Tag Archives: Charles I of England

The Equestrian King

So Downton Abbey reruns began this week in advance of the show’s final season and I dutifully watched, even though I’d seen it all before. I’m not a big fan of this show–the writing is a bit too erratic and melodramatic for me–but I certainly will miss seeing the house when the series is over. The production values of the series have been stellar, although several friends of mine who are landscape architects tell me that the opportunity to showcase the the estate’s grounds has been squandered. There are two rooms in the “abbey” (really Highclere Castle) that I particularly like: the Earl’s library with its pair of plush red couches and the dining room. I love that huge van Dyck portrait of Charles I and his riding master towering over the Crawley family, but I suppose I can see it elsewhere because it’s one of at least 3 variant copies.

dining room highclere castle


(c) Launceston Town Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King Charles I (1600-1649) with M. de St Antoine (1633) by Anthony van Dyck at Highclere Castle; in the Royal Collection (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015); After van Dyck paintings at the Launceston Town Hall and  Aspley House, Wellington Collection.

I’ve been thinking about Charles a lot over the past few weeks as I have just dragged the students in my graduate course on Early Modern England through the history and historiography of the English Revolution. When you’re focusing on Charles in this particular context, he looks arrogant and ill-advised, even stupid, and you tend to dwell on his death rather than his life. The enormity of being the only king in English history to be tried, convicted, and executed by his subjects for high treason will always be his primary identify and legacy, but still, sometimes it’s nice to think about “villains” in other ways. When I look at these images of Charles on horseback I see a dashing, dignified, and powerful cavalier (and also TALL, much taller than his actual height of 5’4” or so), and that is a nice way to consider him on this day, his birthday. Before the Revolution and after, when the monarchy was restored through the equally dashing persona of his son and namesake Charles II, similar portraits of Charles were commissioned, created, and published, almost as if the image of the robust, noble, and virtuous (horses are always virtuous) king was intended to wipe out alternative images of the tyrant or the traitor. Van Dyck  painted two other equestrian portraits of Charles in the 1630s: the very large “wandering portrait” of Charles I on Horseback, c.1636-8 (National Gallery, London) and my favorite, Le Roi à la Chasse, c.1635 (The Louvre), and after the Revolution, prints of the equestrian king were produced well into the nineteenth century.

Equestrian Portrait Anthonis_van_Dyck_046


Above: the Van Dyck equestrian portraits of Charles I from the National Gallery and the Louvre, and a 1636 line engraving of the latter from the National Portrait Gallery, London; Below: a succession of equestrian portraits of Charles I.

Bernard Baron, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck, line engraving, 1741 (1633); after Unknown artist, line engraving, 18th century; Charles Turner, published by Samuel Woodburn, after Francis Delaram, mezzotint, 1813, all National Portrait Gallery, London.


On this day in 1649 King Charles I of England was executed in London, marking the first procedural regicide in European history.  After two civil wars, intrigues with both the Scots and the Irish, and numerous protestations that he was above the law,  Parliament put the King on trial, found him guilty, and executed him.  This was obviously a momentous moment in British and world history, but it had a local angle as well:  eleven years after the execution of Charles, with his son newly enthroned, Hugh Peter, the fourth pastor of the First Church of Salem from 1636-41, was himself executed after his identification as one of the royal regicides.

Hugh Peter (s)

How did a colonial pastor find himself on a London scaffold?   The answer lies in his passionate Puritanism and his close personal connection to Oliver Cromwell, victorious leader of the Parliamentary army in the Civil Wars and then ruler of all England in the “interregnum” between the death of Charles and the restoration of his son Charles II.  Peter traveled to England in 1641 as an agent of the colonial government and remained, serving successively as a very vocal chaplain to the army and to Cromwell himself.  After the defeat and death of Charles, a collective cult of remorse developed in England, and Cromwell’s public perception changed from that of liberator to tyrant. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, anyone who had any direct association with Cromwell was in danger, and so Peter fell into the net.

THE CULT  OF CHARLES I:        The King’s speech before dying, Royalist memorial jewelry (pendant with Charles I and Charles II and ring), and anonymous late seventeenth-century portrait of Charles as divine-right ruler ( National Portrait Gallery, London).




THE DEMONIZATION OF OLIVER CROMWELL:  two 1660 pamphlets from the British Library, demonizing Cromwell and his Cabinet by association.  At right, Hugh Peter (L) has his back to us.


I’m not sure why Hugh Peter remained in England after the Restoration.  He had certainly made his mark in New England, preaching, acquiring lots of land,  forging strong political connections, and participating in the trial of Anne Hutchinson—why not return?  Perhaps he thought he was safe, as he was not one of the 59 signers of Charles’ death warrant.  Perhaps he simply didn’t have time to leave, as his arrest, imprisonment and trial followed very shortly after the accession of Charles II.  He was vigorously attacked in the pamphlet press at the time (one pamphleteer even accused him of being Charles I’s masked executioner, as he was not present at the proceedings) and his prosecution was popular.  While in prison, he was visited every day by his Salem-born daughter Elizabeth, to whom he dedicated his final work, A Dying Fathers Last Legacy to an Onely Child,  which was published shortly after his death(by hanging, drawing and quartering) on 16 October 1660.



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