Images Of Tudor Kingship; & The Fabrication Of Louis XIV

Roy Strong | Published in
  • Images Of Tudor Kingship
    Sydney Anglo – Seaby, 1992 - ix+154 pp. - £18.50
  • The Fabrication Of Louis XIV
    Peter Burke - Yale University Press, 1992 - xi+242 pp. - $19.95/$35.00

Saatchi and Saatchi's manufacture of the public persona of Lady Thatcher is nothing new in the history of power politics. Publicity, packaging and marketing are as old as the power game itself. The dissection of such constructs by contemporary historians has, however, been remarkably tardy and patchy. The reason for this is the fragmentation of fields of expertise, for such analyses call for a rare polymathic structure of mind and vision, a scholar able to handle with authority not only the stuff of hard history but also matter as varied as medals, popular prints, poetry or the scenarios for court entertainments. As a result studies of this have, in the main, stemmed from those trained within the interdisciplinary methods of Aby Warburg and his school.

It has recently been pointed out that the slow advance in what might be called the study of art and power was a direct result of just this circle of people. Traumatised by the regime from which they fled, that of Nazi Germany, itself a textbook case of such manipulation of imagery, they retreated tremulous of the consequences of such analyses. As a result, research in this area has worked from the periphery inwards. Hence the burgeoning from the 1950s of studies in festivals, portraiture, palace architecture and dynastic symbolism. The Roman and Byzantine emperors, the Tudor and early Stuart monarchs, the Medici grand dukes as well as the French Revolution and Napoleon have all been pretty well covered. But the gaps remaining are enormous. With the collapse of Communism the subjects ready for study in this century alone are manifold.

So here we have two new books within this highly interesting field of research, one that goes over the old ground of Tudor England and one that breaks new in the person of Louis XIV. Images of Tudor England is a trip down memory lane for Professor Sydney Anglo. Together with the present reviewer we were known as 'the boys' in the middle of the 1950s when, under the guidance of the late Dame Frances Yates, we were opening up this subject. All of us wish to repent in late middle age of at least part of our earlier work and here is Anglo's breast-beating revisionist view of Tudor symbolism.

The trouble is, such recycling may be worthy but it makes for a dull read and honestly he should have spared us this blow-by-blow excursion around Tudor roses and the British history in favour of off- loading it onto a learned periodical. Admittedly it does hot up in the last chapter with a few justified and unjustified swipes at the conclusions drawn by other scholars – including myself – but why not? There are curious gaps in his bibliography like my Gloriana (1986) and virtually all the madder Virgin Queen literature. But, no, on the whole never go back; let a new generation take over.

Peter Burke's book is quite another matter. Here, for the first time, we have a comprehensive survey of what amounts to the theatre of Louis XIV, a carefully composed spectacle which unfolded itself across several decades in a series of transformations in which the king assumed many guises, as le roi soleil, Roman emperor, healer, victor, gentleman, hero, pater familias and Maecenas. This was a calculated apotheosis to which its leading actor contributed much, albeit aided by two of his ministers, first Colbert and then Louvois. It is also a rare case where those involved actually articulated what they were up to. In 1662 there was a report on how to make use of the arts pour conserver la splendeur des entreprises du Roy. For two decades this machine ran superbly and then began to creak. The king became old which had to be admitted leaving Hamlet, as it were, to be played minus the prince, Worse still, the galaxy of artistic talent which distinguished the early years of the reign dried up. Even more serious was the fact that the myth had been built on the assumptions of a pre-Newtonian universe. It depended on the magic correspondences, allegory and symbolism of late Renaissance hermeticism. When the universe became a machine this lost its power but the king was too old to change.

For those interested in the fate and mythology of crowns there are some worthwhile parallels to be drawn between the crisis precipitated by this in terms of monarchical 'hold' and the one surrounding our present royal family.

Roy Strong is the author of Henry Prince of Wales (Thames and Hudson, 1986).

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