The ‘Eikon Basilikie’ and how to climb a 17th Career Ladder

The Eikon Basilikie or The Portraicture of His Sacred Majesty  in his Solitude and Sufferings was an alleged autobiography written by King Charles I following his capture and imprisonment by the parliamentarian forces in the English Civil War. Written in the form of a diary, the book paints an image of Charles as a pious king who acknowledges his earthly failings and vanities while making a case for his soundness of moral judgement and the purity of his motives. Published just ten days after Charles was executed in 1649, the book was an attempt both to exonerate Charles from the charges of treason for which he was beheaded, and to paint an image of him as a saintly martyr.

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Charles, shown casting off his earthly crown while looking to Christ and the Bible for a place in heaven. The ship on the right hand side represents the English state, sailing safe through the storm with Charles at the helm. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Reinforced up with heavily allegorical illustrations, the Eikon Basilikie was a public relations coup for the royalist cause. The authorities in the new English Commonwealth, concerned with the books popularity, commissioned John Milton to pen a rebuke, Eikonoklastes (‘Breaker of the Icon’). Milton’s work failed to dent the popularity of the royalist propaganda, and copies of it were ordered to be burned upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

It seems highly doubtful that Charles I authored his own panegyric , and Milton suspected as much. Yet the power behind the Eikon Basilikie came from the fact that it was perceived to have been written by the former king’s very own hand – and from a king whose divine right to rule was derived directly from God. Anyone onto the secret of the real author of the work would have been in a very powerful position indeed.

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Radical Protestantism, so strongly associated with opponents to the Royalist Cause, here shown as deviant branches of the tree of Christianity. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

One such man was a certain John Gauden. Beginning his career as a humble rural clergyman, Gauden sat on the fence – politically and religiously – throughout the English Civil Wars and the resulting Commonwealth, occasionally shifting his weight and slipping this way or that. Immediately following the Restoration, he was catapulted into the Bishopric of Exeter and appointed a King’s Chaplain. Both prestigious and potentially lucrative posts, Gauden remained unhappy with them, and petitioned the Earl of Clarendon, a powerful Royal aide, for yet greater rewards. Not only did Gauden know that the former king was not the author of the Eikon, but he himself claimed to have written it. Gauden was evidently happy to use this claim (the veracity of which is still disputed to this day) as leverage behind his petitions.  He was installed as Bishop here at Worcester in 1662, in which post he remained until his death the following year.

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Bishop John Gauden. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Whatever the truth, Bishop Gauden at least died wishing to be known as the Eikon Basilikie’s author – his monument, near by the entrance to the library staircase at Worcester Cathedral, shows him proudly holding a copy.

Tom Hopkins

Bibliography

Cust, R, Charles I: A Political Life, Harlow 2007

Moore, The Very Rev. W, Worcester Cathedral: Its Monuments and Their Stories, Worcester 1925

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