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The Theatrical Mask/Masque of Politics: The Case of Charles I

  • Nancy Klein Maguire


Britain now wear's the sock; the Theater's clean Transplanted hither, both in Place and Scene.

Martin Butler and Jonathan Dollimore have recently documented the importance of drama in English political life before 1642. Such scholarship, however, has stopped cold at the great divide of 1642. Except for Lois Potter in “‘True Tragicomedies’ of the Civil War and Interregnum,” no one has considered the relationship between politics and theater while the theaters were officially closed. Scholars have thereby missed a seminal question in understanding the discourse and complex political maneuvering enveloping the act of regicide in 1649. What is the relationship between the theatrical tradition and the execution of Charles I?

Even though historians frequently comment on the “tragic” nature of the execution of Charles I, thus far neither historian nor literary person has bothered to examine the immediate and popular reactions to the act of regicide. This is understandable. An odd mix of imaginative projection and verifiable fact enshrines the execution of Charles, and documentation is admittedly difficult. The available assortment of primary literature, however, indicates that many Englishmen responded to the execution as theater, more specifically, the dramatic genre of tragedy. A 1649 sermon (attributed to the Royalist Robert Brown) exemplifies both the tragic response to the act of regicide and the mid-century employment of the theatrical tradition: Brown describes the execution as “the first act of that tragicall woe which is to be presented upon the Theater of this Kingdome, likely to continue longer then the now living Spectators.”



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1 [Wither, George], Vaticinium Votivum: Or, Palaemon's Prophetick Prayer (n.p.: “Trajecti: Anno Caroli Martyris primo”), sig. D2v (hereafter cited as Vaticinium Votivum). The bibliographical problems for this project are complex. Different editions of the same work at times have the same imprint, and new editions of a work do not always refer to the existence of earlier editions; some of the works exist in different versions. Rarely are authors and publishers given; because pamphlets were collected loosely and only bound later, leaves have often been misplaced. Unless otherwise indicated, primary references are from copies in the Folger Shakespeare Library.

2 Butler, Martin, Theatre and Crisis: 1632–1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Dollimore, Jonathan, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Potter, Lois, “‘True Tragicomedies’ of the Civil War and Commonwealth,” in Renaissance Tragicomedy: Explorations in Genre and Politics, ed. Maguire, Nancy Klein (New York: AMS, 1987), pp. 196217. For general background, see also Potter, 's “The Plays and the Playwrights: 1642–60,” in The Revels History of Drama in English, 8 vols., gen. ed. Potter, Lois (New York: Methuen, 1981), 4:263304.

3 Gregg, Pauline, e.g., in King Charles I (Dent, J. M., 1981; reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 449, says that “it was his personal tragedy that he was not allowed to live as a gentleman,” and Carlton, Charles in Charles I: The Personal Monarch (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. ix, states that “his death gave his life a tragic dignity.”

4 The reactions that I cite are mainly either of known Royalists—John Quarles, Robert Brown (n. 5 below), and Robert Arnway (n. 47 below)—or are anonymous, and the anonymous writings were probably also Royalist. In his preface to Regale Lectum Miseriæ: Or, A Kingly Bed of Miserie (n.p., 1649), John Quarles apologizes for the “errours of the Presse” since “haste, joyn'd with feare, are conductours to mistakes: Now Reader, my occasions beyond Sea advise me to bid thee adieu … the best that I can expect at home, is but the worst of miseries” (sig. [A4r]). It is not altogether surprising that I have found few acknowledged responses from familiar Royalist playwrights and poets—even the most courageous Royalists had “occasions beyond Sea” in 1649.

5 [Brown, Robert], The Subject's Sorrow: Or, Lamentations Upon the Death of Britaines losiah King Charles (n.p., 1649), sig. C4v. Folger Shakespeare Library (Folger) copy B5050.2.

6 Vaticinium Votivum, sig. C2v.

7 In 1647, two years before the execution, a representative of the English soldiers predicted the response of “all England” to the act of regicide: “For if the King be put to death, there will be such weepings, such cursing, and raging, all England will cry out, and say, O ye bloudy Souldiers, have ye murthered our King?” (He pragmatically concludes, however, that “we are all starke mad if we let the King die till we have our money,” in The Faithfull Souldier. Or, The Speech of A Common Souldier concerning His Arreares, And Putting the King to death [n.p., 1649], sigs. A2r–A2v, A3). Chicago, Newberry Library (Newberry) copy.

8 Diaries and Letters of Philip Henry, ed. Lee, Matthew Henry (London: Kegan Paul, 1882), p. 12.

9 [Wild, Robert?], The Bloody Court; or the Fatall Tribunall … (Printed for Horton, G.; And published by a Rural Pen, for general Satisfaction, n.d.), sig. B4v. Oxford, Worcester College Library copy.

10 [Cleveland, John], Monumentum Regale: Or A Tombe, Erected for that incomparable and Glorious Monarch, Charles the First, King of Great Britane, France and Ireland, &c., in select Elegies, Epitaphs, and Poems (n.p., 1649), sig. B8r. Wing C4681.

11 An Elegy, Sacred to the memory of our most Gracious Soveraigne Lord King Charles, Wing E447, pasted into the Folger copy of The Scotch Souldiers Lamentation (see n. 66 below).

12 Moretti, Franco, “‘A Huge Eclipse’: Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty,” in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Greenblatt, Stephen (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim, 1982), pp. 740.

13 Charles I's last letter to the Prince of Wales, printed in The Letters Speeches and Proclamations of King Charles I, ed. SirPetrie, Charles (London: Cassell, 1935), p. 271.

14 The dedication to the 1648 edition suggests partisan topicality; Charles I's son is reminded that “Your Highnesse hath a Royall Father for an incomparable living Patterne of all the Cardinall Vertues with their Attendants, (which breaking through these late Clouds of Civill Confusions) shin'd with an advantage of lustre to the wonderment of the world)” (Beard, Thomas, The Theatre of Gods Judgements, 4th ed., with additions [London: S. I. & M. H., 1648], sigs. O2v–O4r, A2r–A2v).

15 Vaticinium Votivum (n. 1 above), sig. Elr. Many of these poems are also printed in other (probably earlier) editions.

16 The references are too numerous to document fully. The compiler of Vaticinium Votivum, for example, refers to the rebels as “the abortive Hydra's of an Headless State”; another poet refers to the “Monster-headless-multitude,” and yet another wishes that “each Private head would yield a Flood / Of Tears whil'st Britain's Head stream's out his Blood” (sigs. C3v, D3r, F2v). Poets in Monumentum Regale also repetitively emphasize the headless two bodies of the King; one complains, for example, that “headlesse we our mine must attend” (sig. A2r—the poem is also found in the broadside, A Crowne, A Crime: Or, The Monarch-Martyr, probably an earlier edition of the poem). A poem called Chronostichon, which appears in both Vaticinium Votivum and Monumentum Regale, gives several examples. The poet's lament that “Three Bleeding Bodies [kingdoms] left without a Soul” and his fear that “three Kingdomes run / To their last stage, and Set with Him their Sun” embodies the notion of the body politic. The poet also complains of the “dire Hydra's of a Stiff-neck't-State!” (sig. Elr).

17 Monumentum Regale, sig. C8v.

18 Steven N. Zwicker has noted the tendency to interpret political events in religious terms. See Dryden's Political Poetry: The Typology of King and Nation (Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1972), esp. “Political Typology,” pp. 16–23.

19 Edward, , Earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, ed. Macray, W. Dunn, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1888), 4:488.

20 Subject's Sorrow (n. 5 above). The engraving is also pasted into the Folger copy of The Famous Tragedie and is in the Thomason collection in the British Library. Sirlock's, ErnestShakespeare and Jonson among the Pamphleteers of the First Civil War: Some Unreported Seventeenth-Century Allusions” (Modern Philology 53, no. 2 [November 1955]: 8899) suggests the political appropriation of Shakespeare during the 1640s.

21 Symmons, Edw., A Vindication of King Charles: Or, a Loyal Subjects Duty Manifested (n.p., 1648), sigs. Hh3r, Hh1r.

22 Summers, Claude J., “Herrick's Political Counterplots,” Studies in English Literature 25, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 174.

23 Briggs, Julia, This Stage-Play World: English Literature and Its Background, 1580–1625 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

24 See also Hibbard, George R., “The Early Seventeenth Century and the Tragic View of Life,” Renaissance and Modern Studies 5 (1961): 528, for extended discussion.

25 Basilikon Doron, in The Workes of the Most High and Mightie Prince, James (London: Printed by Robert Barker and John Bill, 1616), p. 180. This is a revised edition of the 1599 Edinburgh publication.

26 Ironically presaging 1649, the 1633 Scottish coronation ritual for Charles I directs that “Upon the Stage another little Scaffold must be erected of two foot high” and adds “there must be Scaffolds for Noblemen, Barons, Knights, Gentlemen of the Chamber, and others,” in The Form of King Charles the I. his Coronation in Scotland, June 11th, 1633. Written with Mr. Dell's own Hand, Secretary to the Late Arch-bishop of Canterbury Dr. Laud (n.p., n.d.), p. [15], Bodleian Library (Bodl.), Wood 398.

27 More, Thomas, The History of King Richard the Third and Selections from the English and Latin Poems, ed. Sylvester, Richard S. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 83.

28 A 1649 elegy on the Earl of Capel, e.g., refers to “the Scaffold turn'd a Stage” (Obsequies on That Vnexemplar Champion ofChivalrie and perfect Patern of true Prowesse, Arthur, Lord Capell [n.p., 1649], broadside, Wing 090); also in Vaticinium Votivum (n. 1 above).

29 A Crowne, A Crime: Or, The Monarch-Martyr, broadside; also found in Monumentum Regale under title of “epitaph”; Monumentum Regale, sig. B7r.

30 W[ase], C[hristopher], Electra of Sophocles: Presented to Her Highnesse the Lady Elizabeth (At the Hague; for Sam. Brown, 1649), sig. f6v.

31 See Wolfe, Don M., ed., in the Complete Prose Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Wolfe, Don M., 8 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 19531982), 4:310; Wolff's, Samuel Lee translation is in The Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Paterson, Frank Allen, 18 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 19311938), 7:17.

32 Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials, ed. Howell, Thomas Bayley, 33 vols. (18091826), 4:1018 (hereafter cited as State Trials).

33 Spittlehouse, John, The First Addresses to His Excellencie the Lord General … (London: Printed by J. C. for himself and Richard Moone, 1653), sig. Blr; Penington, Isaac Jr., Light or Darknesse Displaying or Hiding itself, as it pleaseth (London: Printed by John Macock, 1650), sig. Clr (Bodl. copy).

34 Vaticinium Votivum (n. 1 above), sig. D2v.

35 The Famous Tragedie of King Charles I. Basely Butchered by those who are [eighteen pejorative adjectives] (n.p., 1649), sig. A2v; A Coffin for King Charles: A Crowne for Cromwell: A Pit for the People, broadside, Wing C4888.

36 [Philipps, Fabian], King Charles the First, no Man of Blood (n.p., 1649), title page, sig. Ilv.

37 Famous Tragedie, sig. Blv; D. H. K. [King, Henry], [A] Deepe Groane Fetch'd At the Funerall of that incomparable and Glorious Monarch, Charles the First King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, etc. (n.p., 1649), sig. [A3v]; also in Monumentum Regale (n. 10 above).

38 Anon., Eikon e piste (n.p., 1649).

39 Quarles, Regale Lectum Miserite (n. 4 above), sig. D4r.

40 This poem, from another edition of Vaticinium Votivum, is reprinted in the Spenser Society facsimile, no. 41 (1855; reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1967), sig. d8r (hereafter cited as Vaticinium Votivum Spenser).

41 Marvell, Andrew, “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwel's Return from Ireland,” in The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. Margoliouth, H. M., 3d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 1:9293.

42 Tragicum Theatrum Actorum, & Casuum Tragicorum Londoni Publice celebratorum (Amstelodami: apud Jodocum Jansonium, 1649), opposite p. 184. The foreign imprint may be false (Folger copy 2).

43 In The Famous Tragedie, Ireton reports to Cromwell that the king “this morning lost his Head, thousands of people being Spectators of His Tragedy … the Vulgar (generally) are much inragerl at it” (sig. F4v).

44 A definition of tragedy is, of course, outside the scope of this discussion. Although many of the authors that are cited here were familiar with classical tragedy, the midcentury definition of tragedy appears to be imprecise, reflecting a “prosperity to misery” concept that echoes the viewpoint expressed by Chaucer:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,

As olde bookes maken us memorie,

Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,

And is yfallen out of heigh degree

Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.

(Chaucer, Geoffrey, “The Monks Tale,” in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Robinson, F. N., 2d ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957], 1:189.) Whether the references to “tragedy” in 1649 were instinctual and spontaneous (the reference to “this Dreadful Tragedy,” e.g., by the author of A Bloody Court, n. 9 above) or were built on an elaborate and scholarly apparatus (as the bishop of Rochester's sermon) obviously depend in part on the education of the writer. The more scholarly and controlled references, certainly reflecting the education of the writer, also suggest that sufficient time had lapsed to allow emotions to subside.

45 Written by Mercurius Pragmaticus,” The Levellers levell'd. Or, the Independants Conspiracie to root out Monarchie (n.p., 1647), sig. A4r (Newberry copy).

46 Citations from Firebrace, Henry and from SirHerbert, Thomas are from Memoirs of the Two last Years of the Reign of that unparallell'd Prince, of ever Blessed Memory, King Charles I. (London: Printed for Robert Clavell, 1702), sig. O2v.

47 Arnway, Robert, The Tablet or Moderation of Charles the First Martyr, With an Alarum to the Subjects of England (1649; reprint, London: Printed by A. W., 1661), sig. P4r (Newberry copy); John Quarles, Regale Lectum Miseriœ (n. 4 above), sig. F5r.

48 Famous Tragedie, sig. A3v, misprinted “A2v.”

49 Vaticinium Votivum Spenser (n. 40 above), sig. f2r; the same poem urges “sad Melpomene” to arouse herself because “here's a Theam indeed! if Christians could / Not now lament, the Rocks and Mountains would” (sig. flv).

50 Cotton, Charles, “On the Lord Derby,” in Poems on Several Occasions (London: printed for Tho. Basset, Will. Hensman and Tho. Fox, 1689), sig. Dd6v.

51 Marcurius Pragmaticus,” The Second part of Crafty Crvmwell Or Oliver in His Glory As King. A Trage Commedie (London, 1648), sig. A2r (Bodl. copy).

52 Quarles, Regale Lectum Miseriae (n. 4 above), sig. E2r, misprinted “F2r.” “The best of Kings fall's by the worst of Men” in Vaticinium Votivum Spenser (sig. f2r) varies Quarles's phrase. An unusually qualified phrase occurs in the Folger copy of Vaticinium Votivum: “If not the Greatest, yet the Best of Kings” (sig. [Glv]). In a 1660 speech to General George Monk, a Royalist author, repeating the same line, significantly changes “Tyrants” to “Subjects.”

53 The Parliamentarians, of course, offered their own characterizations. Before reading the death sentence, John Bradshaw compared Charles to the “great Roman tyrant, Caligula, that wished that the people of Rome had had but one neck, that at one blow he might cut it off” (State Trials [n. 32 above], 4:1011).

54 King, [A] Deepe Groane (n. 37 above), sigs. A3v, A4v.

55 Monumentum Regale (n. 10 above), sig. C8v.

56 Vaticinium Votivum (n. 1 above), sig. D8r.

57 Famous Tragedie (n. 35 above), sigs. B4r, D2v.

58 The English Tyrants: or, A brief Historie of the Lives and Actions of the high and mighty States, the Lords of Westminster, and now (by usurpation) Kings of England. Containing all their Rebellious and Traiterous Proceedings and Transactions in Parliament (n.p., 1649), sig. B2v.

59 An Elegy (n. 11 above).

60 Anon., The Last Will and Testament of Richard Brandon … (Printed for the good of the State, 1649), sig. A4v. Revenge comes through strongly: the author of The Famous Tragedie predicts, e.g., “But Joves all potent thunder shall divide / Their plots, and sinke them, in their height of pride” (sig. A4v).

61 By a Servant, or Warriour of the Lord,” A brief Warning Concerning the Just Judgement of God; and his eternal justice, against the unjust and wicked design of the Souldiers of England, who have deprived of life, and murthered their King (Given at Cleve, 1649), sig. A2r; see also Les Dernieres Paroles dv Roy d'Angleterre, auec son adieu aux Prince & Princesse ses Enfants (Paris: chez François Preoveray, 1649) (Newberry copy).

62 Sandler, Florence, “Icon and Iconoclast,” in Achievements of the Left Hand: Essays on the Prose of John Milton, ed. Lieb, Michael and Shawcross, John T. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974), pp. 177–80, 181.

63 [Francis Gregory?], An Elegie upon the Death of Our Dread Soveraign Lord King Charts the Martyr (n.p., 1649), broadside, new Wing G1890A; also in Vaticinium Votivum (n. 1 above).

64 [Leslie, Henry], The Martyrdome of King Charles, Or His conformity with Christ in his sufferings (The Hague: Printed by Samuel Brown, English Bookeseller, 1649), sig. B2r–B2v.

65 The Life and Reigne of King Charts, Or the Pseudo-Martyr discovered … (London: Printed for W. Reybold, 1651), sig. B8r, Wing M2127. Although Wing attributes this work to Milton, William Riley Parker categorically states, The book cannot be by Milton” (Milton: A Biography, 2 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon, 1968], 2:1001).

66 The Scotch Souldiers Lamentation upon the Death of the most Glorious and Illustrious Martyr, King Charles. Shewing That the Authors thereof have out-done all, even Korah, Dathan and Abhron, in Rebellion (n.p., 1649), sig. C4v.

67 [Leslie], sig. C2r.

68 The Bloody Court (n. 9 above), sig. B3v.

69 Clarendon (n. 19 above), 4:491.

70 Cranston, Maurice, “The Mask of Politics” (Allen Lane, 1973), pp. 12.

71 Underdown, David, Pride's Purge: Politics in the Puritan Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), p. 184.

72 The Knyvett Letters, 1620–1644, ed. Schofield, Bertram, Norfolk Record Society [Norfolk, England], 1949, 20:31; Baillie, Robert, Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Alex. Lawrie, 1841), 1:316.

73 Sharpe, J. A., “‘Last Dying Speeches’: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present, no. 107 (May, 1985), pp. 156, 166. For the political power of theater, see also Carlton's, CharlesThe Rhetoric of Death: Scaffold Confessions in Early Modern England,” Southern Speech Communication Journal 49 (Fall 1983): 6679, and Smith's, Lacey BaldwinEnglish Treason Trials and Confessions in the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15 (October 1954): 471–98.

74 State Trials (n. 32 above), 4:1001.

75 King Charts His Speech Made upon the Scaffold at Whitehall-Gate (London: Printed by Peter Cole, 1649), sig. A3r.

76 Potter, “‘True Tragicomedies’” (n. 2 above), p. 214; Wedgwood, C. V., The Trial of Charles I (London: Collins, 1964), p. 48.

77 Milton, John, Eikonoklastes, ed. Hughes, Merritt Y., in Wolfe, , gen. ed. (n. 31 above) (New Haven, Conn., 1962), 3:361.

78 SirWarwick, Philip, Memoires of the reigne of King Charles I. With a Continuation to the Happy Restauration of King Charles II, published from the original manuscript (London: Ri:[chard] Chiswell, 1701), p. 344.

79 State Trials, 4:1139.

80 The subtitle of John Cook's 1651 self-justifying pamphlet states that “the Execution of the late King was one of the fattest sacrifices that ever Queen Justice had” (Cook, John, Monarchy No Creature of Gods making, &c. [Waterford, Ireland: Printed by Peter de Piennes, 1651], British Library copy). In Eikonoklastes, John Milton called the act of regicide an “unexampl'd act of due punishment” which “was no mockery of Justice, but a most gratefull and well-pleasing Sacrifice” (Milton, ed. Hughes, 3:596).

81 James, I, “The Epistle Dedicatorie,” in A Meditation Upon the 27, 28, 29 Verses, the 29th C of St. Matthew, Or a paterne for a Kings inauguration (London: John Bill, 1620), sigs. ¶4r, A8v–A9r.

82 Patterson (n. 31 above), 7:19; Wolfe (n. 31 above) translates “mirabiles tragoedias fingere” as “fashions wondrous tragedies” (4:312).

83 Milton, ed. Wolfe, 4:646.

84 Herbert, Memoirs (n. 46 above), sigs. G7r–G7v.

85 References to the trial and execution of Charles I are from State Trials, 4:994, 995.

86 Ibid., p. 996, omits the word after “been.”

87 Ibid., p. 998.

88 Ibid., p. 1000.

89 Ibid., p. 1014.

90 Ibid., pp. 1016, 1017, 1018.

91 Herbert, sig. I3r.

92 Ibid., sig. I8v; Charles told Herbert, “I would be as trim to day as may be” (ibid.) and directed him as to “which Sattin Night-Cap he would use” (sig. K3r).

93 State Trials, 4:1141.

94 Ibid., p. 1139.

95 Ibid., p. 1138.

96 Ibid., p. 1139.

97 Herbert, sig. K8r.

98 A few Englishmen, such as Bradshaw and Cook, appear to have been genuinely unambivalent about the execution, perhaps even enthusiastic; the most enthusiastic response, however, is the absurd fabrication of William Prynne: “the Queens own Confessor was present in a Soldiers habit, flourishing his sword when his head was off as well as other Jesuits, Popish Priests, overjoyed with that spectacle” (Prynne, William, A True and Perfect Narrative [n.p., 1659], sigs. H4v–I1r). Milton (not an eyewitness to the execution) is unambivalent about regicide in the governmentally sponsored Eikonoklastes, but Eikonoklastes does not necessarily reveal his personal attitudes. Midcentury authors occasionally comment on the numbers of those approving of the regicide. The vocal and partisan Scottish soldier claims “yet not one of an hundred would have consented to these most accursed actions in murdering of the King, and the Nobles” (see n. 66 above, sig. C2r), and another pamphlet claims that Bradshaw murdered “the King against the will and good liking of 9. parts in every 10. of the Commons of England” ([Fabian Philipps], n. 36 above, sig. I1r). The oft-cited comment of Lady Fairfax during the trial makes the same point. Milton's complaint that those who endorsed judging and imprisoning the king but deserted the cause when his death became inevitable tells us much about the emotional climate.

99 Vaticinium Votivum (n. 1 above), sig. D2v.

100 Carlton (n. 3 above), p. ix.

101 Vaticinium Votivum Spenser (n. 40 above), sig. f2v.

102 Famous Tragedie, sig. C3r. In a passage already cited, Charles was considered “The spotless Sacrifice, for the wilde flood / Of's People's loud sins” (Vaticinium Votivum [n. 1 above], sig. D8r).

103 Vaticinium Votivum Spenser, sig. f2v; Monumentum Regale (n. 10 above), sig. C8v.


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