The Eikon Basilike or 'The image of the king' subtitled 'the Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitudes and Sufferings' and also known as 'The King's Book' was a work published within a few days of the execution of Charles I on the 30th January 1649, although advance copies were already circulating on the very day of his execution. The first edition of the book, together with many of the subsequent printings featured an emblematic frontispiece taken from an engraving by William Marshall showing the king knelt in prayer, with his royal crown, labelled Vanitas lying at his feet, holding a crown of thorns, labelled Gratia whilst his eyes are turned towards the heavenly crown (inscribed Gloria) awaiting him in paradise.
Eikon Basilike rapidly became the greatest publishing success of the seventeenth century; within two months it had been printed in around twenty separate editions, and another fifteen appeared before the end of the year. It easily became the most widely read of all the royalist works produced during the English Civil War and a great propaganda success. So successful in fact that Parliament commissioned John Milton to write a counterblast under the title of Eikonoklastes, the 'image breaker'. Despite Milton's discovery that the Eikon Basilike had plagirised some of its material from Philip Sidney's Arcadia, the Eikonoklastes, which appeared later in 1649, is not regarded as being amongst Milton's best work and was never as popular as the work it attacked.
Although Eikon Basilike is presented as if its author was the king himself, from the first moment it appeared in print there were those that expressed doubts regarding the truth of this claim. Parliamentarians such as John Milton asserted the contrary and the debate regarding the true authorship of the book continued throughout the period of the Commonwealth and Protectorate and beyond.
After the Restoration, an Exeter clergyman named John Gauden claimed in a letter to Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon in 1661 that he had written the book. Despite the prima facie plausibility of this claim, it has not gained universal acceptance. Whilst it is generally agreed that John Gauden played some part in creating the work, the disagreement appears to arise over the precise extent of his involvement. Some argue that Gauden's role was limited to assisting the king in organising and revising what was 'his' manuscript, whilst others see it as an "act of literary ventriloquism" and that the king's contribution was limited to supplying a few favourite prayers which Gauden then proceeded to blend into his own composition.
Given the lack of any other evidence for the king's literary abilities the former seems the most likely explanation. (And Charles I would hardly be the first or last 'celebrity' to employ a ghost writer.)
It is known that the book's original title was Suspiria Regalia, or the 'Royal Sigh' and appears to have been originally conceived as a propaganda work intended to elicit sympathy and support for the king during the critical years of 1648 and 1649, when Charles was in custody and the precise constitutional arrangements to be made for the future governance of the kingdom were uncertain.
The Eikon Basilike therefore contains a certain amount of self justification, in that Charles seeks to explain why he was forced into open conflict with Parliament. The Eikon asserts that Charles was simply seeking to defend the "principles of crown sovereignty and episcopal authority, together with the property rights of the established church" which, can be argued and with some justification, he was bound to do so by the terms of his coronation oath. The problem was that many of the claims made in Eikon regarding the king's political principles were rather contradicted by his subsequent behaviour as he appeared to be prepared to abandon these principles during the negotiations for the ill-fated Treaty of Newport.
It seems however, that when it became clear that Parliament, under the resolute urging of Oliver Cromwell, was determined to execute the king, this original conception was abandoned in favour of a work of a more religious and devotional nature. The Eikon therefore largely consists of the King's personal meditations and prayers, most of which are rather too sentimental for modern tastes. Charles was thus portrayed as a martyr who had died in the defence of the principles of divinely ordained government and appears to have been particularly successful in this regard as something of a martyr cult did grow up around the figure of Charles.
This cult reached its conclusion when on the 19th May 1660 the Church of England responded to Charles II's request and his father Charles I was formally canonised as a saint. Saint Charles therefore took his place in the Kalendar of The Prayer Book as one of the English saints in the post-restoration period. A number of churches were founded in his honour, and we still find today the Parish Churches of King Charles the Martyr in Tunbridge Wells and Falmouth.
However the cult of Charles the Martyr rapidly declined in the period after the Glorious Revolution and Charles was eventually removed from the official Kalendar of saints at the end of the nineteenth century. This led to the creation of The Society of King Charles the Martyr, founded in 1894 as ‘a Church Defence Union under the banner of the Martyr-King’, which persists to this day as an organisation for the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion.
- The Norton Anthology of English Literature
- The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001
- The Literary Encyclopedia at www.LitEncyc.com.
- The Society of King Charles the Martyr http://www.skcm.org/SCharles/scharles_main.html
See Project Canterbury at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/pc/charles/eikon/
which reproduces a copy of Eikon Basilike, Or, The King's Book Edited by Edward Almack (London: A. Moring, Limited, At the De la More Press, 1904). Its text is taken from an advance copy of the first edition of 1649.