This is a truly monumental book, dealing with a vast subject and over a relatively long time-span; the fact that it is only the second volume in a trilogy covering the whole of the early modern period makes the undertaking all the more astonishing. As the title suggests, Kevin Sharpe’s focus is on how successive regimes sought to represent themselves, to boost their authority and legitimacy. His starting point is that the reality of power is inseparable from its representation, that ‘image was power’.
The book is divided into five chronological sections. In the first, Sharpe surveys the reign of James I. When James came to the English throne he was in an awkward position, as Elizabeth I had increasingly sought to focus power on herself as queen, rather than the monarchy as a whole. James’s approach was very different, being based far more on words than on visual display, and he became known for his ‘endless interventions, with his pen and in person, in the discourse and turmoil of politics’.
Charles I – the subject of part two – was in some ways more akin to Elizabeth. His accession in 1625 marked ‘a shift from arguments for royal policies to the (silent) representation of majesty’. Charles sought a more formal and artistic style at court and was reluctant to explain or argue his position, especially with a hostile Parliament, and from 1629 until 1640 he dispensed with those troublesome assemblies altogether. In the next part we follow Charles into the crisis of 1640-42 and the civil wars and regicide that followed. In a startlingly new interpretation, Sharpe portrays Charles as a skillful and adaptable politician, who entered whole heartedly into the ‘contest to secure public support’ during the war and in defeat ‘successfully identified his own condition with the grievances of the nation’. Although he had broken his silence, Charles remained the master of the visual performance – no less so than in January 1649, when his display of dignity and authority during his trial and on the scaffold confounded his enemies and turned the show trial into a martyrdom.
The revolutionaries could kill the king and abolish monarchy, but they could not escape the ghosts of either. Sharpe argues in the fourth part that the new commonwealth ‘failed to secure its own cultural authority or even significantly to undermine the culture of kingship’ and this was a major cause of its demise in April 1653.
There was no republican tradition in England and in the absence of recognisable forms, the commonwealth came to rely on the image and authority of Oliver Cromwell as a military leader – a dangerous tactic, as it turned out.
With Cromwell’s inauguration as lord protector in December 1653, England once more had a ‘single person’ as its focus and the final part chronicles Cromwell’s presentation of his image, as the protectorate became increasingly like a monarchy. Cromwell famously rejected the crown, but all the other trappings of kingship were in place by the time of his death.
Although Cromwell ‘filled a gap, repaired a rupture in the psyche of the nation’, like Elizabeth, his ‘intense personalising of authority made it difficult for any to succeed him’. His son Richard was thus destined to fail and residual loyalty to the Stuarts – reinvigorated by the martyrdom of Charles I – would lead inexorably to the Restoration in 1660.
While one would hesitate to argue with Sharpe’s extraordinary display of learning and erudition, it should be pointed out that while this book is at heart a powerful revaluation of Charles I, it is less convincing when dealing with other periods, notably the commonwealth and protectorate. Other scholars have emphasised the very deliberate construction of a commonwealth ethos and their ideas are not disproved here. Nor does Sharpe take into account the recent body of work on the protectoral court, which has highlighted a range of different aspects – poetic, architectural, musical, cultural and structural – allowing a more nuanced understanding of the Cromwellian period to develop. Rather than apeing Caroline forms, the protectorate was intent on creating something recognisably traditional, but modified to reflect its godly, and decidedly nonmonarchical, foundations.
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