Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England 1603–1660

John Morrill is impressed with an account of how regimes in 17th-century England attempted to project their authority

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Reviewed by: John Morrill
Author: Kevin Sharpe
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £35

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This is a formidable book and part of a formidable series.

It “examines the attempts by a series of régimes in 17th-century England to represent themselves in the most favourable light… It studies the image of rule in words, visuals and performances and briefly looks at other and counter-representations as a means of evaluating the measure of success rulers had in projecting their authority.” It is a prehistory of spin.

It is the second in a projected three-volume series: the first – Selling the Tudor Monarchy – having appeared last year and a final volume covering 1660–1714 is scheduled to appear next year. Like its predecessor, Image Wars is lavishly illustrated (with 99 on-the-page black and white images) and it has been handsomely packaged by Yale University Press.

The research is remarkable for its depth and breadth. At the very least, it is a mine of useful information and lively comment. Every word put into the public domain by a ruler, and every (surviving) portrait is described and mulled over, as is every big set-piece ceremony and much more besides.

The period is divided into five: the reign of James I; the reign of Charles I to 1642; from Civil War to Regicide (1642–9); the Commonwealth; and the Protectorate. Within those periods, there are systematic studies of the words of monarchs as made public (their speeches, declarations, proclamations) and of words they commissioned (prayers, sermons, panegyrics etc).

There are studies of portraits, miniatures, engravings, woodcuts, coins and medals. There are studies of state ceremonials (coronations/inaugurations, weddings and funerals, progresses and triumphs).

Although the pace is leisurely, each part is related to the whole. The strong scaffolding is never clunky, and the writing is admirably clear and economical. Lushness of texture never leads to loss of shape and direction.

The book seeks to correct the view that James I was a man of too many words and Charles I a man of too few. Sharpe is excellent on James’s awareness of the use of the visual and on Charles’s determination to get his case across in words.

It is startling to realise that the family portraits of Charles with his children represent the fact that there were no children born to a monarch regnant between the 1530s and the 1730s except for Charles’s five in the 1630s (and except for the catastrophic birth of a son to James II in 1688).

Cromwell’s uncertainty about whether to be a new Moses or a new monarch is nicely caught. But there are occasions when Sharpe’s love of the spin doctors gets the better of him. What does it mean to say that Charles I won the argument but not the war?

As a manual of spin, then, this book is excellent. As an evaluation of its effect, it is undernourished.

Thinking of my studies of Cheshire gentry and middling sorts from the 1650s, I asked myself: How much would a magnate like Lord Cholmondeley or a parish gentleman like William Davenport, or one of his tenant farmers who defied him in 1642 and enlisted for the Parliament, have known of all this? How much penetration did much of this propaganda have?

In other words, how much did the prodigious effort rulers put into self-representation ever extend beyond the chattering classes of the capital? Could this be the subject matter of another impressive three-volume study? 

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John Morrill is professor of British and Irish history at Cambridge University. His biography of Oliver Cromwell was published by Oxford University Press in 2008