Saturday, 04 December 2021

Heavy and ungainly is the crown

Simon Thurley
Christ Church

AT the end of the English Civil War in 1649 the crown jewels were taken to the Tower of London.

Precious stones were gouged out of the regalia and sold while the gold in the crown, orb and sceptre was melted down and used for army pay.

Simon Thurley, currently chair of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, began his talk at Christ Church with this arresting story.

His new book, Palaces of Revolution, examines one of the most dramatic centuries in British history and, not coincidentally, the only one to have included a period when there was no monarch, no throne.

As shown by the subtitle of Thurley’s book — “Life, Death and Art in the Stuart Court” — the kingless moment was short-lived. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, 11 years after the execution of his father.

A new set of regalia was required and the Queen still wears the crown created for Charles II.

In one of many intriguing asides, Thurley confided that he’d tried it for weight and it is heavy and ungainly — although he hadn’t quite had the nerve to actually put it on his head.

This history of royal residences and what they tell us about the people who lived in them transported his listeners from Stirling Castle in Scotland to Elsinore in Denmark, from the Spanish royal court at Valladolid to the more familiar Whitehall and Windsor.

When James I succeeded his distant cousin Elizabeth in 1603 he also came into possession of more than 30 royal palaces and homes. Quite a change for one who’d spent his boyhood years in four rooms in Stirling Castle.

His son, the future Charles I, travelled incognito and overland to Spain in search of a wife. The marriage negotiations failed but at the grand Spanish court Charles did acquire a love for art and the taste for collecting it.

The impoverished exile of his son in Paris during Cromwell’s Protectorate was spent at the imposing Palais Royale. Malicious rumour had it that his entourage was reduced to scraping gold-leaf off the walls to pay for food.

Yet when Charles returned to England he was nothing if not ambitious. He expanded the royal domain by enlarging Windsor and was even planning to move the court to Winchester, so frustrated was he by his clashes with Parliament.

Thurley had the audience gripped and went a long way towards proving his thesis that “if we don’t know where things happened, we don’t know why they happened.”

Philip Gooden

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