University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The King's Book, The Puzzle of the Eikon Basilike

Volume XXXIV · 1981
The King's Book: The Puzzle of the Eikon Basilike

On January 27, 1649, Charles I, the anointed King of England, was condemned for treason by a "high court of justice" and sentenced to death by execution. Two days later the king bade a sad farewell to his two younger children, Elizabeth and Henry. On the morning of January 30, under heavy armed guard, Charles walked from St. James' Palace to Whitehall, stepped onto the scaffold, and with a short speech and the mysterious last whispered word "Remember," was executed. To an England caught in the turmoil of a political and religious war, the king's death resulted in a reemergence of a popular royalist sentiment . In the wake of the king's execution, the despotic misdeeds of his government were forgotten; Charles the Tyrant was transformed into Charles the Martyr. The sufferings and trials of the king were compared to those of Jesus Christ. Handkerchiefs dipped in his blood were reported to have wrought miracles. The Eikon Basilike, published on or within a few days of the king's death, painted a touching portrait of the unfortunate monarch.

In 1978 the Department of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives was fortunate to acquire a representative collection of the various editions of the Eikon Basilike. Since the Eikon Basilike purported to be a compendium of the king's own meditations on duty and death, it is easy to understand that the commonwealth government was anxious to suppress this piece of royalist propaganda. The authorities were unsuccessful in their efforts to ban the Eikon Basilike, however, and as the work found receptive audiences in both England and abroad, it went through several editions in the year immediately following the king's execution. The phenomenon of the EikonBasilike is interesting not only for the immediate historical effects of its appearance, but also for the puzzles it presents to any bibliographer and for the literary controversy which arose over it authorship.

It is amazing, indeed, that in the days of handset type and surreptitious printing under the watchful eye of a hostile government, the Eikon Basilike went through some 35 editions in England and 25 in Ireland and abroad in 1649 alone. Many editions were printed in secrecy without the place or name of the printer/publisher appearing on the title page. Some merely carried the imprint "In R.M. Anno. Dom. 1648" (In memory of the king, 1648/1649). Certain attributions as to publication can be made, however, by tracking down initial letters and ornamental devices used by individual printers. References to the Eikon Basilike in contemporary newsheets and inscriptions on separate copies have also helped bibliographers to untangle the threads of its publication history.1

The first edition of the Eikon Basilike was issued by Richard Royston, whose shop had become a center of royalist activity. Advance copies of the Eikon Basilike may have been available on January 30, 1649, the day of the king's execution, but copies were certainly in circulation during the first week of February. Royston was called before the Council of State in May and ceased further publication of any separately issued Eikons; in 1650, however, he published the first of four editions of the works of King Charles, which included the text of the Eikon Basilike. A second group of Eikons was printed by William Dugard and published by Francis Eglesfield. On March 17, 1649, Dugard was arrested by Parliament, but due to the public outcry in his favor, he was quickly released. In a gesture of defiance, Dugard reprinted his edition of the Eikon Basilike. After having been arrested and jailed a second time and when his family began to suffer severe deprivation, Dugard capitulated and joined the Parliamentary cause. After the warning given to Royston and the arrest of Dugard, John Williams published a series of miniature editions which could easily be concealed and which circulated in large numbers. Williams, however, did not escape the eye of the authorities; he also was arrested at the end of the year. Whether from a sense of loyalty to the royalist cause or from a hope of making a profit, certain printers and publishers in England were evidently willing to risk the hazardous business of printing and distributing the Eikon Basilike.

Royalists in the Netherlands sponsored the publication of three English editions printed by Samuel Browne at the Hague. Browne also printed the first Latin edition of the Eikon Basilike, the translation of which was done by Dr. John Earle, tutor to King Charles II. This Latin edition was twice reprinted in London and may have been more tolerated by the government censors since a Latin text could appeal to only a very small reading audience and could therefore be considered less seditious. Contemporary translations of the Eikon Basilike were also made into Dutch, French, German, and Danish; a manuscript fragment in Welsh is also extant. Thomas Wagstaffe (1645-1712), involved in the authorship controversy surrounding the Eikon Basilike, stated that there were also Greek and Italian translations made, but no other corroborating evidence of their existence has been found.2

Besides being translated, the Eikon Basilike was also imitated, one of the best satirical renditions being Eikon Basilike Deutera. The Pourtraicture of His Sacred Majesty King Charles II . . . with His Reasons for Turning Roman Catholick (1694). The 77 chapters of this anonymous work caricature the Eikon Basilike and contain a vicious attack on Charles II, son of the martyred monarch. A musical version of the Eikon Basilike entitledPsalterium Carolinum was published in 1657. The first part of the composition comprised 27 short odes (words only), based on chapters 1-26 and 28 of the Eikon Basilike. The second section included words and music for three voices by John Wilson, a doctor of music at Oxford University and chamber musician to both Charles I and Charles II. The final portion of the Psalterium Carolinum contained an organ accompaniment . The content of theEikon Basilike was also roundly attacked as well as adulated, the supreme example being John Milton'sEikonoklastes, in which Milton criticized the subject matter chapter by chapter.

The Eikon Basilike, whether attacked or revered, was evidently a very popular work in whatever language or format it appeared. It is curious, therefore, that the authorship of the original treatise has not been definitely decided and that a controversy on this matter arose shortly after the book's publication. To the royalists, it was sacrilege to doubt that the king was the actual author of the Eikon Basilike. Their opponents asserted that theEikon Basilike was at best a collaboration, with the primary responsibility for its composition falling on the shoulders of John Gauden, Bishop of Worcester. The convoluted possibilities, complete with smuggled papers and deathbed confessions, rival any modern mystery novel and make for fascinating reading, but it is now generally agreed that in all probability Gauden wrote the Eikon Basilike based on some of King Charles' authentic writings, and that the king may have corrected Gauden's manuscript before it went to press.3 It is interesting to note that the Library of Congress, which sets cataloging standards for American libraries, has decided not to take sides on this issue; instead of attributing any author to the Eikon Basilike, the Library of Congress simply catalogs all copies under title.

The University of Rochester Library collection includes 19 editions of the Eikon Basilike, among which are the first edition, second issue, published by Richard Royston; the first issue of the first Latin edition that Samuel Browne had printed at the Hague; and two miniature editions, one of which has a tipped-in signature of Charles II. To complement the collection of the Eikon Basilike, the Library also has scattered holdings in the works which arose from the controversies surrounding the Eikon Basilike, including Milton's Eikonoklastes, Wagstaffe's A Vindication of K. Charles the Martyr, and the anonymous Eikon Basilike Deutera. The entire Eikon Basilikecollection, with its related materials, is certainly a useful adjunct to the Library's holdings in seventeenth-century English theological and political works.



  1. The most complete bibliography is Francis Madan's A New Bibliography of the Eikon Basilike, published by the Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1950.
  2. Thomas Wagstaffe, A Vindication of K. Charles the Martyr, London, R. Wilkin, 1711, p. 136.
  3.  For details of the authorship controversy, one should consult, among others, the following contemporary sources: Princely Pellican, 1649; R. Hollingworth, A Defence of King Charles I, 1692; A. Walker, A True Account of the Author, 1692; and T. Wagstaffe, A Vindication of  K. Charles the Martyr, 1693. F. Madan, in his New Bibliography of the Eikon Basilike, 1950, pp. 126-163, gives an excellent summation of the authorship debate and an annotated list of works arising from it.