Spheres of Authority: Charles I and John Prideaux

A few dozen hand written letters are not Worcester Cathedral’s most beautiful objects; nor, dating from the mid-17th century, are they anywhere near the oldest. Nevertheless, this correspondence (written 1641-1642) from Charles I to John Prideaux, the Bishop of Worcester and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, is of immense value to Worcester. It intimately demonstrates the king’s personal investment in the city, in Prideaux, and in the various institutional spheres of authority which he represented.

Worcester Cathedral Library Prideaux

Cameo of John Prideaux (1578 – 1650), held in Worcester Cathedral Library. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral UK)

The historian Richard Cust notes the importance of propaganda to Charles I, especially in times when his public relations were strained. Part of this emerges through a very clear sense of divinely mandated kingship –a self-driven cult of personality- which is evident in the letters. The king signs himself with a typically regal flourish at the top: “Charles R” -Charles Rex. Many open with the exhortation “Our will and command is that you…”, and cities and institutions are frequently labelled as, for instance, “our city of York” and “our Parliament”. The forceful discourse, utilising the ‘royal we’ and ignoring any debate about ownership, demonstrates explicitly the idea of power and possession which Charles wished to affirm.

after Sir Anthony Van Dyck, oil on canvas, (circa 1635-1636)

Charles I, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck, oil on canvas, (circa 1635-1636). Image (non-modified) copyright the National Portrait Gallery, UK, available under CC licence. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01221/King-Charles-I?

However, not all propaganda was, or could be, self-perpetuated. This is one of the key roles that John Prideaux was given, in his capacity as Oxford University’s Vice-Chancellor, in the earlier letters of the spring of 1641. Charles repeatedly requests that Prideaux and Oxford “receive and forthwith publish and dispense” printed documents and books that the royalists saw as beneficial, predominantly ‘gracious’ messages and declarations pertaining to Parliament. In a later letter, dated the 7th of July 1642, Charles refers to Oxford’s importance as one of England’s key “nurseries of learning”, but it seems that the university, with its potent combination of loyal academics and a printing press, served most of all as the king’s personal postal service and propaganda engine, of which the Bishop of Worcester was a central facilitator.

Charles R

An example of ‘Charles R’ from one of the letters. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Similarly, Prideaux is valued for his connection to Worcester. Although born in Devon, he was consecrated as bishop at the end of 1641. Even after a short time, he is linked closely to his See by Charles, as in a letter from the middle of August, 1642. Worcester is here pitted against those who sought to “oppose our royal commands and to spoil our loyal subjects”. In this contest, Prideaux the local magnate (albeit, a spiritual rather than secular one) has the key role of organising “the justices, bailiffs, constables and our officers and loving subjects”. Prideaux and Worcester are interlinked in the city’s importance as a militarily strategic location and, in its resolute loyalty to the king, as a royalist propagandic beacon. By December 1643, another letter shows the Cathedral’s more tangible worth to Charles: it is asked to cough up £200.

Letter

The Sheriff of the ‘county of Worcester’ is cited by Charles I. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Finally, Charles’ letters to Prideaux show the latter as a useful ecclesiastical ally for the king during a period of religious dissatisfaction. A letter from the 22nd of December 1642 explicitly links the somewhat euphemistically labelled “present rebellion” with the “great increase” of religious non-conformists. Prideaux is urged to take action to stem and, if possible, reverse this tide, and to help “regulate the outward form of Gods [sic] worship”. It is striking that across the whole correspondence to a bishop who was also the king’s chaplain for a time, religious issues explicitly emerge only periodically. The severity of the sectarian problem raised demonstrates once again a figure who aided Charles in many important matters of state, exercising authority across many different realms of influence.

Presented in the letters is a king who, in a time of political upheaval and religious tumult, finds solace in the support of his “trusty and well beloved” ally. Over the two years of correspondence which Worcester Cathedral houses, Prideaux emerges as invaluable for his propagandist role at Oxford; for his ecclesiastical support; and for his ties to a city that would remain a royalist bulwark throughout the crisis of the Civil War. The letters clearly demonstrate Worcester’s importance to Charles I through its fidelity and through its connection to an immensely influential figure.

King Charles I

A pair of the letters from Charles I to John Prideaux. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

See also:

Cust, R. (2007), Charles I- A Political Life (Harlow: Pearson Longman).

Prideaux, S. P. T. (1938), John Prideaux: In Piam Memoriam (Salisbury: Bennett Brothers).

Chris Rouse

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