The end of Oliver Cromwell’s regime closed a dour, gloomy chapter in English history. Theatres were finally reopened, dancing was permitted once again, and other English revelries were welcomed back into society. The people of England longed for a return to familiarity, stability, heritage, and the restoration of the monarchy. In a way it was not Charles II who reclaimed the crown, but rather it was the Cromwellian regime that fell apart. The crisis invited the return of the king. After more than a decade of Puritanical religious extremism, the new Carolinian age hailed a rebirth of literature, science, the arts, and theatre in England.
This was the era of Dryden, Farquhar, Vanbrugh, and Congreve; the reconstruction of London took place after the Great Fire under Christopher Wren’s capable architectural administration; and a Royal Society charter carried with it the promise of the Enlightenment under Newton’s and Hoyle’s orderly universe.
Charles II was freshly returned from his exile in the Hague when he triumphantly landed in England in 1660. He was greeted amidst considerable fanfare extending from his landing at Dover to his processional route to London. Here was a man whose father was beheaded a mere decade prior, was twice defeated by the New Model Army, and forced to flee in disguise through the countryside, taking cover in trees and churches before escaping in a common fishing boat. This man was now welcomed back to his native land as the rightful king. In fact, the statutes of Cromwell were all discarded and new parchments now acknowledged Charles II as having been the rightful King of England since 1649 (the date of the regicide of Charles I).
Charles II was the eldest son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. As a child Prince Charles was reared with a subtle affinity for Catholicism. Whereas Protestantism represented the power in England, Catholicism was always closer to his heart. Charles had neither the fantastical belief in the “divine right of kings” like his grandfather nor the melancholic disposition of his father. Charles was a man who had experienced great tragedy and loss in his life, but he strived for all manner of pleasantry and hedonism. He was dubbed “The Merry Monarch” for his fun-loving, amiable, romantic, and glamorous disposition. However, his life was not free from scandal. In fact Winston Churchill labels the court of Charles II as “one unceasing flagrant and brazen scandal.” The great weakness of King Charles II were his insatiable carnal appetites. The scandals began during his exile in Paris where his licentious and cavalier behavior shocked the French court. His reputation gradually declined among European royalty and he was asked to depart Paris with a pension. His unsavory lust continued for the remainder of his life and became common knowledge among the commoners. He was known to have maintained a number of mistresses: Barbara Villiers (who became the Duchess of Cleveland and the Countess of Castlemaine), Louise de Kérouaille (who became the baroness of Petersfield, Countess of Farehem, and Duchess of Portsmouth), and the actress Nell Gwyn (who was not rewarded with titles despite being a well-known, long-serving mistress of the king). In sum, the king never had any legitimate children but he acknowledged no less than fourteen children from seven different mistresses.
At any rate, when the monarchy was restored Charles and Parliament sought to exact vengeance on the regicides who had beheaded Charles I. Many were granted amnesty, while nine were hanged, drawn, and quartered, and the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton (a general in the New Model Army), and John Bradshaw (a Puritan judge) were all exhumed and decapitated. Oliver Cromwell’s embalmed body was dug up from its burial chamber in Westminster Abbey. The head was placed on a pike outside Westminster Hall (where it remained for some twenty years) and his headless torso was suspended from a gibbet at Tyburn.
The Restoration of Charles II was not only a restoration of the monarchy but also of Parliament. When it was re-formulated it became known as the “Cavalier Parliament” or the “Pension Parliament.” It lasted a record-breaking eighteen years. Like his predecessors Charles had an uneasy relationship with Parliament. He professed a religious policy of tolerance for Presbyterians and Catholics, however this did not sit well with his first Parliament which was dominated by “High Church” Anglicans. There was paranoia among the ranks that Charles was a closet Catholic since his mother was a ‘French Papist.’ Parliament demanded uniform religious dogma from the king. A series of acts were passed promoting prostration to the Church of England collectively called the “Clarendon Code” so-named for Charles’s Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde earl of Clarendon (though he had little to do with the acts). Clarendon was a wise and venerable statesman that Charles II inherited from his father.
By now it was fitting that the king should find himself a wife. In 1662, like his father before him, Charles married a Catholic princess, Catherine de Braganza of Portugal, a devoted Catholic and a highly unpopular Queen of England. With her dowry she delivered to England the strategic islands of Bombay (offering passage to India) and Tangier (in north Africa). She also brought a love of tea-drinking to England, which had become insular during the Interregnum and thus missed the broader trends and trades of mainland Europe. The Queen is effectively credited with transforming the island into a nation of tea drinkers. The great failure of the royal marriage was that their union produced no heir (Queen Catherine had several miscarriages). In later years Charles rejected calls to divorce her.
Crisis unfolded in the middle of the 1660s. The Great Plague of 1665 ravaged London. It was a pestilence not seen since the Black Death of 1348. At its climax, 7,000 people were killed in one single week. It was a year of remarkable tragedy. Just as the plague was lifting a terrible fire broke out by London Bridge near a clutch of wooded houses. It was fed by a strong easterly wind and unseasonably dry conditions. The fire burned through thousands of buildings including St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Great Fire of London was a devastating and destructive disaster that must have seemed like hellfire falling upon the city, destroying vast tracts in its wake. Opinions were easily molded amidst fragile stability, and old prejudices were lighted anew. When it was finally quenched the mobs of Englishmen blamed Catholics for the year of death. At least from the ashes of the old St. Paul’s arose the splendid cathedral we see today in London. It stands as a towering monument to the awe-inspiring absolutism of Anglicanism. A great doric monument was constructed in the late 17th century to commemorate the Great Fire. It was cleverly constructed by Lord Ashley earl of Shaftesbury to rival Christopher Wren as the highest vantage point in the newly rebuilt city.
Meanwhile Charles led a distinct court from his late father. He preferred to remain aloof and at a distance from his ministers, never trusting any one of them with his full loyalty. George Savile, marquis of Halifax, once remarked that Charles “lived with his ministers as he did with his mistresses; he used them, but he was not in love with them.” Lord Clarendon became just one of those dispensable advisors. He became the scapegoat for the ill-advised naval venture that is now known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The war began asa a return to the high seas trade conflict between a re-emboldened England and the Dutch Republic, which was flourishing in its Golden Age of commerce, superior financial markets, republican institutions, high art, religious tolerance, and quality education. The war began with great promise as England won several decisive victories, including the territorial prize of a settlement called “New Amsterdam” (later re-named “New York” in honor of Charles II’s brother the Duke of York, or the future King James II). England also won a critical naval victory at the Battle of Lowestoft over the Dutch. The war was a battle of the new economies: England and France against the emerging Dutch. The war, however, soon turned sour. In 1667 England suffered a terrible humiliation. The Dutch Admiral de Ruyter sailed up the Medway, burned four English ships, and towed away the Royal Charles (the ship on which Charles II had returned to England). The people of England coldly turned against the war. It was said, “The bishops get all, the courtiers spend all, the citizens pay for all, the King neglects all, and the Dutch take all.” The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote “In all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side.” Lord Clarendon lobbied for a peace deal but it was seen as a capitulation and cessation of the Hague to the French Catholics. Amidst calls for Clarendon being tried for high treason Charles blamed his Lord Chancellor and promptly dismissed him, forcing Clarendon into exile in Europe. After the fall of Clarendon Charles II surrounded himself with a group of close councillors known as the CABAL -an acronym for his advisors Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale.
In the wake of the second Dutch war it became apparent that the people England suspected Charles of being a lackey of Louis XIV of France. Peace had been made with the Dutch but Lord Clarendon had paid the price. Between the Dutch and the French there were two alternative regimes presented to England: the Dutch republic ruled by a Stadtholder as first among equals, and the absolute rule of Louis XIV in France. There were lingering resentments of the Dutch in England, but there was far greater fear and hatred of Papist France with its encroaching influence upon Western Europe. France had grown into a formidable power under the “Sun King” Louis XIV. The Thirty Years War which ended in 1648 had broken the imperial power of Germany. The Hapsburg principates were now focused on external conflicts. To the south the Spanish empire was in gradual decline. This left Paris and the Hague to square off. The shift in Europe led to a political excitement and energy in England that was mounted against the encroaching global reach of the Papists. As Winston Churchill puts it England “wanted a King, a Protestant King, an Anglican King bred in constitutional ways, with a strain of common blood to give him sense, and a clear-cut policy of organising Protestantism against the Catholic overlordship of Europe which Louis XIV was trying to achieve” (363). Enter Charles II’s covert determination to swear allegiance to the Church of Rome. His Catholic sympathies had gotten the better of him and perhaps he saw opportunity to expand England’s reach alongside France. In 1670 he signed the infamous Treaty of Dover, a shockingly secret pact unknown even to most of his ministers. It promised that the king would convert to Catholicism at an unspecified later date in exchange for personal funding and a treaty with France against the Dutch. France and England jointly declared war on the Dutch (now called the Third Anglo-Dutch War), but the resistance was led by William prince of Orange (“William of Orange” or “William III”), the king’s cousin and a robust Protestant man’s man who was the rising star of Europe. His famous maxim was “we can die in the last ditch!” while in pursuit of the title of Stadtholder over the Hague. William of Orange had wed Mary, the daughter of James (brother of King Charles II). Thus Charles and William were kin. As a relative of the king, the decision to take up arms against the Dutch shocked the nation. “Lord Ashley” earl of Shaftesbury led the charge in the Commons against the king’s foreign policy and the Cavalier Parliament grew in power.
There was fear about Catholic infiltrations -was the monarchy too tolerant of Catholics? Widespread rumors emerged that the king was sympathetic to French Papists, and that Catholics were blamed for the Great Fire. Mass delusions led to hysteria over the Popish Plot in 1678, a hoax conspiracy fabricated by an obscure English priest named Titus Oates wherein Jesuits were supposedly planning to overthrow Charles II and replace him with his openly Catholic brother, James. Despite Charles’s reservations 35 people were executed in the plot, most of them Catholic priests. The succession of the crown was also of concern among virulent anti-Catholics. Charles was without an heir leaving his openly Catholic brother, James Duke of York, as the presumptive heir. The conditions were ripe for newfound political divisions. The situation spawned the Exclusion Crisis, or the attempt to prevent James from succeeding to the throne. Shaftesbury and his allies in the Commons supported Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, James duke of Monmouth, a charismatic protestant military man. They circulated rumors questioning whether or not Monmouth was in fact secretly a legitimate son and therefore the rightful heir to the crown. Parliament passed the Test Act in 1673 which essentially barred any Catholic from holding a position in government. It was a deliberate effort to disqualify James from succeeding the throne.
In this milieu of king pitted against Parliament was born the defamatory distinctions of “Whig” and “Tory.” Per Winston Churchill “The term ‘Whig’ had described a sour, bigoted, canting, money-grabbing Scots-Presbyterian. Irish Papist bandits ravaging estates and minor-houses had been called ‘Tories.’ Neither side was lacking in power of abuse… Yet the names Whig and Tory not only stuck, but became cherished and vaunted by those upon whom they were fastened. They gradually entered the whole life of the nation, and represented in successive forms its main temperamental types. They were adorned by memorable achievements for the welfare of England and both had their share in the expansion and greatness which were to come” (364). The Whigs were the “Exclusionists” (or Scottish Covenanting rebels). They were the pro-Dutch believers in religious tolerance, limited government, and a kingship that was responsive to the people. The Tories were the “Anti-Exclusionists” (or Irish outlaws and cattle thieves). They were pro-French and believed in the divine right of kings by hereditary succession asa well as the absolute rule of the Church of England. In order to prevent Parliament from meddling with the crown’s succession, Charles II twice dissolved Parliament and sought to rule absolutely contra the Whig’s wishes. England mirrored the absolute rule of Louis XIV rather than the republicanism of William of Orange.
There was a half-hearted treasonous plot by certain Whigs to assassinate Charles and James in order to instate Monmouth. The plot was feeble at best, but the king swiftly punished all Exclusionists. One man committed suicide in the Tower, several were publicly beheaded, and the rest fled to exile in Europe, including Monmouth and Shaftesbury -who died abroad. However, Shaftesbury’s secretary, John Locke, escaped to the tolerant and free atmosphere of the Dutch Republic where he penned his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
The last few years of Charles II’s kingship were relatively quiet and stable. Abroad, English commerce expanded in India and along the West Coast of Africa, as well as the Hudson Bay Company settlements in North America. The settlements at New York and New Jersey were captured. Inland the Pennsylvania colony was becoming an asylum for all persecuted under the rule of its Quaker dictator William Penn. To the south, two Carolina colonies were founded and named in honor of Charles II.
In his later years Charles may have succumbed to mercury poisoning, then considered a medicine used to treat syphilis. He suffered a stroke while shaving in February 1685. His death was a long and slow process. He lay in bed for days until all seemed close to the end. Then, through back door of the king’s chamber (formerly used by the king’s mistresses), one the king’s gentlemen ushered in Father John Huddleston, a priest who had assisted Charles in his escape from the Battle of Worcester many years prior, and Charles was received into Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. He took his first and final communion on his deathbed. Thus Charles II fulfilled his secret oath to France during his last moments of life. Early the next morning he requested that the window be opened so that he might see the light of day one last time. Shortly thereafter he slipped into unconsciousness and died around noon. Charles is buried at Westminster Abbey.
Winston Churchill offers the following comments on Charles II’s death: “All the fires of England burned low, but there was a genial glow from the embers at which the weary king warmed his hands. Halifax, now more than ever trusted, still urged him to the adventure of a new Parliament, and Charles might have consented, when suddenly in February 1685 an apoplectic stroke laid him low. With that air of superiority to death for which all mortals should be grateful he apologised for being ‘so unconscionable a time in dying’… Apart from hereditary monarchy, there was not much in which Charles believed in this world or another. He wanted to be King, as was his right, and have a pleasant life” (369).
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Samuel Pepys’s memoirs, and Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion: The History of England From James I To The Glorious Revolution.