The Restoration and Revolution Monarchy 1660-1714

Rebranding Rule
The Restoration and Revolution Monarchy 1660-1714
Kevin Sharpe
Yale University Press 
849pp  £45

Monarchs in pre-modern Europe ruled as well as reigned. Sovereign power could be wielded in the Privy Council as well as the royal bedchamber, while influence could be gained by accessing a ruler who was busy hearing petitions or dining.

Such was the nature of personal rule. There was a time when the staples of the history of early modern monarchical authority were predominantly high politics, administration, finance and war. This is no longer the case, largely due to the appearance of history from below in the 1960s and the more recent cultural turn. The study of royal power has been intensified in two key respects. First, scholars have addressed the various ways in which sovereigns displayed themselves to, and engaged with, their public and with monarchical representations commissioned by and for rulers. Thus a good book on royal authority now has to take into account wider aspects of kingship, such as court ceremonies, processions and masques; progresses; prayers and thanksgivings; coronations, funerals and marriages; paintings, prints and woodcuts; plays and poems; coins and seals; and architecture. Second, there is greater sensitivity to the ways authority was received and debated: independent encounters and depictions are also studied, sometimes revealing ambivalent or critical attitudes to power, as well as resistance. 

The late Kevin Sharpe turned his considerable talents to the task of studying the ways in which the Tudor and Stuart monarchs represented themselves and exerted their authority, producing a trilogy of hefty tomes that collectively encompass more than 2,000 pages. Rebranding Rule, the third and sadly final book in his sequence, concentrates on the period from 1660 to 1714. It is a well-structured book, lucid, with a relaxed pace. Sharpe has found much new material that shines light on the culture of royal power and high politics during the later Stuart period. For example, his account of the spring and summer of 1660 is compelling, describing the different ritualistic ways in which Charles II presented himself in Europe and then England. In The Hague Charles displayed sacral kingship by touching for scrofula; and he dined in public with great formality as a guest of the States General, publicly forgiving the English parliamentary commissioners who visited him to request pardon.  Both of these gestures – healing the sick and forgiving his enemies – signified that, once restored, Charles would be merciful.  Sharpe suggests that even as Charles took possession of his new kingdoms, the king could not take his authority for granted because of the tumultuous events of the 1640s and 1650s. This explains why at court Charles could be a stickler for protocol, while beyond his palaces he was often accessible and engaged with the public. 

Sharpe’s book can be tested against the two investigative criteria – proactive and reactive —mentioned above. In the first case it does well. It is alert to the different ways in which kingship was performed and uses paintings, prints, plays, poems, coins and medals as source material. In so far as the book has a weakness, it is connected to the second criterion. Although Sharpe does acknowledge the need to address how people responded to royal power, his book is heavy on the creation and transmission of authority but light on its
reception. Sharpe tends to assume that the communication of monarchical power happened in the way that its architects wanted and when responses are discussed they tend to lean towards the favourable.  This means that, despite the book’s inspiring interdisciplinarity, it is surprisingly conservative in tone. 

The book essentially upholds a well-known interpretation, albeit illuminated from a novel angle: Charles II survived in part due to his accessibility and flexibility, as well as his association with the Tories in the 1680s; James II’s problems stemmed not so much from his inability to play the role of king but from his Roman Catholicism; after the Glorious Revolution monarchy was ‘de-mystified’ and William III and Anne were a new type of sovereign, dependent on Parliament for their power, with neither of them being especially skilled at public presentations.

Sharpe’s book is a mine of new material concerning the culture of sovereignty in England from 1660 to 1714.  But even as weighty a tome as this may prove not to be the last word on its subject.

Stephen Brogan is currently Jacobite Studies Trust Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research .

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5