King Charles I
The portraits in the Dining room at Highclere tell the story of the English Civil War. The most magnificent painting, dominating the room, is that of Charles l on horseback at the gates of Paris by Anthony van Dyck. Painted around 1633, there is a wealth of detail, largely symbolic, in the drama of the scene. It projects the image of a wise leader, a powerful warrior and one who embodies the divine right to rule. In reality, he was, perhaps, not so wise. He failed to listen and compromise, catapulted England into civil war and sixteen years later became the first and only English King to be executed by his subjects.
Thereafter, executive power, the ability to collect taxes and raise an army, became separated from the crown. Today the UK retains a constitutional monarchy which the English writer, Walter Bagehot (a weekend guest at Highclere Castle), considered allowed the King or Queen the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn but no more. The Judicature Act and, later, the creation of a Supreme Court sought to separate the judiciary from politics. Most of us want to think we can appeal to some sort of fairness in the country in which we live, whatever our politics.
If Charles I were able to appear by magic out of his portrait today, he would find all the same challenges present. Plus ça change – as the French say. Tragic civil wars tear into life in the Middle East, whilst arguments about executive powers and their limitations, whether in Europe or in the USA, create uncertainty and acrimony. Meanwhile, dictators roll up money, army, judiciary and image into their own person destroying all checks and balances.
Of course, people left Europe during the English civil war seeking refuge in the New World, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, hoping for stability of property, morality, law and peace. In fact, Catherine, the 6th Countess of Carnarvon’s ancestors, made their way to Virginia at this time. I hope they would be amused that some of their descendants are back here and sitting under the second largest portrait in this Dining room, which was completed by Gilbert Stuart who famously painted George Washington. In an uncertain angry world, it is sometimes useful to look backwards and remember George Washington’s words: “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all”.