1625: Some Figures and Early Conclusions

At the end of May, we finished cataloguing works of succession literature published in 1625. Amongst these is a short panegyric on Charles I in which the author, one William Hodson, paused to wonder if any poet was really up to the job of writing about the new king: “Who’ll undertake so great a Task, who can”. Such rhetoric of poetic inadequacy is of course to be found frequently in this kind of panegyric, although who’s to say whether or not Hodson, just a year out of Cambridge and apparently making his first venture into print, hadn’t started to think the task a little too great after all. Regardless of it being a rhetorical commonplace, however, the question nonetheless captures something of the project’s early findings about the succession literature of 1625. For, when these are placed alongside the research on 1603 that was completed in the opening month of the project, it indeed becomes apparent that relatively few writers in 1625 were responding to Charles’s succession.

Some early figures help to illustrate the point. A search on Early English Books Online (EEBO) for printed works from 1625 reveals 1017 records. Having searched through these records, we’ve been able to add just 73 items of succession literature to the project database. Compare this to 1603 where the EEBO search produced 807 records of which 123 got into our database, fifty more than for 1625. Put another way, as a proportion of surviving texts printed in that year (or at least the ones that EEBO shows up), there was more than twice as much succession writing printed in 1603 (15.2% of all publications) than there was in 1625 (7.2% of all publications).

The database will not only reveal broad data like this but also highlight the different kinds of succession writing being produced across the century. Mapping out the finer details of such trends across 1603 and 1625 remains a work in progress on which we’ll be reporting here soon. A provisional sense of the variety of succession verse being printed in 1603 and 1625, however, begins to substantiate some of our initial findings. In 1603, panegyric verse focussing on James co-exists as one would expect with a significant smattering of elegies for Elizabeth. However, our database records more elegies on James than panegyrics on Charles. There is of course some overlap here. A poem on a dead monarch will often celebrate the new one in its concluding lines, although some rather pointedly might not (for example Thomas Newton’s elegy on Elizabeth, Atropoïon Delion). In 1625, though, Charles is frequently mentioned in the elegies on his father: Hodson’s panegyric is printed at the back of a longer elegy on James. Nonetheless, our early research shows that there was less panegyric focussing on Charles printed in 1625 than there had been in 1603 focussing on his father.

Such muted hesitance might make it tempting to interpret the succession writing of 1625 as somehow prescient in its response to a monarch, whose fate it was to end up on the scaffold twenty four years later. Without at all dismissing the possibility that succession writing in the late 1620s could register forms of political dissent, we should nonetheless be wary of looking in these works for early signs of unease with Charles. The context of 1625 compared to 1603 in fact points to quite different conclusions. After all, where the debate over the succession had been a source of political anxiety and could potentially have led to a violent conflict in 1603, no comparable tensions existed in 1625. The decline of succession writing in that year may reflect a political context in which the issue of succession was simply less vexed and arresting than it had been earlier in the century.

Moreover, the political focus in 1625 was on foreign policy and England’s increasing involvement in the war in Europe. Some of the year’s succession literature taps into this context. Describing Charles as a “Young Charlemaine”, for example, Hugh Holland warned that “If un-friends abroad our peace affritghten, | In armes so will he thunder”. But, then again, perhaps succession literature declines in 1625 because political priorities are elsewhere? Whilst the two things are certainly not unrelated, an uncontested succession at home may simply not have been a big deal when set against the backdrop of international, and what many clearly saw as religious, warfare.

And then there’s plague. Like 1603, 1625 is a plague year. Works we have recorded make interesting interpretations of succession in this context. John Taylor in The Fearefull Summer read the coincidence of plague and succession as God creating for the new king “a Nation purg’d and pure”; in London’s Miserie, Richard Milton more pessimistically lamented that even the power of kings was as nothing in comparison to God’s wrath. And so it might have seemed when, unlike James, Charles postponed his coronation until 1626. The relatively small amount of panegyric verse specifically addressing Charles may well be due in part to this postponement. In which case, we’ll be expecting a spike in Caroline panegyric when we come to catalogue works from 1626 later on in the project…time will tell whether that transpires and how it might help us chart the development of this enigmatic early response to the succession of Charles I.