been signed, the special day was forgotten. In the Restoration church, however, three days were accorded special status and became the occasion for annual commemoration. These were May 29th, -- the date of Charles II's birth and, more importantly, his restoration; November 5th, -- that of the Gunpowder Plot, to which after William's successful landing in Torbay on that date in 1688 was added, in Gilbert Burnet's words, 'a second service, since God has enabled it so far as to be the beginning of that which we may justly hope shall be our complete deliverance from all plots and conspiracies'; finally, and perhaps for the Restoration monarchy and church most important of all, there was January 30th, the date of Charles I's execution. The observance of all three days rested on Acts of Parliament, and special orders of service were incorporated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for their commemoration which were not removed until 1859.

Almost immediately after the king's execution on the afternoon of January 30th, 1649, and encouraged by the king's scaffold address, Charles I was made martyr by popular royalist acclaim. A few royalist spectators at the execution had managed to dip handkerchiefs in the king's blood, and stories soon circulated of miracles wrought by aid of such relics. Pictures of Charles became collectors' items and commemorative medals were struck in his honour. Published accounts of the king's death compared his martyrdom to the Passion of Christ. Above all, on the day of the burial, a book of meditations and prayers on the principal events of Charles's reign was published. The book, entitled Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings, was printed under the late king's name. Its authorship, however, was questioned by Milton among others, but such eminent counterblasts -- as well as government attempts at censorship -- could not prevent the book becoming an international best-seller, which ran into thirty-six editions in its first year of publication. In C.V. Wedgwood's words, 'it created the vision of King Charles The Martyr' in which royalists 'needed to believe'. At the Restoration, an exclusive patent was granted to one Richard Royston for the privilege of printing the late king's works -- 'as a reward for his fidelity in publishing many passages and papers of our said blessed father, especially those most excellent discourses and soliloquies by the name of Eikon Basilike'. By this means, the Eikon openly became the shibboleth of the new royalist party.

Aside from relics, pictures and printed propaganda, the king's martyrdom was soon commemorated in secret royalist services. Indeed, in a sermon delivered privately only the Sunday after the execution, the Bishop of Rochester chose as his text 'that most lawless, cruel and hellish murder of God's anointed -- Christ the King of the Jews'. …

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