“The Apologies of Several Princes” : French Royalist Literature in the English Commonwealth

England and France were in very different positions in the 1650s. France was ruled by the adolescent King Louis XIV. Although the King was heavily influenced by his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, he was in an ascendant position. In the course of the decade, he would win a series of civil wars known as the Fronde, centralise his power, make ostentatious displays of wealth at court, and show himself to be committed to the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

In England, Charles I had similarly insisted on his divine rights, but in 1649 it had cost him his head. In his place, Oliver Cromwell had established a republic which would last for the next 11 years. Dominated by a puritanical religious ideology, the absence of traditional hierarchal structures like Bishops (who were dethroned during this period) and a king saw a time in which the values of individualism and liberalism flourished like never before. Monarchy was largely unpopular, but it still had its many fans.

In an earlier blog, we saw how popular the Eikon Basilikie (Charles I’s ‘autobiography’) was when it was published just ten days after his execution. A justification for the way he ruled and the problems he solved, the Eikon was part of a literary genre known as apologetics – the rhetorical defence of a position. Apologetics was developed by Plato and embraced by early Christian writers such as Paul and Augustine, but saw a rise in popularity in the Early Modern period. The Eikon was far from the only book to give voice to a king in defence of his rule – and given the political situation in the 1650s, it is unsurprising that many of these apologetic texts originated in France – the hotbed of absolute monarchy.

James I, Worcester Cathedral

James I of England wrote about the divine right of kings while he was James VI of Scotland. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

We have one such book in Worcester Cathedral Library, Georges de Scudéry’s Curia Politiae, Or The Apologies of Severall Princes. It contains defences of 20 kings and emperors, including Henry VIII, James I, Tamerlane, Gustavus Adolphus and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. We do not know what de Scudéry’s source material was – but as a gifted dramatist it seems reasonable enough to suppose that – in the best tradition of Shakespeare – he just made everything up.

Curia Politiae, Worcester Cathedral

Title page of Curia Politiae. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Although written originally in French, our edition has been translated into English and printed by the prolific London publisher Humphrey Moseley in 1654. Moseley was known to have royalist sympathies, but to publish such material was clearly at odds with the prevailing political opinion and government propaganda machine of republican England. Moseley therefore seems to have attempted to temper and moderate de Scudéry’s blatant and explicit adoration for monarchy. Here we see de Scudéry’s original preface to his work:

“The hearts of kings are in the hands of God. It is God’s own assurance, and He alone is able to discern and known them. As Kings reign by Him alone, so He alone knows by what maxims He will have them rule. The distance is so far betwixt us and the Prima Mobilia [i.e. God] that their motions are indiscernible to us; they train and lead us on after them, but we neither know how nor why we follow them.”

We are left with little doubt about just how insignificant we mere mortals are next to the divine majesty of kings and princes. To compare with Moseley’s preface:

“Great Princes, while they are alive, have the Creator of Heaven for protection. And when they are dead, the world is preserver of their memory. They survive to future ages by their actions, which if noble and illustrious, their fame doth grow immortal. But if unworthy of such transcendental dignities, their infamy, like a black cloud, overspreads the universe.”

Worcester Cathedral library

Frontispiece to the Moseley edition. The orb is surrounded by the four cardinal virtues and topped by an eagle bearing crown and sceptre – an image loaded with royalist symbolism. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

We, as the people, have the sovereign right to judge, and either praise or condemn monarchical leaders. Such a view would have sat much more comfortably in interregnum England – while the original preface was anathema to the values of the English republic. It would be interesting to see what other books Moseley published (he is known to have turned out at least 314 titles) and whether or not he had other problems in trying to fit French royalist texts to an English audience, and excuse them for an English government wary of monarchy.

Tom Hopkins

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