3 March, 2014Issue 24.4History

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Selling Monarchy

Riki Miyoshi

Kevin Sharpe
Rebranding Rule
Yale University Press, 2013
872 pages
ISBN 978-0300162011

Posthumously published, Rebranding Rule, is not only the last book which Kevin Sharpe wrote before tragically succumbing to cancer but also the culminating volume of his masterful trilogy exploring the art and artefacts of the English monarchy from the Tudors to the Stuarts. Following the previous, critically acclaimed volumes, Selling the Tudor Monarchy (which won the 2011 Historians of British Art Book Prize) and Image Wars, Sharpe seems to have lost none of his enthusiasm for yet another detailed and exhaustive study. The present volume looks at England’s last monarchs in the early modern period—Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Queen Anne—and delves into how they shaped their own image and the image of monarchical rule through diverse materials ranging from royal speeches and rituals, through paintings and engravings, to medals, coins, effigies, busts, and even the humble royal mug.

The book is divided into the four reigns and each of these is split into a further four chapters by specific genres of representation such as portraits and prints. The organisation of the book seems to have been a point of contention between the author and the editor because themes and motifs are “repeated across genres within a reign as well as over reigns and readers interested in topics across the period (such as divine right, or visions of imperial regimen) will need to follow cross references”. Yet the structure of the volume also allows the reader to hone in on a particular period, text, or medium of monarchical representation—hence allowing the book to function as a reference book and as a highly readable grand narrative of the rebranding of royal representation from Restoration to Revolution monarchy.

The first part of the book covers the quarter century of Charles II’s reign in the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell’s Interregnum. The description of Charles II’s lengthy reign as “successful” is, perhaps, a mild understatement, considering that his father, Charles I, was beheaded by his own people and that his brother, James II, lasted less than three years as monarch before he was deposed by his Dutch relative, William of Orange, in the revolution of 1688. Furthermore, Charles II faced an unprecedented difficulty in representing royalty for a people who had experienced living through a republic—indeed, unlike his predecessors, he could not simply assume, but needed to argue for, the restored monarchy and its royal authority. As Sharpe suggests, Charles II “had to craft his image, as his actions, out of the ambiguities of his age” because his people “though they would not have acknowledged it, wanted their monarch to be a man as well as a god, of flesh as well as celestial matter”. Indeed, Charles II’s greatest gift was his ability to publicise by text and image to his subjects that he was simultaneously “traditional and new, sacred yet ordinary, his rule natural yet in need of justification”. The very ambiguities of Charles’s image then, which “beset at times all the genres of the king’s representation”, sustained his kingship.

In comparison with his elder brother, very little can be said of how James II succeeded in projecting his image—or so we might think. It is a widely-regarded truism that ‘history is written by the winners’, but, if there are to be any exceptions, then James II may perhaps just qualify. As Sharpe argues, the pervasive representation of James as “a popish absolutist bent on subordinating English liberties, property and Protestantism to Rome” is one crafted by his enemies and, more specifically, by Whig historiography. But according to Sharpe, the Whigs’ extensive efforts to deploy “all discursive and cultural forms and media to vilify James” and their continued need to reiterate the case against him betrayed a latent anxiety about the persistent potency of James II’s image. Indeed, as recent revisionist studies have demonstrated, James’s enduringly virile image posed a very real threat to William and Mary and the subsequent Hanoverian succession until the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1745. James himself was crucial to the image of Jacobitism as he “issued declarations and letters and circulated portraits and engravings that argued for the Stuarts’ cause and ensured that James and his son remained very visible, and by no means universally unpopular, in England”. Although James failed to retain the throne in the battle for the hearts and minds of his people, his perpetual presence after his deposition at his court in Saint-Germain-en-Laye was instrumental in creating serious political division in England for over half a century and “bequeathed historiographical and ideological differences that remain with us to this day”. The Whig’s constant efforts to denounce him are perhaps the greatest backhanded compliment James could have wished for.

If Whig historiography succeeded in demonizing James, it palpably triumphed in interpreting 1688 and the reign of William III. Tellingly, Sharpe recalls that there was virtually no “historiographical interpretation of a period or reign”, which had “such a near monopoly”. Sharpe argues against the long-prevailing Whig interpretation of how William had safely and steadily secured his kingship. Instead, his view is that William was constantly battling against the threats and challenges posed by James and that instability and insecurity prevailed over William’s reign until its very end in 1702. Sharpe argues that from the reign of William the primary concern for the monarchy shifted drastically. “From 1688”, he writes, “there were two kings of England and a bitter contest to secure authority and what was now widely discussed as the best source for legitimacy: the support of the people”. It was no coincidence that the 1688 revolution had brought about the greatest propaganda campaign England ever witnessed and that the same assiduous publicity was continued throughout the reign: “Williamite propaganda was organized, systematic and ubiquitous because it needed to be”. Sharpe reminds us that William had only just outlived James by a matter of six months. Had the latter lived a little longer the campaign to put James and his son back on the throne would have gained momentum and may indeed have become a reality.

In reality, however, it was Queen Anne who took the throne, although Sharpe revises Anne’s image as a monarch who was somehow less central and perhaps less important than her predecessors in the business of ruling England. Indeed, not only would many of us today have difficulty in identifying her in portraits, but the circumstances of her reign do not seem to have left such a mark on the historical imagination as the Civil War, the Popish Plot, and the Glorious Revolution. Despite Anne’s seemingly colourless nature and career, she started her reign with a favourable image—as a Queen destined for great things. She was not only English—a point which she underscored in her very first speech—she was also, unlike William, a devout Anglican who was inclined to religious ceremony, and was the legitimate successor to the throne as a Stuart daughter of James II. As Sharpe writes, “Anne, as succession panegyrics underlined, by her legitimacy, promised the possibility of healing the rupture in the succession and so of settling, it was hoped, the divisions that had rent the polity and people”. So why does she not appear more prominent a figure in history and historiography? Sharpe believes there were broadly two reasons: as a woman she could not lead military campaigns and therefore her position was “by definition secondary to that of her generals, notably Marlborough”; secondly, she had to deal with fully developed political entities—she had to skilfully negotiate with the new realities of “powerful parliaments and parties”. Yet Sharpe argues convincingly that the stability of the nation and the Hanoverian succession, the establishment of the constitutional monarchy and England’s emergence as a superpower, “owed not a little both to the actions, popularity and image of Queen Anne and, paradoxically, to her relative lack of prominence”.

Lack of prominence, however, does not in the slightest characterise Kevin Sharpe’s career. Not even his bitterest enemies—he claimed to have some—could charge him or his work as being colourless or lacklustre. While the majority of the materials covered in this volume may be known by specialists and non-specialists alike, it was, however, Sharpe’s ability to amass matter and simultaneously write with flair and feeling—especially in his fierce life-long battle against the Whig historiography—that set him and his work apart from others. Mark Knights, the editor of the volume, writes that “Kevin always enjoyed the drama of an academic conversation and conveyed his message with style”—readers of Rebranding Rule will certainly feel the excitement of drama and appreciate the signal style of its author. Kevin Sharpe’s rich, hefty, and deeply interdisciplinary volume drawing on history as well as art history is a worthy legacy as well as a testament to one of Britain’s leading historians and early modern scholars.

Riki Miyoshi is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Peter’s College, Oxford.