A Royal His­tory of Eng­land: Charles II


This England - - Contents - Paul James

The contrast be­tween the aus­ter­ity of Oliver Cromwell’s Eng­land dur­ing the In­ter­reg­num and the restora­tion of the monar­chy un­der King Charles II could not have been greater. Un­der Cromwell’s dic­tate even Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions and the deck­ing of halls with boughs of holly and ivy were for­bid­den, but of the reign of “Merry Monarch” Charles II one Vic­to­rian his­to­rian wrote: “Duelling and rak­ing be­came the marks of a fine gen­tle­man; hon­est fel­lows fought, gam­bled, swore, drank, and ended a day of de­bauch­ery by a night in the gut­ter.” He stressed, how­ever, that such be­hav­iour seemed con­fined to “the cap­i­tal and the court”.

Hav­ing been sup­pressed dur­ing the first 30 years of his life, Charles was de­ter­mined to en­joy him­self once he be­came King, say­ing that he did not be­lieve “God would make a man mis­er­able just for tak­ing a lit­tle pleasure.”

Charles Stu­art was born on 29th May 1630 at St. James’s Palace, Lon­don, the sec­ond son and el­dest sur­viv­ing child of Charles I and Hen­ri­etta Maria of France. He was cre­ated Duke of Corn­wall and Rothe­say at birth, and at the age of eight was styled Prince of Wales and Earl of Ch­ester.

He had an idyl­lic early child­hood, spent at Green­wich Palace, Hamp­ton Court and Wind­sor Cas­tle. Sur­viv­ing Van Dyck por­traits of the fam­ily show Charles as a young Prince of Wales, dressed im­mac­u­lately in silk and lace, of­ten with a pet dog. Although the paint­ings are un­doubt­edly re­gal, they de­pict scenes of do­mes­tic­ity that had not been ev­i­dent in ear­lier royal por­traits. In a pic­ture dat­ing from c.1635 by Van Dyck, Charles is with his brother the Duke of York (later James II) and sis­ter Princess Mary (who be­came the mother of Wil­liam III) as small chil­dren, with Charles lean­ing very ca­su­ally against a col­umn, his legs crossed and a spaniel by his side.

Charles’s main tu­tor was Dr. Brian Duppa, the King’s Chap­lain and later a bishop. Charles was not a par­tic­u­larly good scholar, and had only a lim­ited grasp of lan­guages, but be­came very in­ter­ested in sci­ence and the dis­cov­er­ies of his day. His in­ter­est in chem­istry was to even­tu­ally lead to the foun­da­tion of the Royal So­ci­ety for sci­en­tific re­search. The Royal Ob­ser­va­tory at Green­wich was also in­sti­gated by Charles when, as King, he es­tab­lished a Royal Com­mis­sion to look into as­tron­omy.

Charles’s se­cure world was shaken with the on­set of the Civil War, which came to dom­i­nate his life. At the age of just 12 he was at the Bat­tle of Edge­hill. He ac­com­pa­nied his fa­ther on cam­paigns and was ap­pointed a Com­man­der-in­Chief of Roy­al­ist forces in the West Coun­try at Bris­tol two months be­fore his 15th birthday.

Even­tu­ally he left Eng­land for his own safety, even­tu­ally set­tling at St. Ger­main near Paris with his mother. He re­mained there for two years.

As King Charles I’s re­la­tion­ship with Par­lia­ment de­te­ri­o­rated and he was put on trial for trea­son, the Prince tried un­suc­cess­fully to save his fa­ther’s life and wrote many let­ters to Par­lia­ment. He was in the Nether­lands when news reached him of his fa­ther’s ex­e­cu­tion. Within a few days, the Rump Par­lia­ment abol­ished the monar­chy. Six days later Charles was pro­claimed King in Scot­land, but not in Eng­land.

The new King took refuge in France and later the Nether­lands, where he be­gan ne­go­ti­a­tions with Scot­tish Covenan­ters, Pres­by­te­ri­ans who held power, about es­tab­lish­ing an army to at­tack Oliver Cromwell, Lord Pro­tec­tor of the Com­mon­wealth and vir­tual dic­ta­tor.

In June 1650 Charles sailed to Scot­land. He was crowned King of Scots at Scone on 1st January 1651 and agreed to rule Eng­land and Scot­land equally. The Covenan­ters formed him a Scots-roy­al­ist army and in July 1651 he headed south with some 10,000 men, but they were largely un­skilled and were soundly de­feated by Cromwell’s army at Worces­ter on 3rd Septem­ber. Charles now be­came a fugi­tive with £1,000 of­fered by the Round­heads for any­one who could take him pris­oner.

Charles shel­tered at White Ladies Pri­ory in the parish of Bosco­bel in Shrop­shire, owned by the Gif­fard fam­ily. Af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to cross the River Sev­ern, Charles was taken to Bosco­bel House, home of the Pen­derel fam­ily, ten­ants of the Gif­fards. There he met Colonel Wil­liam Car­less, a Roy­al­ist of­fi­cer in the Civil War and also a fugi­tive, who of­fered to help the King es­cape.

On 6th Septem­ber 1651 the pair went to a nearby for­est and hid in a great oak tree for a whole day in an at­tempt to avoid cap­ture. Diarist Sa­muel Pepys recorded that the King had later told him about hid­ing in the oak, say­ing, “While we were in this tree we see sol­diers go­ing up and down, in the thicket of the wood, search­ing for per­sons es­caped; we see them now and then peep­ing out of the wood.”

Hav­ing suc­cess­fully thwarted the Round­heads, Charles and the colonel climbed out of the tree and spent the night hid­ing in priest holes at Bosco­bel. When news of the King’s hid­ing place even­tu­ally be­came pub­lic knowl­edge, many inns in Eng­land were later called Royal Oak and over 400 still bear the name to­day.

Be­fore mov­ing on, Charles had his long hair cut with Wil­liam Pen­derel’s shears and dark­ened his skin with soot. He was helped fur­ther in his es­cape by a priest, Fr. John Hud­dle­ston.

On reach­ing Sus­sex some weeks later, Charles boarded a coal brig at Shore­ham har­bour and crossed the Chan­nel. Once in France, he lived in ex­ile at Fé­camp. For the next nine years he trav­elled across Europe, stay­ing at the homes of dis­tant fam­ily mem­bers; liv­ing for a time with his mother in France and in Ger­many with his wid­owed sis­ter, Mary. He had moved on to Brus­sels when news reached him of the death of Oliver Cromwell. The weak­ness of Cromwell’s suc­ces­sor, his son Richard, opened up a path for Charles to take his right­ful place on the throne of Eng­land.

Charles was in the Dutch city of Breda when ne­go­ti­a­tions came to a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion be­tween Sir John Grenville, one of his rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Eng­land, and Gen­eral Ge­orge Monck, LordGen­eral of the English army who was now ef­fec­tively run­ning the coun­try. On 4th April 1660 a Dec­la­ra­tion was sent from Breda promis­ing re­li­gious tol­er­ance and an amnesty for all in Eng­land who had com­mit­ted crimes dur­ing the Civil War and the In­ter­reg­num just as long as they ac­cepted Charles as their King. Par­lia­ment ap­proved the Dec­la­ra­tion, agree­ing that gov­ern­ment should be by “King, Lords and Com­mons” and on 8th May Charles was of­fi­cially re­stored to the throne as King of Eng­land, Scot­land and Ire­land.

On 29th May 1660, his 30th birthday, Charles II made a joy­ous re­turn to Lon­don. Church bells rang out, flow­ers were strewn across the streets, bon­fires were lit, and the wraith of Oliver Cromwell seemed fi­nally to have been ban­ished. Af­ter years of pu­ri­tan­i­cal aus­ter­ity, Eng­land now had hope and re­joiced that a King was back on the throne. 29th May be­came a pub­lic hol­i­day, known as Oak Ap­ple Day.

Charles was crowned at West­min­ster Abbey on 23rd April 1661 — St. Ge­orge’s Day — the last Corona­tion where the pro­ces­sion set off from the Tower of Lon­don. The event was de­layed, as Cromwell had de­stroyed or bro­ken up most of the Crown Jew­els. New re­galia cost­ing £21,978-9s-11d was cre­ated by the royal gold­smith, Sir Robert Vyner, in­clud­ing two crowns, two scep­tres, an orb, staff, armills and the am­pulla, based on de­signs of those used by Ed­ward the Con­fes­sor, recre­ated from an­cient manuscripts. Many of to­day’s Crown Jew­els date from Charles II’S time, although some have been slightly re­mod­elled and added to across the cen­turies.

Although he was on the throne, there re­mained many is­sues to be re­solved with Par­lia­ment. Eng­land was in a poor fi­nan­cial state af­ter the Com­mon­wealth; there was re­li­gious dishar­mony, and an on­go­ing war with Spain. Charles wanted to give the coun­try sta­bil­ity. Par­lia­ment granted him a fixed rev­enue of £1,200,000 for life, but there was in­suf­fi­cient in­come from taxes to cover this. Charles agreed to a grant of £100,000 a year in­stead. He had learned from his fa­ther’s mis­takes and was de­ter­mined not to lose the crown, or his head, by an­tag­o­nis­ing Par­lia­ment too much at the out­set of his reign.

De­ter­mined to avoid fur­ther costly military con­flict, he con­trived to make peace with Spain. The army had suf­fered un­der the Com­mon­wealth regime and many men had not re­ceived their salary. Charles saw that ev­ery sol­dier was paid his due and gave each a fi­nan­cial bonus of an extra week’s wages out of his own money.

Although Charles had promised a par­don for past crimes in the Dec­la­ra­tion of Breda, this did not in­clude regi­cide and men in­volved in the ex­e­cu­tion of Charles I were tried and sen­tenced to death. Be­tween 13th and 19th Oc­to­ber 1660 some who had signed the death war­rant were pub­licly hanged, drawn and quar­tered. But Charles II was not a venge­ful monarch and re­quested that the hang­ings stop. At least 18 lives were spared as a re­sult.

Charles was also much more tol­er­ant in his stance to­wards re­li­gion than either Cromwell or his fa­ther, although he had a se­cret bias to­wards the Catholics which did not go down well with Par­lia­ment. In 1662 Par­lia­ment passed an Act of Uni­for­mity to en­sure that Eng­land abided by Angli­can doc­trine and ac­cepted the re­vised Book of Com­mon Prayer. A Cor­po­ra­tion Act stated that only peo­ple who re­ceived Angli­can Holy Com­mu­nion could serve on the coun­cil. This meant that Catholics, Pu­ri­tans and Non­con­formists could not be part of lo­cal gov­ern­ment. Charles’s brother, James, Duke of York, failed to con­form by con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism. This cre­ated great con­cern for the fu­ture, as James was Charles’s heir.

In 1672 Charles in­tro­duced a Dec­la­ra­tion of In­dul­gence to negate any un­fair laws passed by Par­lia­ment against Catholics. This gave free­dom for peo­ple of all de­nom­i­na­tions to wor­ship as they wanted. Churches and chapels re­opened, priests re­turned to their flocks, and peo­ple im­pris­oned be­cause of their faith were set free. John Bun­yan left his prison at Bed­ford af­ter 12 years.

The Dec­la­ra­tion of In­dul­gence proved un­pop­u­lar with Par­lia­ment, which in­sisted that “pe­nal statutes in mat­ters ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal can­not be sus­pended but by con­sent of Par­lia­ment”. In re­tal­i­a­tion, the gov­ern­ment passed the Test Act of 1673 which ex­cluded from all of­fices of State any­one who re­fused to take Angli­can Com­mu­nion. It meant that no Ro­man Catholic could be a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment or sit in the House of Lords. This af­fected many of Charles’s min­is­ters. The Lord Trea­surer was forced to re­sign for be­ing a Catholic and the King’s own brother, James, Duke of York, gave up his po­si­tion as Lord High Ad­mi­ral.

The fol­low­ing year the Whig gov­ern­ment tried to pass an Ex­clu­sion Bill in an at­tempt to re­move the Duke of York from the line of suc­ces­sion. Some­what iron­i­cally, Charles II fa­thered at least 16 il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren by seven mis­tresses, but had no le­git­i­mate off­spring who could suc­ceed him. As a re­sult, his brother was next in line. The Whigs wanted the Duke of Mon­mouth, Charles’s el­dest nat­u­ral son, to suc­ceed in­stead. Charles fought this Ex­clu­sion Bill with one of his own and even­tu­ally dis­solved Par­lia­ment in 1680, say­ing he would rather see the Duke of Mon­mouth hanged than le­git­imised. A year later he called Par­lia­ment to Ox­ford, where military pres­sure was ex­erted to prove that the King had power and that he was not go­ing to be de­feated like his fa­ther. It was an as­tute po­lit­i­cal move.

In 1683 re­pub­li­can fac­tions amongst the Whigs en­gi­neered the Rye House Plot, with the in­ten­tion of as­sas­si­nat­ing the King and the Duke of York on their way home from the New­mar­ket races. The plot was thwarted when the King hap­pened to leave New­mar­ket ear­lier than ex­pected due to a fire at his lodg­ings. News of the plot had the ef­fect of mak­ing the Whigs un­pop­u­lar and the peo­ple of Eng­land be­came even more loyal to Charles and his brother.

Although Charles took an in­ter­est in pol­i­tics, he had a greater in­ter­est in horse rac­ing and women! By the time he was 18, Charles had al­ready been se­duced by the charms of var­i­ous women. His first love af­fair was with a Mrs. Wind­ham, wife of the Gover­nor of Bridg­wa­ter in Som­er­set. In 1649 a Lucy Wal­ter gave birth to his son and the fol­low­ing year he fa­thered a daugh­ter with Lady Shan­non. Later in life he had li­aisons with Lady By­ron, the wid­owed Duchesse de Châtil­lon, Bar­bara Vil­liers, and ac­tress Moll Davies to name but a few. His most no­table mis­tress was Nell Gwyn, who went from orange seller in Covent Gar­den to come­di­enne at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

De­spite his many love af­fairs and re­sult­ing il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren, once he was monarch, Charles needed to marry and pro­duce a le­git­i­mate heir to the throne. When the corona­tion was out of the way, he be­gan to woo Cather­ine of Bra­ganza, daugh­ter of the King of Por­tu­gal. They were mar­ried on 21st May 1662 at the Church of St. Thomas à Becket in Portsmouth and hon­ey­mooned at Hamp­ton Court. Be­cause she was a Ro­man Catholic, Cather­ine was never crowned Queen. She did, how­ever, bring with her a sub­stan­tial dowry, and Bom­bay and Tang­ier which boosted English trade. By the end of his reign trad­ing routes with In­dia had been es­tab­lished.

Per­haps be­cause he had al­ready bed­ded so many beau­ties, Charles found Cather­ine phys­i­cally unattrac­tive and the mar­riage was child­less. He con­tin­ued to turn to other ladies of the court, notably Bar­bara, Lady Castle­maine, with whom he had at least four chil­dren. Prince Wil­liam, Duke of Cam­bridge, can to­day trace his blood­line di­rectly back to Charles II, through his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, who had two of the King’s il­le­git­i­mate sons in her an­ces­try.

Shortly af­ter his mar­riage to Cather­ine of Bra­ganza, a beau­ti­ful fair-haired girl ar­rived at court. Frances Stu­art was a dis­tant cousin and was ap­pointed lady-in­wait­ing to Cather­ine. She was de­scribed as be­ing “a great beauty with very lit­tle brain”, and Charles was in­stantly at­tracted to her. So in­fat­u­ated did he be­come that he even con­tem­plated di­vorce, but to his dis­may she even­tu­ally mar­ried the Duke of Rich­mond.

When Charles was de­sign­ing a military medal for his forces, the face of Frances Stu­art was used as the face of Bri­tan­nia. This im­age was also used for the re­verse side of coins and ap­peared on our pen­nies and half­pen­nies un­til 1971, when Bri­tain adopted dec­i­mal cur­rency. When Bri­tan­nia was re­vived for the 2006 50p piece, she re­tained the orig­i­nal face. Sadly, in 1669 Frances Stu­art con­tracted small­pox and the renowned beauty be­came per­ma­nently dis­fig­ured.

Life was not all pleasure for the King and there were times when he had to face re­al­ity. In 1665 war was de­clared with the Dutch, reignit­ing an old feud over com­mer­cial rights. On 4th June 1665 the English navy sank eight Dutch bat­tle­ships in the Bat­tle of Low­est­oft off the Nor­folk coast. A Dutch colony in North Amer­ica was cap­tured and even­tu­ally be­came the English colonies of New York, New Jer­sey and Delaware. In June 1667 a Dutch fleet took com­mand of the Thames es­tu­ary and sailed up to Gravesend, de­stroyed 13 English ships which pro­tected the Med­way near Chatham, and towed away HMS Unity and the flag­ship HMS Royal Charles.

War with the Dutch fi­nally ended on 9th February 1674 with the Peace of West­min­ster, drawn up by Par­lia­ment which felt that no more money could be wasted on war. Re­la­tions with the Dutch were fur­ther im­proved when Charles’s niece, Mary, was mar­ried to Prince Wil­liam of Orange.

Re­la­tions with the French also im­proved when Charles sold Dunkirk to his cousin Louis XIV for £400,000. A group of the King’s min­is­ters de­vised a Treaty of Dover in 1670, which al­lied Eng­land and France in any fu­ture Dutch war.

Life in Eng­land also im­proved dur­ing Charles’s reign. Pub­lic en­ter­tain­ment thrived again and not only were the­atres re­opened, but some new ones were built. Charles loved the theatre and one of his first acts on re­turn­ing to Lon­don from ex­ile was to li­cense two new the­atres — one at Lin­coln’s Inn and one in Drury Lane, where the present Theatre Royal now stands.

A new Habeas Cor­pus Act of 1679 gave per­sonal free­dom to ev­ery English­man. No free man could be held in prison ex­cept on a charge or con­vic­tion of a crime, or for debt, and ev­ery pris­oner on a charge could de­mand the is­sue of a writ of “habeas cor­pus” en­abling a court to judge whether he had been law­fully im­pris­oned. There was also greater free­dom for the press.

With an in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture, Charles per­son­ally over­saw the restora­tion of build­ings, such as the Palace of White­hall, that had been stripped of their grandeur by Cromwell. Splen­dour re­turned. Wind­sor Cas­tle was also ex­ten­sively mod­ernised.

Lon­don, how­ever, was hit by two dev­as­tat­ing events dur­ing Charles’s reign. First came the Great Plague in 1664-65, when an es­ti­mated 70,000 to 100,000 peo­ple died in a six-month pe­riod. Charles and his court moved out of the cap­i­tal to the safety of Sal­is­bury.

Then on 2nd Septem­ber 1666 a fire be­gan at the premises of the King’s baker, Thomas Far­riner, in Fish Yard off Pud­ding Lane, and spread west­wards, de­stroy­ing some 13,000 closely packed tim­ber houses and shops. For­tu­nately only six lives were lost be­cause the fire moved slowly, and most peo­ple had time to es­cape. Some 461 acres of me­dieval Lon­don, how­ever, were razed to the ground in four days. The old St. Paul’s Cathe­dral on Ludgate Hill was de­stroyed, as were 87 parish churches and 57 Guild Halls. Some ar­chi­tects have called it a bless­ing in dis­guise, as many un­healthy slum dwellings were re­moved and in their place some mag­nif­i­cent new build­ings arose, in­clud­ing Christo­pher Wren’s glo­ri­ous new St. Paul’s Cathe­dral. In 1677 a mon­u­ment to the Great Fire was erected in Pud­ding Lane.

Diarists Sa­muel Pepys and John Eve­lyn both recorded that the King and his brother, James, per­son­ally helped put out fires in the City of Lon­don and that Charles’s face and clothes were black­ened with soot and soaked with water. The King later dis­trib­uted 100 guineas amongst groups of fire-fighters.

Af­fec­tion for the King grew as his reign pro­gressed. He was more care­free in his at­ti­tude than his fa­ther had been. And, un­like his fa­ther, Charles did not be­lieve in the Di­vine Right of Kings and so dis­played more hu­man qual­i­ties.

De­scribed by his con­tem­po­raries as a pleas­ant gen­tle­man, play­ing with his spaniels, draw­ing car­i­ca­tures of his min­is­ters, throw­ing bread and cakes to wild­fowl in the park, one of his courtiers said that Charles “de­lighted in a be­witch­ing kind of pleasure called saun­ter­ing”. Sa­muel Pepys (an ad­min­is­tra­tor in the Royal Navy) added that “the King do mind noth­ing but plea­sures and hates the very sight or thought of busi­ness”.

In the Mid­dle Ages it was be­lieved in Eng­land that Kings had heal­ing pow­ers and that a touch from roy­alty could cure the skin dis­ease scro­fula, known as the “King’s Evil”. Be­lief in the Di­vine Right of Kings was very strong by the time of the Stu­arts and in­creas­ingly peo­ple wanted to be touched by the King. It is said that Charles II touched over 9,000 peo­ple dur­ing his reign.

In 1682, Charles laid the foun­da­tion stone for a new hos­pi­tal for sick and el­derly sol­diers in Chelsea. The Royal Hos­pi­tal be­came home to Chelsea Pen­sion­ers in 1692 — old sol­diers in time of need “and of good char­ac­ter”. Founder’s Day is still cel­e­brated ev­ery year at the Royal Hos­pi­tal Chelsea on a date close to Charles’s birthday, Oak Ap­ple Day, when a gold statue of him is adorned with oak leaves. A mem­ber of the Royal Fam­ily al­ways at­tends and in 2017 it was the Princess Royal, who had a sprig of oak leaves at­tached to her brooch.

The fi­nal years of Charles’s life were rel­a­tively un­event­ful, and he con­tin­ued to live a life of pleasure in pri­vate. It was while din­ing with one of his mis­tresses, the Duchess of Portsmouth, in February 1685 that the King suf­fered an apoplec­tic fit. His last act was to be re­ceived into the Ro­man Catholic church and he made his con­fes­sion and re­ceived the Sacra­ment.

Some of the chil­dren of his mis­tresses gath­ered around the death bed at White­hall Palace, and Charles blessed each one and pulled them onto the bed to be close to him. Witty to the end, he apol­o­gised for tak­ing “an un­con­scionable time a-dy­ing”. His last thought was of his favourite mis­tress, whis­per­ing to his brother and suc­ces­sor, “Do not let poor Nelly starve.”

His fi­nal recorded words were, “Open the cur­tains that I may once more see day.” He died at 11.45am on the morn­ing of 6th February 1685 at the age of 54.

Af­ter ly­ing in state at the Palace of West­min­ster, a sim­ple fu­neral was held on the evening of 14th February be­fore he was laid to rest in the south aisle of Henry VII’S Chapel in West­min­ster Abbey. A life­size wax ef­figy of the King, some 6' 2" tall, dressed in robes of the Or­der of the Garter com­plete with plumed hat, stood be­side the grave for over a cen­tury. Taken from a life cast of the King’s face, it is said to be a re­mark­able like­ness and will be on dis­play in a new mu­seum and gallery at West­min­ster Abbey due to open in 2018.

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