London: Royal Academy of Arts, 267 pp., $65.00
The Royal Academy’s magnificent exhibition “Charles I: King and Collector” revealed a great deal about the collector, but almost nothing about the king. Perhaps this was a deliberate omission, for although Charles I, king of Great Britain and Ireland between 1625 and 1649, built up what became one of the greatest art collections to be found in mid-seventeenth-century Europe, he was a spectacularly unsuccessful monarch. As a boy, he was overshadowed by his dashing older brother, Henry, whose sudden death from typhoid in 1612 made the twelve-year-old Charles the unexpected heir apparent. He was a delicate child; rickets had given him weak ankles, but as he grew up, he overcame this disability and developed into an excellent horseman. He retained a bad speech impediment, however, and he was barely five feet four inches tall. Naturally shy in his dealings with people, he took refuge in extreme formality and regal hauteur.
His reign began badly. In response to the urging of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, his father’s favorite and his own close friend, he embarked upon two wars, first against Spain and then against France. Both failed miserably. Relations with his Parliaments, which were reluctant to fund these campaigns and hostile to his anti-Calvinist religious sympathies, became increasingly difficult. In 1629 he chose to rule without Parliament and continued for eleven years, funding his government by legally questionable methods.
His attempt in 1637 to impose a new Anglican prayer book upon the Presbyterian Scots was fiercely resisted. Charles responded with an armed invasion that he lacked the resources to sustain. By 1640 he was forced to turn to Parliament for financial help, only to unleash a passionate attack on his conduct during the period of personal rule and a series of measures designed to dismantle his entire system of government. His failure in January 1642 to arrest five of the most obstreperous MPs was the last straw. He left London to raise troops, and in August declared war upon the parliamentary opposition.
The two civil wars that followed brought in the Irish as well as the Scots. The king was defeated, but the deaths on both sides were proportionately as numerous as British losses in World War I. In the subsequent negotiations Charles failed to accept a peaceful settlement, exasperating his opponents by his duplicity and reluctance to compromise. His trial and execution in January 1649 as a “man of blood” who had levied war against his people were followed by the proclamation of a republic.
One of the new Commonwealth’s first acts was to confiscate the late king’s possessions. A few of his artworks were retained by the state, but the remainder were either used to settle the Crown’s debts or sold off on the open market. When Charles II was…
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