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"Charles I”, 1535-1536, by Anthony Van Dyck (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017)


Charles I is the only monarch to have been declared a martyr by the Church of England. On the scaffold the king’s last recorded word, to his chaplain Bishop Juxon, had been a royal command: “Remember!”

They did: the Civil War, renamed by Clarendon “the Great Rebellion”, had killed a larger proportion of the British population than either world war, and in Ireland the losses were far greater than in the Famine of the 1840s. On my wall hangs the allegorical frontispiece of Charles’s book, Eikon Basilike (“the king’s portrait”), compiled and published as he awaited execution. This mystical yet subversive tract, perhaps the first instant book, went through scores of editions. The anonymous artist who created this “icon” shows him kneeling in prayer, holding a crown of thorns, his earthly crown underfoot, contemplating a heavenly crown. Only a propagandist of genius could have turned his sovereign into a saint.

Yet Charles is remembered as the most elegant of English kings, thanks to the gorgeous portraits of him, Queen Henrietta Maria and their court painted by his favourite artist, Sir Anthony van Dyck. He was the most talented collector of art ever to have occupied the throne. This year’s spring exhibition at the Royal Academy attempts to reassemble his exquisite collection, much of which was sold off by the Commonwealth after 1649. We also have a sprightly and original new biography by Leanda de Lisle: White King (Chatto, £20).

Charles first encountered great European art as Prince of Wales on his 1623 visit to Madrid with the Duke of Buckingham, where he bought Titians and Raphaels. Rubens himself was impressed by the knowledge and taste of this “greatest student of art among the princes of the world”. The admiration was mutual: Charles commissioned the Flemish master’s great ceiling fresco for Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House in Whitehall — from which he would one day emerge to be executed — and made Anthony van Dyck, whom Rubens thought the best of his “disciples”, his “principal Painter in ordinary”. Both Rubens and Van Dyck have the rare distinction of having lent their names to the English language: “rubenesque”, from the former’s voluptuous female subjects, while a “Van Dyck” is a beard of the kind made popular by the latter’s portraits of Charles and his courtiers. Knighted by Charles, Van Dyck even became a “denizen” (half-way between an English subject and an alien) and died in London on the eve of the Civil War.

In one of the best-known of some 30 portraits of Henrietta Maria, Van Dyck artfully juxtaposes her with her favourite dwarf, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, to exaggerate the Queen’s height (she only reached the shoulder of Charles, himself a very short man), thereby lending her a statuesque regality. Though pictured here aged 14 with a pet monkey, Hudson later became a formidable cavalier, quick to anger when called nicknames such as “Lord Minimus”. During the Queen’s exile in France, he challenged the brother of her Master of Horse to a duel. This man refused to take Sir Jeffrey seriously and arrived with a giant squirt; the diminutive David shot his Goliath in the forehead.


“Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson”, 1633, by Anthony van Dyck (National Gallery of Art, Washington. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.39. Photo © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)


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