History, Politics

The Terms And Losing Them


Charles I

How and why do the powerful lose control of their own public image? In part, of course, it is a matter of the relative strength of their opponents – the strength of their internal debate, and the techniques they adopt for widening its participatory audience. But it’s also clearly a failing of the figure who is losing the control. I’d argue in large part – and so, too, might Drew Westen – that it’s a failing of language, an inability for whatever reason to couch policies and proposals in a mutually understood, shared public dialect.

In his essay Duke, Prince and King (collected in his own The Royal Image), Thomas N. Corns argues that it was not the theory of the Divine Right of Kings that did for Charles I per se. Following Somerville, he presents the issue as far more complex than a tug of war between those on the one hand who believed in Divine sanction and those who didn’t. The nuances of Divine Right involved the directness of that sanction, whether it flowed through parliament or was altered by ancient custom, whether it was bestowed squarely upon Charles or was a matter negotiated by the constitutional settlement. In this atmosphere, it was not the issue which was Charles’s problem – but his ability to frame it.

All this naturally feeds into John Adamson’s thesis that 1640-42 saw a noble revolt engulf Parliament and England, a revolt essentially in defense of perceived ancient customs to which Charles was unable to pay lip service. That is, the king simply couldn’t speak in terms his people (his court) were willing to accept, much less understand or agree with. Corns quotes Burgess’s The Ancient Constitution: “Charles came across as an absolutist (whatever his intentions) because he insisted on ignoring the rules for the usage of languages of divine right and absolute prerogative … Charles’s statements sounded foreign to his subjects.” In short, he lost control of the debate, and his opponents discussed the matter instead: “Divine sanction, once problematized within a parliamentary context, and subject to debate at both a practical and a theoretical concept, inevitably emerged as a weakened concept.” It was not good enough to dictate; Charles needed more effective dialogue.

Fascinating stuff in and of itself, of course, and not to be stretched over an ill-fitting present. This is all offered, therefore, without such comment.


One thought on “The Terms And Losing Them

  1. Pingback: Literary Texts and History « @Number 71

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