January 29, 2024

Speaking Paintings

Standing in the Dining Room you could be either at Highclere or in Downton Abbey. Almost nothing was changed in the room for filming. There are the polished dining table, the chairs, the familiar yellow silks on the walls and, as you look around you, the portraits.

Each painting has its own story and most of them depict Geordie’s ancestors. However, the most extraordinary portrait, and the one which dominates the room, is no relative at all but that of a king: Charles I. Painted in about 1633 by Antony van Dyck every brush stroke imparts information.

The king is portrayed as calmly managing a fiery prancing horse whilst the master of horse looks up at him in admiration. He is dressed both as a king wearing armour ready for battle and as a chivalric knight wearing the blue sash of the Order of the Garter, an honour begun by his ancestor, King Edward III, nearly 300 years before Charles I was born.

He is framed by a Roman triumphal arch which conventionally commemorates victorious generals – essentially an arch was built by emperors to celebrate themselves – which associates him with the grandeur of a Roman Emperor. The Royal shield and coat of arms are propped prominently at the base of it just to drive the message home.

He is the ruler. He is also almost entirely alone, appropriate given he believed that his birth and very being imbued him with the divine right of Kingship: a right to rule, a right to direct his country and a right to sit in judgement on all. As a result, Charles I had dispensed with Parliament believing he required neither its advice nor its consent and from 1629 he did not call another one for 11 years, making clear his distaste for dealing with Parliament and his belief that the royal prerogative allowed him to rule and to raise money or go to war without it.

The strength of his opinions was matched by Parliament’s insistence that it most certainly did have a necessary role in Government, particularly in the granting of taxes to the Crown and in redressing the grievances of those ruled by the King. By 1641 the king and parliament were tumbling towards a fundamental point of no return with endless smaller skirmishes until August 1642 when Charles I raised an army expressly against the wishes of Parliament ostensibly to deal with a rebellion in Ireland.

The first battle of the English civil war took place at Edgehill in October 1642 and neither the Royals nor the Parliamentarians gained any clear advantage. Nearly a year later the 1st Earl of Carnarvon would die at the first Battle of Newbury fighting on the King’s side. Gradually the Parliamentarians took the lead with Charles stubbornly refusing to listen to his generals or take any advice.

Eventually in 1647, Charles I was left with no other option but to try to negotiate some sort of compromise from his base on the Isle of Wight but it was too late. By now the Parliamentarians,  and their army demanded he was put on trial and despite his “divine right”, he was judged and executed on January 30th 1649. The time of Oliver Cromwell  as ” Lord Protector” began.

A scaffold was erected in front of the Banqueting House in London at first-floor level, high above the thousands of spectators. Today the spot where he died is commemorated by a bust of the king with an inscription which reads:

“His Majesty King Charles I passed through this hall and out of a window nearly over this tablet to the scaffold in Whitehall where he was beheaded on 30th January 1649.”

Perhaps parts of this story could have been foretold if the painting at Highclere had been asked at the time: hubris and nemesis.  Following the death of Oliver Cromwell, however, Charles I’s son returned to reclaim his father’s crown and thus became King Charles II.  Albeit, the balance of power had irrevocably changed: it was now a constitutional monarchy .