This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
The road from Blackheath to London was lined with people. Tapestries hung from windows, trumpets parped and church bells peeled, and wine flowed freely. It was 29 May 1660. Charles II, turning 30 that day, rode at the front of a great procession heading for the political heart of the capital. He had come to reclaim the thrones of three kingdoms after more than a decade of republican government, and he was welcomed as a redeemer by a restless public that had seen the Commonwealth collapse from within.
“The public was tired of years of political insecurity, crushing over-taxation and military rule,” says Ronald Hutton, professor of early modern history at the University of Bristol. “They imagined that, whatever the king stood for, he was bound to be better than that.”
The press of the crowd was such that the cavalcade took seven hours to get through London. Finally, at 7pm, Charles reached the Palace of Whitehall, where English royalty had resided for more than a century before the monarchy was swept away following the Civil War. In the opulent surroundings of Banqueting House, both houses of parliament declared their loyalty to the king. In response, Charles made a promise: “I find my heart set really to endeavour by all means for the restoring of this nation to freedom and happiness; and hope by the advice of my parliament to effect it.”
Commissioned by James VI and I and completed in 1622, Banqueting House was the first major classical building in England – and, with its Palladian facade, it certainly stood out from the Tudor-style brick buildings that made up the rest of the palace. It was designed by Inigo Jones to provide the setting for banquets and court masques, extravagant mélanges of poetry, dance, music and song performed for (and often involving) kings, queens and their courtiers.
By the time Charles II was resident at Whitehall, Banqueting House no longer played host to masques. It had been decided that the flaming torches used to light such productions would damage the magnificent ceiling canvases painted by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens for Charles I. Instead, it was now the setting for state occasions such as royal proclamations and receptions for foreign ambassadors. “It was the stage – the public arena of royalty,” says Hutton.
Today, Banqueting House is the only surviving part of the old Palace of Whitehall, which was destroyed by fire in 1698. Climbing the stairs and entering the cavernous main hall, with its two tiers of enormous windows set between towering white columns, it’s easy to imagine the royal occasions held here.
In December 1662, for example, the diarist Samuel Pepys was present at Banqueting House to witness the visit of the Russian ambassadors. “I saw all the presents, being rich furs, hawks, carpets, cloths of tissue, and sea-horse teeth,” wrote Pepys. “The king took two or three hawks upon his fist, having a glove on, wrought with gold, given him for the purpose. The son of one of the Embassadors was in the richest suit for pearl and tissue that ever I did see, or shall, I believe.”
At the far end of the main hall stands the modest throne, upholstered in red velvet, where Charles II ennobled worthy subjects and performed ‘healing ceremonies’ for the less fortunate. The throne is out of bounds but visitors can lounge in beanbags on the floor and gaze up at the nine ceiling paintings by Rubens, each contained in an ornate golden frame. It was this masterpiece under which Charles I passed in January 1649 as he walked out to face his execution.
“The point of the paintings is to illustrate the classic doctrine of the divine right of kings,” says Hutton. “So to have to walk across the hall, right underneath this portrait of the invincibility and triumph of monarchy, must have been pretty bitter. Still, I would guess that if you’ve lost three kingdoms and you’re about to have your head cut off, the presence of paintings doesn’t make an enormous amount of difference.”
Today, a bust of Charles I above the entrance marks the approximate location of the window (now gone) from which he stepped onto the scaffold and to his death. “It was freezing cold, with occasional snowflakes,” says Hutton. “Charles wore two shirts underneath his clothes to avoid shivering with cold and giving an impression of being afraid. When the king’s head fell – and it fell at one blow – an enormous groan rang out. People rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood as souvenirs.”
Charles II was in exile in the Netherlands when he heard of his father’s death. He was crowned king of Scotland in January 1651, and later that year marched into England, only to be crushed by Cromwell’s forces at Worcester. Forced to flee, Charles made a dramatic escape, hiding out in royalist households and even an oak tree before getting away to France and exile once more.
Hope for royalists returned in the late 1650s when the republican regime began to unravel. “The Commonwealth was always sitting on a time bomb, which was financial and ideological,” says Hutton. “Financial in that, in order to hold down the conquered British Isles, the government needed a huge army.” The regime downsized the army and reduced taxes to keep the people happy, but the income wouldn’t suffice. “The result was a slow slide into arrears, with too many soldiers now chasing too small a treasury,” says Hutton.
Then there was the ideological problem. The Civil War had shattered the Church of England into competing Protestant creeds. Cromwell’s government opted for toleration but it didn’t work, says Hutton: “The tension between those who wanted a Church of England and the new radical minority who wanted to let it go altogether was growing, and we seemed to be heading for a new civil war.”
When Cromwell died in 1658, his son, Richard, succeeded him as lord protector. Richard’s plan was to throw out the radical reforms demanded by the army – reformed parliaments, toleration of unorthodox religious beliefs, a broader Church of England – in return for parliament’s acceptance of his government and funds for the army. But his attempt to rally his supporters in the army failed, and in May 1659 Richard was forced to resign.
“Richard was overthrown, his parliament thrown out and the Protectorate abolished,” says Hutton. “In its place the army, after an awful lot of argument, called back the one parliament from the previous 10 years that had seemed most receptive to its reform programme.” That was the purged parliament, or the Rump Parliament – the rump of the Long Parliament that in 1648 had been purged of MPs unlikely to support the army’s goal of punishing Charles I.
It took just four months for old enmities to flare. In October, the army dismissed the Rump and seized power. As a result, the winter of 1659–60 was one of agitation, with the people demanding a return to constitutional propriety. “There was a clamour for a freely elected parliament that wasn’t told what to do by an army, and whatever that parliament decided, the majority of people in England and Wales were happy to accept,” says Hutton.
Into the confusion strode General George Monck, commander of the army in Scotland. On hearing the news that the Rump had been thrown out, Monck ordered it restored, and marched into England in January 1660. Starved of pay, the English army gave up and submitted to Monck as he marched on the capital.
Having seen the discontent in London, Monck went with the will of the people, ordering the dissolution of the Rump and the free election of a new parliament. All the while, he was in secret contact with the exiled king. And on 1 May, the new Convention Parliament received a letter from the king in which he promised to grant a general pardon for traitors. A week later, parliament proclaimed England a monarchy once more, and invited Charles to return.
Though no legislation could be passed without the king’s consent, Charles had to accept the central role of parliament. Two months after his glorious return, the Convention Parliament pardoned almost everyone except those involved in the trial and execution of Charles I who did not immediately surrender themselves. It also confirmed that all legal actions of the past 20 years were binding, and granted the king money to disband all the armies.
“This was pretty healing,” say Hutton. “But then, in 1661, a very different parliament arrived: the Cavalier Parliament, far more embittered and vengeful and old royalist.” It proceeded to pass a series of measures designed to ensure that the nobility held all the power, preventing anyone – including the Crown – from ever again overturning law and order. It also ordered the exhumation of Oliver Cromwell and two of his comrades, to be hanged and decapitated at Tyburn.
Ultimately, Charles II learned that old animosities die hard. “England struggled to recover from the mauling of the Civil War,” says Hutton. Three great problems remained: whether ultimate power should lie with the king alone or with the king and parliament; what to do with religious sects that refused to worship within the Church of England; and how to address the balance of power between England, Scotland and Ireland. “It took another reign and another revolution, that of 1688, to settle those questions,” says Hutton.
Five more places to explore
Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire
Where the escaping Charles II hid from Cromwell’s troops
Having marched from Scotland in 1651, Charles II’s forces were crushed at Worcester. He narrowly evaded capture, hiding at Boscobel House in Shropshire, then at Moseley Old Hall, before fleeing to France. At Moseley Old Hall, the best preserved of Charles’s hideouts, visitors can see the priest hole in which he hid.
York Castle Museum, York
Where visitors can see one of Cromwell’s death masks
When Oliver Cromwell died, in 1658, the Protectorate began to fall apart. In the days after Cromwell’s demise, several death masks were sent around the country as evidence. One of the masks can be seen, warts and all, at York Castle Museum.
Where General Lambert tried to prevent the Restoration
In April 1660, die-hard republican Major-General John Lambert rallied supporters to the hamlet of Edgehill, site of the first pitched battle of the Civil War in 1642. Monck’s forces easily saw off the few hundred mounted parliamentary troops, and Lambert was sent to the Tower.
White cliffs of Dover, Kent
Where the returning Charles II stepped ashore
On the morning of 25 May 1660 a 20-strong fleet carrying Charles II approached the white cliffs of Dover, where crowds cheered the return of the king. As cannon fired in celebration from Dover Castle, General Monck greeted Charles on the beach.
Where Charles II was crowned king
On 23 April 1661, Charles II was crowned in the magnificent surroundings of Westminster Abbey, the setting for coronations since 1066. The abbey was packed with spectators, including diarist Samuel Pepys, all desperate to catch a glimpse of their returning king. A stone tablet in the abbey’s RAF Chapel, normally covered by a carpet, marks the spot where Cromwell was buried before he was exhumed in January 1661.
Ronald Hutton is author of The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales, 1658-1667 (OUP, 1997).