Image Wars Kevin Sharpe

Yale, pp.665, 35

Governments in early modern England, having no standing army nor a civil service to speak of, required the consent of the governed. Authority had to be ‘culturally constructed’. That is the starting-point for Kevin Sharpe’s monumental investigation into royal branding in the age of the Tudors and Stuarts. In the first volume of a projected trilogy, Selling the Tudor Monarchy, he argued that the Tudors made the person of the monarch more important than administrative procedures in establishing royal authority. Elizabeth, in particular, fixed in the national memory by her portraits, played down political divisions and ‘privileged her image over actions and events’, making the sovereign the sacred ‘unifying embodiment of the nation’.

England welcomed the arrival of James I on the throne with something of relief. He was descended from Margaret Tudor, he was Protestant and he had succeeded without bloodshed. But he still had a difficulty. He needed to brand a new dynasty. Image Wars provides ample evidence of the importance that the first two Stuarts gave — in published writings, royal proclamations and declarations, sermons and prayer services, court ceremonies, public spectacles and visual imagery—to the presentation of themselves to their subjects. England looked to James to provide settled, peaceful rule and it was greatly to his advantage, as it was to be to his son’s, that he had a male heir.

Each of them assiduously cultivated the image of loving husband and father. But Sharpe argues that James never quite grasped the full importance of the style and image of the English monarchy as it had developed under Henry VIII and Elizabeth. In Scotland, where the monarchy was not veiled in sacred mystery, James, the most scholarly of our kings, had been happy to embroil himself in debate. So, in England, he turned out publication after publication, on the divine right of kings, on holy scripture, on tobacco, on sport. ‘It best becometh a king,’ he wrote, ‘to purify and make famous his own tongue.’ His oratory was much praised (Sharpe places it higher even than Elizabeth’s). His taste for sharp-tongued argument, for confrontation, may have been in tune with the times: during his reign newspapers were born and verse satire and political pamphleteering came of age. But it did little to sustain the sanctity of kingship.

In Anthony van Dyke Charles I found his Holbein. James I had no court painter and rarely sat for portraits. Not that he ignored opportunities for visual display. He was everywhere in woodcuts and on coins and medals. His triumphal six-week passage from Scotland to ascend the English throne revealed a flair for public display and his progress through the streets of London on the way to his first parliament in 1604 was ‘a classical triumph in the high Roman style’ in which he passed through 12 specially constructed arches, at each of which a pageant was enacted. Thereafter, however, he mounted few public spectacles, though it was during his reign that masques (notably by Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton) became the leading vehicle for royal panegyric. Despite his being stained by his reliance on personal favourites, James was not vilified, as Charles was to be. Although his unpopular policy towards Spain marred his last years, at his death he was widely admired for his respect for the common law, his middle way in church affairs and his even-tempered dispensing of justice. Had his son not led England into civil war, James’s posthumous reputation might be higher.

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The accession of Charles I brought a change of style. Deeply impressed, on his visit to Spain to seek the hand of Henrietta Maria, with the formal baroque splendour of the secluded Spanish court and the mystery that enveloped Spanish kingship, Charles, in Sharpe’s words, initiated ‘a shift from arguments for royal policies to the (silent) representation of majesty’. In van Dyke he found ‘the perfect depicter of his political style’, especially in the landscape portraits which, remarkable for the absence of the trappings of majesty, presented him as the natural embodiment of authority, instinctively in command of his environment. And when acrimonious quarrels with his early parliaments led to the ‘personal rule’ of 1629-40, Charles retreated from words and represented himself as occupying high ground above the political fray. That retreat, Sharpe writes, may have been ‘a miscalculation’. The implication is that personal rule was a style choice. But Charles’s opponents took it as something more, as evidence, in combination with the policy of ‘Thorough’, that he was bent on absolutist tyranny.

The great question that Sharpe is unable to answer, no doubt because it is unanswerable, is how great an impact image-making had on the course of events. In his introduction, he seems to give the game away. Elizabeth bequeathed to her successors mounting economic difficulties, an impoverished monarchy, a divided Church of England and a parliament grown ambitious of power. She created a ‘fiction of unity and harmony’ which ‘may have spared England a civil war in the 16th century but, arguably, contributed to one in the 17th’. In other words the Stuarts were handed a chalice so poisoned that no amount of image-making, however skilful, could have saved them from disaster.

There is another difficulty, arising chiefly from Sharpe’s decision to include every royal publication and speech in his analysis. The reader is left wondering whether everything is to be taken as spin. Sharpe writes that the king’s theatrical performances at his trial and on the scaffold, together with the Eikon Basilike, ‘ensured’ that the Commonwealth ‘began its life, not with a reputation for justice but for murder’, and that they exerted ‘a force that destroyed the republic as it was born’.

Does he mean us to take what Charles said as inauthentic? He goes on to say that during the interregnum ‘the modes of discourse and representation’ remained monarchical, dooming the republic to failure. There is force to the point. To dislodge deeply engrained habits of mind was a Herculean task. But was the republicans’ inability to accomplish it merely a function of modes of discourse?

Sharpe knows, it goes without saying, that the conflicts of 17th-century England cannot be understood simply as a series of jousts between rival image-makers. Yet, without quite saying so, his book tends towards the argument that everything that James and Charles said and did was branding, or image-making, or spin, leaving little space for beliefs genuinely stated or objectives frankly pursued. Decoding spin is an essential part of the historian’s craft. Making spin the story leaves us highly entertained and better informed. It is questionable whether it deepens our understanding of the 17th-century crisis in government.

This long book is not for the faint-hearted. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s notes to D.Phil. students reminded them that history should resemble an iceberg, nine tenths of it lying beneath the surface. Sharpe’s amassing of detail is impressive, but wearying in its repetitiveness. It is a pity, too, that a book entitled Image Wars should have only black-and-white illustrations. Van Dyke, for one, deserves better.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: England, History, Monarchy, Non-fiction, Tudors & Stuarts, Yale