As he was walking along, his brother James, Duke of York, passed by in his carriage, accompanied by several armed guards.
The carriage stopped and the Duke leaned out of the window, saying how surprised he was to see His Majesty out in public, almost alone.
“There is no danger,” replied Charles. “For no man in England would take my life in order to make you king.”
This story, which may well be true, seems to have made its first appearance in Political and Literary Anecdotes of his Own Times by the scholar and Jacobite sympathiser William King (1685-1763).
The popular image of the Restoration period is all one of bawdy fun and games in the court of the Merry Monarch (or in the lecherous fantasies of Samuel Pepys). But the reign of Charles II was a dangerous, apprehensive and violent time. The Civil War was a fresh and bitter memory, religious minorities were being persecuted, there was a disastrous war with the Dutch, not to mention the plague and the Great Fire of London. Small wonder that several religious visionaries and crackpots were prophesying the end of the world.
Into this toxic mix there was added the failure of Charles and his queen to produce an heir. Without royal issue, the succession would pass to his brother James, Duke of York, who was Roman Catholic.
Religious and political tensions climaxed in the late 1670s, first with hysteria over Titus Oates’ imaginary “Popish plot” to assassinate the king, and then by the Exclusion Crisis, in which the Parliamentary faction which came to be known as the Whigs, tried to pass a bill excluding James from the succession, claiming he would return the country to Catholicism and try to establish an absolute monarchy in the style of Louis XIV. The king eventually outmanoeuvred the exclusionists, but the uncovering of an alleged conspiracy – the “Rye House plot” – to assassinate both Charles and James, a couple of years later did nothing to calm things down.
James, of course, did succeed, but his reign ended in his overthrow in 1688. At the head of a mostly Irish army, James was defeated by William at the battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and fled the battlefield. On arrival at Dublin Castle on his way to permanent exile, he supposedly complained to Lady Tyrconnell: “Your countrymen can run well.” To which she replied: “I see your Majesty has won the race.”
James’s desertion of Ireland and his ungracious behaviour earned him the obscene Irish nickname “Seamus a’ chaca”, which is sometimes politely (but not altogether accurately!) translated as “James the coward”.
Eugene Byrne is an author and journalist. This story was first published in 2012