A Royal History of England: Charles II
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.