Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power

By Anna Keay, approx. 290 pages, $ 27.95, Continuum Books, ISBN 978-1847-25225-8.

Royal ceremonial promotes the power of the monarch. Essential to Charles II's power, he also used it to set his policies and manage the royal household and government officials.

This fascinating book uses meticulous scholarship to portray the ceremony surrounding King Charles II, who reigned from 1660-85 and whose father was beheaded by Parliament in 1649 while he was in exile.

Keay's research has given her intimate knowledge of the king and the people close to him. When discussing the warmth that surrounded the ceremonies of welcoming the king back from exile in Europe, Keay notes that

“in the thick of this extraordinary scene, the king turned to one of his companions and remarked wryly that it must be his own fault he had been in exile for so long, since clearly there was no one in England who hadn't longed for his return.”

This sort of injection of the human, and personal side of things enriches The Magnificent Monarch and gives us a sense of the political importance of royal ceremony. Rather than a trifling or indulgent matter, royal ceremony established the king's relationships with his subjects and with other rulers.

The king often dined alone, unless his royal equal, such as members of his immediate family or visiting royalty, were present. It was out of the question that his nobles would dine with him, as this would indicate some level of equality.

When the king took communion (usually 3 times per year), he did so alone, after all others had gone, to show that he, as king, was not like other people. Who sat on his right hand – often his brother, the future King James II – and on his left at church also established relations in the realm.

Charles' church attendance demonstrated his Anglicanism, a central issue of the day, as the English opposed Catholicism and were suspicious of the king's years in exile, when he had spent so much of his time in Catholic France and Spain. When his brother, the future Catholic King James II stopped taking public communion in the Church of England, it was as good as declaring his allegiance to the papacy.

Keay doesn't jump right in to Charles' court in Britain, but spends considerable time on his life in exile from 1648 to 1660. He spent considerable money and effort on his wardrobe at this time, though he was financially dependent on the royalty of Europe, but again this had to do with the political meaning of ceremony. As king, he could not be outdressed by people of lesser stature.

Ceremony and power became more important once Charles was actually on British soil as king. After years of living it up as a bachelor king, Charles' Queen also played an important role at court. Queen Catherine's evening “circles” (so called because her ladies stood in a semi-circle behind her while she greeted the guests to her drawing room where the socializing occurred) held political importance.

Some government officials and politicians attended the circles just to keep abreast of the court and political news. Keay notes that

“Over and above providing a forum for social and political conversation, the occasion served useful ceremonial and symbolic purposes. The gathering was perfect for public demonstrations of loyalty, favour and inclusion.”

The king manipulated these evenings for political purposes quite deliberately. As a social affair, the circle was a way for him to engage in informal policymaking and negotiating; he could come and go as he pleased, and whisper off in the corner with an important visitor. In explaining these kinds of functions, Keay offers the reader concrete examples, such as the matter of the Great Fire of London in 1666, and how the king was informed of things.

The Magnificent Monarch weds politics, personal and financial matters, and international affairs into an interesting peak at life in the upper society in late Stuart Britain.

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