The War of Words: Eikon Basilike and the Martyrdom of Charles I

Eikon_Basilike_Title_PageThe War of Words: Eikon Basilike and the Martyrdom of Charles I

By Eva Kratochvil

“The glory attending my death will far surpass all I could enjoy or conceive in life”.[1]
– Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 1649

On the bitterly cold afternoon of 30 January 1649,[2] Charles I, King of England, was marched up to the scaffold erected in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall to await execution before thousands of his subjects. This climatic moment of the English Civil War (1642-1651) would haunt the English people for centuries and give birth to a martyr cult surrounding the late king, where he would enjoy far more power and influence post-mortem than he ever did whilst he lived. After years of devastating conflict, Charles was captured by the Parliamentarian forces in 1647 and held captive so that he could face the rebels, led by Oliver Cromwell, at his trial known as the Black Tribunal. Although the power of the sacral monarch was waning by the seventeenth century, Cromwell and his supporters still had to legitimize their raising troops against the king as well as reasons for the trial itself. The only way to wage war against the figure of the sacral monarch was to make him a tyrant in the eyes of the people and on 6 January 1649 the rebels accused Charles of conceiving a “wicked designe totally to subvert the antient and fundamentall lawes and liberties of this nation. And in their place to introduce an arbitrary and tiranicall government.”[3] The king also stood accused of being the “chiefe Instrument of augmenting and promoting a second War,”[4] earning him the name “Man of Blood” for all the lives that had been claimed during a campaign that he was charged with perpetuating.[5] The trial lasted for three days, throughout which Charles continuously challenged the legitimacy of the court and its authority to pass judgement on their lawful king, and culminated in the signing of the king’s death warrant by fifty-nine of the rebels.

The trial and public execution were meant to be the final blows to the ideology of sacral monarchy and the legitimacy of the king, however they had the adverse effect of turning Charles I into a martyr in the eyes of many of his former subjects. The publication of Eikon Basilike – or the Image of the King, which purported to be Charles’ reflections on his reign and the months proceeding his death – a week after the execution further promoted the martyr cult surrounding him and became one of the most astounding pieces of propaganda of the seventeenth century. What resulted was a ruthless pamphlet war as Cromwell and the Commonwealth sought to win the ideological battle against the image of a martyr king. Words in the form of pamphlets, treatises, sermons and published speeches became the new weapons as efforts at censorship of the press and confiscation of printed copies of the King’s Book all but failed. Eikon Basilike became an instant success and armed the Royalist camp with a new means to fight back against the rebels after they had lost a long and brutal civil war. In response to the popularity of the book, several reactions were published in the months and years following the execution of the king, however the most influential of these rebuttals would come in the form of John Milton’s Eikonoklastes. Eikon Basilike was the final, crucial ingredient in the crafting of Charles’ image as a martyr by playing on the sympathies of the people as it claimed to expose to them the real Charles; an idea that was vastly unsettling to Cromwell and the Commonwealth. In the midst of this propaganda war, Milton was commissioned by a desperate Cromwell to pen a response to the book when all other efforts to combat its influence had failed. Eikonoklastes would systematically tear apart the Image of the King, most notably attacking the piety and the person of the king himself as well as the authorship of the document in an effort to discredit it. The response that the Image of the King garnered from supporters and foes alike was a stark reminder that while the swords may have been abandoned, the ideological battle was still not over. Even in death, it appeared that Charles I was still a force to be reckoned with.


Eikon Basilike[6] was published on the day of Charles’ burial when “sentiment for and against the King had reached a state of frenzy.” It was the most popular book to emerge from the English Civil War era and it seemed that printers could not work fast enough to sate public demand for it. Within a month and a half of the king’s execution there were already twenty English editions of Eikon Basilike being printed and already in circulation.[7] The book, which was represented as the king’s own reflections on his reign and the events leading up to his death, became a powerful tool in the hands of the Royalists, helping to cement Charles’ image as a martyr and perpetuating a propaganda war against the Commonwealth. Even the Bishop of Worcester, John Gauden, who was rumoured to be the true author of the book, remarked in a private correspondence to Sir Edward Hyde that “When it came out, just upon the King’s death; Good God! What shame, rage and despite filled hys Murtherers! What comfort hys friends! How many enemyes did it convert! How many hearts did it mollify, and melt!”. Eikon Basilike had a profound impact on the Royalist and Parliamentarian propaganda conflict of the time. Now words were to act as the weapons as Charles’ supporters continued to fight his cause through the publication of royalist newspapers and treatises and with the growing popularity of the book, the Commonwealth was dealt a strong blow. Even Gauden was to reflect years later that Eikon Basilike “was an army, and did vanquish more than any sword could”[8] It is important to note that John Gauden’s comment only came after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and at such a point he would have had every reason to believe in the efficacy of the work as a piece of propaganda. Despite the exaggerated nature of his comments, he rather effectively sums up how public opinion towards the book in the months following its first publication was strong enough to worry Cromwell and his supporters.[9]

What made Eikon Basilike so dangerous to the Commonwealth was that it was not a typical treatise and did not merely lay out technical arguments on why the king had been wronged and the reasons for which sacral monarchy should be defended. The book also offered a glimpse into the king’s private thoughts; his concerns about the future of the kingdom, his fears for his children and his acceptance of death at the hands of his enemies as he prepared to ascend to the kingdom of heaven. Through this book, the public was also able to see Charles, the person, rather than simply Charles, the king, and after the execution this seemingly private and personal image of the monarch in his most vulnerable moments played on the sympathies of many. The book even went as far as to include private correspondences between the king and his children, all in an effort to show that beneath the weight and responsibilities of the Crown, Charles was a person and that he knew he had his own “failings as a man”.[10] True to its name, this book was indeed meant to be an “image of the king” and it made him a dangerously compelling figure in the eyes of the public after he was executed because, it can be argued, that with access to these private thoughts the aim was to give the impression that the public knew the “real” Charles. The chapter titled “To The Prince of Wales,” is an example of the personal nature of the book and the reader is suddenly privy to what appears to be an open letter written for the king’s son and heir, a guide to kingship in the same style that Charles’ father King James I had written. In this chapter, Charles counsels the prince on “how to remedy the present distempers and prevent, if God will, the like for time to come.”[11] Even in death, Charles continued to play the part of the wronged king cautioning his son that when the icy and tumultuous political climate finally “thawed and dissipated” and when the errors of those who were responsible for usurping the power of the king and inflicting injustice upon the realm finally came to light, he was to let “no passion betray [him] to any study of revenge upon those whose own sin and folly will sufficiently punish them in due time.” Like Charles, the Prince of Wales had only to trust in God to deliver judgement to those who had done wrong because his “quality” set him above fighting such battles and therefore the “nobleness of [his] mind must raise [him] above the meditating any revenge or executing [his] anger upon the many.” [12] Revenge would only corrupt him in the eyes of his subjects, therefore he should expect nothing but love and loyalty of his people and treat them in kind. Forgiveness and compassion would make him a greater king than if he were feared by his subjects.[13]

For the Royalists, an ideological victory was more plausible at this point in time than a military or political one seeing as they had lost the civil war. Although the king’s book was meant as a guide for his son, it was also indirectly a defence of the institution of monarchy and the obligations that bound both the monarch and his subjects to one another. Historically, the English monarch was seen as a temporal extension of God’s power on earth. The coronation ceremony in which the monarch was anointed with holy oils was nothing more than a formality as, in theory, a king received his crown because God had chosen him from birth. These lavish ceremonies were a confirmation of kingship rather than the bestowing of kingship.[14] Robert Zaller argues that the idea of the English monarch as a sacred being was a contested one, especially in seventeenth centuryEngland, and certainly the execution of Charles I could be seen as “the ultimate assertion of the counterideology that monarchy was a human rather than a divine institution.”[15] However the strings that bound English subjects and their attachment to the idea of sacral monarchy were still not entirely severed and consequently Parliament needed to de-sanctify the king with charges of tyranny to legitimize their resistance. Although the Commonwealth justified a public execution in terms of exacting justice on a tyrant, this was a moment that was meant, in part, to help break down the fabric of sacral kingship.

As part of the effort to justify their cause, the revolutionaries turned the trial and execution into part of the “dramaturgy of state, designed to convince its audience that the text of Charles’ life must be read as treason”. The public nature of the execution, which was a shocking and horrifying ordeal for those present, was purposely designed to firmly link Charles’ image with that of a traitor to the realm. It was not a noble death, but a traitor’s death; a punishment that was deemed appropriate for the crimes which Charles had been convicted of by the court. By executing him in such a manner for all to see, the public was meant to be reminded of all the injustices that he committed against his subjects.[16] This strategy would backfire for after the execution of the king, several royalist narratives recording Charles’ last moments at Whitehall would circulate as anti-Commonwealth propaganda in response to the public’s interest in such a controversial moment in England’s history. In these narratives detailing the king’s speech and demeanour before the execution, Charles refused to play his given part, the part of a guilty man, and maintained his innocence until the moment the axeman’s blow took his life in front of thousands, tugging at the sentiments of the public and paving the way for a true martyr cult to emerge. One narrative, which will be called ‘King Charles’ Speech’ for the purposes of this essay, imagines the king’s last words on the scaffold through which he draws parallels between himself and the most famous martyr of all; Christ. To those present on the scaffold, Charles announced “I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causers of my death; who they are God knows, I do not desire to know, I pray God forgive them” and subsequently crowned himself the “Martyr of the People” who was to go from a “corruptible to an incorruptible crown”.[17] Doctor Juxon, one of the witnesses on the scaffold, was then said to have replied, “you are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal Crown, a good exchange.” Charles then laid his head upon the block and explained to the executioner that he wished for a few moments to pray and then he would give the signal by stretching out his hands. “After a little pause” Charles bravely submitted to his fate and when the signal was given, the blow came down and the executioner held up the king’s head for all to see.[18] Juxon’s words revealed the symbolic nature of the execution in cementing Charles’ image as a just and beloved king whose martyrdom would ensure him power and influence after death. A notion, compounded by the success of Eikon Basilike, that sharply contrasted with what the rebels attempted to achieve by putting the king on the scaffold to begin with.

Laura Lunger Knoppers describes the crowd as taking centre stage in a public execution in which the spectators’ belief was crucial to the success of such a performance, especially in the case of Charles I where the idea was to taint the image of his rule with tyranny.[19] The revolutionaries would not get the reaction that they expected from the crowd when the king’s life was taken. In truth, the reaction would be one of shock and uncertainty as the realization of what had been done finally sunk in. Historian C.V. Wedgwood describes how “Many, if not most, thinking men in England felt the earth shake under them when a king was executed on a public scaffold”,[20] a sentiment which is echoed in the writings of Philip Henry, who was present at Whitehall along with thousands of other spectators for the king’s last moments. Henry was a Royalist clergyman whose father was the keeper of the orchard at Whitehall,[21] and in his diary he described his visit to London at the end of 1648 during which he bore witness to the execution of Charles I.

On the day of his execution, which was Tuesday, Jan. 30, I stood amongst the crowd in the street before Whitehal gate, where the scaffold was erected, and saw what was done, but was not so near as to hear anything. The Blow I saw given & can truly say with a sad heart; at the instant whereof, I remember wel, there was such a Grone by the Thousands then present, as I never heard before & desire I may never hear again.[22]

The “Grone” described by Henry in his account clearly was not anticipated by the revolutionaries, who expected to seal Charles’ fate and reputation as a tyrant with the final blow of the axe. As the fear of backlash over such a controversial event loomed over the rebels, the soldiers standing around the scaffold were soon ordered “to disperse & scatter” the audience to avoid public outcry.[23] The Royalist newspaper Mercurius Elencticus reported that in the immediate aftermath of the execution, people rushed the scaffold to “dip their handkerchiefs or other things in [the king’s] blood” while others bought “peeces of board which were dy’d with his blood”. Even the soldiers who were meant to be dispersing the crowd took part in the frenzy, seizing their opportunity to profit from Charles’ death by selling these items for either a shilling or half a crown to those who were desperate to own relics of the newly martyred king.[24] Ironically it was the very display of public punishment, meant to discredit and weaken the public image of the king, which turned him into a martyr and served to immortalize his memory rather than to taint it as the rebels had hoped. Fighting the same propaganda war as the Commonwealth, the Royalists used Eikon Basilike in an attempt to discredit the rebels and expose their wicked ways to the public through an analysis of the tactics the rebels had allegedly employed to taint the king’s image, maintaining that the sacral figure of the king was above the law because he simply was the law:

That I may be destroyed, as with greater pomp and artifice so with less pity, it will be but a necessary policy to make my death appear as an act of justice done by subjects upon their sovereign; who know that no law of God or man invests them with any power of judicature without me, much less against me; and who, being sworn and bound by all that is sacred before God and man to endeavor my preservation, must pretend justice to cover their perjury.[25]

Here the book was essentially exposing Charles’ enemies for executing him under the pretence of justice over a tyrant who deserved what he got and clearly refutes the idea that a king’s subjects are capable of any power of law over him at all. In fact, this passage makes it abundantly clear that the author of Eikon Basilike believed that justice simply did not exist without the king, who had both spiritual and temporal powers as an extension of the might of God. This idea of the sacral powers of the monarch is further accentuated in the original frontispiece that accompanied the first edition of the book, as well as several consecutive editions, which shows Charles in prayer with his worldly crown at his feet as he looks on admiringly at the heavenly crown that awaits him upon his death. In his hand, Charles holds a crown of thorns, a symbol which links him to the image of the Christ; the ultimate martyr.[26] The frontispiece demonstrates that not only was Eikon Basilike attempting to portray the king at his most vulnerable moments to the public, it was also laden with religious symbolism which further fanned the flames of sympathy for the royal family, reaffirmed ideological debates about the sanctity of kingship and intensified the martyr cult of the king. Charles was portrayed as a good Christian king who was ready to leave his fate in the hands of God, trusting in His plan until the very end and this was exemplified by various passages on martyrdom and the comparisons drawn between the king and Christ the Saviour.[27] A very important detail of the book that would cement this favourable image of Charles was the addition of prayers at the end of the book. “A Prayer in Time of Imminent Danger” reveals a very humble Charles as he admits that his “sins are so many and so grievous” that he does not expect to deserve God’s mercy and goodness but that he trusts in the will of the divine.[28] This prayer, along with the others found in the back of Eikon Basilike, were part of the Royalist effort to win a propaganda war by presenting the king as good, pious and not removed from his subjects as they gained access to his private thoughts and concerns. As argued by Kevin Sharpe, “as much a Christian, an imperfect Christian at that, Charles appeals to readers as a man of human love and tenderness”.[29] It was because the book projected this intimate image of the king that it was such a powerful piece of propaganda and it helped to cement the martyr cult surrounding Charles. Perhaps the goal of the Royalist camp in perpetuating the martyrdom of Charles was to discredit the actions of Puritan government of the Commonwealth as the actions of religious fanatics. Francis J. Bremer argues that once the Puritans gained control of the “agencies of authority”, they would use this power to “impose a culture of discipline on the societies they governed” by regulating alehouses and banning brothels among other measures that Englishmen would not be fond of.[30] Therefore it is certainly arguable that the Royalists might have attempted to portray Cromwell’s government as an administration that made fanatical decisions – one of those being the execution of the king.

Many Royalists viewed Charles’ execution as the most heinous murder committed since the death of Christ and this view was reiterated again and again through poems, manuscripts and newspapers alike. An article that appeared in Mercurius Elencticus on the date of the king’s death with details of the execution and the reactions of the crowd also included a poem that clearly sums up the outrage of the Royalists. The verses of this poem echoed the Royalist view that “Charles the First hath gain’d immortal glorie” while “These traitors stinking names [would] rot in storie” and called out the regicides for their “black deed” against the “great Martyr”.[31] Another effective piece of Royalist propaganda was a pamphlet entitled The Confession of Richard Brandon was also published shortly after the execution in which the author claims to have spoken with Charles’ rumoured executioner Richard Brandon, the city’s principal hangman, before he passed away. The pamphlet claimed that Brandon was ill for days before he died, “lying speechlesse, uttering many a sigh and heavy groan” in remorse for what he’d done.[32] There was even a rumour circulating among Royalists that Brandon had actually refused to deliver the blow and was replaced by Hugh Peter, the Army Chaplain, or even Cromwell himself.[33] It was in this climate laden with uncertainty and political conflict that the supporters of Charles I and the champions of Monarchy, would unleash their most powerful weapon to drive back the efforts of the Commonwealth and attempt to promote the king’s cause in a way that warfare had never achieved.

Charles I

It appears that even before Charles faced the executioner’s blade the rebels were wary of the effect Eikon Basilike could have on the sentiments of the populace and feared how it might thwart their efforts to vilify the king. These fears were already taking shape when Richard Royston, a known Royalist printer who was imprisoned in 1645 for publishing slanderous material against Parliament, managed to get his hands on a copy of the manuscript and endeavoured to publish it before the execution date. Several days before the king’s death, authorities found and confiscated what was printed of the book while Royston eluded capture and fled London. He found a press outside the city and, for a considerable amount, he was able to print the first edition of Eikon Basilike which became available to the public the day of the king’s burial.[34] When the King’s Book began to reach widespread popularity, it became increasingly arduous for authorities to enforce effective legislation against the publication and distribution of such a marketable manuscript. What made these efforts even more futile was that many printers chose to publish their copies of Eikon Basilike anonymously so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. However, it appeared as though Commonwealth officials would finally get their chance to stop the influence of Eikon Basilike dead in its tracks when printer William Dugard published an edition of the coveted book on 15 March with his name boldly imprinted across it. The next day, Parliament issued a warrant for his arrest and ordered that all copies of the King’s Book in circulation and at the presses be confiscated. Parliament’s victory was short lived as public opinion soon turned sour in response to the seizures and the arrest and almost immediately the Commonwealth sought out a reason for which to release Dugard.[35] The rebels could not admit that the reason they were going to release the printer was because they feared negative reactions from the public, therefore when Dugard presented officials with a license that he had received to print out the prayers found in the back of Eikon Basilike, Parliament finally had a legitimate reason to set him free without appearing as though it was softening its stance on print censorship. It was clear that authorities knew that the fight to ban the King’s Book was one that they could not win as Dugard resumed printing copies of Eikon Basilike a week after his release and “this time, parliament prudently ignored it”.[36] In fact, Cromwell and his supporters did not make any further attempts at censorship until 31 May 1649 when Parliament passed a motion that prohibited the sale and distribution of the book from that moment onward. When this policy was well enforced, it certainly had the effect of slowing down the book’s circulation, however the five new English editions that would be printed later on that year clearly demonstrate how difficult it was for officials to maintain an effective ban on such a widely read and requested book.[37]

It can come as no surprise that in response to the damage inflicted by Royalist propaganda efforts on the newly established Commonwealth, several Republicans penned rebuttals to the king’s book. However, as Kevin Sharpe has pointed out, the first of these responses was not published until seven months after the original copy edition of Eikon Basilike was printed and that may very well have been a reflection of the idea that a “quick and brief pamphlet retort” would not be sufficient to mitigate the effects of such an influential work.[38] Eikon Alethine was published on 16 August 1649 by an anonymous author and dedicated to the “right honourable Councell of State”.[39] In this pamphlet the author pertains that through his work the “false colours [of the king’s book] are washed off” and that his rebuttal was “published to undeceive the world”.[40] Although Eikon Alethine proceeds in an almost hesitant manner to answer the text of the king’s book, constituting “a weak and in some ways contradictory response that failed to undermine it”, it is very interesting and important to note that the author of this rebuttal was very clear in attacking the authenticity of Eikon Basilike as Charles I’ s own work.[41] Addressing his fellow country-men the author laments “I found an Idol-worship crept in amongst you, and saw you adoring the counterfeit Pourtraiture of one, you sometimes knew no saint.” Were the words of a counterfeiter more credible than those of Parliament? Eikon Basilike, the author argued, could surely not have been written by the late king due to the “forgeries and fopperies of which it is made up”[42] Although several republican rebuttals were penned in response to Eikon Basilike, many of them in the same fashion and style as Eikon Alethine, the most effective and famous of all was commissioned by the new republic itself. After eight months, Eikonoklastes by John Milton was first printed on 6 October 1649 and it was twice the length of the book it was criticizing, the bulk of this work being the various pieces of evidence with which Milton used to discredit Eikon Basilike. This work was Milton’s attempt not only to “counter the words of a king, but to smash the idol of monarchy and to discredit the man, Charles Stuart” and his portrayal in Eikon Basilike.[43] In his work, Milton adopted a chapter by chapter criticism of the king’s book and set out to dismantle everything from the style of the arguments to the credibility of the work itself. In fact, many of the chapter headings in Eikonoklasts mirror those that are found in Eikon Basilike; for example “Meditations Upon Death” in the king’s book is directly answered by Milton in a chapter he called “Intitled Meditations Upon Death”.[44]

Just as Eikon Basilike displayed to the English people a vulnerable monarch in his private moments, the very image of Charles as a martyr and a man that the Royalists strove to construct with this book became vulnerable to attack by Milton’s meticulous dissection. Kevin Sharpe has argued that “it is in the humanity as well as divinity of its portrayal of Charles I that the appeal of the Eikon lies”.[45] The inclusion of the correspondences of his children and the various chapters in the book portrayed Charles as a loving, doting husband and father; a man beneath the weight of the crown of England, but Milton sought to destroy this image. Eikonoklastes was penned not only to attack the king’s book but to attack the king’s person as well, or at least the person that the English public believed him to be. For instance, in his chapter titled “Upon the Queen’s departure,” Milton presents Charles as an “effeminate” and “uxorious” magistrate who would bend to his wife’s every will. This was not to be mistaken for devotion, instead, Milton argued, Eikon Basilike displayed Charles’ weakness as a king. He warned that “great mischief and dishonour hath befallen nations” under the government of kings who in turn allowed themselves to be “governed and overswayed at home under a feminine usurpation” and that these rulers “cannot but be far short of spirit and authority without doors to govern a whole nation”. [46]

In his attack on king’s person, Milton also set about destroying the cult of martyrdom fostered by Eikon Basilike as well as the image that it promoted of a pious Charles Stuart. He argues that through a series of devices, those who published the king’s book were “stirring up the people to bring him that honour, that affection, and by consequence that revenge to his dead corpse, which he himself could never gain to his person”[47] and that those who displayed adoration for the book were committing idolatry. Milton refers to the frontispiece as the “conceited portraiture before his book” which was used by the Royalists as a device to “martyr [Charles] and befool the people” and he argues that these “quaint emblems and devices begged from the old pageantry of some twelfth-nights entertainment at Whitehall, will do but ill to make a saint or a martyr.”[48] In other words, these materials were not appropriate for the making of a martyr, they were idolatrous and those who bought into this martyr cult of Charles I were idolaters. Not only were they idolaters but they were “the ragged infantry of stews, and brothels; the spawn and shipwreck of taverns and dicing-houses”, the “dissolute rabble” that were not to be counted amongst the respected members of society, nor to be taken seriously. [49]

Milton went beyond attacking the readership of Eikon Basilike and the religious symbolism employed by the Royalists to fool the English people. He effectively attacked Charles’ image as a good Christian king by dissecting one of the prayers included in the back of Eikon Basilike, prayers which were reported to have been used by Charles in his time of suffering and given to Dr. Juxon right before his death. Milton singled out “A Prayer in Time of Captivity” and he argued that this prayer used by England’s alleged pious and devout Christian king was actually a pagan prayer. This prayer, according to Milton, was actually ‘Pamela’s Prayer’, taken from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, which features “a woman praying to a heathen God”.[50] To those who did not believe him, Milton invited them to “satisfy their own eyes at leisure” by consulting the third book of Sir Philip’s Arcadia on page 248 for irrefutable proof of the similarities between ‘Pamela’s Prayer’ and the prayer found in Eikon Basilike.[51] Not only was this plagiarizing, but the Royalists were trying to pass off a “heathen” prayer as a Christian one and trying to attribute it to the image of a good Christian monarch. Beyond the idea that Charles was attributing to his own work, the prose of other men, was the notion that Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, though “full of worth and wit”, was “no serious book”. Other kings at least had the common sense to “borrow from fit authors”, but Charles and his false piety were stealing heathen prayers.[52] This was not the only time Milton would find instances of plagiarism throughout Eikon Basilike, and he would discredit the work by accusing Charles of making patchwork out of several stolen passages from the likes of Shakespeare and Sidney.[53] If these passages weren’t his, then how could this work be deemed authentic? According to Milton, they were irrefutable evidence that Eikon Basilike was not genuine work.

An interesting component of John Milton’s efforts to discredit the king’s book and mitigate its power as a piece of royalist propaganda, was his attack of the authorship of Eikon Basilike. Milton argued, much like the author of Eikon Alethine, that not only had the book plagiarized various other writers, but it was a work of forgery and that Charles I had no part in writing it. He knew that in the eyes of the people, the fact that the king’s name was printed across the book endowed it with a certain authority and it was this which Milton sought to undermine.[54] Although it was not a central part of his argument, the fact that Milton attempted to discredit the authorship of the book is indicative of the power wielded by the “image of the king” and this book as a relic of sorts as it helped to perpetuate the martyrdom of Charles. If the book were simply a series of arguments designed to justify Charles’ power by the virtue of his crown, then theoretically this argument needed no other justification other than the fact that he was king. In such a case, the authorship would have had no consequence on the effects of the book, however, because Eikon Basilike was presented as a portrait of Charles Stuart, the man, and not merely of King Charles I, then it became important for Milton to attack the person of the king as portrayed by his book and prove that it was not an authentic piece of work.[55] What is interesting about the authorship of Eikon Basilike is that writers such as Milton were right to claim that Charles I hadn’t written it. Francis Falconer Madan, considered to be a leading scholar in bibliographical studies of the king’s book, discusses the authorship controversy in detail and suggests that the Bishop of Worcester, John Gauden, was able to get his hands on some authentic writings of the king and based heavily on these he penned Eikon Basilike.[56] Gauden was said to have written to the king and sent him a copy of the manuscript for approval, after which Charles allegedly revised and edited the manuscript for the press. Gauden arranged for Richard Royston to print the book and after a series of delays, the first copies went into circulation around the time of the execution.[57] Because the authorship of the book, endowed Eikon Basilike with a certain amount of authority and was crucial to its success as a piece of propaganda, republican writers such as Milton would try arduously to prove that Charles I hadn’t written it – that the image of the king being projected to Englishmen by the Royalist camp was not a true portrait of Charles Stuart.

When the hostilities of the English Civil War ended in a royalist defeat in 1649, a different kind of war emerged in which words became the new weapons and both supporters and enemies of the monarchy disseminated propaganda to discredit one another. The Commonwealth’s assassination of Charles I was meant, in part, to deal a final blow to the institution of monarchy and the sacral rights of the king, however the public nature of the execution as well as various Royalist publications ensured the martyrdom of the king in the eyes of many of his subjects. Eikon Basilike was the most influential of these publications, helping to solidify Charles’ image as a martyr by offering the public a glimpse of his private thoughts and meditations at his most vulnerable moments. In this way, the Royalists were able to play on the sympathies of Englishmen by turning Charles into a compelling character that people could not help but feel compassion for. Despite various attempts at censorship, the Commonwealth failed to mitigate the damaging effects of the king’s book and instead commissioned John Milton to attack the manuscript; to discredit the authenticity of the book as well as Charles Stuart’s personal image. Eikon Basilike was a powerful piece of propaganda, vastly successful in giving the image of Charles I a kind of influence after his death that he had never achieved in his lifetime. The reason Eikon Basilike had such a profound impact on the propaganda war between the Royalists and the Republicans and the reason that writers such as John Milton had such difficulty with it was because it created a cult around the king that was in many ways bigger, greater and more surreal than the man himself. Ironically, in becoming a martyr King Charles I ceased to be merely a man, as the book wished to portray him, but he became a legend in his own right.


Primary Sources

Articles exhibited against the King, and the charge of the Army, against His Majesty; drawn up by the Generall Councell of Officers, for the speedy executing of impartiall justice upon his person; and the time, place, and manner of his tryall. Also, a message to His Majesty concerning the same; and his declaration and proposals touching the Crown of England, and the government thereof; and the resolution of the Army in order thereunto. Likewise, the declaration of the citizens of London, concerning the tryall of the King; and proposals to the Lord Gen. Fairfax, for liberty and freedom. With a joyfull and satisfactory answer thereunto. London: 1648 Wing A3821. Early English Books Online.

Brandon, Richard. The confession of Richard Brandon the hangman (upon his death bed) concerning his beheading his late Majesty, Charles the first, King of Great Brittain; and his protestation and vow touching the same; the manner how he was terrified in conscience; the apparitions and visions which apeared unto him; the great judgment that befell him three dayes before he dy’d; and the manner how he was carryed to White Chappell Church-yard on Thursday night last; the strange actions that happened thereupon; with the merry conceits of the Crowne cook     and his providing mourning cords for the buriall. London: 1649 Wing C5798A. Early English Books Online.

Charles I, King of England. Eikon Basilike; the portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in his solitudes and sufferings. Edited by Philip A. Knatchel. New York: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Eikon Alethine. The pourtraiture of truths most sacred majesty truly suffering, though not solely. Wherein the false colours are washed off, wherein the painter-steiner had bedawbed the truth, the late King and the Parliament, in his counterfeit piece entituled Eikon Basilike. Published to undeceive the world. London: 1649 Wing E267. Early English Books Online.

Henry, Philip. Diaries and Letters of Philip Henry, M.A., of Broad Oak, Flintshire, A.D. 1631-1696. Edited by Matthew Henry Lee, M.A. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & CO., I, Paternoster Square (1882).

Milton, John. Eikonoklastes. In answer to a book intitled, Eikon Basilike, the portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his solitudes and sufferings. A new edition, corrected by the late Reverend Richard Baron. London, M.DCC.LXX. [1770].Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Concordia University Libraries (Montreal).

The Trial of King Charles the First. Edited by J.G. Muddiman. Sydney: Butterworth, 1928.

Secondary Sources

Bremer, Francis J. Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Greaves, Richard L. ‘Henry, Philip (1631–1696)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 March 2014.

Hibbert, Christopher. Charles I. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968.

Knoppers, Laura Lunger. “Paradise Regained and the Politics of Martyrdom.” In Critical Essays on John Milton. Edited by Christopher Kendrick. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1995.

Madan, Francis Falconer. A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike of King Charles the First, with a note on the authorship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005.

Politics, Religion and Literature in the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Lamont, William & Oldfield Sybil. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1975.

Sharpe, Kevin. Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Wedgwood, C.V. Poetry and Politics under the Stuarts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Williams, J.B. A History of English Journalism to the Foundation of the Gazette. New York: Longmans, Green, And Co., 1908.

Wright, H.G. “The Protestation of Richard II in the Tower in September 1399.” Bulletin of John Rylands Library 23, no.1 (1933): 151-165.

Zaller, Robert. “Breaking the Vessels: The Desacralization of Monarchy in Early Modern England.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 29, no. 3 (1998): 757-778.

End Notes

[1]   Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings, ed. Philip A. Knachel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), 177.

[2]   For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the dates which correspond to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the Julian calendar which counts 25 March as the first of the year.

[3]   J. G. Muddiman ed., The Trial of King Charles the First (Sydney: Butterworth, 1928), 193.

[4]   Articles exhibited against the King, and the charge of the Army, against His Majesty, (London: 1648 Wing A3821), Early English Books Online, 2.

[5]   Christopher Hibbert, Charles I, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 251.

[6]   “Eikon Basilike is a translation from Greek and means “Royal Portraiture”.

[7]   Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, xi-xiv.

[8]   Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, xxxii.

[9]   Ibid.

[10]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 177.

[11]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 165.

[12]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike,165-166.

[13]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 166.

[14]  H.G. Wright, “The Protestation of Richard II in the Tower in September 1399,” Bulletin of John Rylands Library 23, no.1 (1933), p. 159

[15]  Robert Zaller, “Breaking the Vessels: The Desacralization of Monarchy in Early Modern England,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 29, no. 3 (1998): 757.

[16]  Laura Lunger Knoppers, “Paradise Regained and the Politics of Martyrdom,” in Critical Essays on John Milton, ed. Christopher Kendrick, (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1995), 96.

[17]  William Lamont, Sybil Oldfield ed. Politics, Religion and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1975), 131-133.

[18]  Lamont, Oldfield, Politics, Religion and Literature in the Seventeenth Century,133.

[19]  Knoppers, “Paradise Regained and the Politics of Martyrdom,” 97.

[20]  C.V. Wedgwood, Poetry and Politics under the Stuarts, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 102.

[21]  Richard L. Greaves, ‘Henry, Philip (1631–1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 March 2014]

[22]   Philip Henry, Diaries and Letters of Philip Henry, M.A., of Broad Oak, Flintshire, A.D. 1631-1696, ed. Matthew Henry               Lee, M.A., (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & CO., I, Paternoster Square, 1882), 12.

[23]  Henry, Diaries and Letters of Philip Henry, 12.

[24]  “Mercurius Elencticus, January 30 1648,” reprinted in J.B. Williams, A History of English Journalism to the Foundation of the Gazette, (New York: Longmans, Green, And Co., 1908), 205

[25]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 174.

[26]  Kevin Sharpe, Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 399.

[27]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 173-179.

[28]  Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, 187.

[29]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 397.

[30]  Francis J Bremer, Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 79.

[31]  Williams, A History of English Journalism, 205.

[32]  The confession of Richard Brandon, (London: 1649 Wing C5798A), Early English Books Online, 2-3.

[33]  Hibbert, Charles I, 269.

[34]  Francis Falconer Madan, A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike of King Charles the First, with a note on the authorship, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005),164-165.

[35]  Madan, A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike,165-166.

[36]  Madan, A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike,168-170, Charles I, King of England, Eikon Basilike, xx.

[37]  Madan, A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike,168-170.

[38]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 400.

[39]  Eikon Alethine. The pourtraiture of truths most sacred majesty truly suffering, though not solely. Wherein the false colours are washed off, wherein the painter-steiner had bedawbed the truth, the late King and the Parliament, in his counterfeit piece entituled Eikon Basilike. Published to undeceive the world. (London: 1649 Wing E267), Early English Books Online, 2.

[40]  Eikon Alethine, 1.

[41]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 400.

[42]  Eikon Alethine, 6.

[43]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 400.

[44]  John Milton, Eikonoklastes. In answer to a book intitled, Eikon Basilike, the portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his solitudes and sufferings. A new edition, corrected by the late Reverend Richard Baron.London, M.DCC.LXX. [1770],Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale, Concordia University Libraries (Montreal), 284.

[45]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 401.

[46]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 92.

[47]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 7.

[48]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 7-8.

[49]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 47, 131.

[50]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 28.

[51]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 29.

[52]  Milton, Eikonoklastes, 28-29.

[53]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 400.

[54]  Ibid.

[55]  Sharpe, Image Wars, 400-401.

[56]  Madan, A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike,126-127.

[57]  Madan, A New Bibliography of the Eikon basilike,131.


Eva Kratochvil is a first year Masters student at Concordia University in Montreal. She is writing her thesis on the perceptions of Henry VII, the first Tudor King, during the reign of his son Henry VIII. 

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