University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Visual Sources: Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

Holly Chambers, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on the portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. Holly discusses the ways in which we can use visual sources such as this to understand more about society at the time the portrait was commissioned and painted. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

The Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck is currently on display at the National Gallery in London. [1] The portrait shows King Charles I on horseback, riding as if at the head of his knights. He is dressed in armour and holding a commander’s baton and wearing the medallion of a Garter Sovereign. He is depicted as elegant and powerful on a magnificent horse with a page holding helmet. [2] Peter Wagner states it is also important to look at the ‘iconotext’, (text in painting,). [3] In this painting there is a sign attached to a tree that reads “CAROLUS I REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE”, (Charles I of Great Britain,). [4] This is not only a clear political statement of his undisputed position as sovereign, but is also rather audacious because at the time of this painting the Acts of Union had not been passed.

As with any primary source, historians establish their own interpretation of an image; viewing art is bound by subjectivity and emotion. [5] It is important, therefore, to take into account the relationship between the artist, the patron and the viewer. [6] Historians are increasingly using alternative sources, such as visual, oral and virtual, but it is important to contextualise these. [7] This portrait is presumed to date from c1637, not long before the outbreak of civil war in 1642. [8] The English civil war was caused mainly by Charles’ belief in the divine right of kings, to the distain of the country. He took the severe decision to dissolve parliament in 1629 claiming that he was accountable only to God. As he ran out of money, however, he was forced to recall parliament twice in 1640. [9] He had a reputation as an uncompromising monarch. [10] When Charles I became king he soon became mixed up in arguments with his parliament over his raising of taxes without their consent. Charles seldom appeared at the meetings of his privy council and was uninterested in the errands of governance. [11]

Charles has suffered a highly damaged reputation. Generally Whig historians have viewed him as a determined but foolish king, whose actions and belief in his own rights resulted in the absolution of the monarchy. Republican writer Lucy Hutchinson argues that Charles was obstinate and so obsessive of ruling absolutely that he was “resolved to be such a king or none.” [12] It is probable that Charles’ most fatal flaw was his incapacity to recognise how his actions were viewed by his country. [13] It is probable that Charles actually saw himself as he is depicted in this painting. Since the 1970s, however, historians have looked into the underlying problems of the Stuart Monarchy. Conrad Russell paid specific consideration to the difficulties associated with ruling multiple kingdoms, England, Scotland and Ireland, which differed considerably in terms of political, legal and social structure, all of which were internally divided on religion. [14] Russell also highlights the difficulties of maintaining the prestige expected of a monarch of that time with exhausted revenues due to the financial mismanagement of his predecessors. [15] Leanda de Lisle argues that Charles I, despite his reputation, was in fact an heroic monarch who warrants respect and understanding. [16] Kevin Share’s study of Charles’ personal rule has highlighted Charles’ success, at least until the 1630s, which is the time of this painting. [17]

In 1632 van Dyck was established as ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary to their Majesties’. [18] He was rewarded with a knighthood and the grant of an annual pension of £200. [19] This would suggest that Charles found van Dyck’s work was giving off the right impression that Charles wanted to project. In this portrait Charles is shown as a powerful monarch in calm control. Van Dyck’s presence in Charles court placed England on the cultural map of Europe. [20] The Caroline court epitomised style and grace before the chaos of the civil war. [21] He is known for the perceptiveness of his portraits, his technical excellence and the power of his devotional work. [22] His reputation is likely to have greatly influenced Charles, who was trying to project and boost his own reputation and image.

Portraiture is useful to historians in that it can show a representation of how someone looks, although it needs to be remembered that this cannot be verified, and is always mediated by the painter (who would usually be expected to portray the subject in a very positive light, particularly if the subject was a member of royalty). More interestingly, however, portraits show a lot about the era that generated them, the attitude of the artist towards the sitter, and the position of the sitter in their society. [23] The artist, the patron, and viewers see the image in different ways. [24] This portrait shows Charles’ authority as reigning monarch; it shows that it was important to Charles to express his supremacy. It also suggests that by choosing an artist such as van Dyck, it was important to the King that he could and would have the best.

In the 1630s Charles dedicated much of his time to hunting and amassing his collection of art. [25] He “retreated into a fantasy world of symbolic representation in which the royal persona vanquished all opposition.” [26] He posed for many different portraits depicting him as the saviour of his kingdom. [27] When assessing the imposing images of Charles I shown in van Dyck’s portrait, painted during his personal rule, it is tempting to relate it to the trouble of the civil war, that unknown to them, was about to come. With hindsight it is easy to see the world Van Dyck captured as a realm in which Charles could hold onto his ideals of the divine right of kings, which in reality he could not do. [28] Van Dyck’s paintings communicated influential and commanding cultural, political and dynastic messages to sovereigns, as well as their courts and contemporaries. [29] Van Dyck was made Charles’ court painter in order to create images conveying the monarch’s belief in his divine right. [30] This portrait was a clear representation of those ideals.



[1] van Dyck, Anthony. Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, 1637-8, National Portrait Gallery, NG1172, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/anthony-van-dyck-equestrian-portrait-of-charles-i (2018).

[2] National Portrait Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/anthony-van-dyck-equestrian-portrait-of-charles-i (2018).

[3] Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing The Use of Images as Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion Books, 2001): 39

[4] van Dyck, Equestrian Portrait of Charles I.

[5] Sarah Barber, History Beyond the Text: A Students Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird (Oxford: Routledge: 2009): 16.

[6] Barber, History beyond the Text: 17.

[7] Barber, History beyond the Text: 16 and 19.

[8] National Portrait Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/anthony-van-dyck-equestrian-portrait-of-charles-i (2018); Sally Coffey, “King or Country,” Britain: 64

[9] Sally Coffey, “King or Country,” Britain: 64.

[10] Coffey, “King or Country,” 64

[11] Coffey, “King or Country,” 64

[12] Robert Zaller, “Charles I: A Pretender to His Own Throne?” Journal of Psychohistory 45, no.2 (2017): 113.

[13] Goodlad, “Charles I: Author of his Own Downfall?”: 20.

[14] Goodlad, “Charles I: Author of his Own Downfall?”: 22.

[15] Goodlad, “Charles I: Author of his Own Downfall?”: 20.

[16] Goodlad, “Charles I: Author of his Own Downfall?”: 21.

[17] Linda Porter, “ABSOLUTIST MARTYR OR MURDEROUS TRAITOR? Nearly 400 years after his execution, Charles I’s actions and legacy continue to divide scholarly opinion” History Today 68, no. 2 (2018).

[18] Goodlad, “Charles I: Author of his Own Downfall?”: 21.

[19] Tony Osborne, “Van Dyck and His Patrons” History Today 49, no.9 (1999): 6

[20] Osborne, “Van Dyck”: 6.

[21] Osborne, “Van Dyck”: 6.

[22] Deborah Cherry and Jennifer Harris, “Eighteenth-Century Portraiture and the Seventeenth-Century Past: Gainsborough and Van Dyck,” Art History 5, no. 3 (1982): 287.

[23] Osborne, “Van Dyck”: 6.

[24] Barber, History beyond the Text: 19.

[25] Burke, Eyewitnessing: 40.

[26] Zaller. “Charles I,” :120.

[27] Zaller, “Charles I,” : 113.

[28] Osborne, “Van Dyck”: 6.

[29] Osborne, “Van Dyck”: 6.

[30] National Portrait Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/anthony-van-dyck-equestrian-portrait-of-charles-i (2018)

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