Killing the King

King Charles the Martyr

[Click on image to enlarge] One of several versions of an engraving by William Marshall which appeared as frontispiece to the enormously popular Eikon Basilike [The King's Image]: The Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings. That book purportedly contained the reflections and meditations of Charles I himself as he awaited his trial and execution but was actually written by John Gauden, a Presbyterian divine, and appeared within hours of Charles' death; it circulated widely during the following weeks and months and was easily the most dangerous royalist polemic challenge to the new Commonwealth government. The engraving prepares for the book's representation of Charles as a suffering saint and martyr — innocent of any deliberate wrongdoing, always intending the best for the English people and nation, a second David in his psalmlike prayers, a second Christ in his passion and death and in forgiving and praying for his enemies. Marshall's elegant portrait shows him kneeling in prayer and grasping a crown of thorns (inscribed Gratia), with his regal crown at his feet (inscribed Vanitas), and a crown of thorns awaiting him in the heavens (inscribed Gloria); in the landscape, emblems of a palm tree hung with weights and a rock blasted by tempest represent the king's virtue strengthened by trial. Milton's answer, Eikonoklastes [The Image-Breaker], was commissioned by the Commonwealth Council of State. Subjecting the king's statements and interpretation of historical events to a rigorous iconoclastic analysis, Milton sought to expose the book and frontispiece as idols, inviting an abused multitude to offer a hypocritical and tyrannical king the adoration due only to God. But that approach had little hope of countering the powerful sentimental appeal of the "King's" book to the multitude.


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