King Charles I came to the throne in 1625 after the death of his father James I. Charles was a well-reserved individual who held a pious belief in himself and a strong-willed leadership. Many of Charles’s personality traits were reflected in his manner and courtly style. This association was also shared with his father who was an elaborate, intriguing man who enjoyed lavish and over exuberant court engagements. However, the styles of the two kings were very different, Charles preferred his court to be ‘the pinnacle of social hierarchy’i and proper with a certain degree of formality whereas James, on the other hand, provided a court that evoked heavy criticism for its extremities and less than informal atmosphere.
From the very beginning of his reign, Charles was very particular in the choosing of his court members. He ‘effectively debarred’ii anyone from the court who criticised any aspect of his royal policies and prerogative. Even though this managed to maintain a tranquil atmosphere at court it left the king open to criticism over lack of contact between the king and the different political opinions of his countrymen. Charles heavily enforced that the court should represent order, respect and hierarchy with the improper dealings of his father seriously discouraged. Charles based his court on the Spanish example, which he had witnessed on his excursion to Madrid in 1623. He hoped to mimic the Spanish sense for formality as he strove to impose courteous behaviour to all who attended.
Charles’s childhood played a major role in the make-up of his court behaviour and perspectives. Charles lacked affection and longed for close relationships with his courtiers, and so surrounded himself with people who shared his likes and interests. This was unlike his father who revelled in heated debate and thoroughly enjoyed intellectual challenges from his most prominent adversaries. Charles saw his court as almost an expression of kingship. Social standing and hierarchy determined interaction with the king and even access to the court, therefore the reputation and social rank of the nobility was heightened.
In the 1630’s Charles’s court reflected his acute art sense and aesthetic tastes whilst still representing his love for ceremonial and proper court procedures. Charles was very specific in the choosing of his art and paintings, and even with his limited funds, still indulged in the work of certain leading European artists, Ruben and Van Dyck. The ceiling of the new Banqueting Hall in Whitehall was Ruben’s work ‘The Ascension’ (pictured right), whilst Van Dyck painted the portraits of the royal family with ‘unprecedented elegance’iii.
Charles also enjoyed holding the somewhat controversial masques. These were performances of great extravagance and intricate display. They involved a company of well-trained actors who would depict certain scenes representing the stature of the king and the responsibilities associated with the role. The latter masques, composed by Inigo Jones portrayed kingship as a godly figure. The masques symbolised the court isolation and delusion. ‘Charles took on roles that displayed his wisdom and justice, whilst the queen was presented as the embodiment of love and beauty.’iv The masques were deeply resented by many, some out of jealously and others simply out of disapproval because of the reinforcement of fears of Catholicism.
After the death of the Duke of Buckingham in 1628 and the foreign stations of ‘his closest advisers’v, Laud and Wentworth, Charles was left with only the company of his wife Henrietta Maria and so in the later 1630’s Charles had resorted to spending most of his time with the papal envoy, George Con. They were brought together by their mutual respect for the arts and Spanish formality. This was a very divisive area of courtly correspondence as the fears of Catholicism were raging through the nation. This action was not only discouraged by the entire protestant nation but also by the king’s Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Charles ignored Lauds advice and not only continued to admire the rites and rituals of Rome but also had associated himself with ‘a man who was regarded by the protestant nation as a servant to the Anti-Christ.’vi
However grand and formal Charles’s royal court was in promoting all areas of order and respect it was neutralised by the incompetence shown in affairs of foreign policy and administrative capabilities. Order and respect were key aspects of the court but this was only due to the careful selection of the court members and their unscrupulous motives to attend. The royal courtiers showed genuine loyalty to the king but this was only to enhance their own social standing through manipulation and examination of the king’s wishes and weaknesses.
The court became a haven away from the insecurities and distastes of the king by keeping him isolated from the serious issues threatening the present. Because of this, Charles’s knowledge of current state of affairs grew dangerously limited and it was simply shameful and eventually hazardous for the king of a nation not to be interested in affairs of state. The closed selection and lack of understanding shown to Charles’s adversaries proved to be one of his many personality flaws but one of the main causes of his downfall.