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Plate 2.6: Warrant for Beheading Charles I
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 2.6. Commentary by Crystal B. Lake.
Plate: A facsimile engraved in 1750 by George Vertue (1684-1756) of the death warrant issued on 29 January 1648/49 for executing Charles I.
On 1 June 1749, James West (1703-1772) alerted the Society of Antiquaries of London “that the original Instrument and order, signed and Sealed for the taking off King Charles First’s Head”—which had been housed in the Parliamentary Archives since 1660—“was to be seen,” likely as a consequence of the centennial anniversary of the regicide (SAL Minutes V.236). At this meeting, West “shewed” members a “copy” of the document, and a “motion was made whether or no [sic] this Society would not please to have a fac Simile [sic] made” of the original warrant “by Mr. Vertue for their use” (V.236). At the following meeting on 8 June 1749, the question of engraving the warrant was “put to the Ballot” and “passed in the Affirmative” (V.237). Vertue showed a preparatory drawing of the warrant to the Society on 21 December 1749 (VI.17). At the following meeting, a ballot for its engraving was passed “unanimously” (VI.19). One year later, Vertue had “finished the copy of the warrant” and Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755) “made a motion” that Vertue add “sumptibus Socie tatis [sic] to it as to other Plates of the Societies [sic]” and that “three Copies as usual” should be “deliver’d to the members of the Society” after the holidays (VI.19). On 14 February, 1751, the Society thanked “the three Officers belonging to the Parliament Office from whom we had the use of the Autograph of the Warrant for taking of [sic] King Charles the first’s Head” and had Vertue “give to each three Prints” at the Society’s expense (VI.78). By 1762, Vertue’s rendering of the warrant was “out of print,” and the Society ordered James Basire (1739-1802) to reprint 150 copies (SAL Council Minutes I.81).
Although Vertue’s rendering of the document itself hews to a strict representational accuracy, he has situated the warrant inside a black frame of his own design but reminiscent of a funerary wall monument. David Alexander describes the print as a “[d]ocument with dark surround, including sarcophagus at top with initials CR” (2008, 383). Garlands decorate the frame on the left- and right-hand sides. At the top, Vertue has included Charles I’s initials underneath a crown. At the bottom, he has provided the date of the king’s execution: 1648 (Old Style). Dark smoke or clouds, in which two emblematic lamps of knowledge can also dimly be detected, gather at the top of the frame.
Object: Plate 2.6 depicts the death warrant dated 29 January 1648/9 for executing Charles I, who was publicly beheaded the following day outside of the Banqueting House at Whitehall. Handwritten on parchment and bearing fifty-nine signatures with accompanying seals, the warrant remained in the possession of the executioner until 31 July 1660 when, following the Restoration of Charles II, the House of Lords confiscated the warrant and used it to identify the individuals who had authorized Charles I’s execution. The warrant’s signatories were subsequently tried for treason. Of the fifty-nine signatories, thirty-eight were still living in 1660. Nine of the living signatories were convicted and executed for treason, while twenty-one signatories were convicted and executed posthumously. Fifteen of the living signatories were given prison sentences; thirteen of the signatories had fled England. The remaining signatory, Richard Ingoldsby, was pardoned after claiming that Oliver Cromwell had grabbed his hand and forced him to sign the document (Venning 2004). The warrant has remained in the House of Lords Record Office in the Parliamentary Archives ever since its confiscation in 1660 (Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/297A).
Plate 2.6 produces a faithful facsimile of the warrant inside Vertue’s ornamental framing, even rendering visible the subtle scratch marks and overwriting that have led historians to interrogate legal and moral aspects of its issuance.
At the Top of the Print: CR [Carolus Rex]
The Warrant1: At the high Co[ur]t of Justice for the tryinge and judginge of Charles Steuart Kinge of England January xxixth Anno D[omi]ni 1648.
Whereas Charles Steuart Kinge of England is and standeth convicted attaynted and condemned of High Treason and other high Crymes, And sentence uppon Saturday last ^was pronounced against him by this Co[ur]t to be putt to death by the severinge of his head from his body Of w[hi]ch sentence execuc[i]on yet remayneth to be done, These are therefore to will and require you to see the said sentence executed In the open Streete before Whitehall uppon the morrowe being the Thirtieth day of this instante moneth of January betweene the houres of Tenn in the morninge and Five in the afternoone of the same day w[i]th full effect And for soe doing this shall be yo[u]r sufficient warrant And these are to require All Officers and Souldiers and other the good people of this Nation of England to be assistinge unto you in this service Given under o[ur] hands and Seales
To Colonell Francis Hacker, Colonell Huncks and Lieutenant Colonell Phayre and to every of them.
At the Bottom of the Print: 1648 / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariae Lond. 1750.
: This transcription is taken from McIntosh (1981, unpaginated).
Commentary by Crystal B. Lake: Plate 2.6 is a facsimile of the death warrant issued for King Charles I that authorized his public beheading on 30 January 1648/9. The warrant is situated inside a black frame reminiscent of a funerary wall monument decorated with garlands that descend along the right- and left-hand sides. At the top of the frame, billows of dark clouds or smoke gather in which two images of an emblematic lamp can be detected (see also Plate 1.1). Plate 2.6 was published 1750, but the decision to prepare an engraving of the warrant for Charles I’s execution occurred in the summer of 1749—suggesting that like Plate 1.27 depicting Furness Abbey and published on the 600th anniversary of its foundation, Plate 2.6 was occasioned by an anniversary: in this case, the centennial of Charles I’s execution (SAL Minutes V.236-37).
Although the occasion for publishing what the SAL described as a “fac Simile [sic]” (SAL Minutes V.237) of Charles I’s death warrant seems obvious enough, the ultimate objectives the SAL hoped to achieve by providing its members and the public with a facsimile of the warrant are less easy to discern. The SAL’s motives may have simply been preservationist in nature, as they often were; the fact that the warrant was the only one of its kind and intimately connected to one of the most major events in the nation’s history was reason enough to prepare a facsimile that would ensure its availability for present and future antiquaries’ inspection. Arguably, too, the warrant was of interest for the study of legal precedents as well as seventeenth-century handwriting and paper-making. Likewise, the print reproduces the seals that accompanied the 59 signatures on the warrant and thereby represents the interest in sigillography evidenced extensively throughout Vetusta Monumenta.
At the same time, however, Charles I’s execution persisted as an undeniably controversial flashpoint in British history, and members of the Society must have surely recognized that they were reproducing a potentially inflammatory political artifact. Since 1662, 30 January—the date of Charles I’s execution—had been designated as an “Anniversary day of Fasting & Humiliation” on which sermons on the sins of king killing were ritualistically delivered (A Collection 1667, 98). These sermons, as Andrew Lacey explains, traded in “absolutes.” In the immediate wake of the Restoration of Charles II, the sermons often emphasized Charles I’s “virtues and innocence” and depicted his “enemies” as “black-hearted villains” (2003, 179).
Increasingly, however, the regicide functioned as a “polemical device” deployed by competing factions; the punditry regularly turned to the example of Charles I’s execution every 30th of January in order to accuse their opponents of extremism, regardless of their political affiliations. On the one hand, those who remained sympathetic to the kind of divinely-ordained monarchy associated with Charles I condemned the event as an expression of unbridled, wanton radicalism and blamed the ills that had happened to fall upon Britain—plagues, fires, famines, wars—on the retributive spirit of a god perpetually seeking vengeance for the killing of one of his anointed. On the other hand, those who were eager to support the new political order ushered in by the events of 1688 considered the regicide to have been an regrettable but necessary evil, and they condemned as dangerously inflammatory those discourses that characterized the execution as a martyrdom.
As the English Civil Wars receded from living memory and the compromises brokered by the Glorious Revolution settled into convention, the annual memorial of the events of January 30th became less urgently fraught but remained vulnerable to controversy. In their seventeenth-century heyday, the sermons were unabashedly royalist in tenor, but the events of 1688 led the sermons to be more “Whiggish” in tone, “relatively tolerant and more concerned with religious amelioration than with hostility to dissent” (Weinbrot 2010, 32). Enflamed by the attempted Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, however, the Whiggish sermons gave way to “a more extreme characterization of Charles I as the justly destroyed enemy of political and religious liberty” (32). Thereafter, the sermons became more “rhetorically indifferent to Charles I’s tragedy,” and settled into philosophical meditations on parliamentary power and “the ethic of sympathy” (32). The sermons were removed as a legislative requirement in 1859, “some decades after they had outlived their usefulness and many decades after their exact relevance was lost,” according to Helen Randall (1947, 136).
At the time of Plate 2.6’s publication, however, most members of the SAL would have been reminded annually of the execution of Charles I—and the political conflicts that occasioned the event and persisted thereafter—for every year of their lives. On the centennial anniversary of the execution, in fact, one 30 January sermon had inspired notable controversy. Thomas Pickering, then Vicar of St Sepulchre’s in London, delivered the anniversary sermon at St Paul’s to London’s elite in 1749. Pickering’s sermon, and the response it inspired, exemplify the fraught political contexts into which the Society’s print entered.
Pickering’s sermon was a full-throated panegyric for Charles I and a condemnation of his execution. Pickering immediately signaled his sympathy for those early absolutist sermons that, as Lacey claims, emphasized Charles I’s “virtues and innocence.” Pickering took Charles I’s supposed spiritual autobiography, the Eikon Basilike (1664), to stand as an unassailable record of the “good Heart of that most virtuous Prince whose Murder we are met this Day to deplore” (, 1). He next celebrated Charles I for his patronage and his “Taste in Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, and all the Politer Arts” (3-4). He commended Charles I for knowing “the History and Laws of his own Country” and “Ancient languages” (4). Charles I, Pickering attests, was likewise “a thorough Master of his own Tongue,” and his “Works are much superior to the Writings of the Rebels, in Dignity of Language, and Weight of Reason” (4). Accordingly, Charles I’s writing was commensurate with the man himself: superior to the men who would sanction king-killing “in Birth—in Virtue,” and especially “in the Goodness of Cause” (4).
Charles I was brought down by “vile Arts,” according to Pickering, and “[n]ever since the Foundation of the World hath there been recorded in History a Rebellion more perfidious and bloody in its Rise and Progress—more fatal in its Event—more pernicious, more destructive in its Consequences” than that led against Charles I (6). The regicide had violated the will of God, Pickering insisted, and festered as a “deep wound” in the nation that continued to provoke “certain consequences,” namely: “the utter Ruin and Desolation” of Britons (1). When Charles I died, so did “the Rights and Privileges” of England’s “free born Citizens,” Pickering declared; even in the eighteenth-century present, the nation’s “altars” remained “broken,” its “Temples are polluted,” its “Priests” “slain in the Sanctuary” (2). “Where is now,” Pickering asks, “the happy Constitution of thy well-tempered State” (2)! Nowhere, he leaves his listeners and readers to infer.
Pickering admonished the “Enthusiastic Frenzy” that had “prevailed over true Courage” in the decision to execute Charles I, and his sermon invites his audience to be “distressed” for Charles I, the “Father of [his] Country,” confirming Weinbrot’s claim that the January 30 sermons had taken a sentimental turn by the middle of the century (Pickering , 4-5). Pickering’s sermon goes further, however, leaning into the discourses of martyrdom that offended the Whigs’ sensibilities: “We will revere thy sacred Memory,” “lament thy unhappy Death,” and “vindicate thy injured Honor,” Pickering declares in an apostrophe to the dead king (5). Pickering concludes his sermon by proposing what he believes to be “[t]he only sure Method” for “prevent[ing] all such Disorders and Confusion for the future”: to require “Members of the Established Church to look upon the Test Act as an essential—most sacred—most inviolable Law” (12). Here, Pickering voices his support for legal mandates requiring those who held public offices, including professorships at universities such as Oxford, to receive communion under the terms established by the Church of England. Instituted immediately following the Restoration and reaffirmed in 1673, Test Acts were essentially designed to preclude Catholics and Protestant dissenters alike from occupying positions of power in the state. For Pickering, the Test Act stood as a necessary mechanism for preventing dissenters, like those who rebelled against Charles I in the seventeenth century, from occupying positions of power that might enable them to overthrow eighteenth-century monarchies.
Pickering’s sermon provoked an immediate reply, the anonymously published Devout Laugh, Or, Half an Hour’s Amusement to a Citizen of London, from Dr. Pickering’s Sermon (1750). Now attributed to the dissenting minister Caleb Fleming (1698-1779), the Devout Laugh begins by suggesting that Pickering’s sermon functioned as a puff piece defending the recent decision at Oxford University to confer honorary degrees on William Dodwell (1709-1785) and Thomas Church (1707-1756). Dodwell and Church were rewarded for their critiques of Conyers Middleton’s (1683-1750) publications calling into question the truth of miracles and arguing that many religious practices derived from appropriations of pagan rituals—often to the detriment of a faith that ought to be based on reason alone. Fleming, however, quickly sees the larger implications of this minor academic scandal; the problem in 1749 was as it was in 1649, according to the Devout Laugh, insofar as politics go awry when matters civil and ecclesiastical become too entangled. The decision to confer honorary degrees at Oxford based on a theological dispute represents a troubling conflation of church and state for Fleming; Pickering’s sermon problematically “exalt[s] this civil-church-establishment,” which, according to Fleming, had been the true cause of so much trouble in the seventeenth century (4).
Under the influence of the Catholic Church, including its powerful priests as well as his own “popish” wife, Charles I had “imbib’d and retain’d notions of the regal power, which denied the privileges of the parliament and liberties of the people as their inherent right,” Fleming claims (7). Charles I’s court was one that indulged the “pride and vanity” of kings and “clergy” alike, and “dealt much in dissimulation” (7). Consequently, Fleming proceeds to counter Pickering point by point. The regicide did not, Fleming attests, lead to the “utter Ruin and Desolation” of Britons; on the contrary, Charles I’s “death, did, in a great measure prevent the utter ruin and desolation of his people” (6). Cromwell and his agents were not sinful “rebels,” but rather a “generation of men, who took up arms, who spent their treasure and their blood” in order to defend the Protestant faith and establish reasonable constraints on royal power (7).
How, moreover, could Pickering believe that the regicide had proceeded contradictory to the will of God? And whose sins, exactly, were the cause of the divine retributions that had supposedly followed? For Pickering to have wished that the regicide never happened belies a rejection of God’s will, for it had happened, and if any sins were punished by the event, it was surely first and foremost those of the king and his supporters. After all, Fleming explains, Charles I “and his friends were the immediate sufferers in this event,” and one might argue that the whole “catastrophe” was divinely-ordained to “shew in after ages, that oppression, violence and tyranny, are unworthy the submission of a free and generous people” (11).
Regarding Pickering’s endorsement of the Test Act, Fleming maintains that there is an inherent “impiety” in presuming that God would “bless the license taken of prostituting a religious ritual to civil purposes” (21). The Test Act, by its very nature, subsumes a point of faith to the legal demands of the state, thereby subsuming God’s hierarchical superiority to that of a mortal monarch and compromising the validity of an individual’s profession of faith (22). The New Testament, Fleming explains, demands that true believers “stubbornly refuse that any man shall have dominion of their conscience,” including kings and the churchmen who would buttress their power (22). What evidence, Fleming asks, is there that “an established clergy” can foment “more just and honourable sentiments of government, a more uniform and regular scheme of moral virtue” than God alone (22)?
The alliance Pickering’s sermon implicitly forges between himself and Charles I’s clergy suggests to Fleming that the clergy most certainly should not be trusted to safeguard the needs of the state; Fleming maintains that the monarchy fell in 1649 primarily as a consequence of the zeal and political machinations of the priests with whom Charles I surrounded himself. Hence, the Test Acts that Pickering endorses constitute heretical usurpations of God’s power in favor of the powers wielded by a monarch under the ultimate sway of the clergy—and Pickering’s sermon serves to reaffirm the “political abilities of the preacher” (27). To Fleming’s mind, then, Pickering’s sermon is unabashedly Jacobite in tenor and, ironically, an expression of treason against the current king, George II. “Why,” Fleming asks, should Pickering reserve his “briny tears” and “divine judgements” for “Charles the first” exclusively when the very terms of his sermon would seem to demand that Pickering also lament the “attempts made to destroy” Charles I’s ostensibly legitimate and divinely-ordained heir, “James the second” (13)?
Whereas Pickering takes the 30th of January to be a day for “commemorating” Charles I “as among the first saints and martyrs for the gospel,” Fleming takes it “to be a memento to all future Kings, that they split not on the same fatal rock”: a reminder for future kings, in other words, to avoid making the same mistake that Charles I—and then later, James II and VII—did by conflating church with state in their claim to have an unassailable divine right to rule (11). Fleming thereby also reminds his readers that Pickering’s sermon on the centennial anniversary of Charles I’s execution inevitably invoked a fraught historical legacy that had followed from 1649: the failure of Charles II to sire a legitimate heir to the throne, the tense rule of James II that culminated in the events of 1688, and then the crisis of succession that concluded Anne’s reign in the early eighteenth century and preceded the attempted Jacobite rebellion in 1715. Another attempted coup seeking to unseat the Hanoverians and restore a descendent of Charles I to the throne had occurred just four years before the centennial anniversary of the regicide, in 1745. Fleming, then, brings Pickering’s panegyric for the historical Charles I into the political present: Pickering’s sermon “should seem to insinuate, that the throne is at present not rightly filled; but remains under the curse of God! and that it will do so, till the adopted family of James be received” (26).
Together, Pickering’s sermon and Fleming’s response testify to the fact that the execution of Charles I persisted as a controversial event one hundred years after the fact. Pickering’s and Fleming’s perspectives, published in the same centenary year as the SAL decided to engrave the warrant, show that nearly every aspect of the commemoration of the regicide was fraught and ambivalent. In such a context, plate 2.6 could not help but reproduce these fault lines, although the particulate investments that members of the SAL had in the regicide and its associated political disputes is less easy to discern. On the surface, the Society’s commitments to recovering English antiquities would seem to align them with Charles I and pit them against the regicides whose zeal for revolution led them to destroy the ecclesiastical monuments and artifacts that later antiquaries would commit themselves to collecting, studying, preserving, and in some cases restoring. Charles I’s curatorial sensibilities—his “Taste in Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, and all the Politer Arts,” as well as his interest “the History and Laws of his own Country” and “Ancient languages,” in Pickering’s phrasing (4)—likewise cast him as potentially sympathetic to antiquaries.
Meanwhile, antiquaries’ enthusiasm for ecclesiastical monuments and artifacts led many to suspect the SAL of harboring crypto-Catholics and nurturing Jacobite sympathies. Sometimes, these suspicions were valid. As Rosemary Sweet explains, early “non-jurying Tory antiquaries” maintained a “residual sympathy” for the “pre-Reformation church” in the early eighteenth century (2004, 232). John Talman (1677-1726) converted to Catholicism just before he was elected the first director of the revived Society in 1717 following his Grand Tour, and George Vertue, who engraved Plate 2.6 among so many others that would appear as part of Vetusta Monumenta, was born to Roman Catholic parents who worked in the service of the exiled James II when he was the duke of York (Myrone 2004). Similarly, many early and influential antiquaries—Thomas Hearne (1678-1735), Peter LeNeve (1661-1729), Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755), for example—were known non-jurors: men who had refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown after the accession of William III and Mary II in 1688.
In light of the common accusation that antiquaries were crypto-Catholics or disloyal to the forms of government instituted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Plate 2.6 might have been construed as a Jacobite object commemorating a wrongly-executed and divinely-ordained monarch. As Neil Guthrie and Murray Pittock document, Jacobite objects such as prints depicting Charles I and his heirs were popularly produced throughout the long eighteenth century—and often, though not always, displayed to symbolize their collectors’ loyalty to the Stuart cause. These would have included a serious of prints that Vertue published anonymously following the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion (Alexander 2008, 211). At the same time that he was working on the engraving of the warrant depicted here in Plate 2.6, Vertue was also preparing “copies of the Royal pictures of K Charles first in three folios” at the behest of the Prince of Wales (“Vertue’s Note Books” 1951-52, 155).
Akin to Catholic relics, Jacobite objects were genealogically connected to the practice of the royal touch whereby kings were thought capable of curing scrofula by laying their hands on the afflicted. A sign of the monarch’s divinely-sanctioned authority, the king’s touch was often commemorated by the gift of a gold coin, termed an Angel or touch-piece, that was pierced and worn around the neck of the cured. Charles I practiced the royal touch during his reign. Accordingly, coins and medals stamped with his visage—and prints depicting such medals—were among the most popularly-collected Jacobite objects in the eighteenth century (see Plate 1.55). The ritual of the royal touch became enlivened at Charles I’s execution where spectators reportedly dipped handkerchiefs in his blood. Along with Stuart medals and prints depicting the Stuarts, these handkerchiefs persisted as objects of interest in popular culture; even as late as 1714, some claimed that these handkerchiefs effected the same curative benefits as the king’s personal touch (Toynbee 1950, 11-13). Meanwhile, Charles II had revived and accelerated the practice, reportedly curing 92,000 people between 1667 and 1683 (Sturdy 1992, 174). Plate 2.6, then, was primed to enter into the material culture of the Jacobites as an especially poignant token of grief at the regrettable crime that had been committed against a divinely-ordained king—and, in sympathy with Pickering’s sermon, as a subtly seditious expression of support for the Jacobite Rebellions that sought to restore a direct heir of Charles I to the throne in 1715 and 1745. The black monumental frame surrounding the warrant in Plate 2.6 is arguably reminiscent of the black border that often surrounded the published versions of the 30 of January sermons (Weinbrot 2010, 49n7.).
At the same time, however, the SAL’s decision to disseminate a facsimile of the warrant might also be aligned with the terms established by Fleming’s riposte to Pickering: as a memorial to an unfortunate but necessary decision to depose a Stuart monarch whose mistaken conviction of his divine authority made him a tyrant and condemned his subjects to a state of “vassalage” (Fleming 1750, 26). Horace Walpole (1717-1797) certainly understood the print to function as a check on the kinds of absolutist power associated with Stuart monarchies; in 1756, he reported that he had recently hung a copy of the “Magna Charta” on one side of his bed and a copy, presumably the Society’s, of the “warrant for King Charles’s execution” on the other—and he had written “Magna Charta” on his copy of the warrant because Walpole “believe[d]” that without the warrant, the Magna Carta would have been by the eighteenth century “of very little importance” (Walpole 1756, 9.197). In other words, Walpole worried that had the execution of Charles I never occurred, the parliamentary prerogatives established by the Magna Carta would have ceased to be a feature of the English government. At the same meeting when the SAL decided to engrave the warrant, Charles Lyttelton (1714-1768) also displayed “an ancient Copy of the Magna Charta” for members to review (SAL Minutes VI.17).
Moreover, activities within the Society at the time of the warrant’s engraving and publication would have made a public expression of Jacobite sympathies seem ill-advised, at best; some members of the SAL were then engaged in an attempt, ultimately successful, to secure a royal charter from George II to support the Society’s activities. Discussions around securing the royal charter began in 1748 and, as Vertue’s records evince, entailed a reckoning with the Society’s early history. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquaries had enjoyed the support of Elizabeth I, and they formally petitioned her to become their patron and establish a royal library for them to conduct their research on antiquities, but Elizabeth I died in 1603 before fulfilling their request (Evans 1956, 7-8). By 1607, the antiquaries had suddenly ceased holding official public meetings; an attempt to revive the Society was made in 1614 but quickly abandoned.
When the Society began its process of formally petitioning George II for a royal charter, the “Cause” of the first Society’s dissolution had “long…been unknown,” Vertue recorded—but some antiquaries had lately “discovered the probable reason” (“Vertue’s Note Books” 1951-52, 159). The probable reason was this: James I had reportedly asked the antiquaries to investigate “the beginning and original use of Parliaments in England,” and their findings did not support the king’s “Royal prerogative” (159). Consequently, James I “‘took a little Mislike’” to the Society (quoted in Evans 1956, 14). As Richard Gough (1735-1809) would put it in the history of the Society that he published in the first issue of Archaeologia, the research the antiquaries completed on parliamentary prerogatives caused James I to become “alarmed for the arcana of his Government,” and the antiquaries ceased to meet in public afterwards because they “fear[ed] being prosecuted as a treasonous cabal” (Gough 1770, xv). “To be sure,” Vertue mused, the question of “the beginning and original use of Parliaments in England…was too precarious a question to be plainly and openly demonstrated” in the court of James I, where “so many had benefitted & plundered the Crown,” and then immediately afterwards, when “every individual riseing [sic] man was in hopes to do the Same [after] Parliament unquestionably got the uper [sic] hand” (“Vertue’s Note Books” 1951-52, 159).
Given that some members of the Society hoped to secure the official patronage of George II and that the last attempted Stuart coup was leveled against George’s Hanoverian reign a mere four years prior to the centennial anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Plate 2.6 might be interpreted as the opposite of a Jacobite object: as a testament to the Society’s longstanding antipathy toward Stuart-style monarchies and their support for the historical developments that had made George II’s reign possible. One member of the Society, George North (1707-1772), certainly saw the engraving of the warrant as a clear endorsement of the events that had transpired in 1648/9, much to his chagrin. In a letter to fellow numismatist Andrew Ducarel (1713-1785), North sniped:
I never yet heard the most zealous defenders of the beginning of the Civil War aim at vindicating the King’s murder, which must ever be an indelible blot in our annals, and therefore rather to be buried, if possible, in oblivion, than the remembrance refreshed and transmitted by the labour and expense of a public Society. These are my sentiments [on the engraving]; and therefore I could wish the plate was defaced, and the copies all without exception burnt. (Nichols 1812, 5.435)North’s antipathy to Plate 2.6 also belies his opposition to the Society’s attempt to secure a charter from George II. Not everyone in the SAL was enthusiastic about the idea. North’s exchanges with Ducarel about the warrant were framed by discussions of the Society’s charter-seeking activities. Some members, including Vertue, shared North’s concern that the incorporation of the SAL would drain the Society’s coffers and reroute its money to those members who would assume formal offices once the charter had been secured (Evans 1956, 105). Ducarel worried, as others did, that the chartered antiquarian society would be beholden to the Royal Society, while he also agreed that a royal charter would siphon the antiquarian society’s “annual income” into the “maintenance of the Officers who lie ready in petto” (Nichols 1812, 5.433).
North felt strongly that those members of the Society who wanted the royal charter constituted a “cabal” and had undertaken unseemly schemes to get what they wanted (Nichols 1812, 5.433). North and Ducarel discussed one such scheme in their correspondence involving the formation of a committee to make determinations about the royal charter. Robert New (d. 1762), who was one of the clerks of the King’s papers, was supposedly on that committee, but New reported that he had never been told that he was on the committee and that, consequently, he had never attended any meetings or submitted any votes. New was, at the time, helping Vertue with the “true blazoning” of the seals appended to the signatures on the warrant (SAL Minutes VI.36).
When the SAL’s royal charter was finally secured in 1751, Vertue reported that those members who were of the “party” of the Royal Society had “carryd it by artifices—and private meetings” (“Vertue’s Note Books” 1951-52, 159). The pursuit of George II’s official support for the SAL may have rankled those in the Society who harbored Jacobite sympathies. For other members, forming an institutional alliance with any monarch might have seemed like a betrayal of the regicides’ imperative to curtail royal power. Nearly everyone agreed, however, that the formation of factious “cabals” and use of “artifices” in the attempt to secure favors from the government played a significant part in the downfall of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, alike.
In sum, there were a variety of competing political positions one might adopt in response to Plate 2.6. The Society’s commitment to facsimile reproduction, also on display in their earlier facsimile of the 1534 Decree of Oxford, seems opposed to “ideological commitments” by design, as noted in Noah Heringman’s commentary on Plate 1.62. Yet like Plate 1.62, Plate 2.6 appears more ideologically complicated when we recognize the continued resonance of the regicide in the eighteenth-century present and, further, consider the embellishments that Vertue did—and did not—add to the document his engraving reproduced. Although Plate 2.6 includes a crown with the initials of Charles I at the top and the garlands are vaguely reminiscent of thistles (which occasionally featured in Jacobite imagery), Vertue has eschewed including obvious and conventional Jacobite iconography, such as roses or oak leaves. The embellishments on Plate 2.6 seem calculated, in fact, to exemplify the competing narratives that had emerged over the course of a century around the execution that the warrant authorized. The potential endorsement of Charles I’s supremacy conveyed by the inclusion of the small crown with his initials at the top of the print is counterbalanced by the heavy, finalizing weight placed on the date of his execution at the bottom of the print. Likewise, the monumental frame surrounding the warrant invites competing interpretations: as a representation of either the grievous burden the nation bears as a consequence of the execution of Charles I or the necessary enshrining of the execution as a valuable precedent warning present and future monarchs of the dangers that attend absolutism.
The billowing image at the top of Plate 2.6 that I have described previously as “dark smoke or clouds” functions similarly. The indeterminacy of the image readily yields two interpretations of the warrant that the print represents. If the viewer interprets the image as dark smoke, then the warrant would stand, accordingly, as an incendiary document: a conflagration in the nation’s history heralding the future fire and brimstone attested by Pickering’s sermon; the emblematic lamps of knowledge would convey both the enduring vitality of Stuart-style monarchy that the execution threatened to extinguish and the promise that antiquarian knowledge will continue to contribute to the Jacobite cause. If the viewer interprets the image as clouds, then the warrant would stand as the veritable dawn of a new day, a bright light emerging from the darkness; the emblematic lamps of knowledge would convey the wisdom of those who took action against Charles I and the promise that antiquarian knowledge will continue to contribute to the political imperative to restrain royal power.
Notably, the garland hangs heaviest, the smoke or clouds loom thickest, and the lamp shines brightest on the side of the print that correlates with the prominent placement of Charles I’s name at the top of the warrant on the right-hand side—in contrast to the lower lefthand side of the print where Oliver Cromwell’s signature appears. Perhaps a celebration of Charles I’s character and anguish at his execution finally predominate in the print’s affective aura; perhaps the garlands represent the ways in which Cromwell’s Interregnum petered out and the Stuarts, for a while at least, were restored to the throne; perhaps, however, regret for the Stuarts’ personal fallibilities looms largest, as it did for writers like David Hume, thereby shining a brighter light for future monarchs by virtue of serving as negative exemplars; perhaps the grievous killing of a king was the most enlightened thing to do.
Whereas the embellishments on the print resist polemical interpretation, Vertue’s careful rendering of the warrant’s texture might be interpreted as an implicit critique of Charles I’s regicides. A careful scrutiny of the print shows that Vertue remained faithful to the original document by preserving evidence that the warrant had undergone revisions. Visible scratch marks indicate that text had been scraped off of the vellum and replaced with new writing. These changes are primarily visible at sites containing dates on the document (see, for example, the “xxxth” near the top) and in the section containing the officers of the court’s names (on the left-hand side of the warrant).
As debates between the nineteenth-century historians W.J. Thoms, Reginald Palgrave, and Samuel R. Gardiner reveal, the evidence that text was scratched out and then new text was added to the warrant would seem to call into question the timing of the document’s issuance and implicitly, therefore, its legal and moral validity (Gardiner 1886-91, 3.583-84). More specifically, historians have speculated that an initial draft warrant was drawn up before Charles I’s sentence was formally rendered by the court, signed by no more than twenty-eight of its final fifty-nine signatories, and originally addressed to three officers, two of whom allegedly refused to sign the document. Questions over whether or not Charles I should be allowed to attend and speak at his sentencing may have introduced a delay into the scheduled execution Cromwell had planned—and Cromwell may have preferred to amend the document that had already been prepared rather than resecure the signatures and seals of those who may have signed the warrant already, fearful that their commitment to executing the king had wavered. In 1981, A.W. McIntosh published a pamphlet refuting the theory that the erasures and overwriting evinced questionable practices on the part of the regicides, but the visible presence of emendations preserved by Vertue naturally invokes suspicion about the process whereby the king’s execution was effected—and even McIntosh’s refutation is self-described as “probable” (McIntosh 1981).
Ultimately, however, Vertue’s rendering of the evidence that revisions had been made to the warrant reaffirms the terms under which Plate 2.6 was commissioned by the Society: as a “facsimile.” Vertue appears to have undertaken the task of preparing such a facsimile with special care. Not only did he consult New on the correct “blazoning” of the seals appended to the warrant, he also appears to have reviewed other copies of the warrant that had been made; one notebook entry made as Vertue was completing the engraving records that “M^r Ampleford a Writing Master. in College Street Westminster—coppyd. [sic] several of the Warrants called the regicides Warrant for executing King Charles I. a fac simile of all the hands—& seals. the Earl of Oxford had one of them” (“Vertue’s Note Books” 1951-52, 155). Following the completion of the engraving, the Society “desired Thanks might be given to the three Officers belonging to the Parliament Office from whom we had the use of the Autograph of the Warrant for taking of [sic] King Charles the first’s Head,” and Vertue went one step further, requesting that each officer be sent three copies of the print “at the Expence of the Society” (SAL Minutes VI.78). By 1762, Vertue’s rendering of the warrant was “out of print,” and the Society ordered James Basire (1739-1802) to reprint 150 copies (SAL Council Minutes I.81). In 1789, Plate 2.6 was bound in with the other prints that constituted Volume II Vetusta Monumenta where, despite its commitments to conveying a disinterested representation of an historical fait accompli, it persists as a record of the ways that the past continues to loom over the present.
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