Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Caroline Divines > Eikon Basilike
  John Gauden Jeremy Taylor  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VI. Caroline Divines.

§ 23. Eikon Basilike.

It is almost impossible to resist his claim to the authorship of the most important book of the day, Eikon Basilike, a “portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Sufferings.” Internal and external evidence have been weighed again and again, as often as in the instance of the Casket letters, and it is difficult, indeed, to put aside the cumulative force of the facts. The long literary controversy which the claim occasioned has lasted to the present day. Briefly summarised, it turns upon the secondhand evidence of those who are said to have seen parts of the book in the handwriting of Charles I, and the counter-assertion of Gauden that he was himself the author, and upon the remarkable and detailed resemblance to his own writings. There is certainly no conclusive evidence that it was the work of the king. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of expression of his principles, his personal feelings, his prejudices, his piety, his prerogative as it appeared to him at his moments of greatest sincerity and exaltation. Idealised, it undoubtedly is. Charles, perhaps, had never so deep a feeling of what kingship might mean to its worshippers. But a man who loved Shakespeare as Charles did may well have been inspired by his sufferings to write above the level of his constant thoughts. And it is at least possible that Eikon may be even more of a mosaic than it seems. The author knew what Charles had said on public occasions, and used it; he knew what the king felt on public questions; he knew what such a man, the disciple of Laud, the devout attendant at Anglican worship, would feel at a time of personal distress and imprisonment. The result is an incomparable picture of a stedfast prince, who acknowledges his weakness yet asserts the purity of his motives, the truth of his political and religious principles, the supremacy of his conscience. Such a dramatic presentment would not be above the ability of Gauden: and it is quite possible that he had before him, when he wrote, actual meditations, prayers and memoranda of the king, which perished when they had been copied and had found their place in the masterly mosaic.   36
  Few books have had greater influence in English history. Forty-seven editions of it were produced with surprising rapidity: those who tried to answer it—Milton among them—failed utterly to obliterate the impression it had created. The dull attempts at dignity and splendour which tried to relieve the exasperating vigilance and laborious monotony of the protectorate government and court were entirely powerless in face of this appealing pathos. The Stewart romance, which was to colour English history for another century, had its strongest impetus from this wonderful little book. The merit of the style is its simplicity and directness. It speaks straight to the heart. Eikon Basilike is, indeed, among the masterpieces of the age which produced the religion and the literature of Nicholas Ferrar and of George Herbert.   37

  John Gauden Jeremy Taylor  

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