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Ian Atherton and Julie Sanders (eds), The 1630s: Interdisciplinary Essays on Culture and Politics in the Caroline Era (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), first publ. 2006. ISBN: 978-0-7190-7159-1, 232pp. £13.99.

Reviewed by Valentina Caldari


[1] Two principal commendations were made of this book when it was first published in 2006. Firstly, that it investigated a part of British history, the 1630s, which for a long time had been ignored by most historians; secondly, that it gathered together a collection of essays truly multidisciplinary in nature. Indeed, as the editors state in the introduction, the various disciplines employed by the authors aim to demonstrate the relevance of the 1630s as a subject of enquiry in its own right (p.19). Since it was first published, and by 2013 when it was reprinted, various studies, including those (inter alia) by Kevin Curran, Margaret McGowan, Sara Smart and Mara Wade, have demonstrated the validity of engaging with a multifaceted range of disciplines, such as history, architecture, literature, theatre, and popular culture, when addressing the early seventeenth century. Despite the editors’ claims for interdisciplinarity, however, this volume is mostly concerned with literature and drama, specifically the extent to which they shaped and informed the Caroline Court, rather than with visual arts (with the exception of John Peacock’s essay which touches on Charles I’s portraits).

[2] In their introductory chapter, Ian Atherthon and Julie Sanders explain how the collection aims to challenge a number of assumptions, especially concerning the enduring historical focus on the absence of a Parliament from 1629, and the traditional ‘perspective of the centre’ (p.1). While both axioms are rightly put into question by the editors, only one is truly developed throughout the book. Sanders and Atherton state that the absence of a Parliament is not to be attributed ‘a falsely unique status’ (p.2) and their position is confirmed by the essays’ authors who address the 1630s from a number of different perspectives other than the traditional view of a decade of Personal Rule, without summons to Parliament and thus necessarily leading to the Civil Wars. However, the editors’ proposition of providing an alternative focus to the courtly perspective is rarely exemplified by the contributions, the focal point of which very much remains the Court.

[3] Indeed, Malcolm Smuts’s essay examines the governing circle around Charles I. Smuts intriguingly addresses the perceived weakness of Charles’s rule and the extent to which the content of The Six Books of Politics by Justus Lipsius resembled the precautions put in place by Charles’s closer advisors. In the right balance between ‘force’ and ‘virtue’ (the latter seen as the affective bond between ruler and subjects, rather than a quality of the sovereign only), Smuts clarifies the ways in which both the Six Books and King Charles himself took control of conflict and instability. By highlighting the importance of the intellectual background informing Charles and his counsellors’ choices, Smuts argues that ‘royalist and republican thought had more in common than historians have usually supposed’ (p. 44). One of the ways used by Charles to control opposition in such a period of conflict as the 1630s was censorship, which is analysed by Andrew McRae in his contribution. McRae focuses on the significance of Prynne being ‘stigmatized on the cheeks with two Letters (S & L) for a Seditious Libeller’ (p.171), by considering this episode in the broader context of royal prerogative and increasing Crown control on pamphleteers. The author discusses three Puritan writers, Prynne, Bastwick, and Burton, whose works and use of satire had political and religious consequences originating from their personal struggle between loyalty and dissent. Their writings, to a certain extent, may have created the conditions ‘in which conflict became almost inevitable’ (p.184).

[4] The correspondence of Charles I is analysed by Sarah Poynting in order to demonstrate the king’s involvement in both ‘the mundane bureaucracy of government and the formulation and presentation of policy’ (p. 74). Poynting considers how different audiences and occasions influenced the use of either the first or the third person in his letters. She also outlines how Charles’s relationship with the recipients of his correspondence had changed between the beginning and the end of the 1630s, from communicating with Windebank, Hamilton, and Wentworth on an individual basis to creating a network, of which Laud was also a member. This network is defined by Poynting as a ‘triangular working group’ between Charles, Laud, and Hamilton, with Windebank staying on the side (p.85). If Sara Poynting reconstructed Charles’s (self-)representation through changes in his personal correspondents, two other essays in the collection do so by addressing masques. John Peacock’s contribution shows how Aurelian Townshend’s masque, Albion’s Triumph, linked Charles to imperial rule by making an implicit comparison between the English King and Alexander Severus, particularly evident in Inigo Jones’s scene designs. For contemporaries, the similarities between the two rulers were to be found in three specific areas: patronage of the arts, moral character, and attitude towards religion. James Knowles’s essay, ‘The faction of the flesh: Orientalism and the Caroline Masque’, questions the existence of a monolithic and homogenised representation of the Orient by outlining how early-modern European attitudes towards the Orient were profoundly different from one another. Thomas Herbert’s idea of Persia, for example, was different from that of Anthony Sherley and that of Thomas Roe as their distinct experiences during their travels generated different discourses. Knowles makes a convincing point in demonstrating the extent to which Davenant’s The Temple of Love was borrowing from Persian texts. The Temple of Love was emblematic in employing the mixed messages concerning absolute rule of the Persians, and demonstrates how Caroline orientalism was steeped in mysticism concerned with the ‘origins of power itself’ (p.128).

[5] These essays, while proposing very interesting discussions of political thought, popular culture, and royal correspondence, maintain the focus on Charles’s circle of advisors, the Crown’s censorship and punishment of libellers, the king’s changing relations with the recipients of his letters and the King’s patronage of masques and literary works. Therefore, the focus stays noticeably on that ‘centre’ which the editors presented as characteristic of the outdated historiography concerning the 1630s.

[6] The other contributions in the collection consider the political role of Henrietta Maria by either focusing on her as a queen consort or discussing her participation in or influence on court activities. In chapter 5, Caroline Hibbard looks at Henrietta Maria’s political influence at Charles’s Court and points out how the importance of queen consorts and female agency is often underestimated by scholars. By now, however, a number of publications and academic conferences have contributed to partially fill the gap mentioned by Hibbard in 2006.[1] According to the author, the participation of consorts in discussions on matters of high policy and statecraft tended to decrease after the first few years of their husbands’ reign, while the importance of Henrietta Maria’s role and patronage instead increased after the first decade. In her essay, Karen Britland argues that Thomas May’s 1631 Antigone is not ‘an inadequate translation of Sophocles’ (p.140) but rather an adaptation of a known story about the contemporary political situation. In fact, May’s play – according to Britland – was clearly the carrier of implicit references to Charles and Henrietta Maria’s marriage and to the conflicts at La Rochelle and Charles’s support of the Huguenots. The dedication to Endymion Porter, who had strong connections with Spain, is indicative of the climate of the late 1620s and early 1630s, when Charles’s marriage to a French bride was used to restrain Spanish power. Such international alliances are also underlying in Matthew Steggle’s essay which addresses the shift in perception of the 1630s drama by looking at the comic stage. Rather than a-political or anti-political as Caroline drama was considered until a few years ago, he shows the extent to which drama in this decade was ‘highly political’ (p.167), reflecting not only the domestic matters of state but also religious issues and international relations. However, in order to do so, the London-set comedy, which is the focus of Steggle’s essay, did not have to focus personally on Charles or Henrietta Maria. Thus, Steggle’s contribution seems to be the one that most assimilates Atherton and Sanders’ proposition in the Introduction. In the last chapter of the collection, ‘Coteries, complications and the question of female agency’, Jerome de Groot sheds light on coterie culture, demonstrating the interesting connections between legal groups surrounding the Inns of Court and Catholic groups revolving around Henrietta Maria. His analysis of the circles closer to the Queen sheds light on the blurred line between public and private. De Groot concentrates on three figures: James Shirley, William Habington and Robert Stapleton, because of their position as sub-courtly figures, with connections to Henrietta Maria, but also Catholic groups, poetic circles and coteries in the country. The focus of these chapters is the figure of the Queen and her contribution to courtly life and international political alliances, one again, therefore, the Court remains central to these studies.

[7] While the essays in this volume do not completely fullfill what was outlined in the Introduction in terms of avoiding the traditional focus on the person of Charles I and his Court, they do prove the importance of providing a comprehensive and alternative view to the outdated image of the 1630s as a period of increasing tension between the sovereign and the political nation that inevitably led to civil war. The editors, Julie Sanders and Ian Atherthon, have been successful in demonstrating how this decade should not be seen only as the long period ‘between the dissolution of Parliament in 1629 and the summoning of the Short Parliament in 1640’ (p.1), but instead as a field of enquiry in its own right to be addressed in the wider context to which it belongs. This collection has undoubtedly contributed to reintroducing the 1630s in the wider European scenario by discussing the extent to which international relations, personal and religious networks and the Queen’s influence informed and had an impact on the cultural and political developments at the Court of Charles I.

University of Kent, October 2014


[1] See, for example, Nadine Akkerman, and Birgit Houben (eds.), The Politics of Female Households, Ladies-in-waiting across Early Modern Europe (Brill, 2013); Anne J. Cruz, and Maria Galli Stampino (eds.), Early Modern Habsburg Women (Ashgate, 2013). A conference on ‘Premodern Queenship and Diplomacy in Europe’ was recently held in Canterbury (September 2014). [back to text]