Miniature mysteries: Chastleton House’s miniatures tell the tragic life of Charles I



Chastleton House is a delight for anyone interested in history, let alone 17th Century history. The Jacobean country house near Moreton-in-Marsh in Oxfordshire was built between 1607 and 1612 for Walter Jones (born 1550), whose family’s success in the wool business allowed him to make his fortune from the law – he rose from being the town clerk of Worcester to an attorney to the Star Chamber, the monarch’s secret court of Privy Councillors. There’s a fascinating in-depth biography of Walter and his rise in society here.

There’s so much to talk about there that we’re going to break it up into several blog posts over the next few weeks – it’s a treasure trove of 17th Century stories and artefacts that are all special in their own right, with the whole building a delightful reliquary of faded glory and romantic decay.

The family was supporters of the Royalist cause and then, later, the Jacobite Rebellion (a descendent jokingly referred to them backing “the wrong horse, twice”) and Arthur Jones fought with Charles II at the Battle of Worcester, fleeing back to the house after the defeat and narrowly evading capture (but more on that another time).

Of particular interest, and something the National Trust guides were unable to help explain beyond a physical description, was a series of 11 miniatures of Charles I on display. Slides of mica (silica) with painted figures have been placed over the miniatures to tell the story of Charles I’s life, focusing heavily on the final stages of his trial and execution – even showing his decapitation.



A nearby display explains the different images:


The National Trust Collection site describes it as an “incredibly personal object … made in France during the 1650s” that “would originally have belonged to a Royalist supporter”. Beyond that, we can find no more information – it is a mystery who bought the miniatures, why, and who was the intended recipient.

It is an utterly unique – and gruesome – piece of history that demonstrates the market for curios and mementoes marking the ‘martyred’ King among Royalist supporters. The rather crude painted figures intrude into each scene, making the King seem calmly ambivalent as to their presence. When juxtaposed against the delicacy of his copied portrait they have a child-like quality about them – the executioner’s face is covered in a loose cross-hatching (his identity remains unknown to this day) and clothes are crudely painted over his doublet such as a cloak and crown, armour, the two shirts he reportedly wore on the day of his death.

Intensely personal they most certainly are, and to have survived not only time but also the shifting priorities of the families who occupied Chastleton makes them all the more special – a unique glimpse into the political allegiances of a bygone age.

The family’s support for the Royalist cause cost them dear – the heavy fines imposed by Parliament for taking part in Charles II’s failed invasion in 1651 meant grand Chastleton would always be a drain on severely limited resources. This makes this collection of miniatures even more poignant, a reminder that the family’s steadfast loyalty to the Stuart cause was to be its ruin (although it is noteworthy that when the ‘Young Pretender’ Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded England in 1745, despite being members of a secret Jacobite supporters group, the family did not join the rebellion on its march into Derbyshire – perhaps remembering the price of the last time they backed “the wrong horse”).


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