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Eikon basilike: Charles I and absolute power

Title page and frontispiece portrait of Charles I presenting him as a divinely appointed monarchTitle page and frontispiece portrait of Charles I presenting him as a divinely appointed monarchAs SH Steinberg has pointed out in Five hundred years of printing, the desire of the state to control the printed word followed hot on the heels of the invention of printing from movable type itself.

Mainz, the birthplace of printing, was likewise the birthplace of official censorship; in 1486 the cities of Mainz and Frankfurt jointly set up the first censorship office.

In the following century the religious and secular authorities in most European countries sought to extend their control over printing and bookselling, as they came to realise the tremendous power of the written word in spreading ideas and promoting freedom of thought.

In England the turbulence of the mid-17th century saw the efficacy of the censor severely tested. Charles I’s attempts to assume absolute powers included the imposition of severe restrictions on printing, embodied in Archbishop William Laud’s Star Chamber decree of 1637.

This meant that the number of master printers was strictly limited and authors were required to submit two copies of their manuscripts to the licensing authorities for approval prior to publication. These rules proved unworkable and in 1640, with Charles’s power weakening, the Star Chamber was abolished.

The Parliamentarians, however, were equally unwilling to tolerate uncensored printing and in 1649, following Charles’s execution, Oliver Cromwell sought to re-impose the unsuccessful 1643 Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing in an attempt to prevent the publication of Royalist works glorifying Charles as a martyr. This too had little effect and within days of Charles’s execution copies of the unlicensed Eikon basilike were changing hands among Royalist readers.

Eikon basilike (‘The image of the king’), ostensibly a collection of Charles’s own thoughts and prayers but probably owing much of its content to its editor John Gauden (1605-62), played a large part in the elevation of Charles to the role of saint and martyr in the eyes of his followers. By 1700 it had been reprinted or reissued nearly 90 times and had been translated into five languages.

The copy featured here probably represents the third issue of Eikon basilike to be printed and is likely to have appeared less than a fortnight after Charles’s execution. The frontispiece presents Charles as a divinely appointed monarch. It was printed in London but both the place of printing and the name of the printer are unrecorded; the latter is believed to have been John Grismond (c1639-c66), who was subsequently bound over not to print seditious works.

The copy in our collection has been bound with another work glorifying Charles, printed in 1651 and entitled: Reliquiæ sacræ Carolinæ, or, The works of that great monarch and glorious martyr King Charls.

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