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Martyr-King Charles I's tract acquired by Civil War centre

27 January 2017


A RARE 17th-century book that fuelled a campaign that led to King Charles I’s becoming revered as a martyr by Anglicans has been obtained by a visitor centre dedicated to the English Civil War.

The 368th anniversary of King Charles’s execution in 1649 falls on Monday, and the book Eikon Basilike (“Icon of the King”), which some say was written by the King himself, was first printed only days after he went to the scaffold. It sets out a defence of his anti-Presbyterian beliefs and his continuing adherence to the divine right of kings.

This volume has been purchased for a five-figure sum by the National Civil War Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire. Its curator, Glyn Hughes, said: “Other copies of this book exist, but ours is rare in that it is in outstanding condition with its original 17th-century binding — many have later rebindings.

“It also contains an illustration showing the King holding a crown of thorns. Many copies do not have that, as early owners often cut it out and framed it for devotional use. It also contains the signature of King Charles II, and a note to the effect that this was one of his copies from the royal library. That makes it an even more impressive find.”

Thirty-six editions of Eikon Basilike were printed in 1649 alone, despite Parliament’s attempts to suppress it. “The last thing Parliament wanted was for the execution to make the King into a martyr, and yet that’s exactly what happened, because this book proved so popular,” Mr Hughes said. “People faced severe penalties if they were found with it, and printers often added a line saying it was published in Holland, to avoid prosecution.”

Parliament even commissioned the poet John Milton, a strong republican, to write a rebuttal: Eikonoklastes (“Iconoclast”), published in October 1649.

Days before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Convocations of Canterbury and York declared 30 January as the feast day of King Charles, and several churches dedicated in memory of Charles the Martyr exist today.

The question whether he was actually canonised is still a subject of dispute in the Church today. The Society of King Charles the Martyr, founded in 1894 to encourage his veneration, believes that he was. Its chaplain, the Revd Charles Card-Reynolds, said: “King Charles is the only member of the Church of England to be canonised by the Church of England.

“In 1950, Archbishop Fisher commissioned a report for the Anglican Communion on canonisation. It was published in 1957, and declared King Charles’s canonisation to be genuine. This was a very important doctrinal claim for the Anglican Church to be able to make: an Anglican could be a saint.”

A spokesperson for the C of E said: “Canonisation as generally understood today is a product of the 12th/13th-century ‘lawyer-popes’ — a process which has gripped the public imagination in more recent centuries, but not one that has ever been a practice in the Church of England.

“The 1957 report said ‘King Charles is a clear example of popular canonization; in which Church, state and popular feeling concurred . . . [the framing of the Propers] and the Calendar entry was as genuine a canonization — that, too, of a martyr — as the historic Church can show, Convocation, Parliament and popular acclaim acting in passionate unity.’ [However] the relevant resolutions of the 1958 Lambeth Conference make no reference to this conclusion.”


Faith feature - Charles I is still a troubling figure, says Adrian Leak


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