European studies blog

30 January 2015

Mind your Head! Constantijn Huygens’ response to Charles I’s execution.

30 January is a red-letter day in British history. On this day in 1649 King Charles I was beheaded. This of course led to a period of ten years without a monarch. In 1660 Charles’ son returned to England from exile and was crowned Charles II. But the consequences of Charles I’s death were felt far beyond British shores. In Holland they looked on in amazement. How could the British execute their own king? One Hollander who was moved to verse in response to the execution was Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687),  who served as secretary to two stadholders. He spoke eight languages, and wrote around 75,000 lines of verse in Latin, French and Dutch. He also was an accomplished lute player and father to the famous scientist Christiaan Huygens.

Portrait of Constantijn Huygens’ by Jan Lievens, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

He knew London well, visiting it seven times during his life, as well as having relatives there. He penned a Dutch couplet to commemorate this ‘inhumane’ act:

Was ’t heden dats’ een Bijl drij Croonen in een’ slagh
Met een geheilight Hoofd onmenschlick vellen sagh?
[Was it today that she (i.e. the Sun) saw an Axe, with one blow,
Inhumanely fell three Crowns and a holy Head?]

The execution of Charles I, from  The Famous Tragedie of King Charles I. (London, 1709). British Library 643.c.7

In a Latin quatrain, Huygens seeks to find a connection between the weather and Charles’ execution:  

Miramur sine sole diem quo Regia et insons
Carnifici populo victima caesa fuit?
Qui facit hoc, Coeli pudor est, quod criminis ille,
Ille fuit testis non sine sole dies.
 [Do we see a day without sun, on which the Royal and innocent
Victim was executed by murderous people?
Whoever does this is a disgrace to Heaven, because that day of crime,
That day was a witness not without sun.]

Huygens also had harsh words for Oliver Cromwell  whom he held responsible for Charles’ death. After the Restoration, Cromwell was disinterred and his head stuck on the Tower of Westminster Hall.  Huygens clearly saw Cromwell’s head looking down at him and responded with some Dutch couplets, one of which runs:

Dit hoofd wouw ‘topperhoofd van alle hoofden leven.
Hier is het half geluckt, daer schort niet aen als ‘tLeven.
 [This head wanted as the head above all heads to live.
Here, it has half succeeded, it lacks nothing but Life.]

Oliver Cromwell, illustration by J. H. W. Unger from Pieter Lodewijk Muller, Onze Gouden Eeuw. De Republiek der Vereenigde Nederlanden in haar bloeitijd ... (Leiden, 1896-98) 9415.d.2.

There is a certain irony here of course for some 30 years earlier, the Grand Pensionary, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt,  met a similar end. In that case, the ‘Cromwell’ was Maurits, Prince of Orange.  Huygens was a life-long supporter of the House of Orange, and so perhaps did not find fault with Maurits in this regard. For the British the execution demonstrated the strength of Parliament in the face of Charles’ attempts to gain absolute power. Both Britain and Holland (the Netherlands) have monarchs today, although thankfully neither monarch, Elizabeth II or Willem-Alexander, has attempted to gain absolute power!

Dr. Christopher Joby, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul

References and further reading

Constantijn Huygens, De gedichten van Constantijn Huygens, naar zijn handschrift uitgegeven door Dr. J. A. Worp. (Groningen, 1892-1899). Vol. 8  11557.i.4. 

Constantijn Huygens, Nederlandsche gedichten. (Schiedam,  1884). YF.2011.a.26562

Christopher Joby,  ‘A Dutchman Abroad: Poetry written by Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) in England’. In: The Seventeenth Century, Vol. 28 (2013) nr 2, p. 187-206. ZC.9.a.3070

Christopher Joby, The Multilingualism of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687). (Amsterdam,  2015). Awaiting shelfmark

Christopher Joby, Poems on the Lord's Supper by the Dutch Calvinist Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687). (Lewiston, N.Y, 2008). YC.2009.a.3241

Christopher Joby, The Dutch language in Britain (1550-1702) (Leiden, 2014). Awaiting shelfmark



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