“Radical ideas that had been preached and published could not be unthought”: Clare Jackson on the legacy of the Restoration
Dr Clare Jackson examines the lasting legacy of the period following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and how the return of the king did not immediately imagine away two decades of bloody civil war, religious division and constitutional crisis
The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 was a monumental turning point in England’s history. It followed 20 years of bloody civil wars and constitutional crisis during which a larger proportion of the British and Irish populations died than in both World War I and World War II combined. Between 1649 and 1660, England had been a republic for the only time in its history.
Charles II’s restoration as monarch therefore offers a fascinating case study in post-conflict resolution. Accompanied by official injunctions to forgive and forget, the ‘Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity and Oblivion’ (1660) conferred a general pardon on everyone except a small number of named individuals directly involved in his father Charles I’s execution in 1649.
- Read more | Your ultimate guide to the Restoration period
But trying to put back the political clock and imagine away two decades in which worlds had been turned upside down was not straightforward. Radical ideas that had been preached and published could not be unthought, and the popular mood was febrile. As the rector of Bath Abbey, Joseph Glanvill, warned in 1667, 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”.
The restored government faced natural disasters, too, such as the Great Fire of London in 1666 – still a popular feature of the Key Stage 1 national curriculum today. Through Samuel Pepys’s eyewitness accounts, primary schoolchildren encounter one of history’s most brilliantly evocative diarists who buried his prized Parmesan cheese in his garden to save it from the flames.
- Read more | A timeline of the Restoration period
Significantly, the fire fanned erroneous suspicions that foreign Catholics had set fire to London, just four years after Charles II’s original hopes of offering “a liberty to tender consciences” had been frustrated by the Act of Uniformity (1662), which imposed harsh penalties on Protestant nonconformists. Indeed, the Restoration remained a persecuting society: the last era in English history when the state coercively sought to secure religious uniformity before the Toleration Act was passed in 1689.
The Restoration also saw the emergence of England’s first political parties, as ‘Tory’ defenders of Charles II’s monarchy defeated attempts by a ‘Whig’ opposition in the late 1670s to prevent his brother, James, from inheriting the throne. Succeeding as England’s last Catholic monarch in 1685, James II (who was also James VII of Scotland) then embarked on a disastrous attempt to re-Catholicise the British Isles, which led to the armed intervention of his Dutch son-in-law and nephew, William of Orange, three years later.
Haunted by fears of a renewed descent into the bloodbath of civil war, England’s political leaders achieved, instead, what generations of historians have acclaimed as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688–89, which secured the system of Protestant, parliamentary monarchy that still governs England today.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99