Last summer, Ryan Bennett '04 spent six and a half weeks digging. He wasn't working construction. He was in the British Library.
As he began to research his senior honors thesis in history, supported by a Richter Grant from the dean of the faculty office and funding from the history department, Bennett dug for insights also in London's National Portrait Gallery and in the art collection of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. He pored over papers, letters, and published writings, and put himself through a personal crash course in the symbolic messages of British art and court theater in the 1600s. His subject: the intimate lives and relationships of three British kings in the Stuart line-grandfather, father, and son-who ruled before and after the turbulent period of the English Civil War.
The "grandfather" was James I, who reigned from 1603 to 1625. He was namesake of the King James Bible and the Jamestown Colony and was a notoriously flamboyant monarch. The "father," Charles I (r. 1625-49), was a premier art patron of the baroque period, whose opulent court life helped to polarize British public opinion and bring on the Civil War, in which the Puritans beheaded him. Charles II (r. 1660-85) was his son. He reclaimed the Stuart throne in the Restoration and sired a string of illegitimate children, but no acceptable heir.
"These three monarchs are larger-than-life personalities-people who are just fascinating to read about," says Bennett, a history and economics double major. He is one of more than a dozen seniors working on history honors theses this year.
Guided by his advisor, associate professor of history Carl Estabrook, Bennett hopes he's on track to make a new contribution to historical understanding.
"What was fascinating to me was that each of these kings had a very pivotal moment in his reign," he explains. "My premise is that this pivotal moment in each case was tied to the private life of the king."
The righteous Puritans' activist opposition to what they saw as a scandalously permissive leadership culture "resembles the divide that enlivens political debate in our own day," Estabrook observes. Along with fellow senior John Eichlin, Bennett is one of two honors students the history professor is advising this year.
In the community of historians, says Estabrook, "we try to explain how people chose allegiances in the Civil War. Recently, historians have been saying that they probably chose sides over this cultural dispute."
In these kings' private lives, Bennett is looking for some intimate sources of this polarizing, which still resonate today. Notes Estabrook, "That's why his thesis has originality."
- By Doug Wilhelm
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Last Updated: 5/30/08