The University of Southampton

HUMA2015 Culture at the Court of Charles II

Module Overview

King Charles I’s public execution in 1649 dealt a literal death blow to British court culture. When his son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he and his artistic advisers made strenuous efforts both to revive it and to boost its effectiveness as a weapon of royalist propaganda. Recent research – much of it carried out at the University of Southampton – has revealed a remarkable pattern of collaboration between poets, composers, painters and architects attached to the court of Charles II. Still-famous names like John Dryden, Henry Purcell and Sir Christopher Wren worked together to create an indestructibly impressive image of restored kingship, re-inventing British history and projecting it forward to make an endless succession of Stuart monarchs seem inevitable and necessary. Though the project derailed within a very few years of Charles II’s death the artistic products to which it gave rise are of enduring interest – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the best known example but there are many others. This module explores the art, places it in its wider cultural-political context, explains what it meant to audiences at the time and shows how much it still has to offer.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Bring the work of some exceptionally accomplished late 17th century British or British-based artists to your attention • Show you how they collaborated, and explain their motives for collaborating • Show you how political considerations influenced the form and content of their work, and influenced reactions to it • Encourage further independent exploration of the Restoration cultural legacy.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • gather and analyse information
  • evaluate different sorts of evidence
  • debate issues.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • communicate through oral and written modes
  • manage your time effectively
  • complete structured writing of assignments
  • engage in constructive critical debate with others.
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • demonstrate critical appreciation of some of the most interesting artworks produced in late 17th century England
  • unlock the political messages encoded in court art sponsored by Charles II (messages which continue to resonate: about Britishness vs Englishness for instance)
  • explain to others the context in which these artworks originated
  • write insightfully about culture at the court of Charles II
  • enjoy your future encounters with art commissioned by or on behalf of Charles II – Henry Purcell’s music is frequently performed today, and John Dryden’s writings continue to impress.


Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, was a famously cultured ruler (think of court masques, his world-class picture collection and the ‘cavalier’ literature fashionable during his reign). Charles II is remembered very differently – as the sexed-up ‘merry monarch’ whose self-indulgent leadership dragged the court and much of the country down into a cesspit of immorality (think of Restoration drama, the poetry of Rochester and other legendary rakes, and the celebrity status enjoyed by Charles II’s leading mistresses). What went wrong? This module will help you decide. It explores the political context in which artists attached to Charles II’s court had to operate, engages with some of their best work and draws on recent research (much of it carried out at the University of Southampton) to show how imaginatively they collaborated to further the court’s propaganda purposes. Interesting theoretical questions arise (these will be addressed): Can art be used as historical evidence? How was allegorical art interpreted in late 17th century England, and how should it be interpreted today? What happens to heavily-politicized art when political conditions change? Five main case studies are proposed: (1) John Dryden’s political poetry (Absalom and Achitophel especially); (2) the blatantly propagandistic sequence of ceiling paintings executed at Windsor Castle by Antonio Verrio and his team of assistants between 1676 and 1684; (3) the words, music and staging of political opera (focusing on Dido and Aeneas and King Arthur, for both of which the ‘Orpheus Britannicus’ Henry Purcell provided music); (4) the words and music of odes and welcome songs performed at court on major ceremonial occasions (New Year’s Day, the king’s birthday, etc.) (5) the mythological history of Britain constructed to support Stuart claims to divine right legitimacy, celebrated and popularized by court-sponsored propaganda artists active in every medium. Two field trips will be arranged: (1) to look at the remains of Winchester Palace, the British Versailles which Charles II dreamed of building toward the end of his reign and which would have been completed but for his unexpected death in 1685; (2) to attend Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral, where the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is still in use and where late 17th century English music is frequently performed (to give you a feel for the sorts of ceremony in which Charles II and members of his court participated every day). These field trips, though interesting and potentially enlightening, are not compulsory. The assessment task can be successfully completed by students who have not been on either. The module should interest English, History and Music students. Cross-disciplinary debate will be encouraged. One 4,000 word essay will be assessed (100% contribution to final mark): a list of possible essay topics will be made available in teaching week 1; further topics may be added later in response to student demand.

Special Features

For features such as field trips, information should be included as to how students with special needs will be enabled to benefit from this or an equivalent experience. The module is strongly interdisciplinary in content and in intellectual orientation, looking at art produced in a variety of media (poems, play-texts and opera libretti, music, painting, palace architecture), placing propaganda art in its political-historical context and showing how court-sponsored artists collaborated to deliver a consistent message. It is designed to appeal to English, History and Music students and to encourage interdisciplinary discussion to which all can contribute confidently. Two field trips – one to Winchester, one to Salisbury – will exploit Southampton’s proximity to two cathedral cities in both of which Charles II set up temporary court, providing immersive experience to feed students’ historical imagination. The Great Hall in Winchester (home of “King Arthur’s” round table), Salisbury Cathedral and Salisbury Museum in the Cathedral Close are accessible to, and regularly visited by, people with disabilities restricting their mobility and with other special needs; suitably trained staff and volunteers are on hand in all these public buildings. Taxi transport to Winchester and Salisbury will be arranged if necessary. These field trips, though interesting and potentially enlightening, are not compulsory. The assessment task can be successfully completed by students who have not been on either.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • lectures • classes • field trips • tutorials Learning activities include • lectures • classes • field trips • private study

Preparation for scheduled sessions12
Follow-up work10
External visits12
Wider reading or practice24
Completion of assessment task70
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Pinnock, Andrew (2012). Deus ex machina: a royal witness to the court origin of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas’. Early Music. ,40 , pp. 265-78.

Wiseman, Susan (1998). Drama and politics in the English Civil War. 

Winn, James A. (1987). John Dryden and his world. 

Hutton, Ronald (1989). Charles the Second: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 

Herissone, Rebecca, ed. (2012). The Ashgate research companion to Henry Purcell. 

Keay, Anna (2008). The magnificent monarch: Charles II and the ceremonies of power. 

Hume, Robert D. (1999). Reconstructing contexts: the aims and principles of archaeo-historicism. 

Jenkinson, Matthew (2010). Culture and politics at the court of Charles II, 1660-1685. 

Zwicker, Steven N. (2004). The Cambridge companion to John Dryden. 

Sharpe, Kevin (2013). Rebranding rule: the Restoration and Revolution monarchy, 1660-1714. 





MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External


Costs associated with this module

Students are responsible for meeting the cost of essential textbooks, and of producing such essays, assignments, laboratory reports and dissertations as are required to fulfil the academic requirements for each programme of study.

In addition to this, students registered for this module typically also have to pay for:

Travel Costs for placements

Students will be expected to cover the cost of travel to and from Winchester and Salisbury (train and bus options are available), and to bring or buy their own light refreshments. If students with special needs are likely to incur additional costs (for taxi transport, e.g.) financial support may be sought from the university.

Please also ensure you read the section on additional costs in the University’s Fees, Charges and Expenses Regulations in the University Calendar available at

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