‘Hot and eager in courtship’: representations of court life in the parliamentarian press, 1642-9

 Jason Peacey
University College London

Jason Peacey. "‘Hot and eager in courtship’: representations of court life in the parliamentarian press, 1642-9". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 15 (August, 2007) 2.1-36<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-15/peaccour.htm>.

  1. Studies of civil war royalists and royalism have been hampered by the nature of the surviving evidence, given the famous Oxford bonfire which signalled the garrison’s surrender in 1646. There have been more studies of royalist thought than of royalist politics – the efforts of Ian Roy, Ronald Hutton and David Smith notwithstanding – and biographies of Charles I tend to cover his life after 1642 rather inadequately.[1] Renewed interest in recent years, however, suggests a willingness to revisit the available sources, and recognition that recent historiographical trends present new opportunities.[2] This piece builds upon one such trend, epitomised by Alastair Bellany’s The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England, in order to cast new light upon the role which court politics played during the civil war. Bellany’s ‘post-revisionist’ analysis blends detailed knowledge of high politics with appreciation of the significance of popular print culture, public opinion, and news culture, and of public perceptions of national politics. My aim is to apply Bellany’s methods to 1640s political culture by examining contemporary concern regarding court ‘corruption’, and novel ways of discussing the court, by focussing upon the most innovative aspect of civil war political culture: the parliamentarian newspapers. I argue that an expanded news culture and the circumstances of civil war combined to ensure that the language of court corruption became significantly more aggressive, and fed into new political arguments, and that this had profound implications for attitudes towards the monarch.


  2. Bellany’s analysis of the Overbury scandal demonstrates how public attention was drawn to key personalities, their corrupt motivations, and the connection between leading courtiers and crypto-Catholicism, and thus between court politics and a ‘popish plot’. The parliamentarian press during the civil war facilitated not just greater publicity for such claims, but also a deepening of analysis, and a broadening of its coverage.

  3. One of the most important cultural developments of the 1640s was the publication and circulation of information which would once have been considered arcana imperii, and this trend had profound consequences for Charles I. Historians have devoted attention to the significance of intercepted and published royalist correspondence, but breaking the seals on royal letters was only part of a news culture which intruded into court life, identified its leading players, and analysed their characters (Perfect Occurrences. 26: sig. Cc2).[3] This culture was fostered by parliamentarian demands for oversight of royal appointments – as part of an assault upon the prerogative – and for power to exclude key individuals from pardon during peace negotiations, and it ensured that newspapers helped readers to identify court personalities in unprecedented detail.

  4. They did so in part in order to demonstrate Parliament’s power over Charles in the late 1640s, as Westminster was able to control which courtiers were allowed access to the captive king (Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer. 183: 390; Perfect Diurnall. 282: 2266).[4] They also did so as part of parliamentarian factional politics, as radicals derided those grandees who sought personal advancement at court through a ‘projected settlement’ with the king.[5] In November 1648, therefore, Mercurius Miltitaris noted the arrival of Viscount Saye in the Isle of Wight, and how he had been transformed from ‘an old hypocrite, or pretended Puritan’, into ‘a professed babe of court’. Militaris also outlined how Saye’s kinsmen and allies were likely to be rewarded with preferment as ‘spurious brats of the court’ (Mercurius Militaris. 5: sig. E2).

  5. More importantly, the press peeked inside the court in order to identify its movers and shakers. Occasionally, newspapers offered a comprehensive list of courtiers, but they more commonly focussed upon particular individuals (Mercurius Britanicus. 22: 173-5). Certain court lawyers, therefore, were compared unfavourably with parliamentarian experts such as William Prynne, and attempts were made to highlight the activity of prominent court flunkies, such as Sir Frederick Cornwallis (Mercurius Britanicus. 22: 173-4; Perfect Diurnall. 44: sig. Xx3). In essence, however, the parliamentarian press focussed upon a fairly small group of grandees, such as Sir Edward Nicholas, Sir John Culpeper, and John Ashburnham. It was the elevation to the peerage of Culpeper and Ashburnham, therefore, that The London Post noted in October 1644 (London Post. 9: 2). Nicholas, meanwhile, was portrayed as the king’s intelligencer and spymaster, whose shady operatives invaded the privacy of Parliament. One newspaper claimed that Nicholas ‘hath… a very exact journal of all the passages, and debates of both Houses, such a one as we ourselves have not, and in every debate of consequence, who most pleaded pro and who contra’ (Perfect Occurrences. 29: sig. Ffv). The individual who provided parliamentarian journalists with most mileage, however, was Lord Digby, whose father had received so much news coverage in earlier decades, and who was perceived to be the arch ‘court parasite’ (Perfect Occurrences. 26: sig. Cc4v; Perfect Diurnall. 50: 394).[6] When Digby’s cabinet of correspondence was seized in the autumn of 1645, Nedham braced readers for profound revelations, ‘for […] the result and marrow of all negotiations, treaties and counsels was locked up in the secretaries cabinet’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 106: 940).[7]

  6. One particularly interesting novelty of the 1640s was the attention devoted to ‘court wits’, something which was most evident in analysis of royalist propaganda. Journalists drew attention, therefore, to the poet-journalist John Cleveland – ‘the Cambridge squib-crack’ – and to the fact that even an emasculated royal court in Newcastle during 1646 could make room for William Davenant (Mercurius Britanicus. 69: sig. Aaaa4v; Mercurius Britanicus. 70: 549-50; Perfect Diurnall. 168: 1345).[8] According to Britanicus: ‘her Majesty intends to summon all poets and scholars of any competency of wit […] to be aiding and assisting to the next diurnall’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 6: 41). Britanicus also threatened to expose royalist books: ‘I shall tell you who has a finger or a toe in the business, and who gave pens and who brought ink and who contributed paper’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 23: 176).

  7. The most important target, of course, was Mercurius Aulicus, the most visible symbol of royalist involvement with poets and pamphleteers, and which Nedham referred to as ‘the court whippet’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 96: 858). Britanicus suggested that its author was assisted by a bishop, a cavalier and a courtier, and alleged that ‘an assessment of wits is laid upon every college and paid weekly for the continuation of this thing’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 2: 9; Mercurius Britanicus. 16: 121). Britanicus also claimed that Aulicus was ‘rewarded with a place at court’, and that ‘he is one of the new patentees, and hath a commission to lie for his life’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 3: 17). Sir Edward Nicholas was portrayed as ‘Aulicus his intelligencer’, with the power to authorise and silence his pen, as well as its chief distributor, and Britanicus referred to ‘Berkenhead the scribe, Secretary Nicholas the informer, George Digby the contriver’ (Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer. 83: 666; Perfect Occurrences. 16: Qv; Mercurius Britanicus. 16: 121). Other contributors were thought to include Professor Prideaux (Bishop John Prideaux), Jasper Mayne, and Barten Holyday, although the chief target was John Berkenhead, who was derided for his previous role as Archbishop Laud’s amanuensis, and for his supposed Catholicism (Mercurius Britanicus. 23: 177; Mercurius Britanicus. 99: 881; Certaine Informations. 37: 287).[9]


  8. Understanding the significance of such court coverage requires not merely noting which courtiers were identified by parliamentarian journalists, but also analysis of the perceived faults within court. Bellany’s account of court corruption centred upon inversions – in terms of gender and social roles – and transgressions – moral, sexual and sartorial – as much as upon political failings, and during the 1640s such claims were repeated and amplified. This probably explains the attention devoted to the role of key female courtiers – such as Lady Aubigny – as agents and messengers, although such comments were probably less loaded than the reference to ‘Black Besse’ who was arrested carrying letters and copies of Aulicus between Oxford and London (Perfect Occurrences. 19: sig. T2v; Perfect Diurnall. 166: 1327; Perfect Diurnall. 178: 1426). More than a whiff of censoriousness also surrounds reports of courtiers such as Dr Richard Steward and Michael Hudson moving around England in a variety of disguises.

  9. Much more obvious are the references to loose-living. In 1643, Civicus wrote of Oxford:
    this place, which should have been the well-spring and fountain of learning, is now become the spring and fountain of all profaneness and uncleanness. Here are lewd strumpets […] they lie with the great commanders, sometimes with one, and sometimes with other (Mercurius Civicus. 7: 53).
    It was with both providentialist and prurient glee that Henry Walker reported that the disastrous Oxford fire of October 1644 had been caused by the carousing of royalists, following a ‘merry meeting at a fiddler’s house near the Red Lion in the Fish Market’ (Perfect Occurrences. 9: sig. I4). Here they ‘met with their wenches’ to indulge in ‘musick, drink and tobacco’, and in ‘cursing and swearing’, as well as in drinking toasts to the king, to parliament’s defeat, and to London’s destruction (Perfect Occurrences. 9: sig. I4). Walker returned more than once to stories of royalists ‘drinking and roaring all night’ with their ‘wenches’ in tow (Perfect Occurrences. 24: sig. Aa2v). If such tales tended to relate to royalist soldiers, others clearly concerned members of the court. Journalists repeatedly highlighted the activities of the renowned sexual predator, John ‘Prince’ Griffith, which certainly involved indecent assaults, and more probably ‘rapes and the like’ as well (Perfect Diurnall. 18: 4; Perfect Occurrences. 15: sig. P2v; Perfect Passages. 25: 196; Perfect Occurrences. 82: sig. Mmmm4v). Among the female courtiers, attention was drawn to Lady Dalkeith, governess of Princess Henrietta, who was supposed to be ‘mistress to Prince Rupert and also to Colonel [Sir John] Berkeley, governor of Exeter’ (Perfect Occurrences. 31: sig. Ff4v).

  10. What is significant about this treatment of the court was a sense that such immorality was now pervasive, rather than being restricted to a small number of individuals, and although journalists rarely made overt historical comparisons, they clearly implied that things had got significantly worse since the 1620s. Moreover, this attempt to develop an unfavourable picture of the entire Caroline court involved constructing the image of cavalier ‘types’ with which we are still familiar: devotees of the old religion, fops and wits, factional hotheads, and reckless swordsman dedicated to pillage and plunder.

  11. As with the Overbury affair, therefore, commentators highlighted how far the court remained a bastion of Catholicism (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 416-7; Mercurius Britanicus. 55: 431). Reports from the queen’s exiled court, and from the congregation which met at the house of the diplomat, Sir Richard Browne, stressed their loyalty to the Arminian John Cosin, and their devotion to ‘instruments of superstition’ (Perfect Diurnall. 103: 820-1). As in earlier decades, this connected easily with antipathy towards foreigners, the most obvious hate-figure being the French diplomat, Jean de Montereul, who was considered far too powerful at court for comfort (Perfect Diurnall. 159: 1271).

  12. The parliamentarian press also played a prominent part in creating the caricature of the royalist blade. The king’s decision to pardon Sir Nicholas Crispe after his participation in a duel in October 1643 enabled Britanicus to damn ‘the bloodiness of cavaliers’, and the same desire to stigmatise royalists as bloodthirsty swordsmen also explains the lively coverage of military leaders such as George Goring (Mercurius Britanicus. 8: 61; Perfect Occurrences. 26: sig. Cc). In September 1645, as Nedham commented on how the king ‘rambled up and down (methinks) very strangely’, he pointed out that Charles did so with ‘mad fellows at his heels, the very flower and cream of knight-errantry’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 98: 874).

  13. Aside from developing and reinforcing stereotypes, however, newspapers also gave much more prominence than before to portrayals of a court which was inhabited by men obsessed with their own interests, pursued to the detriment of the king’s cause. The court had, of course, always been analysed in terms of ambitious courtiers, and with tales of the king being subjected to ‘other men’s ambition and flattery’, and of the need to free his heart ‘from the snares of flattery’, parliamentarian journalists were merely ensuring that such a message became widely known (Mercurius Britanicus. 114: 1007; Mercurius Britanicus. 61: 479).

  14. During the 1640s such individuals were targeted much more aggressively, as being motivated by personal greed. They were repeatedly derided as ‘mercenaries’, who supported the king for personal gain, and as ‘upstarts’, not least those who were tainted as monopolists (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 416-7). In November 1644, Britanicus referred to ‘the power of that destructive council’ about the king, and to men ‘whose private interests cannot stand with the common good’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 57: sig. Mmm4v). In the following month, Nedham wrote of ‘self-interest-ruminating delinquents’ around Charles, and of the ‘mist’ which they had ‘cast before his eyes’, and he asked he old nobility: ‘[h]ow long  […] will you suffer yourselves to be misled, seduced and enslaved by the pernicious counsels of upstarts?’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 61: 479-80).

  15. As well as being ambitious, self-interested flatterers, courtiers were regularly derided as being untrustworthy, duplicitous, and scheming, and of being plotters and conspirators. Britanicus wrote of their ‘by-ends’, while the Diurnall referred to ‘a pretty piece of court knavery in their usual way of bribery and pillaging and polling the subjects’, and detected a ‘plot’ at court whereby the king would go to London in person only in the expectation of raising a new army in the capital. (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 415; Mercurius Britanicus. 64: 509; Perfect Diurnall. 112: 892; Perfect Diurnall. 128: 1028-9). Subsequently, the Diurnall asserted that Ashburnham was plotting to ensure that the king should resist ‘any absolute agreement with the Parliament’, so long as there was hope of a ‘peace beyond seas’ which would secure for him a sizeable army (Perfect Diurnall. 199: 1598).[10]

  16. This was particularly important in terms of dismissing the sincerity of royalist overtures for peace. Henry Walker sought to expose blatant lies peddled by courtiers in negotiations with Parliament, and Nedham encouraged readers to believe that royalist overtures for peace were merely delusory and ‘pretended’ (Perfect Occurrences. 19: sig. T2v; Mercurius Britanicus. 52: 411-12). In March 1645, its readers were told of ‘their last base pretending to peace by a mock treaty’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 73: 583). Its author claimed to expose ‘conspiracies and silent underminings in the dark’, and contrasted Parliament’s tendency to deal honestly and ‘in a fair way’ with the tendency for courtiers to ‘dig up all the highways of plain dealing’, in favour of ‘juggling and casting mists, and stumbling blocks’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 64: 509; Mercurius Britanicus. 65: 512-3). Tales of ‘jugglers’ and their ‘juggling’ behaviour, indeed, became staples of Nedham’s prose (Mercurius Britanicus. 109: 961).[11] Ultimately, courtiers such as Digby were portrayed as being little more than plotters, dissimulators, and traitors, and Nedham claimed that his captured correspondence would provide a key ‘to uncharm his mysterious characters’, and ‘the treason of their master’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 102: 905).[12]

  17. Once again, analysis of Aulicus only reinforced the impression that the king was surrounded with rakish, mercenary and duplicitous individuals, whose influence bore little or no relation to their merit. Britanicus asked readers: ‘do you think I will drive on a pecuniary trade with the press, that I write like an Oxford Aulicus only to the purse, and the pocket?’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 51: 399). More importantly, Nedham exploited the appearance of a counterfeit Oxford edition of his paper to expose the court’s character. He claimed that the author was ‘bribed from the junto at Oxford with 500 half crowns for advancing the design of a mock Britanicus’, and suggested that this was further evidence of courtly ‘juggling’ and ‘knavery’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 29: 223-4). Aulicus also epitomised courtly duplicity over peace negotiations, and Nedham alleged that his rival was forbidden from printing true relations, because ‘truth would undo them’, adding that ‘they told him it was no matter what lies they writ, for some people would take them all for truth, and that it was the only way to rail and jeer at the Parliament and to make them odious’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 62: 487; Mercurius Britanicus. 69: 541; Mercurius Britanicus. 52: 411; Mercurius Britanicus. 2: 9). Elsewhere, Britanicus alleged that Aulicus was ‘a pensioner to belie, slander and delude as many as he can’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 417).


  18. Such stories and analysis had obvious utility to parliamentarian polemicists and pamphleteers, in terms of mocking enemies and provoking readers’ outrage, but examined in more detail, they reveal four closely related ways in which political capital could be gained.

  19. Firstly, journalists could extend the discourse of ‘evil counsellors’ far beyond the debates of 1641-2, and demonstrate how the king continued to be manipulated by a small group of malignants. In December 1643, therefore, Britanicus addressed the courtiers:
    we question not His Majesty’s desires, but we are sorry he hath no power in his hand to accomplish any desire. We hope His Majesty desires to settle his dominions in peace, but you will not suffer; we hope he desires to take the late covenant with his kingdoms, but you detain him; we hope he desires to extirpate popery and to continue his Parliament, but you forbid him; we hope he desires to spill no more innocent blood in his kingdom, nor to stain his throne for his posterity, but you keep the sword in his hand; we hope he desires a reformation of our church and state, but for her majesty […] We hope his desires are good, but there are too many mingled in his actions, and it is pity that his desires are obstructed by so many [Sir Francis] Cottingtons and Nicholases and [Endymion] Porters and [Sir George] Ratcliffs. His desires are suffocated with ill counsels (Mercurius Britanicus. 17: 129).
    Subsequently, Nedham claimed that ‘[e]veryone can point out the evil counsellors now… and how they keep His Majesty still out of the clear sunshine of the Gospel, stumbling up and down in the twilight of popish protestant religion’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 55: 431). Men such as Digby were described as ‘seducers of princes’ (Parliament Scout, 54: 433).

  20. Secondly, commentators dismissed the prospects for peace without necessarily attacking the king. In October 1644 Britanicus explained that, ‘were there any hope of accommodation or the least proffer of but one hopeful treaty, I would lay out all my ink to woo the people on both sides to a general acclamation of peace’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 415). Instead, he professed to ‘despair of this so great happiness: our adversaries are both untractable, and implacable, they never make overtures of peace, but for some by-ends, and to this purpose they abuse both king and people’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 415). His marginal note was, as ever, explosive: ‘no time now to dally either in words or deeds’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 53: 415).

  21. In the following month, Nedham answered his rhetorical question – why the king persisted with the war in the face of military defeat – by referring to ‘the power of that destructive council about him […] who persuade him of I know not what factions and divisions here, and that as long as he can make a shift to keep any competent forces about him, he may soon tire us out’. ‘With such delusions’, Nedham alleged, ‘they make him still averse to our propositions for peace’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 57: sig. Mmm4v).[13] The self-interest of leading courtiers, and their lack of trustworthiness, was used to justify the refusal to lay down arms, and Nedham argued that since ‘we have reason to be jealous that the enemy hath (as they always have done) some by-ends of their own imagination’, and since courtiers were likely to engage in ‘secret designs’, ‘conspiracies’, and ‘silent underminings in the dark’, it was essential that ‘we ply them with action abroad in the open field’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 64: 509). In order for peace to stand any chance of success, Nedham claimed, it would be necessary for ‘some divine beam’ to have ‘enlightened’ the king,
    ‘and dispelled that mist which was cast before his eyes’ by his courtiers (Mercurius Britanicus. 61: 479).

  22. Almost a year later, Britanicus clearly felt that the same problem persisted, claiming that the king was made to believe ‘that his crown is in peril by an accommodation’. Nedham claimed: ‘[h]ere indeed lurks the main subtlety of the good members about the king, to make him act their interests under pretence of his own, which being altogether private, must needs tend to the ruin of the public, wherein the glory and safety of the crown […] is included’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 108: 955). Talk of new peace proposals from Oxford was derided as a ‘mockery’, and Nedham suggested that courtiers intended no more than ‘to come hither and juggle’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 109: 961). In January 1646 Britanicus claimed that royalist pressure for another peace treaty was merely a means of forestalling proceedings in London, and that they would ‘make such demands as will force us to a refusal, well knowing by the rule of policy, that in a kingdom near exhausted by civil divisions, the languishing multitude (apt to entertain peace at any rate) will look with an eye of enmity upon the refusers’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 114: 1002). Newspapers sought to demonstrate that counsellors such as Ashburnham were secretly advising him to ‘forbeare to make any absolute agreement with the parliament’, in the hope of securing assistance from abroad (Perfect Diurnall. 199: 1598).

  23. Thirdly, journalists emphasised the factional essence of the royalist party. The Diurnall claimed that ‘the divisions amongst the several factions there increase apace’, adding that the queen and Prince Rupert were ‘at great odds’ (Perfect Diurnall. 26: 206). The Diurnall claimed that ‘there is no room left for a moderate party there, where the queen, [Lord] Jermyn, Cottington, [the Earl of Bristol], Digby, Porter, [and Sir Francis] Windebanke […] bear the whole sway in all counsels there’ (Perfect Diurnall. 27: 211).

  24. Fourthly, parliamentarians portrayed the king as being wedded to a small personal entourage, rather than to receiving the advice of his elected counsel in Parliament, whether at Oxford or Westminster, thus ensuring the primacy of extremists and the sidelining of more moderate counsels. Although parliamentarians could not resist mocking members of the Oxford parliament – Henry Walker said they were ‘some of them over witty, some stark fools, and the rest fanatical – they attracted much less attention than did the court (Perfect Occurrences. 26: sig. Cc). Britanicus described the Oxford Parliament as ‘a thing so useless and contemptible that we have seldom any occasion to name it’, and the Diurnall alleged that it was distrusted by the grandees (Mercurius Britanicus. 99: 882, see also Perfect Occurrences. 37: sig. Nn; Perfect Diurnall. 27: 214). Perfect Occurrences claimed that the ‘mungrel parliament’ was controlled and manipulated by courtiers such as Sir Edward Nicholas (Perfect Occurrences. 29: sig. Ff3). A few weeks later the same paper claimed that:
    The continual watchings of the Oxford juntos have tired out the moderate party, and they had as good be absent […] as remain but cyphers there [...] But Sir John Culpeper hath so powdered the mungrel members, with a brinish speech of the hopes they have from Ireland, as makes them yet content with their rotten and tainted condition, which doth so offend the nostrils of the well affected (Perfect Occurrences. 32: sig. Ii).
    Nedham highlighted frustration within the Oxford Parliament that the king followed Digby’s advice rather than their own, and argued that it was the Oxford council and not Parliament which had ‘brought their sovereign into a fine pickle’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 104: 926; Mercurius Britanicus. 70: sig. Bbbb4v). Britanicus asked of the king: ‘how long will your majesty believe three councillors before three kingdoms?’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 51: 400).

  25. In essence, therefore, the language of court corruption in the 1640s performed a function in parliamentarian rhetoric somewhat different from that of earlier decades. Journalists were keen to stress that such rotten individuals were not merely a moral disgrace, but a political danger, which had polluted the royalist cause, and threatened both monarchy and nation.


  26. It is possible to extend this argument one or two stages further, however, in order to demonstrate that the corruption of court life had implications for the royal family, and ultimately for the king himself. Bellany notes that little personal responsibility was attached to the king during the Overbury scandal, other than to the extent that he neglected his role as an agent of vengeance and punishment, and of reform and renewal. During the 1640s, however, Charles came to be seen not merely as a monarch incapable of keeping his royal household in order, but also as someone who was himself guilty of failings which had once characterised merely those around him.

  27. The process by which such claims came to be made began not with the king himself but rather with his immediate and extended family, although this in itself demonstrated how the events of civil war brought court scandal closer to the throne. Writers began with the king’s nephew, Prince Rupert, who provoked first ridicule – with tales of his ‘lap-dog’ and ‘she-monkey’, and of his use of disguise, including in women’s attire – and then outrage, particularly as a result of his ruthless behaviour as a military commander (Prince Ruperts Disguises). Henry Walker claimed that ‘the actions of Prince Rupert are most unworthy, more cruel than Turks and cannibals’, adding that his ‘gypsies […] run up and down the country to maintain themselves by plundering and robbing the people where the come’ (Perfect Occurrences. 24: sig. Av). Readers became familiar with stories not merely of plunder, but also of servants molested and wives abused, by ‘the debauched cavaliers’ under Rupert’s command (Perfect Occurrences. 24: sig. Av; Perfect Occurrences. 24: sig. Aav; Perfect Occurrences. 28: sig. Eev). At Bristol the prince was accused of domineering over the town ‘in a very insulting manner’, and of hanging and imprisoning those who spoke out against him, and the Diurnall punned his new aristocratic title by calling him the Duke of Plunderland (Perfect Occurrences. 11: sig. L; Perfect Diurnall. 31: 242).

  28. Much more serious, and covered much less playfully, was the role of the queen, concerning as it did the royal bedchamber rather than merely the court, and a heady mixture of inverted gender stereotypes, Catholicism, and politics. For her role in pawning the crown jewels and in favouring papists and Jesuits the queen faced impeachment in the spring of 1643, but much more serious was the sense, long before the capture of the Naseby letters, that ‘the king referreth all affairs to the queen and is directed by her counsel and advice’ (Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer. 21: 162; Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer. 23: 179; Gardiner, i. 145; Certaine Informations, 17: 132). When Nedham made an ill-advised reference to the possibility of the king’s being dead in February 1645, he explained that Charles must either have passed away, ‘or else the queen hath sent over a paper of love-powder, to case him into some desperate trance or deep sleep, or some secret spell to confine him into the circle of a closet, that he dares not upon pain of high displeasure converse with open air’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 69: 541). After the revelations of the royal letters in the summer of 1645, such comments became much more common. Henry Walker claimed that ‘the whole state of things’ was ‘ordered by woman, which makes the court ladies bespake breeches, because they will be in the fashion’ (Perfect Occurrences. 26: sig. Cc). Both king and courtiers were perceived to play second fiddle to the queen, and Nedham wrote of her ‘serpentine subtlety’, and exclaimed: ‘never man thus enslaved to a woman’ (Perfect Occurrences. 29: sig. Ff). For a man to ‘submit to the will of his wife upon every trifle’, he suggested, ‘were ridiculous in a private man, much more in a king’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 96: 858; Mercurius Britanicus. 90: 814). Such outrage was not restricted to firebrands such as Nedham, however, and even the sober Perfect Diurnall concluded that leading courtiers took directions from the queen ‘for the ordering His Majesty’s affairs’ (Perfect Diurnall. 159: 1271).

  29. Ultimately, however, failings at court came to be regarded as problems for the king himself. The trouble with evil counsellors and degenerate courtiers was that the refusal to remove them represented a failing in the monarch, and an indication that he had been corrupted by them. Britanicus claimed that ‘it is a great part of our misery, that His Majesty will permit those that are about him, to abuse thus the name of royal majesty’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 52: 412). The same logic applied to the queen, and while opponents of her impeachment in 1643 could hope that the king ‘would yet at last have his eyes opened’, such patience would not last indefinitely (Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer. 21: 162).

  30. Such statements represent a subtle but important shift in the language of evil counsellors. Their retention at court was now something for which the king could be blamed. Such slippage also occurred in discussing the prospects for peace. After reading the Naseby letters, Britanicus exclaimed: ‘now let the world judge whether he ever intended any good end by treating’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 90: 813). Nedham subsequently responded to royalist taunts that Parliament sought to ‘conquer’ the king, by saying that ‘somebody had need conquer him, seeing he cannot conquer himself, yet continues a subject to his own passions and other men’s ambition and flattery’ (Mercurius Britanicus. 114: 1007). When the Diurnall dismissed hopes of a settlement in 1646, it was the king and not his courtiers who were blamed: ‘there is very little appearance of any inclination in His Majesty’ towards peace (Perfect Diurnall. 159: 1271; Perfect Diurnall. 163: 1303).

  31. Such a shift in language was subtle, but it was real enough, even if it signals disillusionment with Charles, rather than a determination to remove him from power, much less regicidal leanings or incipient republicanism. Indeed, overt criticism of the king is remarkably rare in the parliamentarian press, and aside from a few comments by Nedham in Britanicus, and perhaps the Diurnall’s account of rumours that the king planned to escape from Newcastle disguised ‘in the habit of a sailor’, such animosity as emerged from political radicals was not explicitly linked to analysis of the royal court (Perfect Diurnall. 180: 1440). Nevertheless, there are further ways of demonstrating how perceptions of the court influenced the way in which Charles was portrayed during the period after the summer of 1645.

  32. This can be illustrated by exploring the comments made about the king’s demeanour, mood, and behaviour in the goldfish bowl of captivity. What seems odd about the Diurnall’s comments regarding the king during 1646-7 is the frequency with which the editor commented upon the king’s apparent popularity. In February 1647, it was reported that ‘thousands of people were gathered’ to see the king at Leeds, and that ‘the people flock much in the ways to see His Majesty, and there is great rejoicing and ringing of bells in every town where he comes’ (Perfect Diurnall. 186: 1489, 1493) In April 1647 the Diurnall again noted ‘the great resort of people to His Majesty’, and such stories continued to appear later in the year (Perfect Diurnall. 195: 1564). In August it was reported that ‘the king is still at Oatlands very merry and pleasant, there is daily very great resort from London to see His Majesty’, and in September, readers learnt that ‘there is great resort of all sorts of people to him […] no gentleman is disbarred of the liberty of kissing the king’s hand’ (Perfect Diurnall. 212: 1702; Perfect Diurnall. 214: 1720).[14] Such coverage can be explained in part, however, by parliamentarians’ desire to reassure readers who were struggling to come to terms with the idea of a defeated and captive king that their monarch was being treated with respect, and allowed visitors, and in fact, such comments also represented a new and more profound kind of intrusion into the royal court. Never before had readers been so regularly informed about how the king spent his time, whether playing bowls, hunting, or studying, or apprised of his moods, particularly on those occasions when he was ‘more melancholy than usual’ (Perfect Diurnall. 195: 1559; Perfect Diurnall. 214: 1720; Perfect Diurnall. 236: 1895).

  33. More importantly, such comments actually represented a subtle but conscious attempt to denigrate the king. Commenting on the crowds that flocked to him in February 1647, the Diurnall noted that they acted ‘uncivilly’ and ‘gave offense’, and noting ‘the great resort of people to His Majesty’ in the following April the editor explained that they came ‘to be touched for the king’s evil’ (Perfect Diurnall. 186: 1489, 1493; Perfect Diurnall. 195: 1564). Whether or not this was true – it was not a practice for Charles was renowned – the editor was probably seeking to associate the king with a discredited practice. The Diurnall apparently sought to dismiss Charles’s supporters as a rabble, and a superstitious one to boot.

  34. On other occasions, the interest lies in the juxtaposition of such reports with other news stories. In September 1646, therefore, the Diurnall noted that ‘the king is very merry and pleasant and at his pastime daily’, in the same passage as it reminded readers about his disinclination to peace (Perfect Diurnall. 163: 1303). In the edition that reported the declaration concerning the vote of No Further Addresses – which implicated the king in the Irish rebellion and the death of King James – the Diurnall noted that Charles was ‘merry at dinner’ (Perfect Diurnall. 237: 1908, 1911). Amid stories of ‘tumult and mutiny’ in London in April 1648, the Diurnall announced that the king was ‘in good health and pleasant’, and that he ‘hath bowled several times upon the new bowling alley […] and talks merrily in relation to this army and the Scots’ (Perfect Diurnall. 246: 1977, 1984). Here was Charles as Nero, playing while England burned. In the issue containing news of the ordinance for the king’s trial – in which he was styled merely ‘Charles Stuart’ and accused of treason – the Diurnall also noted that at Windsor ‘the king is merry, discourses upon many subjects […] and takes no notice of any proceedings against him’ (Perfect Diurnall. 284: 2281-2, 2284). Here was Charles the Obstinate, or perhaps Charles the Blind.

  35. Lest this reading should be regarded as tendentious, there is one further piece of evidence which demonstrates beyond doubt that court affairs in the late 1640s provided journalists with material with which to damn the king in the eyes of his public. In the week that the Commons was preparing for his trial, The Moderate, that most intemperate of newspapers, informed readers that ‘the king is seemingly merry’ (The Moderate. 26: 248). It added however, a phrase as disrespectful as anything Nedham had written about Charles’s speech impediment, by claiming that while he was ‘absolutely timorous of all that comes into his presence’, he was not afraid of ‘young ladies, whom he salutes for the most part (if handsome)’, although ‘the old ladies must kiss his hand’ (The Moderate. 26: 248). The report concluded with a claim – perhaps now supported by new research into ciphered royal letters – which suggested that the king was as morally debased as any of his courtiers: ‘the black wench not attending him as she did in the Isle of Wight makes him very hot and eager in courtship’ (The Moderate. 26: 248).[15] Here, bizarrely, was Charles as merry monarch.


  36. Discussions of the Caroline court in parliamentarian newspapers involved four logical, and to some extent chronological aspects. Firstly, the press provided the public with unprecedented detail on the composition of the court, and about the identity of its small core of grandees. Secondly, it helped to crystallise the image of the cavalier, in terms of political and religious attitudes, and of the inversion and transgression of moral and sexual norms. Thirdly, the prosopography of the court was used in order to make a series of connected political arguments, regarding the power of wicked counsellors, the chances for peace, the evils of factionalism, and the dangers of relying upon small cliques of advisers, rather than upon the sage counsel of parliaments. Fourthly, and finally, journalists inched their ways towards the conclusion that corruption, like a disease in the body politic, eventually spread from courtiers to the royal family; a process from which not even the king was immune. Ambition, factionalism, and brutality, as well as gender and social inversion, and sexual transgression, could all be found, it was alleged, within the king’s immediate family. Irrespective of the truth of such claims – and some may be more fanciful than others – it was popular perceptions that mattered in an age of civil war, as popular print culture brought more and more people into contact with current affairs, and as public opinion became a political force. In this febrile political culture, journalistic portrayals of the Caroline court played a significant part in the demystification, desacralisation, and delegitimation of Charles I, and contributed to the possibility and probability of regicide.

[1] Roy ‘The Royalist Army’, Hutton, Smith, Malcolm, Carlton, Young. The best and most balanced biography is Cust.

[2] de Groot, McElligott and Smith.

[3] See Peacey ‘The Exploitation’.

[4] See Underdown.

[5] See Adamson.

[6] See Sumner, Roy 1998.

[7] See also Mercurius Britanicus. 102: 905; Mercurius Britanicus. 104: 925. For Digby’s letters, see Peacey ‘The Exploitation’.

[8] See Peacey ‘The struggle’.

[9] For Berkenhead see Thomas.

[10] See Smith.

[11] See Peacey ‘The counterfeit’.

[12] See also Mercurius Britanicus. 101: 897-8, 904.

[13] See also Mercurius Britanicus. 62: 488; Mercurius Britanicus. 64: 503-4.

[14] See also Perfect Diurnall. 216: 1733.

[15] See Alberge. For the Moderate, see Brewster and Howell, Diethe.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).