Power Struggles

The items collected by the Society here relate to turbulent periods for the monarchy throughout British history. Contenders, rivals and would-be rulers fought in bitter power struggles for the throne, or challenged the very nature of royal power and authority.

The dynastic civil conflict of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) between the Houses of Lancaster and York saw a series of bloody battles take place for control of the English monarchy. Anti-Royalist pamphlets from the mid-17th century English Civil War period contested the longstanding idea that kings had a God-given right to rule and advocated for popular sovereignty. Conversely, the Stuart Restoration of the Monarchy in 1666 saw Charles I, the last reigning king executed in 1649, canonised as a saint and martyr, and Royalist propaganda portrayed the monarchy as triumphant over the Protectorate.

Threats to royal power could come from all corners of society, even if it was dangerous to make them flagrantly. The poor and those of low social status could use one of the few means available to them – the supernatural – to undermine the authority (and confidence) of their rulers. An anonymous Elizabethan map illustrates one such attempt to employ the malevolent practice of witchcraft.

Spur from the site of the Battle of Towton

This gilt copper alloy spur was claimed to be found on the site of the Battle of Towton in Yorkshire, held on Palm Sunday in 1461, and may have been lost on the field. Reputedly the largest and bloodiest clash of the Wars of the Roses, the battle raged for over ten hours, with an estimated 50,000-65,000 men taking part.

The House of York won a decisive victory over the House of Lancaster and the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, fled the country, leaving his opponent Edward IV to rule England. The spur features the French inscription ‘en loial amour tout mon coer’ (‘you have all my heart with loyal love’). It was exhibited at the Society in 1792 by Secretary Revd John Brand FSA.

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The plot for all Thickett ffeilde

The full plan of Thickett Field, London, shows land covering what is now a part of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A small circle on the map is labelled ‘The Leystall [mound of earth] where the Images of waxe were founde’. In 1578, a sensational plot had been discovered involving witchcraft against the Queen: effigies of Elizabeth I and her chief adviser, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, were uncovered impaled with needles. Elizabeth assigned her court astronomer John Dee to practice counter-magic to combat this serious supernatural threat.

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The names of the knights, citizens and burgesses … of England and VVales and the Baronie of the Ports now sitting in Parliament, holden at Westminster the 17 of March 1627

This woodcut from a broadside in our collection shows the House of Commons in session in 1627.

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An agreement of the free people of England (London: printed for Gyles Calvert, 1649)

A manifesto proposed by Agitators (extremists in the New Model Army) and their allies, civilian Levellers, An Agreement of the People advocated for constitutional changes to the English state, with various drafts published between October 1647 and May 1649. This final draft proposal includes: the right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists), the rule of law above all persons, the abolition of the death penalty except in cases of murder, and the abolition of military conscription.

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The full proceedings of the High Court of Justice against King Charles in Westminster Hall, on Saturday the 20. of January, 1648 …

Following years of bitter civil war, Charles I was placed on trial by Parliament on 20th January 1649 for high treason against England. The charges stated he was guilty of “upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation”.

Charles firmly believed in the divine right of kings to rule, and his deeply held religious beliefs – favouring high Anglicanism – had further antagonised the Puritans and their allies in the House of Commons. He refused to accept the legal authority of the tribunal and repeatedly called for proceedings to be adjourned. Charles was sentenced to death and beheaded at Whitehall ten days later.

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The Leveller: or, The principles & maxims concerning government and religion … (London: printed for Thomas Brewster, 1659) [Lowther Collection]

The Levellers were committed to popular sovereignty and emphasised religious tolerance and equal rights. Their influence waned following the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the movement was effectively crushed by the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell’s leadership.

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The indictment, arraignment, tryal and judgement, at large, of twenty-nine regicides, the murtherers of … King Charles the First. Heneage Finch, Earl of Nottingham (London: printed for J. Walthoe &tc, 1713)

The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy and of the Church of England with Charles II in 1660 saw Charles I immediately canonised as a saint – King Charles the Martyr, whose feast day is held on 30th January. The Anglican High Church viewed Charles as a martyr for his alleged refusal to give in to Puritan demands and abolish episcopacy.

Promoting the role of a king as a sacred duty, such propaganda was important for Charles II to re-establish the legitimacy of the monarchy and its ancient tradition. Redeeming his father’s reputation was a means to bolster support and obedience from his subjects after 11 years of Republican rule.

Lavish public displays and disseminated images portrayed the returning monarch as glorious, regal, opulent and majestic and rightfully at the head of the nation. The 59 commissioners responsible for signing Charles I’s death warrant were branded the ‘regicides’ (king-killers) and prosecuted for treason.

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