Robert Wilcher. The Writing of Royalism 1628-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. x+403 pp. ISBN 0 521 66183 8.
Christopher Orchard
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Orchard, Christopher. "Review of Robert Wilcher. The Writing of Royalism 1628-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 15.1-7 -<URL:

  1. The purpose of Robert Wilcher's book on the writing of Royalism is to direct our attention away from a focus on Parliamentarian discourse, and research instead Conrad Russell's enquiry into the "peculiarity" of the Royalist party. He hopes to achieve this aim by providing the most comprehensive survey to date of how Royalist writers responded to challenges to Charles' authority and to the regicide and the existence of the Commonwealth. Such a survey covers the years 1628-1660 and is orientated around key historical moments that affected writers who were helping to define the character of Royalism.

  2. This book is also a survey of the development of dissent within the Royalist party, particularly towards Charles I and the problems inherent in his kingship. Wilcher begins with the late 1620s and 1630s, leading up to the Bishops' Wars, and immediately finds literary dissent among Royalist poets such as Thomas Carew, who articulated his own distancing from the ideals of a court system and the political and personal preferences of its monarch. In Wilcher's depiction of Royalism, poets are councillors who solve thorny political issues. Sir John Suckling used his play Brennoralt to advocate the strictest punishment on the recalcitrant Scots and later revealed what Wilcher calls his psychological insight into Charles' character by using letters to urge the King to "inject some realism into royal strategy." Wilcher finds such realism in works composed in the early 1640s by Francis Quarles and Mildmay Fane that served as antidotes to any nostalgia about Charles's reign, recognizing the political changes since the last Parliament of 1629. All of these writers were offering advice to Charles about the need to overcome temperamental qualities of stubbornness and improve relations with the people.

  3. This discourse of dissent was occasioned, according to Wilcher's argument, by the evolution of particular political principles that were always contingent on developing and unprecedented political events. The result was a poetics of ambivalence. Hence Wilcher sees the mixed feelings in Royalist elegies over the death of the Earl of Strafford as indicative of how a "generation of poets was entering uncharted territory in which familiar modes of expression would be put under increasing strain by circumstances that undermined the moral and political assumptions of the past" (63). He cites Frances Quarles' pastoral verse of 1641 whose unease about the direction of church reform mirrored the feelings of other writers who would provide "the nucleus for a Royalist party...alarmed by policies that threatened the foundations not only of the episcopal church but of the traditional order of society..." (71). This ambiguity marked much Royalist poetics throughout the early 1640s. Wilcher shows how poets such as Cleveland, Taylor, Cowley and the contributors to Oxford and Cambridge dedicatory volumes hint at anxiety about Charles' reentry to London in late 1641, based on the political implications of his previous absences, and the fear of his pursuit of an aggressive policy towards Parliament. These feelings were at odds with other writers whose uncompromising loyalty was demonstrated in how they aggressively critiqued those who had been challenging the king's authority. This complexity of feeling was often paired with uncertainty in the months before hostilities began. Wilcher identifies Lovelace's poetry more with Lord Goring and the war party than the moderates but indicates that it also reveals Lovelace's doubts about the viability of the Royalist cause itself (124). Wilcher views these examples as testifying "to the various shades of 'royalism' at this time and reveal[ing] the strain exerted by a changing world upon traditional modes of poetic discourse" (99). This strain was particularly in evidence at the Royalist headquarters at Oxford in the early 1640s. Wilcher identifies an initial aggressive, non-conciliatory literary and triumphant Royalism in Oxford as exemplified by Taylor, Cleveland and Cowley. This hawkish position, developed after Edgehill and Newbury, could also be found in jure divino apologists for absolute monarchy. Yet by 1644, Wilcher argues that the propaganda machine was running out of steam. The dispersal of writers after Oxford ceased to serve as Royalist headquarters and the tendency to favor reprints rather than new work reflected "the ebbing of Royalist confidence in the literary as well as the military sphere of the conflict" (229).

  4. The focus on how political circumstances affected writing is central to Wilcher's thesis about Royalism, since it evaluates the kinds of new literary forms that arose. Noting the explosion of print, Wilcher sees the widespread proliferation of John Cleveland's satires - particularly their claims for intellectual superiority over Parliamentary literary discourse - as indicative of the development of a Royalist mode of response to printed Parliamentary proclamations and ordinances. He views these satires as a necessary alternative to the usual Royalist literary genres such as masques or occasional verses that were not necessarily intended for public dissemination. Similarly, he considers the necessity of lyric poetry going into print after 1645 instead of remaining in manuscript form. Such political exigencies produced other literary developments. Wilcher identifies Royalist skills in various literary styles including ventriloquism and the use of a variety of other genres such as letters and nascent forms of historiography. Wilcher's intention here is to showcase the flexibility of Royalist writing in the midst of difficult circumstances while demonstrating its superior literary skills. On the one hand this is a valid point. I would argue that Parliamentary discourse is marked by its self-consciousness about its cultural and literary worth. It simply cannot compete with a more successful Royalist public relations campaign that depicts Parliamentarians as philistines. One might cite John Hall's advice to the new Commonwealth in 1649, in which he used his pamphlet on the reform of the universities to encourage its leadership to counter Royalist claims of its cultural barbarism. Thus, Wilcher astutely indicates, by citing John Taylor's mock persona as a Parliamentary spy who fears the damage that the Oxford presses are causing to Parliament's credibility, how Royalist writers had an inside track on Parliamentary anxieties about this issue. On the other hand, it should also be noted that the art of stylistic ventriloquism was a Parliamentary gift too, as witnessed in Parliament's response to Cleveland's Character of 1645.

  5. Similarly, I would suggest that Wilcher errs in stating that political conditions also marked the death-knell for more traditional literary forms. Wilcher reads George Daniel's Polylogia, a collection of eclogues, in terms of how they offer choices facing poets on the verge of war: either proclaim loyalty or profess silence. He also sees Daniel's text as "heralding the end of pastoral itself as a viable mode of writing in a dark and dangerous world" (134). This is not true of course. Leonard Willan's Astrae, and Samuel Sheppherd's pastorals, both published in 1651, offered choices to Royalists in the aftermath of the crushing defeat at Worcester. There are also the underrated but seminal translations of Virgil (1649 and 1654 respectively) by John Ogilby, where the different translated words in the two editions reflect how Royalist fortunes had shifted in the course of five years. Despite Wilcher's claim, it remained a viable Royalist form throughout the 1650s.

  6. On occasion, Wilcher's sympathy with a particular kind of Royalism - one that favours a patient but defiant response, of which Vaughan is his preferred choice - is apparent enough to distort his argument. This is best exemplified in his comments on the infamous preface to Cowley's 1656 poems in which he advocated a passive acceptance of Commonwealth rule. Wilcher sees this statement as indicative of how a certain kind of Royalist temperament reacted to "one of the darkest periods of the Interregnum" (341). Not everyone would see the "Interregnum" either as such or indeed as dark. Davenant may very well have been using the Preface to Gondibert as a vehicle for a new Royalist poetics, as Wilcher claims, but three years later he had composed A Proposition for Advancement of Moralitie in which he advocates entertainments, distinct from "the softer arguments of plays," that would enable the government to ensure the loyalty of the people to the state. It was a proposal apposite for an administration still learning how to ensure its own permanence. And he cooperated with the authorities during the mid 1650s to produce his operas. Finally we could add John Cleveland, who Wilcher uses extensively on behalf of Royalism, who wrote a flattering preface to Cromwell in the 1657 edition of his poetry, craftily using his loyalty to Charles I as a reason why Cromwell should trust him: "I cannot conceive that my fidelity to my Prince should taint me in your opinion; I should rather expect it should recommend me to your favour: had not we been faithfull to our king, we could not have given ourselves to be so to your Highness." Despite Wilcher's claims, there were enough writers who found the Protectorate an enlightened and productive period. Wilcher should not be too surprised that loyalties shifted perceptibly after the establishment of the Protectorate in December 1653. After all, just as he says that there was no sense in 1658 that there wouldn't be a continuity of the Commonwealth, so in the mid 1650s there was no sense that the Protectorate would end with Cromwell's death.

  7. The real strengths of Wilcher's book reside in his depiction of the volatility of Royalist feeling. He is at his most astute in comments concerning the composition of many of these texts. Noting earlier how the idea of the martyr had originated in the Royalist imagination in the mid-1640s, Wilcher persuasively conjectures that last minute changes to Eikon Basilike in 1649 suggest that its writers knew that the text would be a narrative of a martyred monarch rather than being a story of "the political vindication of a king who would have been prepared to lay down his life for his country's peace"(286). Similarly, by providing a chronological survey of the development of Royalism, Wilcher can return throughout his book to the composition of the different editions of Denham's Cooper's Hill. Wilcher adds to the scholarship on this poem by showing how Denham positioned himself in respect to changing and particular political conditions. In addition, by analyzing the choice of words used by, say, the writers of Eikon Basilike or Henry Vaughan in Olor Iscanus, Wilcher persuasively accounts for the immediate political situation to which writers were responding. The best example is his detailed examination of the two parts of Vaughan's Silex Scintillans (1650) in which the first two-thirds reflect an inner world as a reaction to personal and political misfortunes of 1648. This mourning of an entire culture and its way of life is contrasted with the last third in which Wilcher identifies the hopes of local resistance. Wilcher analyses the political import of certain words in religious lyrics as indicative of Vaughan's call for defiance and an end to despair among Royalist readers, while showing contempt for those who had gone into exile. This advising role played by Vaughan is crucial for Wilcher, who identifies poetry as "the main literary support system for royalism in eclipse" (319). What remains to be seen in the aftermath of this study of the writing of royalism is whether poetry or other literary forms and styles that emerged specifically during a period of political crisis retained their stature with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)