Charles I, Eikon Basilike (1649)

Scott Schofield

Fig. 1: Title page with famous foldout with engraving of Charles I at prayer and “The Explanation of the Embleme.” Call number: A185.

Less than six weeks after King Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, nearly twenty separate editions of Eikon Basilike, popularly known as The King’s Book, were circulating throughout England. By the end of summer, the edition count would run to more than 35. Various formats of the work, ranging from large octavos to miniature duodecimos, were printed and sold surreptitiously by a range of stationers. While the book’s main structure of twenty-eight chapters detailing political events from 1640–1648 would remain common in all printed editions, new letters, prayers, poems, portraits, and other paratexts were added within weeks of the first printing. When we speak of the materiality of the Eikon, therefore, we need to think of it in iterative terms, as a text that would mutate, in both form and content, over a very short window of time. By looking closely at copies of Eikon Basilike, we not only begin to see the extent of these changes in print, but also how various intermediaries, particularly stationers and book owners, reacted to the textual flux by supplementing and customizing their copies to reflect the ever-changing composition of the book (fig. 1).[1]

Fig. 2: The upper board with gilt centrepiece crown and initials CR (i.e. Charles Rex) to Barbara Whyte’s copy of Eikon Basilike. Call number: A15.

Western University in London, Ontario owns more than 30 copies of the Eikon Basilike, and more than two thirds of those copies carry some evidence of past ownership.[2] Among the most interesting examples are those with early female provenance. In one copy, bound in contemporary calf with a gilt centrepiece, Barbara Whyte has signed her name twice on the front endpaper of her book (figs. 2 and 3). While the repeating of one’s signature was not unusual in surviving books from this period, examples in different hands or styles are less common.[3] Of particular note here is the addition of “13 June 1649” to the first signature, the earliest date inscribed in any of Western’s copies. While I have not been able to identify Barbara Whyte, I can’t help but see her inscribing and dating of this controversial book in the year of the execution as a bold assertion of ownership.

Fig. 3: Inscriptions of Barbara Whyte with date and Barbara White. Call number: A15.

A second example with evidence of female ownership appears in what is the smallest of Western’s copies. Still in its original binding, the boards are decorated in a simple faded gold-tooled frame with corner ornaments, while the flat spine contains nine flowers repeated in gilt. Printed in black and red by Richard Bentley for John Williams (fig. 4), the copy contains an initial printed leaf with a crown and a seal with Latin motto. 

Fig. 4: Titlepage of small format edition of Lettice Cuff’s copy of Eikon Basilike. Call number: A233/233a-mini.

It is here, above the crown, that Lettice Cuff has signed and dated her copy (fig. 5). Volume 6 of John Lodge and Mervyn Archdall’s The Peerage of Ireland or Genealogical History of the Present Nobility of that Kingdom (Dublin, 1789) mentions one Lettice Cuff as wife of Henry Dodswell of Athlone Esq. in a larger passage that begins with John Digby of County Kildare, Ireland. While the passage doesn’t provide dates for Lettice Cuff, it does mention that her only daughter died in 1731 (p. 287).  It seems possible, if not likely, that this is the same Lettice Cuff who signed her copy of Eikon Basilike in 1688.

Fig. 5: The inscription of “Lettice Cuff 1688.” Call number: A233/233a-mini.

In this final example, we see two traces of female ownership through gift giving. The first, in black ink, reads “To my daughter Frances Bouchiry [?] 1700” while the second, in pencil, reads “To My Dear Daughter Sarah Amy Hersent [?] 1725” (Fig. 6). Taken together, the inscriptions allow us to see the same book passing through several hands and different families, but ultimately ending as the possession of two different female owners. With the first inscription we get the addition of biblical scripture, which in this case might be read as a critique of the false leaders who oversaw the regicide in 1649 or perhaps a reminder of similar troubles to be cautious of in 1700. At the very least, to include this excerpt of Jeremiah 5.30 above the inscription suggests the gift comes with a warning.  

Fig. 6: Front endpaper showing multiple gift inscriptions to two daughters, one dated 1700 and the other 1725.

The evidence of female ownership found in these three copies of the Eikon offers a potential clue to the importance of this book for women in the early modern period. Indeed, as Laura Knoppers has shown in her examination of copies of the Eikon in libraries in North America and the UK, female ownership marks are commonly found on the title pages, endpapers, and even across the margins of this printed text.[4]  Similar to the copies at Western, those copies examined by Knoppers include examples with single and repeated signatures, statements relating to weddings, baptisms, and deaths, and inscriptions attesting to gifts given or received.  As she writes: “In private closets and cabinets, owned, exchanged, and annotated copies of the Eikon Basilike became the readers’ own material legacies” (p. 90). As scholars increasingly look to the material traces of provenance in early printed books, the Eikon proves a particularly strong case for studying female ownership and use.  

Source: Archives & Special Collections, Western University. All images used courtesy of the James A. and Ellen R. Benson Special Collection, Archives & Special Collections, Western University.

[1] The printing of the Eikon Basilike comes with an incredibly complex record of editions, states and issues. For the standard bibliography, see Francis A. Maden, A New Bibliography of the Eikon Basilike of King Charles the First, with a Note on the Authorship (Oxford UP, 1950). For further discussion of the printings and iterations of the Eikon in its larger historical context, see Kathleen Lynch, “Religious Identity, Stationers’ Company Politics, and Three Printers of Eikon Basilike,” PBSA 101:3 (2007) 285–311 and Robert Wilcher, Eikon Basilike: The Printing, Composition, Strategy, and Impact of ‘The King’s Book in The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution, edited by Laura Lunger Knoppers (Oxford UP, 2013), DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199560608.013.0016.

[2] The vast majority of Western’s copies of the Eikon Basilike were acquired in 1968 as part of the G. William Stuart Jr. Collection of Milton and Miltoniana, the largest collection of its kind in Canada.

[3] A good example is Thomas Knyvett (c 1539-1618), who signs his name in both italic and secretary hand.  See David Pearson, Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook (Bodleian Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2019). p. 365. It is possible, however, that the second “Barbara White” is a later addition by another individual with the same name or simply someone playfully copying a signature in variation.

[4] “Material Legacies: Family maters in Eikon Basilike and Eikonoklastes” in Politicizing domesticity from Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge UP, 2012) pp. 68–93; p. 90.

One thought on “Charles I, Eikon Basilike (1649)

  1. Pingback: Charles I, Eikon Basilike (1649) – Early Modern Female Book Ownership

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