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The Great Fire of London
Charles II ruled at a time of crucial transition in English history. The seventeenth century was a time when government was moving away from monarchy towards parliamentary democracy. Charles used considerable political skill, and his affable, tolerant personality to hold the balance in favour of monarchy for the last time. You could say he was the last true king. He also has something to tell us about our attitudes to the private life of our leaders, and how a little more tolerance might not go amiss.
Charles was born on May 29th 1630, at St James's Palace in London. While his earnest father Charles I was dealing with affairs of state and running into increasing problems with his parliaments, Charles spent a happy childhood overseen by a series of tutors. The tutor that made the biggest impression on him was the Earl of Newcastle. Newcastle did not rate scholarship highly. Too much thought got in the way of action. Newcastle was much more conscious of good manners, particularly to women. Charles followed his mentor's advice, and became the pleasant man that in many ways his future role required. Charles stood in contrast to his father, Charles I, who was conscientious, inflexible in his political views, and austere in his personal life. It was his father's upstanding, inflexible qualities that eventually led to his downfall at the hands of Parliament.
While young Charles was enjoying himself, and having his lessons in manners from the Earl of Newcastle, his father Charles I was struggling to do without Parliament. Parliament were demanding a say in state affairs in return for the tax money it had the power to grant. Parliament also had a fear of "popery" in high places, and religiously tolerant King Charles did not fill them with confidence on this score. For eleven years King Charles managed to do without Parliament, until his inflexible, doctrinaire outlook got the better of him. In 1638 he made a disastrous attempt to impose an English style Prayer Book on Scotland. This led to a war that bankrupted his government. He now had no choice but to recall Parliament. Parliament met in April 1640, but was abruptly dismissed. By November the Scots were in possession of the English border counties, and demanding huge ransoms to persuade them not to move south. Once again King Charles was forced into calling Parliament. This time Parliament was to remain in session for twenty years, through all the troubles that lay ahead. Parliamentary demands now became more extreme, with demands for control of the armed forces, the Church and the king's ministers. A number of former opponents thought things were going too far, and a King's Party began to form. The Cavaliers, as they were known, left the dangers of London and began to recruit support in the countryside. On 19th of August 1642 the Cavaliers raised their battle standard in Nottingham, and the Civil War began.
Modern visitors at the Torrington battlefield
Young Charles and his brother James now had an exciting time amongst the ranks being assembled. Both boys witnessed the war's first battle at Edgehill. The mood changed in 1644 when a new force appeared, a cavalry of "Ironsides" recruited from the eastern counties and led by the earnest MP for Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell. The Ironsides defeated young Charles's dashing cousin Prince Rupert at Marston Moor. In an attempt to boost the spirits of the Royalists following this defeat, the king sent his son, Prince Charles to Bristol in early 1645 to take command of forces in the west. But Prince Charles found he had no real power and could do little to help. The Royalists suffered a heavy defeat at Naseby during the summer, and by Christmas the king was advising his son to prepare his escape. Following his father's advice, Prince Charles sought refuge with his advisors at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall. It was here that he heard of the final royalist defeat at Torrington, on 2nd of March 1646. Prince Charles's group sailed for the Scilly Isles, where they spent six miserable weeks very short of money, food and clothes. As one of the royalist ladies in his group said: " truly we begged our daily bread of God, for we thought every meal was our last." (Quoted in The Life and Times of Charles II by Christopher Faulkes) No moans from Charles are recorded. He seemed to just get on with it.
In April 1646 the group left for Jersey, which remained loyal to the crown. Then they moved to France, where Charles lived with his mother, who promptly tried to marry him off. The lady in question was Anne-Marie-Louise, daughter of Gaston, Duc d'Orleans, the richest heiress in Europe. Anne Marie thought that this rag tag exile was beneath her. She had her eye on a bigger prize, such as the Holy Roman Emperor, or at a push the King of Spain. Anne-Marie made no secret of her feelings, but Charles remained polite and charming, as he went through the motions of showing interest to keep his mother happy. Meanwhile he amused himself doing scientific experiments, which were quite the fashion, and enjoying the company of women who did not necessarily see themselves marrying the King of Spain. One such woman was Lucy Walter, a young English refugee living in the Hague. She bore Charles a son in April 1648, and he was called James. Later in life James was to make his own failed bid for the throne in his ill-fated attempt to unseat the unfortunate James II.
While Charles was living in the Hague the final scenes of King Charles I's life were playing themselves out. He had been condemned to death by Cromwell and Parliament. Young Charles plainly would have done anything to save his father. He sent a letter to the courts of Europe and to Parliament itself, which contained a blank sheet of paper with his signature on the bottom. On this blank sheet terms for the release of his father were to be written. Charles didn't care what the terms were. He had already signed and agreed to them. The letter made no difference, and on 30th January 1649 Charles I was executed in Whitehall, London. The news was kept from his son for a few days, until a courtier called him "your majesty". Charles ran sobbing to his room.
The Moot Hill at Scone where Charles was crowned King of Scots in 1652
Once he had recovered, Charles's determination to succeed to his father's throne was strengthened. Charles decided to throw in his lot with the protestant Scots, after briefly considering the catholic Irish. The austere Scots demanded earnest words and action from the fun-loving exile. He did his best to oblige. Sadly for Charles, the Scots principles even extended to disapproval for the sort of men who often make good soldiers. This resulted in Scottish military leaders dismissing three thousand of their best troops. With a polite and proper army the Scots met Cromwell's Ironsides at Dunbar on 3rd September 1650. The result was predictable. Cromwell lost twenty dead and fifty eight wounded. The Scots lost three thousand dead and ten thousand captured. Charles was forced to flee.
The following year, once again on 3rd September, a second battle was fought, at Worcester. Although Cromwell had to work a bit harder this time, the Scots were again defeated. Charles went on the run and was a fugitive in his own country for six weeks. He was helped by a number of catholic families, and never forgot what they did for him. Eventually he managed to escape to France, and for a while people were interested in his tales of adventure. Even the haughty Anne-Marie-Louise was impressed. But the novelty soon wore off, money ran out, and Charles and his followers wandered through southern Europe. In spite of the privations Charles seemed to quite enjoy this time. There were scandals involving women and drinking, all enthusiastically reported back to Cromwell, who no doubt felt very smug.
Change eventually came with the death of Oliver Cromwell on that recurring date, 3rd September, 1658. Cromwell's son Oliver had neither the ability nor the will to govern, and chaos seemed a real possibility. By 1659 a feeling was growing that Charles should return. Fifty thousand pounds was sent to Charles in Holland, who was so excited after his years of poverty that he is supposed to have emptied the coins all over his bed. He set sail for England on a ship called the Royal Charles. Naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys was on board, and he wrote of being moved to tears by Charles's tales of his adventures in exile. Charles was to tell these stories many times in years to come, often forgetting who he had told them to. Naturally everyone listened politely.
The Walks at Gray's Inn
Huge celebrations greeted Charles's return. Charles entered London on his thirtieth birthday to lavishly decorated buildings and cheering crowds. At the King's Head tavern the publican's wife gave birth in the excitement. Charles stopped the entire procession to meet his new subject. In the days that followed lords and ladies looked out fine clothes which had been long hidden away. Balls were organised, and children started playing games which had been banned by the puritans. Actors and playwrights could work again. All the colourful variety of an unequal society came back to England. People wandered about the Walks at Gray's Inn checking out each others fashions. Charles had St James's Park remodelled in the formal French style and, in a very bold move for the time, opened to the public. He would walk there, feed the ducks, chat to his subjects, and flirt with women. Spa towns such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells in Kent which had survived the war as places where the sick were cared for, now began to develop as holiday destinations. Charles gave a lead in the new scheme of things, dancing, attending the theatre, enjoying sports. Charles also promoted science, granting a royal charter to a small group of scientists, who became known as the Royal Society. Isaac Newton was to be a member of the Royal Society during Charles's reign.
Charles was crowned on April 23rd 1661, a day of great celebration. Pepys was there in Westminster Abbey, taking up his position at four o'clock in the morning to ensure a good view. Afterwards Pepys partied hard, drinking the King's health enthusiastically: "We drank the King's health, and nothing else, till one of the gentlemen fell down stark drunk, and there lay spewing." Pepys himself woke up the next morning in a pool of his own vomit. In May 1662 Charles married Catherine of Braganza. The fact that Catherine was a catholic was not welcome, but Charles was in a position to carry the marriage through. Catherine, the daughter of the King of Portugal came with a huge dowry, which included a chest of the new drink tea, and various trading rights that were good for English interests. Of course the other side of Charles's easy going tolerant approach to life soon made itself felt. Once the new queen was installed at Hampton Court she was presented with a list of Ladies in Waiting. She tried to cross the name of Lady Castlemaine off the list, having been warned about her relationship with Charles. Charles would have none of it. Catherine was upset for a while, but once she accepted her husband's ways he was as pleasant as ever.
The scandals were many and Pepys feared that such behaviour "will bring all to ruin again". The money spent on mistresses and illegitimate children caused bad feeling. The sober and god-fearing people who had supported Parliament were still there, and the king's preference for toleration did not sit well with continued prejudice against catholics. From the earliest days of his return Charles was making preparations for the worst. He founded the Household Cavalry, and sentries he posted at Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall are still there now, stoically putting up with tourists taking pictures of them. Detatchments of Household Cavalry were stationed out in St James's Park to guard the royal family during their walks. The Trooping the Colour ceremony which continues today is a not so distant echo of the manoeuvers Charles required of his troops. Fortunately, threats from abroad helped bring the country together. Holland was opposing England's sea power, and Charles knew he would be forced to go to war. Crews were press ganged and a chaotic struggle with Holland ensued. Pepys, working at the Admiralty, struggled to balance the naval books and get crews paid. He inflated costs in an attempt to get more money out of Parliament.
Upnor Castle, Kent
In June 1665 bubonic plague made its last appearance in England, killing a thousand people a day in London by September. The war with Holland was at a stalemate, and France had entered the war on the Dutch side. Then in 1666 the Great Fire of London hit the capital. The King personally led efforts to fight the fire, and visited the homeless at a camp at Moorfields. Fire, plague and shortage of money forced an end to the Dutch war, which concluded with a particularly humiliating episode. The Dutch raided the Medway all the way up to Chatham, and took the Royal Charles, the flag ship on which Charles had sailed back from exile. Upnor Castle on the Medway where the Dutch raid finally ended survives, and contains an effective audio visual display describing the battle
A scapegoat for this humiliating war was needed, and Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Charles's friend and mentor through his years of exile took the blame. He was dismissed as chancellor and fled abroad, where he was to write the highly respected book The History of the Rebellion.
Clarendon had always been a moderating influence, nagging Charles about behaving himself. Without him around Charles enjoyed himself even more thoroughly. He made regular trips to Newmarket, every spring and autumn to enjoy the horse racing, sometimes riding himself. He won the Twelve Stone Plate in 1675. It was at this time that horse racing became the "Sport of Kings". Charles had a house built for him by Christopher Wren opposite the Maidens Inn. Meanwhile, Charles indulged his other great pleasure with the women in his life. Actress Nell Gwynne was a long term favourite. Charles loved her down to earth humour. She would call him Charles the Third, because she'd had two previous lovers called Charles. Charles generally enjoyed the scandal that all this caused, and appreciated his nickname, Old Rowley, taken from one of the stallions in the royal stud. Incidentally, portraits of a number of Charles's mistresses can be seen at Broadlands house in Hampshire.
At the early 1670s Charles concluded a secret treaty with France, whereby France would support Charles financially in return for a promise to bring about the conversion of England to Catholicism. Charles had no strong views on religion, and was once heard to mutter that "the only visible church I can see is Harrow on the Hill". However, he needed money to free him from Parliament, and amazingly Charles managed to get three hundred thousand pounds out of the French by just telling them what they wanted to hear. Meanwhile many in England were suspicious of catholic influence in government, and this suspicion became feverish during a mad period of fear and paranoia known as the Popish Plot. A man called Titus Oates came forward with what he claimed was evidence of a catholic plot to kill the king and replace him with his catholic brother James. Oates was a strange man, a perjurer by profession, who made his living as a witness in court giving sworn testimony against suspects. His most spectacular testimony came when he fabricated evidence of the Popish Plot. Charles immediately saw holes in Oates story, dismissed it and headed off to Newmarket. Oates' stories, however, met the anxieties of the people. Rumour and fear spread quickly. Houses in London were barricaded against the imminent catholic rising, and thousands of catholics fled the capital in fear of their lives. Arrests were made and executions occurred, all based on the fantasy of Oates. Charles found the hysteria impossible to control.
Bodleian Library, Oxford
At the peak of the mania parliamentary leaders attempted to force Charles to legitimise his protestant eldest son James, Duke of Monmouth, one of his many illegitimate children. This would take the succession away from the king's catholic brother James, Duke of York. Charles refused. Parliament did not know that Charles had just received more money from France, and was immune to Parliament's main weapon, the denial of money. March 1681 saw the final Parliament of the reign, held in the Royalist stronghold of Oxford, in buildings that are now part of the Bodleian Library. Parliament thought it had Charles where it wanted him, only to find to their amazement that Charles moved immediately to dissolve Parliament, and seemed not to need their money. Leading parliamentarians threw the dice one last time when they plotted to assassinate Charles in Newmarket. Fortunately a fire in Newmarket sent the king home early, and the "Rye House Plot" fell apart.
The country now settled into relative tranquility, at least for a while. English sailors were taking control of trade routes and the empire was growing. Charles lived his last days relatively peacefully. His mistresses who had formerly spent most of their time bickering and jockeying for position now forgot their rivalries and settled into a quiet routine with their middle aged king. Charles went to Newmarket one last time in early 1685. He became ill on 1st February 1685 after his return to London. He secretly received catholic rites organised by his brother James. His many women gathered devotedly around him. Queen Catherine begged forgiveness for any wrongs done to him, to which Charles replied: She beg my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart."
Charles died on Friday 6th February 1685. Without him the intricate balance of his monarchy quickly fell apart. After a short reign his brother James II was exiled and Parliament gave the throne to William of Orange, husband of Charles's sister Mary.
Charles is remembered with great fondness. He is commemorated in many inns up and down the country which carry his picture outside the Kings Head, or the Black Boy - recalling his black hair. He enjoyed life and had a natural inclination for tolerance. Sciences and arts prospered. The Royal Society was founded, and the Royal Observatory built. Theatre was reestablished after its banning by the puritans. Even artists who had inclinations very different to his own were allowed to get on with their work in peace. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost and John Bunyon wrote Pilgrims Progress. Charles's reputation in matters such as honesty, integrity and hard work is of course more shaky. Scandal followed him throughout his reign, but he always had the charm to deflect criticism. In fact it was his very lack of austere high principles that allowed him to be the tolerant, pleasant man that he was. The high principles of his father, his brother James, and of Oliver Cromwell only brought division and intolerance. It was easy going Charles who held it all together. He should not be judged harshly for sleeping with lots of women and disappearing off to Newmarket at every opportunity. And perhaps in our time, when fundamentalism is causing such pain, we should be more forgiving of our leaders.