Half-remembered: Charles, King and Martyr?

The execution of Charles I
The execution of King Charles I, after Unknown artist. Etching, circa 1649. NPG D1306. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Wednesday 30 January 2019 marks 370 years since the execution of Charles I, the single most famous moment of the civil wars that ravaged all three British nations between 1639 and 1651. The beheading of an anointed king on that cold winter’s morning has been a key site and conduit of memory in England from 1649 to the present day. The crowds present – who reportedly surged forward to soak up some of the royal blood or even a souvenir lock of hair for themselves – must have been aware that, whatever else what they were witnessing was, it was a historic moment. As historians, especially Andrew Lacey, have traced, memories of Charles immediately became powerful and deeply contested political and religious forces. Depending on your viewpoint, this was the justified death of a tyrant who had aligned himself with the forces of popery; or it was the murder of a martyr who had died rather than abandon a moderate Anglican church. Either way it might be a sign of a world and a country descending into the kind of chaos that could herald the end of the world. It was heady stuff. It was also a fact that could not be forgotten. When Charles II ascended the throne in 1660, restoring the British monarchy, he dated his reign from 30 January 1649. In doing so, he sought to essentially overwrite the memory of the interregnum that followed the execution, but only deepened the significance of the date of his father’s death.

Image of Charles I from Eikon Basilike
‘Charles I, works, expurgated by the inquisition’, engraving of King Charles the Martyr. Lambeth Palace Library, MS 322

This image – taken from our digital exhibition– is one version of perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most visually arresting, attempt to fix Charles in the memory of his people. It was originally a frontispiece to Eikon Basilike, a collection of the works of Charles I which circulated widely after his death, reaching over thirty editions by the end of 1649. The image is at the same time both intricately allegorical and bluntly unsubtle. When I have used the Eikon image in undergraduate seminars, I have found that the students often need help to decipher the Latin scattered across the illustration, but they need no help at all to understand what this image is trying to convey about a Charles who is depicted on bent knee, clutching a crown of thorns. 

What interests me most about this particular iteration of the image, though, is the way in which that memory has been resisted. This volume, held in Lambeth Palace Library, has a note at the front of the book claiming that the scribblings that we see here were part of an extensive censorship of the item by the Lisbon inquisition. I have wondered how accurate this claim is – is the note a piece of false memory-making of its own? I am not expert enough to tell. There are more obvious candidates for an assault on the memory of Charles I than foreign, Catholic censors.

Detail of censorship
Detail: the heavenly crown crossed-out

Whoever carried out the censorship that we see here, it is curiously both extensive and, paradoxically, perfunctory. It is extensive in that, throughout the volume, any reference to Charles as martyr is ‘removed’ with a line through it; in some sections, that means whole paragraphs are struck through. But it is perfunctory because, as we can see in this image, they are not really ‘removed’ at all: the crown awaiting Charles in heaven, for instance (marked ‘blessed and eternal’) may have been crossed-out, but it remains entirely visible. Our exhibition contains several items that have been censored or altered for subsequent religious sensibilities in some way. Some of these employ methods of amendment that genuinely do erase what was once there. Some, much like this image, almost entirely retain the original even while marking its amendment. Others lie somewhere in between. It is tempting to assign motive to these different forms of censorship, but impossible: was apparently perfunctory removal a sign of hidden continuing support for what was being removed, or was it simple laziness – the quickest way to perform a boring task? Did the person – Portuguese or otherwise – scoring through Charles’s crown in this image care too much about Charles the Martyr to erase his crown more thoroughly, or did they not care enough about Charles to bother? Or – a third option – was the continued visibility the very point? Was it an act of triumph and defiance:  ‘look what I’ve done’?

These questions, in turn, point to the ambiguity of censorship as a form of enforced forgetting. As the work of Paul Connerton, in particular, has taught me, forgetting is a much more complex and variegated process than we often give it credit for; to forget is not, necessarily, just to fail to remember. We also have a tendency to think of remembering and forgetting as binaries: we either do or don’t remember something. This is, of course, untrue in our daily lives, where we are all quite capable of half-remembering. But just like remembering can be purposeful, so can half-remembering, and this is what this kind of visible censorship seems to represent: a memory both present and obscured.[1] This image perhaps represents one example of the liminality between remembering and forgetting, and the ways that contemporaries could play with the boundaries between the two. The way that it has been defaced leaves the conflict surrounding memories of Charles I laid bare on the page, enacting in microcosm a much larger battle for the legacy of a beheaded king. 


[1]This draws on the insights on iconoclasm as this type of half-remembering in the excellent work of Margaret Aston and Philip Schwyzer.