What with Milton being the hot literary topic of the year, and The Devil’s Whore on TV, Charles I keeps cropping up at the moment. This small exhibition is well worth a visit (though it closes on December 14th) for its examination of how Charles was represented posthumously. The picture left shows Charles’s execution, but to my mind, more interesting are the ones which show his “afterlife” – how people remembered him. After his death the Royalist cause reasserted itself, horrified by the regicides, and virtually deified him.
Images from his trial to his execution show him as a strong, dignified man, resolute in his faith and laughing in the face of death. Victorian images of the same turn him into a devout, sober family man, gathering his children around him (though most had left the country by the time of his execution). After his death, images display him as a Christian martyr, with my favourite, by Bernard Baron, in 1728, showing Charles being borne aloft by cherubs while Britannia turns her face away in shame. It’s almost kitsch, but it was serious; in fact Charles was only removed from the Book of Common Prayer in 1859. It’s a history lesson in itself, this exhibition, since it shows how popular opinion manifests and regenerates itself, sometimes in quite surprising ways.