Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Structured Court of Charles I

By P.L. Farrar

Charles II, known by so many as the "Merry Monarch", had a brilliant court where life was one non-stop party, correct?  He opened the theatres and pubs and allowed dancing once again.  But before the interregnum there had been another king, and he had a court too.  Except his was nothing like his son's...

Charles I's inspiration for his court came from Spain where he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to woo the Spanish Infanta in 1623.  He was impressed by the way the court was designed: a perfect example of  order and structure. This was to be the template upon which he based his own court.

At a time of personal and absolute monarchy, the court reflected the personality of the ruler.  In direct contrast to the bawdy and vulgar court antics of his father, James VI and I, it was Charles' composed and sophisticated nature that came through in his court most prominently.  Charles was at the top of this stately hierarchical pyramid and everyone beneath him knew their place in the social order.

 A common event at court was the masque.  Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria appeared as the principal characters.  The plots of these masques were basic in that there was always some trouble that led to chaos throughout the land.  These problems disappeared the moment the wise and just king appeared with his loving and beautiful queen. 

Charles, like Louis XIV after him, exercised strict control over the movements of his courtiers.  The majority of his courtiers were of the higher nobility.  The gentry, on the other hand, were made to remain in their local parishes to enforce law and order, and there were, in fact, cases of nobles being fined for not seeking the King's permission to be at court or in London. 

Many members of the court were also Catholics.  Charles' French Queen, Henrietta Maria, had many French ladies-in-waiting who were not sent back to France. 

The great number of Catholics with whom Charles surrounded himself, the highly structured ceremony and the Church-like opulence gave rise to the perception that the court was exclusively for Catholics and that Charles himself was Catholic.  

Charles was in fact a devotee of Arminianism, or early Laudianism.  Thus he did not believe that some people were predestined to go to heaven, and equally, he wanted to focus on 'the beauty of worship' (including an emphasis on sacred music), not merely on the sermons.  There were elements of Catholicism such as having an altar and a railing instead of a Communion table, but he was essentially a Protestant.  However, the issue of his alleged Catholicism was of major concern for everyone as they feared absolutism and tyranny which they believed was connected to Catholicism.  They also feared a return to Papal rule.

Charles I's court was one of great beauty.  He loved to collect art, and of all subsequent rulers, his was the most significant contribution to the Royal Collection.  He continually lured the great European painters over to the English court, just as he had observed the Spanish doing.  Charles commissioned Rubens to paint the ceiling of the banqueting hall at Whitehall Palace, and he made Rubens a knight as well as offering him a house and pension if he remained as the court painter.

Charles commissioned Van Dyck, the premier Dutch portrait painter, to capture the essence of his "kingship" in a series of portraits.  This talented painter was ordered to compensate for the king's shortcomings.  This resulted in a number of equestrian portraits which depicted the king as a conquering hero on a great steed--very kingly and regal.  (Charles I was a very short man but in these portraits his height ceased to be an issue...)

And Van Dyck used his artistic license to make Charles look five years older which was intended to add an element of wisdom and gravitas.

Together with his Queen, Henrietta Maria, Charles intended for his court to set the tone of the age, as one of grace, splendour and majesty.  And although the Republic, led by Cromwell, sought to destroy or sell off anything that might belong to or evoke the Carolingian splendour, his son--that Merry Monarch to be--did his best to restore his father's regal and artistic legacy.


P.L. Farrar is a young writer, working on an historical novel set in early 19th century England, and currently studying the history of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.


  1. Very interesting post. I've been to the banqueting hall and the ceiling is very impressive indeed.

  2. Enjoyed this post. Particularly liked how the author didn't fall to the common misconception that Charles I was a Catholic. Would be interested in comparing notes with the author, as I'm writing on this time period.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.