A s we will see at the coronation of King Charles III, it is objects that so often that capture the historical moment most vividly and tangibly. The crown regalia speaks of the historical succession of majesty, power, and divinity that lies at the heart of our now largely ceremonial monarchy. Remade after the English Civil War for the coronation of Charles II, the regalia copies the 11th century originals. As such, they encapsulate more than a 1000 years of coronation ritual and monarchical succession, as does the ceremony itself which dates back to that of King Edgar in 973 which was later formalized in the Liber Regalis (The Royal Book) of 1342.
But it is the 17th century, in particular the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution when Britain resolved to remain Protestant and be a bulwark against a threatening Catholic Europe, which explains the words which the King is required to swear. The Coronation Oath Act of 1688 legally prescribes that the monarch promises both to uphold laws and customs established in parliament and the protestant reformed religion. And, this is followed by the Accession Declaration Act where the monarch confirms that his is a faithful protestant. The fears of the 17th century cast a long shadow over the very nature of monarchy today.
This remarkable Sotheby’s collection which itself spans eight centuries, illustrates through letters, warrants, photographs and other documents, the rich history of monarchy that the coronation made visible. Letters from Henry VIII, his wife Katherine Parr, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I, Victoria and George VI immediately stand out. I would also point to Lot 7 dating from the ill-fated nine-day reign of Queen Jane (Lady Jane Grey) and the coronation manuscript of Queen Mary who though known by the epithet Bloody Mary was actually England’s first crowned queen regnant, a true trailblazer who paved the way for the more famous queens that followed her, think Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II.
But it is The Declaration of Breda, which, notwithstanding the replica of crown jewels, is perhaps the crowning glory of this collection. This is the document that made possible the restoration of the monarchy after the execution of Charles I and the eleven years of England’s Republic – the Protectorate and Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. Signed by Charles R, Charles II from Breda in Holland on 4 April 1660, the Declaration - enshrined in a letter sent to General Monck who was then in control of England - sets out on what terms he would return and be restored as monarch: a general amnesty, liberty of conscience, an equitable settlement of land disputes, and full payment of arrears to the army. All other major issues were to be referred to parliament.
This was Charles’ manifesto to be made monarch once more after eleven years with no king in England. The Declaration to All his Loving Subjects, which has become known as the Declaration of Breda, is a brilliantly crafted piece of PR which was warmly received at the time by those either reassured by the king’s promises or relieved that the confusion of the last decade might now be over. Certainly, this is a document that can rightly take its place as one of the touchstone texts of British monarchical history. Without it and the compromise that it struck, there would have been no Glorious Revolution, no transition to a constitutional monarchy, no Queen Victoria, George VI or of course his daughter Queen Elizabeth II.
Indeed, the photographs and ephemera relating to Queen Elizabeth’s royal tours bring the collection up to date, or at least to our most recently departed monarch. They conjure both the global reach of the late Queen’s reign – she was the most well-travelled monarch ever- but also its span. Here we see maps showing the route of her first ever tour in 1953. Royal tours are becoming ever more contentious as monarchs have to balance local political sensitivities, and the optics of extensive travel in the context of a climate crisis and calls for sustainability.
This collection therefore both bears witness to the extraordinary reign of Queen Elizabeth- the longest reigning British monarch- but also documents the passing of a type of royal tour – then largely on the Royal Yacht Britannia – which is likely never to be repeated. Whilst not perhaps as historically significant as some of the other items in the collection, make no mistake, the reign of Queen Elizabeth was of as much moment as that of Victoria or indeed Charles II, it changed the monarchy more than we at close distance and having ourselves been historical witnesses to it, can yet comprehend.
This the most evocative collection of royal flotsam and jetsam, it tells of aspirant princes who later became kings – albeit in the in the case of Edward VIII for just months before his infamous abdication and marriage to the American divorcee Wallis Simpson – a queen and mother seeking to arrange a marriage for her dissolute son ‘Bertie’, later Edward VII; a King, George III, with the power to authorize peace negotiations, or in the case of Edward IV, a commercial treaty, and a son announcing the death of his father, George I and thereby his own accession to the throne as George II. Monarchy is at once both personal and political, and this collection is rich illustration of that.