Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Charles I when Prince of Wales 

 English School Early Seventeenth Century 

Portrait of Charles I when Prince of Wales,  English School Early Seventeenth Century
Oil on Panel
17th Century
22 x 17 in. , 56 x 43.2 cm.
American Private Collection
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Charles I (1600-1649) reigned through a period fraught with political struggle, as the King tried to assert his Royal prerogative, the Divine Right to rule, over an increasingly autonomous Parliament. The nascent politicisation of his subjects, the humiliation of his failure to show the strength of his leadership during the Thirty Years War, and an unpopular marriage to a Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, damaged the king’s popularity irrevocably, and he was widely viewed as a tyrannical absolute monarch. The English Civil War was the outcome of this instability, which saw Charles’s troops defeated twice, and Charles I was eventually executed for High Treason in January 1649.

As the second son of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark, few expected Charles to inherit the throne. His elder brother, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was a popular prince, known for his sporting prowess and early patronage of the arts, whereas Charles, then the Duke of York and Albany, was a very sickly child, who could not walk unaided until he was three and a half years old. When Prince Henry died suddenly in 1612, the young Prince Charles became heir apparent at just twelve, but such was the worry about his fitness for the role that he was not given the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ until 1616. Therefore it was on an unstable footing that Charles I eventually took the throne in 1625. This portrait almost certainly shows Charles when he was Prince of Wales, and is a relatively rare likeness of Charles before he became King.

Like his father, James VI, Charles I had deep conviction in the Royal prerogative, but while James VI’s ambitions were tempered by his desire to appease his subjects, Charles was unfettered by public opinion, and determined to undermine his Parliament if it meant realising his own political aims. This wilfulness extended to his costly foreign ambitions, and resulted in an expensive and unsuccessful war with Spain. When, in 1626, his Parliament demanded the impeachment of the commander in charge of England’s defeat, Lord Buckingham, the King refused to hear their arguments, and instead had Parliament dismissed. The general population were deeply frustrated by their lack of representation in Parliament, as for eleven years of his reign Charles I governed without any parliamentary involvement, in what is known as the Eleven Years’ Tyranny. Uprisings in Scotland and Ireland only served to undermine Charles’s reputation further. When Civil War broke out in 1642, Charles was forced to assemble an army, using the ancient and rarely used ‘Commission of Array’, in order to conscript men from the Midlands, Wales and the West Country, while Parliament held tight control over troops in London, the South-East and East Anglia.

In this portrait, the adolescent Price Charles is depicted in a suit of armour and an elaborate lace ruff, doubtless in emulation of his elder brother, Prince Henry, who was traditionally depicted wearing armour. The artist might also have chosen to depict him in this manner in order to allay contemporary fears that Charles was weak and unfit to rule, as a result of his poor health as a child and his apparent disinterest in sporting pursuits and military pageantry.
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