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 restored to the throne in 1660 a serious effort was made to get the collection back, and, amazingly, by the end of his reign the great bulk of it had been recovered. But many of the very finest paintings had ended up in the royal collections of Spain and France, and there they stayed. Others have since been scattered all over the world.
Most narrators of these dramatic events have been either Cavaliers or Roundheads. The Whig historians from Thomas Babington Macaulay to George Macaulay Trevelyan were Roundheads. They regarded Charles I as the would-be architect of royal absolutism. They noted that he levied illegal taxation, billeted troops on innocent householders, and arbitrarily arrested dissident MPs. The outstanding authority on the period, the Victorian Samuel Rawson Gardiner, could not forgive him for his willingness to condone plots to use force against Parliament long before war broke out. Charles was the authoritarian who said on the scaffold that the people were not entitled to a share in the government: “That is nothing appertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clear different things.”
On the other side, the Cavaliers recalled Charles’s grave demeanor, his chaste and affectionate domestic life, his courage, and his dignified behavior during the last weeks of his life. They admired his unshaken commitment to the liturgy and government of the Church of England, and they were moved by the pious sincerity of his spiritual and political reflections in his book, Eikon Basilike (the image of the king). Ghostwritten by a royalist cleric, it was published within days of the king’s execution and long remained a huge best seller. Charles’s status as a Christ-like martyr was officially recognized in 1660, when Parliament canonized him as an Anglican saint and ordered annual prayers in his honor on January 30, the day of his execution. This requirement remained in the Church of England’s prayer book until 1859, and there is still a Society of King Charles the Martyr. Today, as in the past, Charles remains a hero for many Tories, High Church Anglicans, and Roman Catholics.
After Trevelyan, Whig history fell into disfavor, though Marxist historians continued the Roundhead tradition by regarding Charles as a feudal survival doomed to be swept away by a rising bourgeoisie. In contrast, the so-called revisionist historians of the later twentieth century regarded the civil war as an unfortunate accident rather than the inevitable consequence of royal tyranny or social change. Their view of Charles was often more sympathetic. The most extreme statement was by Kevin Sharpe in The Personal Rule of Charles I (1992), in which he rightly noted that for most of the 1630s England enjoyed “halcyon days” of peace, at a time when Europe was convulsed by the Thirty Years’ War. More controversially, he played down the extent of opposition to what the Whigs had called the “Eleven Years’ Tyranny.” As he saw it, the rule of this hard-working and high-principled king over a largely contented people was disrupted only by the Scottish resistance in 1637 to Charles’s attempt to impose the new prayer book. But Sharpe could not deny that from that attempt followed the sequence of events leading to the Long Parliament, the civil war, and the regicide; and for all that, Charles bore the primary responsibility.
Like Sharpe, Leanda de Lisle is emphatically a Cavalier, though her vividly written biography The White King lacks the erudition underpinning Sharpe’s magnum opus. Resident in Leicestershire and with a surname that must have eased her relations with the local aristocracy, she makes great play of her finds in stately houses, particularly some unpublished letters of Charles’s queen, Henrietta Maria, in the normally inaccessible archives of the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle.1 But though interesting, they do not add much to what is already known.
For the most part, de Lisle draws upon secondary works, and her endnotes are often slapdash. She has little time for Charles’s critics, and few of her readers will emerge with a very clear idea as to why he should have encountered so much opposition in his early Parliaments. In her eyes, Charles was a tragic hero, “a courageous king, of high ideals, whose flaws and misjudgements lead to his ruin,” and “a better exemplar of a chivalric knight than he ever was a king.” This is what the authors of 1066 and All That called the “Wrong but Wromantic” view of the king.
De Lisle is strong, however, on Charles’s domestic life. After a harebrained journey with Buckingham to Madrid in 1623 to court the Spanish infanta, he was married in 1625 to Henrietta Maria (Henriette-Marie), daughter of the late Henri IV of France and his wife, Marie de Médicis. The couple’s first years together were difficult. Henrietta Maria was fifteen. She was also an extremely pious Catholic. The queen’s confessors set severe limits on the frequency of her marital intercourse, while the king was sexually demanding. He may also have been closer emotionally to Buckingham than to his wife. It was only after the duke’s assassination in 1628 and the end of the war with France that the royal pair grew closer, coming to terms with their religious differences and forging an intense relationship that, despite their permanent separation after her flight to France in 1644, lasted until Charles’s death. After the premature birth in May 1629 of a son who lived for only two hours, Henrietta Maria went on to bear him seven more children, ensuring the continuity of the dynasty and diminishing the incentive for Charles to get involved in the Thirty Years’ War in the hope of recovering the Rhine Palatinate for his sister Elizabeth, the “Winter Queen,” and her sons, who would have been next in line for the succession.
One of de Lisle’s main objectives is to reveal the important place of women in the politics of the period. She reminds us of the red-headed and pockmarked royalist agent Jane Whorwood, to whom in 1648 Charles, then a prisoner in Carisbrooke Castle, made uncharacteristically lewd advances. She also has much to say about the promiscuous and socially ambitious beauty Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle, the queen’s onetime favorite, who betrayed her by warning one of the parliamentary leaders of the king’s intention to arrest the five MPs.
Above all, de Lisle seeks to rescue Henrietta Maria from the “misogyny, religious prejudice and the propaganda of her enemies.” She emphasizes the queen’s unrelenting efforts to end the persecution of English Catholics and her total commitment to her husband’s cause. Here she follows the historians Caroline Hibbard and Erin Griffey, though what they revealed was that the queen was as much a liability to Charles as a help.2 In the 1630s diplomatic relations with the papacy were resumed, and her Catholicism became increasingly visible. Charles himself was a firm supporter of the Church of England, but the installation of Catholic chapels in Henrietta Maria’s seven palaces, her entourage of priests and friars, and her being the goddaughter of Pope Urban VIII all gave credence to the abiding Protestant fear that the king was party to a popish plot. When the civil war broke out, her efforts to raise troops in Ireland and other Catholic countries only confirmed these suspicions. Her enemies published her captured correspondence with Charles to show that it was she who wore the breeches and was successfully persuading Charles to allow his Catholic subjects religious freedom.
Henrietta Maria had a large independent income, which she spent freely on clothes, jewels, court entertainments, and building projects. Like Charles, she was a great patron of artists. The French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur accompanied her to England, and it was for her that he did some of his best work. The pope’s nephew sent her pictures by Andrea del Sarto, Leonardo, and Giulio Romano. The Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi became her chief painter and did the ceiling for the Queen’s House at Greenwich. He was joined later by his daughter, Artemisia, a gifted artist who has attracted much interest among modern feminist historians because of her penchant for Old Testament scenes featuring strong, assertive women. The Royal Academy exhibition devoted an entire room to the Gentileschis and other paintings of powerful women, like Christofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes. The exhibition’s title, however, concealed the fact that the pictures on view were not just the king’s, but what the Rump Parliament called “the goods and personal estate of the late King, Queen and Prince.”
“Charles I: King and Collector” was a valiant attempt to reunite what it called “a significant part” of the royal collection. Out of the 1,500 or so paintings and 500 sculptures once owned by Charles, it selected 140 items. But of these, about ninety came from the present-day Royal Collection and only twenty-two from outside the UK. The Louvre lent three pictures and the Prado five, but they held on to more remarkable works by Mantegna, Dürer, Raphael, Leonardo, Giorgione, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio, all of which had once been part of Charles’s fabulous collection. Many of these are illustrated in the informative catalog accompanying the exhibition.
Charles’s collection derived from many different sources. Some works were inherited from his mother, James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark. She revived the royal collection, neglected since the days of Henry VIII, and encouraged her eldest son, Henry, to form his own collection of European masters, including the first Renaissance bronzes to reach England and a huge number of antique coins, medals, and seals. More important were the consequences of Charles’s otherwise ill-fated visit to Madrid in 1623. Not only was he profoundly impressed by the visual magnificence of Philip IV’s Escorial and other palaces, crammed with masterpieces, but as the Spanish king’s prospective son-in-law, he returned home laden with gifts and purchases, including works by Veronese and Correggio, a portrait of him by Velázquez, and four Titians, among them the erotic Jupiter and Antiope (the “Pardo Venus”) and Charles V on Horseback.
By the time he became king, Charles had already acquired a sufficiently respectable collection of European masters to allow him to hold up his head among the other English collectors of his day, like the Earl of Arundel, who had, among much else, forty paintings by Holbein and the greatest collection of old master drawings in Europe, or Charles’s friend Buckingham, who built up a uniquely impressive collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens. What put Charles’s collection in a totally different class was his acquisition between 1626 and 1632, through the shady Flemish collector and dealer Daniel Nijs, of the legendary collection of the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua, who had been forced to sell for financial reasons.
Thirty-one of the items in the Royal Academy’s exhibition came from the Mantua purchase. They included Titian’s magisterial Supper at Emmaus and The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos; Jan Gossaert’s living and breathing Portrait of a Man Holding a Glove; two outstanding Correggios, Venus with Mercury and Cupid and The Holy Family with St Jerome; Bronzino’s wonderfully serene Portrait of a Woman in Green; The Toilet of Venus by Charles’s favorite seventeenth-century artist, Guido Reni; and half a dozen superb pieces of antique sculpture, including the voluptuous “Crouching Venus,” baldly described in the Gonzaga catalog as “a naked woman sitting on her heels.”
Most magnificent of all were the nine huge canvases of Mantegna’s The Triumph of Caesar. Though damaged on its voyage to England, repainted and frequently repaired, this representation of the general’s triumphal procession seen from below remains an overwhelmingly impressive evocation of the material paraphernalia of classical antiquity, with its vases and urns, busts and statues, weapons and armor, banners and standards, lamps and candelabra, trumpets and tamborines, horses and elephants, all preceding the victorious leader in his heavily ornamented chariot.
After the Mantua acquisition, the king’s interest in painting was widely recognized and gifts from diplomats, courtiers, and aspiring artists flowed in. Rubens came to England in 1629 to negotiate the peace with Spain and celebrated its conclusion by presenting Charles with his Minerva [Wisdom] Protects Pax [Peace] from Mars [War]. English ambassadors were ordered to look out for suitable acquisitions and English collectors persuaded to swap their masterpieces for works that the king found less attractive. Charles also made great efforts to encourage foreign artists to come to London and work for him. The German painter Francis Cleyn was hired to design tapestries for the factory at Mortlake in Surrey. Rubens was commissioned to depict the apotheosis of James I on the ceiling of Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House. Hubert Le Sueur was employed by the treasurer, Sir Richard Weston, to produce the equestrian statue of the king that today stands in Trafalgar Square looking down to Whitehall. Above all, Rubens’s best pupil, the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, was knighted by Charles and appointed “Principal Painter in Ordinary to His Majesty.”
It is by Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles and his family that the king is best remembered today, and they formed the core of the Academy’s exhibition. All the most striking ones were there: Charles in his robes of state; Charles on horseback; Charles with Henrietta Maria; Charles the father of his family and guardian of the nation; Charles painted from three different angles so that Bernini in faraway Rome could make his bust; Henrietta Maria in a dashing black hat and a ravishing blue dress, accompanied by her dwarf and pet monkey; Charles’s five eldest children, calm in the presence of a giant mastiff. The most dramatic was the huge illusionist portrait of the king guiding his great horse through a triumphal arch and, it seemed, right into the gallery itself. The most beautiful, last seen in England in the 1640s (now in the Louvre), was of Charles in the hunting field: an anxious groom tends the king’s obviously exhausted horse, while Charles faces us, a superior, faintly disdainful figure, superbly elegant and totally unruffled by his exertions in the saddle.
For sheer bravura, Van Dyck’s fluid, romantic painting, with its delicate flesh tones, graceful postures, and shimmering drapery, has never been surpassed. Visitors to the exhibition marveled at his virtuosity, but in this astonishing accumulation of masterpieces they had so much else to admire as well: Gossaert’s muscular Adam and Eve; Peter Bruegel’s beguiling Three Soldiers from the Frick; an exceptional Adoration of the Shepherds by Jacopo Bassano; Rubens’s Landscape with St George and the Dragon, with Charles I portrayed as Saint George; and the great Mortlake tapestries, based on Raphael’s cartoons for The Acts of the Apostles and regarded at the time as much more valuable than paintings, because they were so labor-intensive and used up so much gold and silver.
Particularly enchanting was the partial recreation of Charles’s Cabinet and Chair Rooms in Whitehall Palace, where he kept some of his smaller and choicest possessions. They included superb portraits by Quinten Massys, Dürer, and Holbein; tiny versions by Peter Oliver of major paintings by Raphael, Titian, and Correggio; and Isaac Oliver’s miniature of Charles as a rather uningratiating teenager, followed by Peter Oliver’s image of him aged about twenty, with an embryonic moustache and looking much more alert. There were many exquisite miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and the Olivers, small bronzes by Francesco Fanelli and Le Sueur, and commemorative medals in silver and gold. Especially memorable was the damaged but still marvelous Roman sardonyx cameo of the emperor Claudius, a superb example of classical art.
The exhibition made no reference to Charles’s political career, but provided the visitors with intense aesthetic pleasure largely devoid of historical context. The essays in the catalog offer helpful comments on the king’s taste, stressing his total indifference to artists working before 1500 (Mantegna excepted), his admiration for Correggio and Titian, his predilection for female nudes, and his willingness to exchange a whole album of Holbein portrait drawings for a single painting by Raphael. They also point out that Charles was highly dependent on agents and advisers. He had no systematic acquisition policy and was usually happy to leave his purchases to their judgment. What he wanted was to reinforce his international prestige with a collection comparable in magnificence to that of his Spanish and French counterparts. For that he was prepared to spend money on the Mantuan pictures that could have been spent on saving Buckingham from military failure in the war against France. His own commissions were largely confined to the glorification of himself and his dynasty, an objective that Rubens and Van Dyck achieved in spades.
The irony was that the representations of the diminutive king as a majestic emperor and of his little wife with a curved spine and protruding teeth as a ravishing and fertile beauty were hung in Charles’s private quarters and seen only by privileged visitors. They were there for narcissistic contemplation rather than the instruction of the king’s subjects. As it turned out, many of his enemies were highly suspicious of Catholic painters and lascivious nudes. When the time came, they unhesitatingly got rid of them, thus dispersing a wonderful collection that will never be reunited.
In much the same way, Lawrence Stone, the historian of the early-modern English nobility and a former student at Oxford’s most aristocratic college, was always careful to wear his Christ Church tie when seeking access to closed archives in stately homes. ↩
Caroline M. Hibbard, “Henrietta Maria,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); Erin Griffey, On Display: Henrietta Maria and the Materials of Magnificence at the Stuart Court (Yale University Press, 2015). ↩