v, composed by John McLaren Ralston and engraved by E. Dalziel. Wood engraving, 3 ½ by 4 ½ inches (9.2 cm high by 11.3 cm wide). — Chapter XXXIV in A Child's History of England; tailpiece for Vol. XVIII of the Household Edition: 190. Date of publication: 1878. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Passage Illustrated: A Tyrant's Sentimental Farewell

Being taken back to Whitehall, he sent to the House of Commons, saying that as the time of his execution might be nigh, he wished he might be allowed to see his darling children. It was granted. On the Monday he was taken back to St. James’s; and his two children then in England, the Princess Elizabeth thirteen years old, and the Duke of Gloucester nine years old, were brought to take leave of him, from Sion House, near Brentford.  It was a sad and touching scene, when he kissed and fondled those poor children, and made a little present of two diamond seals to the Princess, and gave them tender messages to their mother (who little deserved them, for she had a lover of her own whom she married soon afterwards), and told them that he died ‘for the laws and liberties of the land."  I am bound to say that I don’t think he did, but I dare say he believed so. [Chapter XXXIII — "England under Charles the First," Fourth Part, 163]


Marcus Stone's tailpiece for the 1862 Illustrated Library Edition, Charles the First Taking Leave of His Children, Ch. 34 (rpt., 1910).

This short but touching description of Charles the First as a caring father rather an absolute monarch clearly inspired Ralston in 1878 as it had Marcus Stone in 1862. Indeed, this is the only point of intersection between the two series, the Illustrated Library Edition and the Household Edition. The later illustrator may have based his conception of the valedictory scene upon Stone's, although the size and orientation differ, permitting Ralston to add more detail, particularly in the domestic realia. Ralston's Princess Elizabeth seems more frightened than her counterpart in the Stone illustration of 1862.

From the opening of the chapter dedicated to the downfall and execution of Charles the First, Dickens freely expresses his prejudices in favour of the enlightened forces of the people (Parliament) and against those of the absolute monarch, Charles Stuart, despite his ambivalence about the justice of executing the monarch for "high treason."

I SHALL not try to relate the particulars of the great civil war between King Charles the First and the Long Parliament, which lasted nearly four years, and a full account of which would fill many large books. It was a sad thing that Englishmen should once more be fighting against Englishmen on English ground; but, it is some consolation to know that on both sides there was great humanity, forbearance, and honour. The soldiers of the Parliament were far more remarkable for these good qualities than the soldiers of the King (many of whom fought for mere pay without much caring for the cause); but those of the nobility and gentry who were on the King's side were so brave, and so faithful to him, that their conduct cannot but command our highest admiration. Among them were great numbers of Catholics, who took the royal side because the Queen was so strongly of their persuasion. [Chapter XXXIII, "England under Charles the First," Third Part, 159]

The full-page illustrations by both Ralston in the Household Edition and by Stone sixteen years earlier work in opposition to much of the text because the illustrations enlist the viewer's sympathy for the handsome, stylishly dressed, middle-aged father of two attractive young children. Neither artist offers any suggestion of Charles's manipulative and devious political gamesmanship. Their regard their subject solely as a devoted father, and not a ruthless politician and autocrat. In neither picture does Charles wear a crown, but has a cavalier's broad-brimmed hat at his side, and wears middle-class clothing of the period rather than royal regalia or armour. In both, moreover, a beribboned dog at his feet, a conventional symbol of fidelity, again domesticates the space, so that the soldier at the rear seems to be violating the moment of tenderness as he enters the room from the political sphere to escort the king to his execution.

On the other hand, Stone does not imply that Charles Stuart is in any way a martyr, investing him with no special signs of godliness or purity, and none of the appurtenances of royalty. Apart from the sentimentality of its context, the scene might well be a cartoon study for a genre painting of the late seventeenth century in Holland or eighteenth century in France, a Hals or a Chardin. Thus, in humanizing Charles the First, Stone, Ralston, and Dickens rob him of any justification to his pretensions to absolute power and divine right. Although unquestionably Parliamentarian in his political sympathies, Dickens, himself the father of half-a-dozen children by 1850, cannot justify the execution of a devoted family man: "With all my sorrow for him, I cannot agree with him that he died 'the martyr of the people;' for the people had been martyrs to him, and to his ideas of a King's rights, long before." The solid chair on which the fashionably dressed, middle-aged gentleman sits reminds us, however, that he was a ruler who should have been as good a father to his people as he was to his children.

Politically, in the 1830s Dickens had been a radical, that is, leaning towards the Reform side of the Whig or Liberal party, and he had frequently communicated these sentiments in his 1830-32 coverage of political speeches about the Great Reform Bill for the Morning Chronicle. In the 1840s he chose to spend a year in Genoa not simply because the cost of living in Piedmont was low,  but because he agreed with the Liberal orientation of the government and its leadership in Risorgimento or Italian unification. In founding Household Words Dickens explicitly noted that the weekly journal would be Liberal in its views. As Peter Ackroyd in his biography remarks, Dickens adopted the historical perspectives of such Liberal historians as Thomas Keightley (1837-39) and editor Charles Knight (1791-1873), whose Pictorial History of England (1838) in Dickens's library has been "heavily annotated by him" (583). Gillian Avery in Paul Schlicke's Oxford Companion to Dickens succinctly remarks that, although he utilised Scottish philosopher David Hume's popular six-volume History of Great Britain (1754-61), Dickens broke with the pro-Tory Scot over his apologia for the Stuarts, "whom [Dickens] cordially detested" (93). In terms of prejudice and interpretation of historical events, Dickens was much closer to Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, although only the first two volumes (1848) of Macaulay's study of the development of English parliamentary democracy had appeared before Dickens published his version in thirty-nine instalments in Household Words, beginning on 25 January 1850 and concluding on 10 December 1853. The final Stone illustration for Dickens's A Child's History of England in the 1862 Illustrated Library Edition reveals once again forty-year-old Dickens's ambivalence towards his subject, for although he detested Charles as the oppressor of the people, he admired him as a caring parent, a model Victorian pater familias. Ralston's treatment, perhaps derived from Stone's, reflects this same ambivalence. He, too, contrasts the tender scene in the foreground with the lolling guard casually waiting in the corridor (rear) to return Charles to his place of confinement and execution. In comparing the two illustrations, we should note that Stone has the heavily armed guard intruding, as if he is terminating the interview in order to take the emotionally overwrought father to the scaffold.

Postscript: Mr. Dick's Obsession in David Copperfield

Of the thirty-seven chapters in the history, the last ("Conclusion") is the shortest, taking us from the end of the reign of James the Second through the reigns of the four Georges with startling rapidity. In contrast, Dickens devotes considerable attention to the turbulent reign of Charles the First. Essentially, Charles and his nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, occupy Chapters XXXIII and XXXIV, for a total of twenty-two pages (151 to 172), and are the subjects of three of the last four illustrations. Curiously, in the novel which Dickens finished just prior to undertaking A Child's History of EnglandDavid Copperfield, Aunt Betsy's friend, the kite-flying Mr. Dick, is obsessed with the fate of Charles the First. The reference was indeed topical since England marked the two hundredth anniversary of Charles's execution in 1849.

Related Material

Scanned image by Simon Cooke; caption and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Avery, Gillian, ed. Charles Dickens: "A Holiday Romance" and Other Writings for Children with All the Original Illustrations. Everyman edition. London: J. M. Dent, 1995.

Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England". Illustrated by John McLaren Ralston. Household Edition. London: Chapman & Hal1, 1878. XVIII.

_______. A Child's History of England in Works. Centenary Edition. 36 vols. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910-12.

Created 7 March 2021