Your guide to King Charles II, the ‘merry monarch’

How did Charles II come to the throne? How many children did he have? And why is the title the ‘merry monarch’ less flattering than you might think? Clare Jackson presents a guide to the royal and the Restoration…

A portrait of Charles II sitting on a throne

On the day on which the future Charles II was born at St James’s Palace in Westminster – 29 May 1630 – a brilliant star shone brightly in the daytime skies over London. Now thought to have been a supernova, this ‘royal star’ was regarded as an auspicious sign.

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The new Stuart prince was the first surviving son of King Charles I and his French wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, and the first child born as heir to the three crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Charles spent much of his childhood at Richmond Palace in Surrey, and was joined by two younger brothers, James and Henry (later the dukes of York and Gloucester respectively) and four younger sisters, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne and Henrietta Anne.

Charles II: key dates and facts

Born: 29 May 1630

Died: 6 February 1685

Reigned: Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II ruled as King of England, Scotland and Ireland until his death in 1685. He was also King of Scotland from 1649 to 1651. 

Coronation: Crowned King of Scotland on 1 January 1651 at Scone; then King of England, Scotland and Ireland on 23 April 1661 at Westminster Abbey

Parents: Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France

Spouse: Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal

Children: No legitimate children, and at least 13 illegitimate children by seven mistresses by the time of his death

Cause of death: Either a stroke or an illness brought on by chronic kidney disease

Succeeded by: King James VII and II

What was Charles II’s childhood like?

Charles’s childhood was cut short prematurely when his father’s royal authority started to unravel in the late 1630s, first in Scotland, and subsequently in Ireland and England, as civil war broke out in all three kingdoms.

A depiction of Charles II as a young boy
The future Charles II’s childhood was cut short prematurely when his father’s royal authority started to unravel. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)

While Charles I confronted his Scottish Covenanter opponents during the summers of 1639 and 1640, his eldest son remained at Whitehall. Even when Queen Henrietta Maria departed for the continent in 1642, the young Charles remained with his father on campaign, being given nominal command of the royalist war effort in western England in March 1645. After soon leaving the royal court in Oxford for Bristol, Prince Charles never saw his father again.

As the military tide turned in favour of Parliamentarian forces, Charles fled from Cornwall in March 1646 and moved to the Scilly Isles and Jersey, before joining his mother at the expense of King Louis XIV of France’s court near Paris.

What happened after Charles I’s death in 1649?

While staying with his sister, Mary, in The Hague, in the Netherlands, Charles learned that the English Parliament had convicted his father of high treason and had overseen Charles I’s execution on 30 January 1649. When news of the regicide reached Edinburgh in February, the Scottish Parliament instantly proclaimed Charles II king of Scotland, England and Ireland.

Hoping to raise a royalist force to reassert monarchical authority in all three kingdoms, Charles sailed to Scotland in June 1650 and became the last monarch to be crowned in Scotland at a coronation ceremony at Scone Palace in Perthshire on 1 January 1651.

But after launching an invasion of England on 31 July, Charles’s royalist army was heavily defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s republican forces on 3 September 1651 at the battle of Worcester. Having fled the scene, the 21-year-old king famously spent the day after the battle hiding in a local oak tree in Boscobel Wood, explaining why ‘Oak Apple Day’ later became a national day of thanksgiving in England until 1859 and why ‘The Royal Oak’ remains one of the most popular English pub names.

The oak tree in Boscobel Wood, with the house in the background
The 21-year-old Charles II famously spent the day after the battle hiding in a local oak tree in Boscobel Wood. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

After spending 43 nights on the run, furtively moving south, Charles sailed from Shoreham to the French coast and spent the next nine years enduring an itinerant and impoverished exile.

Having resided at different foreign courts in France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Netherlands, Charles formed an alliance with Philip IV of Spain. His two brothers, James and Henry, would fight unsuccessfully for the Spanish Habsburgs at the battle of the Dunes, near Dunkirk, in June 1658 against an expeditionary force of 6,000 soldiers fighting for England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who were supporting Louis XIV’s French army.

How did Charles II’s Restoration come about in 1660?

In September 1658, Oliver Cromwell died of natural causes, and was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son, Richard, whose tenure in office proved short-lived. After successive republican regimes failed to provide stability, secret negotiations started between Charles II’s court-in-exile and the military governor in Scotland, General George Monck.

In April 1660, the exiled court issued a strategically worded ‘Declaration’ from its Dutch base in Breda, reassuring the English political nation that, if restored as king, Charles would not seek revenge for civil war injuries, but would extend a wide indemnity to his subjects and, in the religious sphere, offer a “liberty to tender consciences”. In London, free parliamentary elections returned a royalist majority to the House of Commons and the Convention Parliament declared Charles II to have been king of England since his father’s execution 11 years previously.

Charles left the Dutch republic and made a triumphant entry into London on 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday.

Ruling a people traumatised by two decades of civil war divisions was far from straightforward. Alongside recurrent difficulties in raising sufficient crown finance from parliament, Charles’s inclination towards schemes of religious accommodation and toleration were rejected by supporters of the Act of Uniformity (1662) that reimposed a narrowly Anglican church settlement in England.

A 20th-century depiction of King Charles II in royal finery
Charles II found that ruling a people traumatised by two decades of civil war divisions was far from straightforward. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images)

The second Anglo-Dutch war (1665–7) brought financial strain and coincided with an extensive outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665. Further catastrophe ensued when the Great Fire of London destroyed large parts of the capital city in September 1666, while the Royal Navy’s flagship, the Royal Charles, was humiliatingly captured in a Dutch raid on the River Medway in June 1667.

Did Charles II marry? How many children did he have?

In May 1662, Charles married King John IV of Portugal’s daughter, Catherine of Braganza, acquiring a generous dowry, as well as the trading ports of Tangier and Bombay. Although the new queen failed to produce an heir, by 1667, Charles had fathered at least nine illegitimate children, by four different women.

While living in exile, his eldest son, James (later duke of Monmouth) had been born in 1649 to Lucy Walter, followed by a daughter to Elizabeth Killigrew, countess of Shannon. In 1657, Charles had a son by Catherine Pegge, by whom he also had a daughter the following year.

Following the Restoration, Charles had three sons and two daughters by Barbara Villiers (later duchess of Cleveland). By 1673, Charles had also sired another two sons by the actress, Nell Gwyn, as well as a son by his French mistress, Louise de Kéroualle (later duchess of Portsmouth), and a daughter by another actress, Mary Davis.

A portrait of Nell Gwyn
Nell Gwyn was an actress and mistress of Charles II. (Photo by Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images)

Why was Charles II called the ‘merry monarch’?

Although the king’s overt sexuality and numerous illegitimate offspring proclaimed an energetic virility and fecundity, Charles II remains unique among British monarchs in the extent to which he flaunted his sexual conquests and publicly dignified his natural children with aristocratic titles and royal privileges.

The traditional epithet attached to Charles II – ‘the merry monarch’ – was less flattering when restored to its original literary context. As John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, had written of the king: “His sceptre and his prick are of a length”, but “restless he rolls about from whore to whore / A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.

How did Charles II die, and who succeeded him?

Since Charles II failed to produce a lawful heir through his wife, Catherine, his heir remained his younger brother, James, duke of York, who had converted to Catholicism and, in 1673, married a second Catholic wife, Mary of Modena.

Amid a rising tide of anti-Catholicism, Restoration politics polarised and, in 1678, Charles received details of an alleged plot to assassinate him, install his brother as king, and return England to Catholicism. The political fallout from this ‘Popish Plot’ then escalated into a full-blown ‘Exclusion Crisis’ when a parliamentary bill demanding that, on account of his Catholicism, the duke of York be removed from the royal line of succession, passed its second reading in the House of Commons in May 1679.

Although Charles was a characteristically pragmatic, and sometimes unprincipled, political operator, he refused to compromise the integrity of hereditary succession, having himself been deprived of his English and Irish thrones for over a decade after his father’s execution in 1649.

Suspecting that public opinion feared a descent into renewed civil war even more than a Catholic successor, Charles defeated his ‘Exclusionist’ opponents by dissolving the ‘Oxford Parliament’ in March 1681 and never again summoning an English parliament.

In early February 1685, Charles became critically ill, suffering either a stroke or the effects of chronic kidney disease. He died four days later, on 6 February, having been secretly received into the Catholic church on his deathbed. Charles II was succeeded by his brother who became King James VII and II and the first openly Catholic monarch of England since the unfortunate reign of Mary Tudor.

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Clare Jackson is Senior Tutor of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. The author of Charles II: The Star King (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2016) and Devil-Land: England under Siege 1588-1688 (Penguin/Allen Lane, 2021), Clare also presented the BBC2 series The Stuarts and its sequel, The Stuarts in Exile