1660: The year that changed everything

In terms of sheer impact on the ordinary people of England, Charles II’s restoration in 1660 is eclipsed only by the events of 1066, writes Ian Mortimer... 

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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A portrait of King Charles II (1630-1685), who was restored to the throne after years of exile during the Puritan Commonwealth. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dynasties and dates – are they really that important? So often the death of one king and the accession of his successor, while unsettling at the time, had little impact on the daily lives of the ordinary people. It is difficult to point to any great social changes that were due to the death of the monarch between 1066 and 1553, for example. Yet there are few occasions when changes in monarch really did matter. The demise of the last Saxon king at Hastings in 1066 was quickly followed by the introduction of Norman governance and the redistribution of large swatches of England to foreign lords. The deaths of Edward VI (1553) and Mary I (1558) significantly affected the religious – and thus the social – condition of the realm. Charles I’s execution in 1649 allowed Oliver Cromwell to reform the government and continue the puritan agenda that parliament had started to introduce in the early 1640s.

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However, another dynastic date, 1660, stands out as perhaps second only to 1066 in its impact on the people of England. The year of Charles II’s restoration saw sudden, profound and permanent changes at every level of society, from the ruling classes down to the level of the most humble servant. 

To appreciate the change that the country experience in 1660 you first have to reflect that there was no such thing as a king of England in 1659. Oliver Cromwell had died in September 1658, leaving his son Richard as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. But whereas Oliver had always enjoyed the support of the army, Richard had no military experience: he resigned the Protectorship in May 1659, creating a power vacuum. And that terrified the people. It was not so much a matter of who might step up into the vacuum as what. No one could tell what sort of religious extremists might attempt to seize control.

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An early 19th century engraving of a cheerful scene in Westminster following the coronation of King Charles II. With the shackles of puritanism thrown off, the people of England could now gamble on horses, make music, play cricket and celebrate Christmas with gusto. (Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Most of all, the Civil Wars of 1642-51 had not been forgotten; there was a real fear that England might again be plunged into lawlessness and violence. On 11 October 1659 the writer John Evelyn wrote in his diary: “The army now turned out parliament. We had now no government in the nation; all in confusion; no magistrate either owned or pretended but the soldiers, and they not agreed. God almighty have mercy on us and settle us!” 

The return to England of the prince, Charles Stuart, in May 1660 and his accession as Charles II thus meant the re-establishment of the monarch and a different form of government. That itself was much more than a new face on the coins and a new head wearing the crown. It led to the restoration of the political power of the aristocracy and the revitalisation of many customs and practices that had been prohibited for over a decade. But the changes to life across the country were even more profound than in 1649, for the introduction of a puritan social agenda, from 1642 to Cromwell’s death, had been a gradual process. Charles II oversaw its destruction almost overnight.

The radical changes of the Restoration could be seen even before Charles set foot back on English soil. The prince promised four things in the Declaration of Breda, signed shortly before his return. These were: to pardon all those who had committed crimes against him and his father during the Civil Wars and Cromwell’s republic (except those who had signed Charles I’s death warrant); to honour all sales and purchases of land in that time; to tolerate people of all religious faiths; and to give the army its back-pay, and recommission the troops in the service of the crown.

Following this, parliament proclaimed Charles king on 8 May and sent messengers to him inviting him to return. This act itself was exceptional: previously no parliament could assemble unless it was summoned by the king. In 1660, as the 20th century historian GM Trevelyan memorably observed, it was Parliament who summoned the king. The very use of a capital P in that sentence denotes the difference: parliament had reinvented itself as more than just ‘a parliament’ – a meeting of representatives held at the king’s behest. It had established its own legitimacy, which it then confirmed in an Act to which Charles II assented. 

With immediate effect the House of Lords was reinstated. The structure of the Church of England that had existed prior to the Commonwealth (the period in which Cromwell had ruled England as a republic) was restored, and so were the ministers who had been ousted from their livings. Parliament also passed legislation confirming the king’s promises. A new standing army was set up – 1660 is the date from which we date the oldest regiments of the British Army – and feudal tenure was finally abolished. Henceforth, manorial lords no longer held their land from the king but instead owned it freehold. Feudal rights due to the crown were extinguished in return for an annual payment of £100,000.

All this was highly significant but it was really just the tip of the iceberg, for the Restoration had the most dramatic impact on ordinary people too. The return of the episcopal hierarchy brought with it the re-establishment of church courts. Large numbers of physicians, surgeons, schoolmasters and midwives, who effectively had been able to get official recognition of their professional status for more than a decade, flocked to present themselves and gain licenses to practise. From 1660 you could now once more prove a will locally in an archdeaconry or a consistory court. People could once more also report their neighbours for moral offences such as bigamy, adultery and drunkenness and expect the wrongdoers to be summoned to the archdeaconry court. Latin, the language of the courts, which had been prohibited by Cromwell, made a comeback.

The puritan government of the interregnum had taken a stern view of moral crime, dealing with wrongdoers not in the church courts but in the secular country courts and assizes. In 1650 the Commonwealth government had passed the Adultery Act, by which those found guilty could be sentenced to death. Although the act was so severe it was only enforced a few times, it hung over the heads of many.

More rigorously imposed were the laws against swearing (you could be fined for simply saying, “as God is my witness”), the opening of ale houses, and breaking the Sabbath. Constables could search kitchens on Sundays to ensure no unnecessary work was being done. No selling or buying or agricultural work was permitted, and even going for an afternoon stroll with your loved one on the Lord’s Day could leave you liable to a fine. A maidservant found mending her dress on a Sunday was reported to the authorities and placed in the stocks in the rain as a punishment. Thus the repeal of this legislation passed by the Commonwealth government was like a huge lifting of social oppression on those who lived ordinary lives. 

The news that, instead of being hanged, an adulterer would again be punished with a spell of humiliation in a white sheet at the church door or in the marketplace was a blessed relief to those who had illicit affairs. But it signals a more general change of attitude towards sex that followed the Restoration. When he landed in England, Charles already had an acknowledged illegitimate child by Lucy Walter, and anyone who knew him suspected that she wouldn’t be the last of his mistresses. Indeed, even before Charles had left the Hague, he had bedded Barbara Villiers, wife of English courtier Roger Palmer. Barbara became his principal concubine for the next few years.

The contrast of the libidinous king and the previous government, which had until recently treated people such as him and his mistresses with the utmost severity, is astonishing. It was even more shocking at the time, given the openness of the king’s affairs. Even Samuel Pepys, who had a series of illicit sexual liaisons himself, was taken aback at the brazen way the king would leave Barbara Villiers’ apartments in the morning and walk back to his queen in the palace. No English king had ever given a title to one of his mistresses before but Charles II created two of his mistresses duchesses, and made social provision for them to pass their titles to his illegitimate sons by them. Previously, illegitimacy had been a bar to the inheritance of a title. In all, Charles’s illegitimate offspring included six dukes and one earl.

This brazenness marks another aspect of the watershed that was 1660, namely the rebelliousness of the rakes. There was no latitude for rakish behaviour in the 1650s. But after 1660, a plethora of young men were welcomed at court – men such as Lord Rochester, Lord Buckhurst and Sir Charles Sedley. Generally drunken and offensive libertines, they were scandalous and satirical in equal measure. To give an inkling of their antics, Pepys describes a notorious event in 1663, when Charles Sedley stripped and paraded naked on the balcony of a cook shop in London, reading from the scriptures and commenting on them blasphemously, and playing out “all the postures of lust and buggery that can be imagined”. (At this time, buggery was a vice that was punishable by death.) In the course of his show, Sedley declared to the crown of around 1,000 people that he had a powder such as would make all ‘women’ of the town run after him – except that he did not used the word ‘women’ but referred to them by their sexual organs. Next he took a glass of wine, washed his private parts in it and then drank it. After that he drank the king’s health using the same glass. 

Sedley got into trouble – as did all the rakes- but that is not the point. Society under Charles did not punish the rakes severely; it tolerated them. The reason was that the rakes, like the king himself with his many mistresses, were kicking against the puritans in society. Their behaviour was calculated to shock and ridicule those who had cut off the head of Charles I and, in doing so, had plunged the nation into a crisis. 

The more subtle, all-pervading changes brought on by the return of the king went even further than this. The restoration of aristocratic power, coupled with the decline of restrictive moral codes of conduct, led to something of an aristocratic renaissance. Hierarchy became fashionable again: people started to flaunt their wealth more openly. Whereas in the 1650s the interests of the Commonwealth had prevailed in public, from 1660 conspicuous consumption was allowed to let rip. Foreign fashions were imported, adopted and cast aside within a year or so. The volumes of textiles imported from the orient, such as chintzes from India, increased. New commodities such as tea, coffee and chocolate were likewise shipped to England in much greater quantities as the urban and middle classes once more took aping the fashionable practices of the gentry and aristocracy. 

Under the Commonwealth, gambling was forbidden, so it could only take place covertly. Under Charles II, it was not only conducted in public, but on a massive scale. By 1664, the problems of heirs betting colossal fortunes had forced the government to introduce the Gaming Act, making gambling debts more than £100 unenforceable. Nevertheless, people continued to wager sums without caution. In 1674, Charles Cotton, author of The Complete Gamester, noted that several estates of more than £2,000 per year had recently been lost at card and tables (the backgammon board, on which several games were played, beside backgammon).

Nor were these the only ways in which people threw away their wealth: bowling greens, cricket pitches, gold courses, pall-mall courses and tennis courts were all places where huge sums were won and lost. One wrestling match in St James’s Park in 1667 between the men of the West Country and those of the North was for the purse of £1,000 in addition to all the bets placed on the outcome. You could not have seen such a spectacle under Cromwell’s rule.

And, of course, gambling underpinned the sport of kings, which, like wrestling, pall-mall and many other sports, was banned or discouraged by the puritans. One of the new king’s first sporting activities after his accession was to reopen Newmarket, which Cromwell had left in ruins. Very quickly it became one of the country’s great magnets for horse-racing enthusiasts. Such was the passion of gambling that gentlemen even started to place bets on their footmen, so that races between runners were held for the first time in England. 

If 1660 saw a sea of change in the recreational pursuits of the wealthy, the same was true for those who were more interested in popular games and blood sports. Bear baiting had been outlawed by the Commonwealth – not on the ground of cruelty to the animals but on account of the sins that allowed spectators to indulge in: drinking, betting and wearing. Cromwell’s soldiers shot all the bears in London; fighting cocks had their necks wrung. The Restoration meant the restoration of these popular amusements too – and such traditions as playing football on a Sunday and dancing around the maypole. Most extraordinarily, Cromwell had forbidden people from celebrating Christmas (believing it to be mere superstition). As a result, shops were not allowed to close and church minsters were prevented from preaching on Christmas Day. People were not permitted to eat mince pies, plum porridge or brawn in December , or decorate their houses with boughs of holly and ivy, or sing carols or pass around the wassail bowl, or give children and servants treats in boxes (hence ‘Boxing Day’). Critics who thought this was going too far wrote tracts protesting the innocent of ‘Old Father Christmas’, who thus made his first appearance in English culture as a protest figure against puritanism. All this prohibition ended with the king’s return.

As with sports, gambling, games and season festivities, so too it was with music and the theatre. Although Cromwell didn’t ban music, it was removed from churches. The consequent disbandment of the cathedral choirs and the chapel royal and the laying off of the court musicians were significant setbacks for the profession. Even popular music suffered: magistrates took action against the playing of lewd songs in public houses. The return of the king breathed new life into the art of music-making virtually overnight, as the court required a chapel royal staff and court musicians, and ordinary people went back to their old favourite songs and composed more of them without fear of reprimand.

As for the theatres, these had all been closed in 1642. The Globe was demolished and tenements built on the site. The return of the king and his brother, the Duke of York, who both acted as patrons of drama and gave their names to the new London theatre companies, was a hugely significant change. It ushered in England’s second great age of dramatic writing.

The Restoration shows that dynasties and dates can have enormous significance. The year 1660 is something of a continental shelf in its changes, in that the new regime had a profound effect on everyone socially, in their everyday lives, as well as politically. With this in mind, and given the fact that we still have the same monarchy that was restored in that year, 1660 perhaps should be thought of alongside 1066 as a date everyone should know. It is a fascinating point in our history – and one of the new periods in which we can say without fear of contradiction that the history of the monarchy and that of the ordinary man and woman are bound together and inseparable. 

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Ian Mortimer is a historian and author whose books include The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (Vintage, 2009)