Tag Archives: Jeremy Howell

The Plain Man’s Portrait


It was a Saturday morning in late Autumn. Pale sunshine was burning off the last of the mist from the Thames, revealing the faint outlines of horses towing barges down river to London.

Closer by, a heron perched, neck craned, on the banks of the Long Water. It was being admired from a distance by his wife and daughters, who were out for a stroll in the palace grounds.

From the front courtyard he could hear a clatter of hooves and the voices of stewards shouting orders to deliverymen. Ambassadors from Vilnius would be visiting that evening. There would be a banquet and a pageant. They would be asking the Commonwealth to help in their war against Poland. The government had no intention to lend them its army or navy. Instead, it would send them off with warm words of encouragement.

Bulstrode Whitelock would see to all that – the man who had established himself as the regime’s master of diplomacy, etiquette and protocol.

And here was Whitelock now, asking him kindly to turn his eyes from the window to the artist, who was waiting behind his easel. He commanded one servant to adjust a sash across the sitter’s shoulder, and another to adjust the belt which held his sword and scabbard.

“These things are important,” Whitelock murmured, with a smile. “Even if a country has no king, it still must have a head of state. You should look the part.”

But what would be so wrong, the sitter thought, if England’s head of state were to dress in a plain, black suit? He still kept the one he had bought in 1640 for his first appearance in parliament.

“Made by an ill country tailor,” a fellow MP had said. But a black suit was right for any sober, honest man going about his daily business – more practical than scepters and cloaks of velvet. And the business of his office was to uphold the laws – as plain as that. Discard the fallacies of divine right and God’s anointed. In the new Commonwealth and Free State of Britain, government should be – for want of a better word – ordinary.

Plain clothes. Plain rule. Plain sustenance.

Whitelock had asked: should the Lord Protector’s wife be using the vast kitchens of Hampton Court to cook him up country food like fried eggs and black pudding? Surely, both the kitchens and the nation’s ruler deserved something finer?

He had eaten Whitelock’s idea of fine fare at state banquets. It was haute cuisine, the cookery drenched in wines and cream which was making a conquest of the courts and palaces of Europe. It was food the rich may eat but the poor may not. Plain food, on the other hand, unites us all. 

Looking back, things had been simpler for the regime – less compromised – in the year or two after Parliament had executed Charles Stuart. The newly-created Commonwealth had been the most hated country in Europe. Its ambassadors had been expelled. English goods had been impounded in foreign ports. Open season had been declared on English ships on the high seas.

Then, he had not had to submit himself to pomp and ceremony. His mind was occupied by one question only: where to take this revolution, which God had put into his hands?

A free church in a free state: that had been his answer. Whether you were a Baptist, a Presbytarian or a Fifth Monarchy Man, there was space for you in England’s new, broad church.

It was a church freed and cleansed of idolatry. Everyone could now take communion in pure and unadorned churches. Their stained-glass windows and ornaments had been smashed in acts of righteous vandalism by his troops, whenever they had moved into new, conquered territory.

But where had folk turned, given this freedom? Hundreds of thousands had joined the Quakers – George Fox’s Society of Friends – fascinated by his crazed visions, and how his followers talked in tongues when the felt the presence of the Lord.

It seemed that given the choice between plain truth and confusing, dizzying mystery, people preferred mystery every time.

Before the civil wars, he had heard labourers on his estate in East Anglia talk about the splendours of the former king – of how he was the richest ruler in Christendom, rode the mightiest chargers and lived in palaces of gold. It didn’t matter that they had never seen this splendour. The notion of it alone excited them.

They wanted their monarch to be magnificent, more than they wanted him to be just.

And as for him, now: how was he so very different, sitting for his portrait in flamboyant robes of state in Hampton Court, as monarchs had done before him?

He had an almost-royal seal for issuing decrees and an almost-royal title: “His Highness, the Lord Protector” – all outwards signs and symbols created by his lieutenants so that the Commonwealth could match the monarchy in dignity and, by extension, in legitimacy.

Now Whitelock was lingering at the door, a satisfied smile on his face. He told His Highness his carriage would be ready at midday for his usual ride around Shepherd’s Bush.

The sitter was left alone with the painter, who was holding his brush at arms-length to measure his features. How many times had this man knocked out portraits of other men of power? He would have known what he was meant to produce. No one was interested in how the man himself looked. What they wanted to see was power personified; power made flesh.

But surely this would be the final act of compromise – to sit complicit as his face was given the polished, cold hauteur of the kings who had preceded him? Generations to come would view his portrait, compare it with the line of tyrants he had overthrown, and see no difference between the two.

“A king in all but name.”

He slipped the robe of state from off his shoulders so that it fell to the floor, revealing the plain, russet coat he had worn as a cavalryman in the wars.

“I bid you,” he told the artist, “to paint me as I am – warts and all. Otherwise, I will never pay you a farthing for it.”

 He would explain it all to Whitelock when the ambassadors had left.

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Jeremy Howell is a British journalist working for the BBC in London. He lives in the historical village of Old Basing in Hampshire and is a member of the Westminster Writer’s Group.

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