Representations of Governance in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe: The Iconography and Dramatic Presentation of the Sovereign Ruler

Christopher Stephen Peter Harding, Nicola Harding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is conventional wisdom in the history of international law and relations that during the sixteenth and seventeenth century patterns of governance in Europe were transformed, a complex and multi-layered system of political authority being superseded by a more unified structure of exclusive authority vested in the form of the sovereign state. This transformation has for reasons of historical convenience been especially associated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, hence the use of the term 'Westphalian' (signifying 'modern') system of international law and relations. The outcome of this process is easier to appreciate than the means of its achievement. How did such ideas about governance take root and consolidate into a consensus among political leaders across Europe? What were the means of intellectual exchange and political discourse which facilitated the Westphalian sea-change?

This is a particularly pertinent question in relation to societies in which purely literary discourse could involve only an educated elite. Communication involving wider popular opinion would require the use of less 'literary' media. The discussion in this paper examines a range of media which may have been significantly exploited in early modern European society for the dissemination of argument and ideas about governance. Two major forms appeared to be utilised for this purpose : visual art, with its rich iconographical content; and various types of dramatic presentation capable of communicating with both elite and popular audiences. A number of examples of such artistic and dramatic work, especially those located within and associated with the 'centralising' polities in England, France and Spain, may be examined for their presentation of the virtues of sovereignty and the advantages of strong, exclusive political authority. Such a study reveals the potency of such media in their historical context for the promotion of political ideas and the stimulation of debate on matters of governance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)170-192
JournalLaw and Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013


Dive into the research topics of 'Representations of Governance in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe: The Iconography and Dramatic Presentation of the Sovereign Ruler'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this