Charles II: the people’s prince

Jenny Uglow considers how Charles II used charm, spin and some good old-fashioned pomp and circumstance to woo the nation after the Restoration

A portrait of Charles II wearing the robes of the Order of the Garter. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Three hundred and fifty years ago, in the spring of 1660, the 29-year-old Charles II and his court were virtually in rags with – wrote Samuel Pepys – not a coat among them worth more than 40 shillings. All this was soon to change. On 4 April 1660, Charles was in Breda in Holland, at the court of his sister Mary, the widow of William II of Orange. From here he issued the Declaration of Breda, a document that the parliament at Westminster would seize upon as offering the terms for his return.

Charles’s tone was confident and his promises clear. They included a full pardon to all who appealed to the king within 40 days, except those who had signed his father Charles I’s death warrant in 1649, “liberty to tender consciences” (unless religious differences threatened national peace), and payment of arrears of army pay. Questions regarding the complicated property deals during the Commonwealth (the republic that ruled from 1649–60) would be resolved by the new parliament – deftly ducking a potentially divisive task.

On the same day, Charles wrote a bold letter to the speaker of the House of Commons. Its language would have horrified his father, who had so strongly defied the Commons’ authority. The liberties and powers of both king and parliament, Charles II wrote, were “best preserved by preserving the other”. True, he desired to avenge his father’s death, but his chief desire was peace and he appealed to the MPs as “wise and dispassionate men and good patriots”.

This appeasing letter was typical of Charles’s strategy. By April 1660 he had been in exile for almost 15 years, dragging his impoverished supporters around the continent, appealing for help, begging for favours. His sheltered childhood at the courts of St James and Whitehall had been shattered by the Civil War. At 12, he stood by his father’s side when Charles I raised his standard at Edgehill; at 15 he was made commander of the army in the West Country; and when his father begged him to leave, in 1647, he fled first to Jersey and then to join his mother, Henrietta Maria, in the echoing corridors of St Germain, a pensioner of his young cousin Louis XIV. In 1651, he had made an ill-fated return to Britain, leading a Scottish army south to Worcester where his troops were cut down in the narrow streets. His escape, wandering the countryside supported by local people until he took a boat to France, would become the stuff of Restoration myth.

By April 1660, Charles’s chief aim was to regain his throne – and stay there. He had recently moved to Breda from Brussels in the Spanish Netherlands on the advice of General Monck, the former parliamentary commander in Scotland, who had suggested that a Catholic city might not be the best base for an aspiring Protestant king.

Monck was to be the true architect of the king’s return. After Cromwell’s death in 1658 the British people, worn down by high taxes and declining trade, had become increasingly dispirited by the disputes between parliament and the New Model Army. When Monck marched south from Scotland, people besieged him with pleas to call a new parliament, knowing that it would return the king. In March, the new ‘Convention Parliament’ was duly elected, full of royalist supporters. It was then that Monck made his private overtures to Charles.

A flood of petitioners

Breda was flooded with supplicants and place-seekers, all of whom Charles received graciously. Some sought pardons; others brought gold, hoping to win his support. Once parliament’s vote was known, the flood of petitioners swelled.

Charles’s days of begging were over. At one point he received a trunk with £10,000 in sovereigns. When the young king saw this, Pepys was told, he became “so joyful, that he called the Princess Royal and Duke of York to look upon it as it lay in the Portmanteau before it was taken out”.

The shimmering gold was no illusion. In mid-May, Charles sailed down river to The Hague, where he received the parliamentary commissioners, and deputations from the City of London, and was feted by the Dutch Republic. Finally, on 23 May, Charles set sail for Dover in clear, breezy weather.

Two days later, crowds blackened the crest of the white cliffs of Dover to watch the king land. In Canterbury Cathedral he held his first privy council, setting the pattern for his administration, a shrewdly balanced ‘team of rivals’, by granting honours to Presbyterian grandees like Monck as well as royalist supporters. From here, Charles’s progress to the capital was one great show. The timing was immaculate, for he entered London on 29 May, his 30th birthday.

It was reported that an old woman in the crowd spat, and shouted: 'A pox on all kings!'

In a dramatic set-piece, the parliamentary army, summoned by Monck, acknowledged Charles’s command on Blackheath. After a tented banquet in St George’s Fields, where the lord mayor presented him with the sword of the city, the king rode bareheaded over London Bridge. It took several hours to reach Whitehall through the throng.

John Evelyn, a committed royalist, had tears in his eyes. “I stood in the Strand,” he wrote, “& beheld it & blessed God, and all this without one drop of bloud, & by that very army, which rebell’d against him: but it was the Lord’s doing, et mirabile in oculis nostris: for such a Restauration was never seene in the mention of any history, antient or modern, since the return of the Babylonian Captivity, nor so joyfull a day, & so bright, ever seene in this nation.” Yet reports also mentioned that one old woman in the crowd simply spat, and shouted: “A pox on all kings!”

Despite such murmurs, Evelyn’s point was good: not only had the Restoration been bloodless, but it had taken place without the intervention of a foreign power, and its agents were the king’s potential enemies. It was vital, therefore, that he should quickly pay attention to fulfilling his Breda promises. The New Model Army was paid (leaving Charles sorely out of pocket) and peacefully disbanded, but other issues proved more problematic. Charles and Hyde fought the passionately royalist MPs for months to ensure that the Act of Oblivion and Indemnity, awarding pardons to those who had opposed the crown, was eventually passed.

Charles’s speeches to the Commons hammered home this point, so much so that disgruntled royalists complained he was passing “an act of indemnity to his enemies and oblivion to his friends”. Even the execution of leading regicides in October 1660 failed to quell the complaints, especially as Charles stopped the executions as soon as they had achieved their symbolic role.

In these early months, Charles presented himself as the ‘healing king’, resolved to salve the wounds of his three countries: England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. But from the start he was short of cash. He was the first monarch dependent on parliament for a peacetime budget, and the MPs grossly underestimated the cost of running the nation. The new Cavalier parliament, elected in the spring of 1661, was fiercely partisan, and because the king was at parliament’s mercy with regard to money, he could not run counter to their wishes. This fatally undermined his key promise of “liberty to tender consciences”.

Charles knew that it was vital that he make himself visible, to use his physical presence to charm his subjects

Despite well-intentioned conferences, the religious settlement never materialised. Uprisings in London and the north fuelled the preconception that, as Charles’s later minister, Halifax, put it: “It is impossible for a Dissenter not to be a Rebel,” and in 1662, convinced of the political threat, parliament passed the Act of Uniformity (making the use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer compulsory). The Act drove many Presbyterian ministers and their followers out of the Church of England. Soon the harsh legislation of the Clarendon Code, which prevented religious meetings outside the church, meant that those whose consciences Charles had promised to honour were instead hunted down as criminals.

Meanwhile, the old hierarchy was established at court, in the counties and in the church. To reinforce this, Charles knew that it was vital that he make himself visible, to use his physical presence to charm his subjects. He worked hard to satisfy the crowds who had welcomed him in the spirit of the illusory ‘good old days’, with maypoles and bonfires.

He laid claim to the medieval glamour of kingship with ceremonies like Touching for the King’s Evil, where the touch of the royal hand was held to cure scrofula and other diseases. As a result, sufferers flocked to him in their thousands. At the same time, appealing to the nobles rather than the mass, he revived institutions such as the Knights of the Garter.

Fully aware of the power of display, Charles spared no expenses on his coronation, held on 23 April 1661, St George’s Day. The crown of St Edward and the royal regalia, melted down in the Commonwealth, were replaced at a cost of £12,000. Echoing Elizabethan practice, Charles also mounted a lavish procession through the city on Coronation Eve, to ensure the goodwill of the merchants.

Beyond this, Charles worked up his own legend, telling and retelling the story of his escape from Worcester, emphasising the support of ordinary people but also implying that he was protected by ‘Providence’, the word employed in Puritan tracts to suggest the directing hand of God in national affairs.

Good looks and virility

To boost his heroic yet human status, prints and descriptions focused on Charles’s youth, good looks and virility. Even before he landed, Samuel Tuke’s A Character of Charles II (1660) stressed his easy, graceful motions, and his love of sport and dancing, adding: “To the gracefulness of his deportment may be joined his easiness of access, his patience in attention and the gentleness both in the tune and style of his speech; so that those whom either the veneration for his dignity or the majesty of his presence have put into an awful respect are reassured as soon as he enters into a conversation”.

With his alert sense of theatre, Charles played up to this role. Initially he sought to deflate opposition by giving people access, in place of his father’s cold, formal distance. His subjects could indeed watch him swimming, playing tennis and sailing his Dutch yachts on the Thames. But he also set out to show the people that he was bringing Britain into the modern age, creating a culture to rival the continent. In November 1660, he granted an exclusive patent to Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant to build two playhouses and create new theatrical companies, the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company – and, for the first time, women appeared on the professional stage, as in continental theatres.

Charles also fostered a new spirit by his patronage of the Royal Society. This chimed with his personal interests, since in exile he had followed the new developments in mathematics, chemistry, telescopes and clock-making. He cherished his connection with the Society’s ethos, established by Robert Boyle, of putting a common interest above partisan loyalties (though he hoped for more practical outcomes, to boost trade and industry, too).

Ultimately Charles’s attempt to work with parliament failed. He and his ministers in the privy cabinet were roundly taken to account, for example, after the Dutch War of 1665–7, when blame was placed firmly on ministerial incompetence and on the extravagance and licentiousness of the court.

But at the Restoration his ‘spin’ had been so cleverly orchestrated, appealing to so many different groups, that Charles could, in moments of crisis, always appeal beyond parliament to the nation. His charismatic personality, as well as his policies, ensured his survival on the throne.

Jenny Uglow is an award-winning biographer. Her most recent book is A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (Faber, 2009).

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Timeline: The reign of an arch-pragmatist

May 1660: Use of spectacle

Charles’s arrival in London wins over potential opponents through a combination of grandeur and humility.

May 1662: Sleight of hand

On the day that parliament passes the Act of Uniformity, Charles leaves Westminster for Portsmouth to meet his new bride, the Catholic Catherine of Braganza.

September 1666: Clever publicity

With genuine courage, the king personally supervises the fight against the Fire of London, capitalising on public praise to offset bad press for leaving London during the Plague.

November 1667: Pragmatic ruthlessness

After a Dutch raid on the Medway, carrying off the royal flagship, Charles caves in to pressure by driving Clarendon, his advisor for 20 years, into exile. His adoption of a new mistress, the Protestant actress Nell Gwyn, around this time is a clever ploy to counter accusations of Catholic bias.

May 1670: Double–dealing

Through his sister Minette, Charles arranges a secret agreement with Louis XIV to support France against the Dutch (then Britain’s allies). In return for a subsidy, he also pledges to declare himself a Catholic – but when national security allows (in other words, never). Soon after, he takes a French mistress, Louise de Keroualle.

March 1672: Desperate manoeuvring

With the threat of bankruptcy, Charles suspends exchequer repayments, and issues a Declaration of Indulgence, chiefly to win dissenting London merchants. When parliament refuses funds for the third Dutch War, Charles withdraws the declaration and agrees to the Test Act, requiring Catholic office-holders to renounce posts.

August 1678: Standing back

Charles discounts Titus Oates’s claims of a Catholic plot to kill him but fails to intervene to stop the ensuing ‘Popish Plot’ hysteria. He increasingly dissolves parliaments keen to pass an Exclusion Bill to exclude Catholics from the throne, namely his brother, James.

1680: Political toughness

Charles combats the Earl of Shaftesbury’s campaign to make his illegitimate Protestant son, James, Duke of Monmouth, his heir, by temporarily banishing James. In March 1681 he dramatically dissolves parliament at Oxford. Shaftesbury is sent to the Tower and his movement is crushed. From now until his death in February 1685, Charles rules without parliament.

Did Charles believe his own spin?

In exile, Charles developed a mechanism for coping, in which his natural charm played a great part. He became adept at making promises that he was unable to keep. His casual manner made it difficult for his own ministers to guess his intentions; today’s historians still find him hard to judge.

Beneath his easy facade lay a ruthless streak. Where his father, Charles I, and his younger brother, James, Duke of York, later James II, were stubborn men of principle, Charles was a flexible pragmatist. He was almost too intelligent and wary to give his full commitment to any individual or belief. His priorities were steadfastly political. Thus some contemporaries believed that he was a Catholic from the time of his exile, but those closest to him saw a man uninterested in dogma, reluctant to persecute anyone for their beliefs but quite ready to do so if they posed a threat.

He does seem to have believed his spin about becoming the ‘healing king’. While he envied the absolute power of Louis XIV, he genuinely hoped to work with parliament to achieve stability.

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Yet he had no qualms about sacrificing ministers when the public demanded a scapegoat, or about arranging a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France to attack the Dutch Republic. Gradually his policy of access was replaced by greater remoteness. But he maintained a brilliant balancing act, retaining the image of the ‘merry Monarch’ while pursuing policies in which loyalty to the Stuart family overrode any wider national interests.