Heads, you win

Charles and Oliver. Cavalier and Roundhead. Monarchist and Republican. The defining opposites of English constitutional history. So what were their spin doctors up to when they commissioned these engravings?

Merely one tyrant eliminating another by means of execution: that was Robespierre's dismissive judgement on the death of Charles I at the will of Cromwell. He refused to see any parallels with the impending execution of Louis XVI at the hands of the noble, democratic French Revolutionaries. Louis XVI himself, on the other hand, had always been presciently fascinated by the character of Charles I. As a small boy at Versailles he had recited a prepared speech to the historian David Hume; later, Hume's account of the unfortunate British monarch became one of his favourite studies and, in preparing himself to die in January 1793, he took as his model Charles I's conduct on the scaffold nearly 150 years previously.

At the beginning of the 19th century, however, William Hazlitt reported a conversation among his friends in which all agreed that OliverCromwell "with his fine, frank, rough, pimply face, and wily policy" was the only statesman in history they would wish to have seen. Towards its end, Sir Richard Tangye, a rich industrialist, admired Cromwell so much on grounds of his religious principles and his integrity that he dedicated much of his wealth to forming a private Cromwell museum, packed with books, pictures and artefacts, at his estate in Cornwall.

All these attitudes indicate how far the reputations of both Charles I and Cromwell have always been adapted to suit the purposes of the time - or the individual. Long before there were spin doctors, there were propaganda warriors: reds (the royal colour), greens (the Leveller colour), and infinite shades in between. Now, by historical coincidence, the 350th anniversary of Charles I's execution (30 January) is found to occur within a few months of the 400th anniversary of Cromwell's birth (25 April). Two new exhibitions, the Queen's Gallery with Charles I: King and Martyr, and the Museum of London with Cromwell: Warts and All commemorate the respective events. And, in a sense, the propaganda war is continued.

The position of the Queen's Gallery is significant: it is tucked in beside Buckingham Palace and you reach it by what I always think of as a servants' entrance - although "subjects" may be a more appropriate word. The interior, however, houses a rich jewel of an exhibition which no one interested in the connection of art to politics should miss. It is also a fascinating exposition of the uses of propaganda. (You can't help noticing, in this connection, that the official copyright line on the excellent catalogue by Jane Roberts, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at Windsor, is "Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd".)

The position of the Cromwell exhibition at the Museum of London is also significant. London, as the visitor quickly learns at the entrance, was always heavily - and influentially - in favour of the parliamentary side in the Civil War. We are encouraged to think of Cromwell as London's local hero (no doubt planned events at Huntingdon, his birthplace, and Cambridge, which he represented as MP, will stress their own connections). This is an excellent, well-planned exhibition in which a great deal is interestingly displayed in a small space, having as its kernel that Cornish Tangye collection, handed over to the Museum of London in 1946. It does not have - how could it? - the sheer quality of the pictures and objects from the Royal Collection, such as Van Dyck's relatively small version of his equestrian portrait of Charles I, let alone the famous Van Dyck triple heads which alone make the Queen's Gallery worth a visit. Yet there are objects of great interest, such as the music manuscript of Cromwell's cousin Anne - music she played to him herself.

Cromwell: Warts and All does have its bull point, and this too is announced to the visitor. Cromwell has been more written about than any of our other rulers. We are at least half-way towards Sir Richard Tangye's conviction that "the nation" owed more to him than to any of its other leaders, even if the tactful subtitle "Warts and All" does presumably allude to two nations who may not feel the same way - Ireland and Scotland, against which he led military expeditions.

What the two exhibitions, taken together, reveal is the need that was felt, in the case of both men, to build them up and project a suitable image both royal and strong. In the case of Charles I, hereditary King, it might be thought that his royal birth alone was sufficient for at least the first part of the exercise. The death of the gorgeous, brilliant Henry, Prince of Wales in 1612 left the 10-year-old Charles, Duke of York, very short for his age and a stammerer, as the heir. None of this deterred the image-makers: in many cases, engravings of the late Prince were simply made over to do for the next one, and the trappings of the title were left in, although there was a four-year gap before Charles's creation as Prince of Wales, presumably for mourning's sake. Charles I's height could not even be guessed at from the pictures at the Queen's Gallery.

Charles's marriage to Henrietta Maria, Princess of France, shortly after his accession in 1625, involved new image-making. Henrietta Maria was tiny, very dark, with terrible teeth. In the royal pictures she emerges as exquisite, almost as lustrous as the great pearls round her neck and at her ears. She also provided, very quickly, children. Here, as in Hendrick Pot's charming study of Charles I, Henrietta Maria and Charles, Prince of Wales of 1632, we find the first pictures celebrating what George VI would call "the family firm". (The images of Henry VIII and his children, with the odd wife portrayed as a rather small figure, were always more about the King's potency, the survival quality of his dynasty, than about a family as such.)

The third stage in the development of Charles I's image was based on strength; as his political troubles developed and a military solution became increasingly likely, the mighty leader succeeded the tender father. This, of course, was the first stage of Cromwell's image, since his power derived from his generalship in the Civil War. William Dobson's Charles I in armour, in the Queen's Gallery, was painted during the early Civil War period, while the first images of Cromwell show the "rough, pimply" soldier's face of Hazlitt's imagination. For a moment, then, it suits both royalists and parliamentarians to denote their leaders as military men.

But then Cromwell's crossover begins. Moving from General to Lord Protector in 1653, he proved no more capable than Charles I of providing that stable, parliament-based government for which the war had presumably been fought. Increasingly, Cromwell's inclination moved towards the notion of restoring kingly government, on the grounds that the people knew their duty to the king and he knew his to them. In short, a protector had an unnatural base of power, and a king had a natural one. By 1657, eight years after the execution of Charles I, and the formal abolition of the monarchy, rumours that Cromwell would ascend the throne as Oliver I were rife, and the evidence is that he did seriously contemplate it, until some of his old friends from the Army persuaded him either that it was against the will of God, or that the Army would not wear it, or both. Eighteen months later Cromwell was dead, so we can never know whether he would have changed his mind.

Cromwell's royal transformation act, so surprising to those who think of him only as the Arch-Republican, is illustrated at both exhibitions. One engraving, by Peter Lombart, sometimes known as The Headless Horseman (1655) owing to its Vicar of Bray-like changes of subject, shows Cromwell in regal pose on a kingly horse with sword, sash and attendant curly-headed page or squire. The same pose - in fact, the same engraving - was subsequently used to represent Charles I posthumously, and Charles II, Cardinal Mazarin and Louis XIV. In real life Cromwell made the protectoral style as close to the royal as he could - using many of the art treasures of Charles I at Hampton Court.

Ironically enough, in death it was Cromwell who was buried with all the pomp of a king, as pictures and a surviving hatchment show. The best that the supporters of Charles I could do, denied any kind of state funeral in 1649, was to turn him into a martyr who had died for the Anglican religion. An engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar shows Charles I with his own crown in the dust and a heavenly crown approaching him.

What is it about monarchy? After the Restoration, Cromwell's body was dug up, and ceremoniously executed in its turn. Although plenty of people in England today are descended from Cromwell, there are none who bear his name. When the last descendant in the male line, one Olivaria Cromwell, applied to George III to preserve her name on marriage, the King was heard to mutter: "No, no more Cromwells." Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd, on the other hand, is symbolically flourishing.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement