How Charles II put Britain back together after the Civil War

Brexit may be exposing deep rifts in society but this isn’t the first time that the British Isles have been convulsed by rancour and discord. Kate Loveman describes Charles II’s attempts to reunite his divided kingdoms in the wake of the Civil Wars

Seismic splits: This map from c1659 shows blood being spilled across the British Isles during the Civil Wars. Charles II's agenda for restoring order to his kingdoms was a cocktail of pragmatism, compromise and brutality.

On 22 April 1661, Charles II made his formal entrance into London for his coronation. At a triumphal arch set up for the pageant to celebrate his restoration to the English throne, he was halted by a figure dressed as the character of Rebellion. She was accompanied by her henchwoman Confusion who, appropriately, had her clothes on back to front. Rebellion introduced herself as “Hell’s Daughter, Satan’s Eldest Child” and gloated over the chaos she had brought during the Civil Wars. She was promptly banished by a richly dressed figure, Monarchy, and her sidekick, Loyalty. Monarchy invited Charles to enter the city in joy and safety, declaring herself the best form of government and the resolution of strife.

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Charles II processes from the Tower of London to Westminster on the eve of his coronation.
Charles II processes from the Tower of London to Westminster on the eve of his coronation. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In early 1660, just over a year before this scene was performed, the prospect of an end to turmoil had seemed remote. As the Essex clergyman Ralph Josselin reflected in his diary, the world appeared “nothing but confusions”. Since the late 1630s, England, Scotland and Ireland had experienced uprisings and a series of bitter Civil Wars. The most recent “confusions” included an unsuccessful military coup, along with riots in London and other cities.

Not only had order deteriorated, but the institutions by which order might be achieved – the monarchy, parliament, or the army – all appeared to have failed. Given the breakdown of government, how would it be possible to find a way forward that commanded support? And if a way forward was identified, how could the people of three divided nations be brought together – at least enough to ensure some measure of long-term stability?

Oliver Cromwell (left) orders his men to pull down the 'Royal Oak of Britain', as depicted in a contemporary illustration. By the late 1650s – as soldiers demanded their wages, governments fell and protesters were shot i in the streets – many people craved stability.
Oliver Cromwell (left) orders his men to pull down the ‘Royal Oak of Britain’, as depicted in a contemporary illustration. By the late 1650s – as soldiers demanded their wages, governments fell and protesters were shot i in the streets – many people craved stability. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Civil Wars had begun, nearly 20 years earlier, over Charles I’s attempts to impose his policies on his reluctant subjects, with his religious reforms provoking particular anger. Charles disregarded the traditional checks on the king’s power (such as consulting parliament) and resorted to military force, declaring war against the English parliament in 1642. Wars engulfed the three kingdoms. In England, the army intervened in government and purged from parliament those MPs who wanted to continue negotiations with Charles. In 1649, divisions were further entrenched when the army and the MPs who remained in Westminster orchestrated the trial and execution of the king for treason against his people. The execution did not just horrify royalists, but also alienated many of those who had fought for parliament.

Growing turmoil

The 1650s saw a series of experiments in republican government as factions in the English parliament and the army struggled for control. Scotland and Ireland were subdued by Oliver Cromwell’s forces.

As well as the tensions that had prompted the wars, a whole host of other issues were now fuelling strife, among them the distribution of property seized during the wars, payments owing to soldiers, and the balance of power between the army and parliament.

In early 1660, the Rump parliament was nominally in power. The Rump was so called because it was the remainder of the MPs, elected in 1640, who had overseen the execution of Charles I: its less than flattering name was a sign of the lack of esteem in which it was now held. Many constituencies had no MP left to speak for them and the parliament was widely seen as unrepresentative. Thomas Rugg, a London barber, wrote in his journal: “The nation was much in perplexity for want of a government that would doe just and good things, for the parliament did not please the people.”

The institutions by which order might be achieved – monarchy, parliament, the army – all appeared to have failed

The people whom the parliament did not please included London’s apprentices. Earlier in the winter, when a group of army officers had seized power, the apprentices had petitioned for a “free parliament” (meaning new elections without restrictions) or else the readmission to parliament of the moderate MPs who had been prevented from sitting for years. Public support for a “free parliament” was strengthened when the army shot and killed protesters on 5 December 1659.

Although the army returned control to the Rump parliament, this did not end the protests. The apprentices’ tactics included inventive attacks on Colonel Hewson, whom they blamed for the shootings. Rugg recorded in January that the apprentices used the cold winter to engage in satire-by-snowman: “The yonge men in Fleet Street and likewise in St Paules churchyeard made in snowe the effigies of Colonell Hewson, with one eye in [his] heade, and with an old face.”

London’s Common Council, the city’s elected governing body, chose to side with the protesters against the Rump. Representatives of counties, members of guilds, and groups of ‘gentlemen’ all made their views known by sending petitions to the parliament or to army leaders, and by having these documents printed for others to see. Many of the petitions were addressed to the most powerful general, George Monck, who was marching his forces from Scotland towards London, his intentions unclear.

An unlikely royalist: George Monck in a 1665–66 portrait. The leading republican general's surprising decision not to prop up the Rump parliament paved the way for Charles II's return.
An unlikely royalist: George Monck in a 1665–66 portrait. The leading republican general’s surprising decision not to prop up the Rump parliament paved the way for Charles II’s return. (Photo by Getty Images)

On arriving in the capital, Monck at first showed signs of siding with the Rump and followed parliament’s orders to arrest its opponents. However, on 11 February, Monck suddenly changed his position and demanded that parliament speedily hold new elections. In a letter to the Rump, he stated that the strength of feeling among “the generality of the nation” (a reference to the declarations sent to him from around the country) had shown him that there was no other way “to keep the nation in peace”. That night saw rejoicing in the city, for the immediate threat of armed conflict was averted. The first steps on a road to resolution had been taken, with new elections offering a chance to install an authoritative, representative parliament.

Charles, George or Richard?

The Rump had fallen but, still, the restoration of Charles II was not inevitable. Some of those who had demanded a new parliament had done so because it was too risky to call openly for a return to monarchy. However, for other campaigners the call for a new parliament to settle the government had meant just that. Now people in and outside parliament were debating what might come next. In early March 1660, Samuel Pepys, a junior government clerk, recorded in his diary: “Great is the talk of a single person, and that it would now be Charles, George or Richard again” – meaning that the next head of state would be Charles II, George Monck or Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard (who had ruled as ‘Lord Protector’ in 1658–59). As the momentum gathered behind Charles, observers judged that much of this support was pragmatic and born out of motives such as a desire to end uncertainty. Ralph Josselin noted cynically that the nation had been “looking more to Charles Stuart” but “out of love to themselves not him”.

Charles cannily deflected criticism by delegating the most controversial decisions to his MPs

Charles Stuart, who had been living in exile in the Netherlands, now seized the opportunity to present himself as a unifying figure – indeed as the only plausible solution to strife in the three kingdoms. In April, he issued a declaration from Breda in the Netherlands. In it, he offered his “loving subjects” a free pardon for crimes against himself and his father, with parliament to decide who would be denied this mercy.

To reassure people who feared that Charles’s return would mean strict laws on religious worship, he announced “a liberty to tender consciences”. This was understood to mean that those who chose to worship outside a national church would not suffer for it. Parliament, he said, could determine the details of the religious settlement. He also deferred to parliament in issues such as determining contested rights to land. Charles appeared the opposite of his father: a king who would honour parliament’s authority.

Charles’s well-timed set of pledges found a receptive audience in the new parliament, which met at the end of April. On receiving Charles’s declaration on 1 May, the House of Commons resolved the same day to re-establish the monarchy. Amid great celebrations, Charles II was proclaimed king in London on 8 May 1660. It was an event that would have seemed incredible just a few months before and that struck observers as “miraculous”. For Charles, the events of early 1660 were, however, the easy bit. The king now had to make good on his promises and show that he was capable of unifying the people.

Both sides covered

Charles’s initial steps augured well for future stability. He chose as his advisors men who had served on different sides of the conflict: his privy council included both long-term royalists and members who had worked for the republican regimes of the 1650s. He held good on his pledge to allow parliament to legislate on pardons, on the ownership of property seized in the wars, and on the religious settlement. Delegating these issues to MPs showed his people that he wished to rule by consent but it also, usefully, deflected criticism by leaving the most controversial decisions to others. In summer 1660, parliament agreed the Act of Oblivion and Indemnity, a general pardon for offences committed during the wars, which was intended to “bury all seeds of future discord”.

The new regime sought to foster unity through displays of mercy but also by curtailing freedoms and punishing opposition. Popular politics had led to Charles’s restoration. Yet popular politics were now a potential threat to him. And so, in July 1660 Charles’s privy council ordered the suppression of any newspapers that were not controlled by the government. It was the start of a series of actions designed to restrict the circulation of domestic news in print. In another pre-emptive step, an act was passed in 1661 against “tumultuous” petitions to the king and parliament about grievances. Any petitions with more than 20 signatories now had to have the consent of three Justices of the Peace to be legal, and only 10 people – no large crowds – could appear to present them.

Bloody vengeance

Along with legal steps to counter new dissent, the early 1660s was also a time when old opponents were hunted down. Forty-nine men had been wholly exempted by parliament from the general pardon because of their involvement in the trial and execution of Charles I. In 1660, 10 of this group were executed, with most suffering the traditional traitor’s death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. This provided the kind of retributive justice that many people who had suffered in the wars demanded. It also brutally asserted the power of the restored monarchy. By the end of the year, the heads and quarters of nine men who had participated in the death of Charles I were exhibited on gates and major buildings around the capital.

In January 1661, there were more gruesome spectacles to show what happened to enemies of the king and the public peace. A band of Fifth Monarchists under Thomas Venner staged an uprising against earthly monarchy, shouting that their allegiance was to “King Jesus, and the heads upon the gates”. Londoners were appalled and did not join them; the heads of Fifth Monarchists soon joined those of the regicides and other criminals. The merchant Peter Mundy did the maths for one location, noting that: “Eleven heads were set on London Bridge, so that at present there were 21 heads stuck on poles.”

The heads and limbs of Fifth Monarchists soon joined those of the regicides on display around London

Venner’s small group had terrified the capital for four days, but this rising ultimately strengthened Charles’s regime. To most, it was a reminder of the dangers of unrest and served to increase distrust of Protestant “fanaticks”. In the wake of Venner’s rising, the king issued a proclamation against “Seditious Meetings and Conventicles”, banning religious groups such as Quakers and Baptists from holding public gatherings. By late 1662, with the first pieces of religious legislation in force and no major disruption resulting, Charles’s government had proved itself able to see off any potential revolt over its religious policies.

In April 1661, the crowds watching Monarchy banish Rebellion had a lot to celebrate. They had extricated themselves from turmoil and could now hope for peace in the three kingdoms under a monarch who appeared to be trying to keep his promises. They might, however, have recognised that the scene enacted at the triumphal arch glossed over some awkward truths. In early 1660, public opinion had manifested itself through activities – such as protest, satire and mass petitioning – that the monarchy normally associated with ‘Rebellion’.

To observers in 1660, the growing enthusiasm for the restoration of the monarchy, while showing a long-suppressed royalism, also appeared to owe a great deal to political pragmatism. The desire to end the experience of living under a string of weak or short-lived regimes was a powerful incentive to have the king back quickly, without spending time setting conditions for his return.

The prominence of Rebellion and her ally Confusion at the start of the coronation festivities was designed to remind onlookers of the dangers they had escaped. Yet the performance also tacitly acknowledged that much of the strength of Charles’s regime derived, not from the people’s love for their king, but from their fears of a return to the ‘confusion’ of the last two decades.

Timeline: From Civil War to the Restoration

• 22 August 1642

King Charles I raises his standard at Nottingham, formally declaring war on the forces of parliament.

• 14 June 1645

Parliamentary forces decisively defeat a royalist army at the battle of Naseby. The royalist cause now appears all but lost.

• 4 January 1649

With MPs who were in favour of negotiating with the king now expelled, the ‘Rump parliament’ assumes supreme power.

• 30 January 1649

After being tried for high treason, King Charles I is executed outside Whitehall Palace in Westminster.

• 3 September 1651

Oliver Cromwell defeats Charles II at the battle of Worcester. Charles is forced to flee abroad.

• 16 December 1653

Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector and head of state.

• 3 September 1658

Cromwell dies. A series of brief regimes, including the reinstalled Rump parliament, struggle to maintain order. Support for a return to monarchy grows.

• 11 February 1660

Powerful general George Monck demands that parliament holds new elections. This signals the end of the Rump parliament’s grip on power.

• 4 April 1660

From his exile in the Netherlands, Charles II issues the declaration of Breda, offering his “loving subjects” a free pardon for crimes against himself and his father.

• 8 May 1660

Charles II is proclaimed king of England, amid widespread celebrations.

Kate Loveman is associate professor in English literature, 1600–1789, at the University of Leicester. Her books include Samuel Pepys and His Books (OUP, 2015).

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This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine