Magna Carta in Coventry

The wonderful Public Catalogue Foundation website discussion strand, Art Detective, has been hosting a discussion about this picture at St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry. There’s documentary evidence about when the picture was painted, though it is rather confusing: an entry in the city’s accounts for 1626 says ‘Payd for making of the pictures of King James & King Charles for the hall £6.’ There is also a reference to a picture of the (or a) king in the city’s accounts in 1661:

Laid out for the city in London, for the kings arms in oil and gold, and the frame £3; for ditto., in water colours, eight feet large25s; for the two kings’ pictures with the frames £5 10s; for three cases to bring them all down in, 12s 10d.

This is confusing, as it may or may not refer to the same two pictures as the 1626 entry, and may refer to a new picture or an old one being restored (and framed).

The discussion contains much speculation about what the picture is based on. It doesn’t seem to me much to resemble the usual Van Dyck portraits of Charles I, in fact. It seems more closely to resemble this print, though there are plenty of differences too:

Portrait of Charles I enthroned, engraving © Trustees of the British Museum
Portrait of Charles I enthroned, engraving © Trustees of the British Museum

But the really interesting thing is the existence of the Magna Carta scroll. Given that Sir Edward Coke, the great popularizer of Magna Carta, was recorder of Coventry from 1614 until his death in 1634 and also the town’s MP in 1624 and 1625 (though in the latter year he finally sat for Norfolk) this seems very significant. It may well be linked to arguments surrounding the Petition of Right in 1628, and to the king’s more emollient answer to the Petition on 7 June than on previous occasions. But it’s also possible that it is linked to the complex dispute over Coventry’s parliamentary election in March 1628, which is heard in the House of Commons on 9 April, with Coke, as the town’s recorder, supporting the case of the opponents of the corporation (who were also opponents of the Forced Loan of 1626, a key element of the dispute which led to the Petition of Right and much citation of Magna Carta). Full details and discussion of this dispute can be found in our article on Coventry in this period.


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