Document that paved King Charles II's path to power goes on sale for £600k at Sotheby's

King Charles II's Declaration of Breda is among several rare pieces being displayed and sold ahead of King Charles III's coronation

The Declaration of Breda is described as 'the most important document relating to Britain’s royal history to ever come to the market'. Photo: Sotheby's
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A rare historical document signed by King Charles II and a letter from Queen Katherine Parr announcing her marriage to Henry VIII are among several remarkable items included in a Sotheby’s auction, ahead of King Charles III’s coronation on May 6.

Sotheby’s has launched bidding on its one-off Coronation Sale, bringing together an array of fine manuscripts, jewellery, artworks and other objects spanning the Middle Ages to the 20th century — all centred on Britain’s royal past. The pieces will be displayed at Sotheby’s New Bond Street galleries until May 4.

The highlight of the lot is the Declaration of Breda, which enabled the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. One of only two surviving copies signed by King Charles II, it is described by Sotheby’s as “the most important document relating to Britain’s royal history to ever come to the market”.

Sotheby’s manuscripts specialist Gabriel Heaton says: “Alongside the Magna Carta, The Bill of Rights and The Act of Settlement, this is one of a small number of transformational royal documents that have changed royal power forever, and as such it is the most important of its kind to ever appear for public sale.

“It is through this Declaration that in 1660 the monarchy was re-established on freshly agreed terms, setting the monarchy on a path that leads to the constitutional monarchy that we know 350 years later as Charles III ascends the throne.”

Valued between £400,000 and £600,000, the document was produced after a series of turbulent decades, following the British Civil Wars fought between 1639 to 1653, which resulted in the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of the republican government, the Commonwealth of England. After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, unrest began to grow, with some calling for a return of the exiled king, Charles II.

Seizing an opportunity amidst instability, Charles drew up an agreement to unify Parliament and the realm's military rulers, outlining his vision for his future reign, The Declaration of Breda, which resulted in his return to power in London, where he ruled for 25 years.

He initially sent five copies from exile in Breda in the Protestant Netherlands, to the House of Commons, City of London, Army, House of Lords and the Navy in April 1660. The document indicated a desire to reconcile the various arms of governance and deliver closure from the pains of the civil wars.

Reflecting its conciliatory tone, one extract reads: “To all Our loving Subjects ... after this long Silence, We have thought it Our Duty to Declare how much We desire to contribute thereunto ... We can never give over the hope in good time to obteyne the possession of that Right, which God and Nature hath made Our Due ... after so long misery & sufferings ... with as little bloud and dammage to our People, as is possible."

While three copies have been lost, the document sent to the Navy, addressed by Charles as "the walls of the kingdom”, is being offered for sale at Sotheby's. It was first handed to Samuel Pepys, dubbed the "Father of the Modern Navy", who was secretary to the general at sea, Edward Montagu, and was tasked with convincing the navy to support the king.

Pepys addressed a group of senior navy representatives and presided over a key vote. In a diary entry for May 3 1660, he described reading the Declaration of Breda to the men.

“The commanders all came on board ... I read the letter and declaration; and while they were discoursing upon it, I seemed to draw up a vote .... Not one man seemed to say no to it, though I am confident many in their hearts were against it.

“After this was done, I went to the Quarter-deck with my Lord and the commanders, and there read both the papers and the vote ...the seamen did all of them cry out ‘God bless King Charles’ with the greatest joy imaginable.”

Having won all five parties over with his letter, Charles was proclaimed king on May 8, 1660.

The letter is appearing in public for the first time in four decades, since it was auctioned in 1985 by the descendents of Montagu, who brought the king back from the Netherlands — removing an image of Oliver Cromwell crowned with laurels from the Naseby and renaming the flagship the HMS Royal Charles.

The Coronation Sale also features a letter written by Katherine Parr on July 20 1543, only days after her marriage to the Henry VIII, who was 52 at the time. Katherine was the last of Henry’s six notorious marriages, which took place at Hampton Court Palace in front of a small crowd of 18. Following the ceremony, they went on a summer journey, with Parr penning the letter at their first stop at Oatlands Palace in Surrey.

Katherine was believed to be named after Henry’s first wife, Catharine of Aragon, whom her mother had served as a lady-in-waiting. Neither a royal nor a noble, Katherine was a widow at 31 at the time, and was spotted by the king as part of the household of his eldest daughter, Mary.

Katherine had some reservations. Firstly, she was already in love with the king’s former brother-in-law, Thomas Seymour. Henry had also just executed his previous wife Catherine Howard 18 months earlier.

However, Heaton adds: “Rejecting the King’s advances in favour of his former brother-in-law, Thomas Seymour, was unthinkable, and the marriage would undoubtedly bring great benefit to her family.”

Indeed, it saw her brother William, the recipient of the letter on auction, appointed the Earldom of Essex.

In her letter to William, valued between £15,000-20,000, Katherine wrote: “It hath pleased Almighty god of his goodness to incline the Kinges ma[jes]tes harte in suche wise towards me”. She called the event “the greatest Joye and comfort that could happen to me in this world”, and encouraged her brother to “rejoyse with me in the goodness of god and of his Ma[jes]te”.

Katherine eventually married Seymour six months after Henry’s death in 1547. Having been married a total of four times, she racked up more marriages than any other English Queen. However, she too would die after complications following childbirth only a year later.

Heaton adds: “Katherine has often been represented as a nurse to an ailing king, but she was a highly eligible widow in her mid-thirties, extremely well educated, fluent in several languages and with a keen interest in religious reform.

“She understandably felt some trepidation about marrying an aging King Henry, with a history of marriage that was chequered to say the least. However, this letter shows her engaging in an external display of delight at her new circumstances.”

The auction also includes a letter by Charles I expressing bitter disappointment over his nephew’s surrender of Bristol as he faced defeat in the Civil War; as well as a series of letters to a mentor by the future King Edward VIII. Alongside these are one of the six brooches the late Queen Elizabeth II gave to her maids of honour for their service at her coronation, estimated at £30,000 to 50,000. There is also a replica of the Crown Jewels made in honour of the event in 1953 (£10,000-15,000).

In all, the auction aims to pay tribute to a millennium of British coronations and offer a glimpse into some crucial moments of British royal history.

Bidding on the sale is now open until May 4, with highlights also on exhibition at Sotheby’s London. The full catalogue can be viewed at https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2023/the-coronation-sale

Updated: April 24, 2023, 12:37 PM