Charles II – the star king

"Charles II had to appeal to public opinion more than his predecessors did": Clare Jackson talks to Matt Elton about her new biography of Charles II, which explores how his early experiences shaped his reign – and why he was uniquely aware of his own image...

Charles II entering London in May 1660 following the restoration of the monarchy. (Photo by Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In context

Born in 1630, Charles II’s early life was disrupted by the outbreak of civil war in the early 1640s. He fled into exile, while his father, Charles I, was executed in 1649. After a brief return to Scotland in 1650–51, Charles remained in exile until the collapse of Richard Cromwell’s ‘protectorate’ led to him being invited back as king. His reign was marked by political instability but also by the production of distinctive cultural works. Notable events included the plague of 1665, fire of 1666, and the Dutch wars. Charles, who had many mistresses and illegitimate offspring, died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother, James II and VII.

Clare Jackson will be speaking on ‘Charles II, Scotland and Newmarket’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here

The BBC History Magazine Kings and Queens Weekend will take place on 2-3 March 2019

You write that Charles’s personality was shaped by instability. How far can we trace this to his formative years?

Rather than assuming that Charles II only becomes of interest when he returns as king at the age of 30 in 1660, one of the major things that I wanted to emphasise in this biography is that the first three decades of his life were profoundly influential in how he would rule as king.

His first decade fell during Charles I’s ‘personal rule’: his parents’ court preserved royal majesty by creating distance and detachment from his people. But Charles’s childhood was cut short when his father’s authority started to disintegrate, first in Scotland and then in Ireland and England. So, from the age of nine or ten onwards, he would have been aware of great political instability and was constantly on campaign with his father – if not leading armies, then witnessing key battles in the civil wars.

Charles parted from his father in 1645 and never saw him again. He fled to France, chased by parliamentarian enemies, and spent several years in exile. After his father’s execution, he returned to Scotland in 1650, but this ended in military disaster when he invaded England and suffered a huge military defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651. It was a rout of the royalists, and Charles then spent 43 days on the run.

He was only 21 years old and forced to rely on his subjects’ courage. It gave him a unique insight into how ordinary people lived in a way that no other monarch really had. Eventually he managed to get to Shoreham and then over to France, but those 43 days both haunted and inspired him for the rest of his life, and later became very central to Restoration public memory.

It’s also telling that he preserved his life precisely because he had to disguise his majesty. He avoided capture because people thought that he was an ordinary subject, and so the notion thereafter that Charles might sometimes have ‘played at’ being king is quite fitting, given his civil war experiences.

Do you think that this role-playing was a way of Charles dealing with the instability of his life and reign?

Yes, and I think that it was very effective. One of the attractive things about writing about Charles II is that he was not someone who always took himself overly seriously.

He had irony in abundance – and irony is not something that one often encounters in absolute monarchs.

A courtier later claimed that Charles even tended to talk about himself in the third person, saying things such as “Charles Stuart might do this, but the king would do that”, while hinting that, in practice, he tended

to follow the former. He had a brilliantly self-aware capacity for duality, which I think shrinks any pretentions that biographers may have that they can somehow capture an individual’s single, ‘definitive’ self.

Who, aside from Charles, do you see as the key figures in this story?

One of the results of Charles’s experiences in exile was that he was unlikely to vest total confidence in any one person. Many of his councillors described him as inscrutable, and if that’s how contemporaries saw him, then he’s going to be a challenge for biographers!

So although he was very affable and gregarious, it’s quite hard to identify people in whom he placed complete trust. There were key figures at different points in his reign who managed political business on his behalf, and key mistresses and courtiers, but there is a sense that this was very much someone who also kept his own counsel.

Some historians argue that Charles’s personal life distracted him from being king. What’s your take on that?

Charles II was unusual in the extent to which he flaunted his conquests, very publicly dignifying most of his illegitimate offspring with aristocratic titles. But I think interest in his personal life, as much among contemporaries as by modern historians, has tended to overshadow analysis of the rest of his reign.

There are, however, political dimensions to his personal life. If one sees Charles primarily as a pragmatist, one may ask why he didn’t follow Henry VIII’s example and divorce his wife so that he could remarry and have a legitimate heir. Their fertility problem was clearly not his: he had at least 14 illegitimate children and, just as uncertainty over the succession had destabilised Elizabeth I’s reign, the fact Charles’s brother and heir was openly Catholic destabilised the Restoration.

And yet Charles clearly felt the divine right of his kingship very strongly: he had waited years after his father’s execution to gain his thrones, after all. From that angle, divorcing Catherine and having another child, or retrospectively legitimising his eldest son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, was actually depriving the rightful heir. However potentially problematic his brother’s Catholicism was, Charles believed that he had a God-given right to succeed.

Why was Charles so keenly aware of his public image, and how unusual is this in a monarch?

Charles was unlike most of his predecessors because the civil wars had seen a massive expansion of popular engagement in politics – hence a new PR of kingship was needed. Although we don’t think of him as a king who produced lots of written works, more of his proclamations and parliamentary speeches were printed than of any previous monarch.

In other ways too, Charles’s use of PR was effective. When we think of him as a tactile monarch, we think in terms of his sex life and mistresses, but he was also ‘in touch’ with many ordinary subjects. Indeed, through the ‘royal touch’ – thought to be a cure for scrofula, or ‘the king’s evil’ – Charles physically touched more of his subjects than any monarch before: estimated to have been around 100,000 people during his reign.

So this was someone who understood the powerful message that divine kingship could hold. It’s telling that the peaks in ‘royal touch’ ceremonies coincided with the times of greatest pressure and instability in his reign.

Charles is also notable for reigning over a period of remarkable culture. How key was he in its development?

The extraordinarily rich culture of the Restoration is one reason many of us think we know something about Charles – perhaps better than we really do. Much of this is due to Samuel Pepys: a wonderfully accessible, irresistibly interesting diarist, who chronicled in detail the first decade of Charles’s reign.

It’s also the case that Charles was centrally involved in many aspects of culture, such as theatre and architecture. Unlike any of his royal predecessors, Charles had spent over a decade in exile, visiting various European palaces and courts, and he therefore took a lot of interest in architectural projects, both before and after the 1666 London fire.

This is, of course, the period of that fire, and of plague and war. How did Charles’s response to these events shape how people saw him?

That point about the PR of kingship is important: this is a king that many children first encounter in tales of the ‘Great Fire of London’, with images of Charles and his brother physically manning water pumps. This was also remarked upon at the time and hugely boosted contemporaries’ morale.

The flipside of the quick succession of plague in 1665, fire in 1666 and a humiliating naval defeat in 1667 – when the Dutch fleet sailed up the river Medway and captured the Royal Navy’s flagship – was that contemporaries could also see this catalogue of catastrophes as a dreadful providential verdict. The fact that the fire happened in 1666, and the number ‘666’ denoted the ‘sign of the beast’ in the Book of Revelation, generated a brooding sense that all was not well at the heart of Charles’s court.

Are there any lessons from this period that we can apply to the world today?

I’m always quite sceptical about searching for ‘modernity’ in early modern history, but there are resonances. The excitement earlier this year about the identification of gravitational waves may well echo the anticipation that surrounded experiments carried out by the new Royal Society in the 1660s. And all of the coffee shops springing up in Restoration London would seem very familiar, too!

I also think that recurrent fears about a ‘Popish plot’ in this period very much echo current anxieties about the capacity for religious radicalism to translate into political extremism.

What misconceptions about Charles would you like this book to correct?

I’d like to reconnect the first three decades of Charles’s life with his reign. To understand him, you can’t begin in 1660: you also need to explore his years growing up and the years that he spent in exile.

I’d also like to stress the sheer radicalism of what happened during the 1640s and 1650s and its importance in shaping the volatile nature of Charles’s inheritance as king. As Joseph Glanvill, the rector of Bath Abbey, said, a “people that rebelled once, and successfully, will be ready to do so often”, just “as water that has been boiled, will boil again the sooner”. That legacy of instability and unpredictability would have been challenging for any monarch, and may explain why popular attention is often deflected to focus on Restoration theatre or to Charles’s mistresses. I think that it’s very important that we don’t lose sight of the air of pervasive instability and trauma that he inherited.

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Charles II: The Star King by Clare Jackson (Allen Lane, 144 pages, £12.99).