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  • Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603–1660
  • Mark Charles Fissel
Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603–1660. By Kevin Sharpe. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 512 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

As dynastic rivalries and religious strife tore asunder early modern Europe, successive Tudor sovereigns manipulated their public images to unify the realm and legitimize their rule. Political authority was representational as well as a gritty reality. Public image became increasingly potent and complex as early modern princes exploited the Renaissance visual image and the Reformation written word. The Tudors forged their national monarchy from the remnants of late medieval dynastic faction, nascent nationalism (sometimes in the form of xenophobia), and the cohesive identity fostered by civic humanism. Religion, which divided many polities, became the bedrock for a national church that observed a fairly uniform liturgy and used a “Book of Common Prayer.” By the time of the last Tudor, Elizabeth I, the queen’s persona was inseparable from England, as she remains to this day.

Although the topics of Tudor success and national monarchies are old-fashioned, Kevin Sharpe’s latest research on the culture of representation serves a readership beyond those interested in the early modern world. Electronic icons and representational media bombard us to the point that reality seems compromised. Sharpe’s newest tome sparks minute epiphanies wherein the reader senses an affinity between perception in the early modern world and what we contend with today. Consider the serendipitous coincidence of the publication of this book with the international mass-marketing of trinkets commemorating the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Since the onset of the Reformation especially, a wide cross-section of Anglophone society has attempted to connect with a loftier and more meaningful plane of existence by coveting relics of royalty, such as a William and Kate tea towel. One should not be surprised at the totemic power of symbols of monarchy, even in the American Republic. Ceremonialism and sacred ritual revolving around the ruler complimented a commonwealth humanism that saw the sovereign as the realm’s good shepherd. [End Page 705]

Secular rulers splintered Christendom, subordinated the papacy, and to themselves transferred sacredness. Individual princes (and their immediate families) appropriated reverence much more naturally than did the sporadic and tedious representative assemblies of the time. Sharpe makes the ironical observation that when Parliament abolished kingship in the wake of the regicide of Charles I in 1649, in fact monarchy was resacralized by making a “bad king” into a royal martyr. Kingship’s resilience and potency stem from its centuries-long association with divinity. The Church of England (governed by monarchs) and the English religious settlement (fashioned by monarchs) shared affinities with both Catholicism and Protestantism. From a distance the Tudor state might appear Catholic one moment, Protestant the next. Its political system, hence the authority of the ruler, could baffle foreigners, even when English sovereigns appropriated classical and imperial motifs that mirrored those of continental rulers, ancient and contemporary. Though virtually all rulers stressed tradition, stability, and changelessness, the Tudor sovereigns in reality rebuilt the institution of monarchy with each royal succession (not unlike how parliamentary statutes were “renewed” in a sovereign’s first Parliament). Thus, the Stuarts inherited a uniquely English monarchy very different from those of Scotland and continental Europe. How the Stuarts conceptualized, articulated, and “performed” the office that they inherited from the Tudors (including its representation and public image) is the fundamental focus of this book.

James I had already learned how to be king, but in a political culture different from that of England. His decisive (detractors might say ham-fisted) and engaged (the uncharitable might say confrontational) style of rule contrasted with Elizabethan governance. What had worked for James in Scotland did not quite mesh with the more detached, dignified, and almost ethereal monarchy that the last Tudor had bequeathed him. Indeed, James’s accent and his vision of a Britannia that transcended an English nation meant that he could not be synonymous with England as had Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Sharpe shows how the written justifications of Jacobean divine right, in sermons as well as...


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