Art, culture and science in the Restoration period
King Charles II may be remembered for his hedonism, but he supported a wide range of scientific and artistic endeavours that would help shape the modern world. Elinor Evans explores the strides made in the Restoration, from safer navigation at sea to putting women on the stage
While Charles II has gone down in history as the ‘Merry Monarch’ due to his well known pleasure-seeking proclivities, that nickname belies his dedicated patronage of science and the arts during his nearly 25-year reign. What’s more, it was a connection to his pursuit of pleasure that spurred him on to one of his most significant commissions.
In the mid-17th century, many minds were concerned with the ‘longitude problem’. The challenge of finding a ship’s precise longitude at sea had haunted sailors for centuries. While latitude – the measurement of distance north or south of the Equator – was known, when out of sight of land, ships’ crews had no method of telling how far east or west they were, meaning terrible consequences for many vessels.
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One of Charles II’s mistresses, a Frenchwoman named Louise de Kéroualle, was aware of the puzzle. She heard a rumour through the French court that an astronomer and fellow countryman, Sieur de St Pierre, had devised a means of determining longitude at sea by observing the moon’s position in relation to the background stars. Intrigued, she pressed the king to investigate, leading Charles II to set up a Royal Commission to examine the new proposals.
This commission marked the start of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich – the oldest scientific institution in Great Britain, founded by the king in 1675 – and the appointment of John Flamsteed to the role of astronomical observator (later astronomer royal). Many thinkers in the 16th and 17th centuries had begun to question received knowledge, turning instead to observation and experimentation, and the Restoration was an era when many titans of science flourished.
‘Take nobody’s word for it’
Figures such as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren all gained prominence through the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, on 28 November 1660 and granted a royal charter from Charles soon after. Founded on the principles of scientific experimentation, the early society was made up of leading philosophers, mathematicians and inventors, who elected as their motto nullius in verba (‘take nobody’s word for it’).
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The society’s members produced some of the era’s most eminent work. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia was published in 1665, a groundbreaking study of minute objects through a microscope (an invention dating from around a century earlier that had been improved by a Dutchman named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the early 1660s).
Alongside detailed drawings of gnats, louses and fleas, Hooke took care to record the methods of his experiments, including the tactic of dousing his subjects in alcohol. One ant was so “troublesom to be drawn”, noted Hooke, that he used brandy which “knock’d him down dead drunk, so that he became moveless”. Hooke’s study of objects that had been previously invisible to the naked eye was pivotal in advancing understanding of the natural world.
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Polymath Christopher Wren, who served as the Royal Society’s president between 1680 and 1682, was deeply engaged in the challenge of determining longitude, and is another figure inextricable from innovation during the Restoration era. In 1663, Wren designed a ‘weather-clock’ that would record temperature, humidity, rainfall and barometric pressure.
As well as his experiments in anatomy, astronomy and geometry, Wren is today best known for his work as an architect. Wren was sought by Charles II for the construction of new harbour defences at Tangiers (between 1661 and 1684, the Moroccan port city was occupied by English forces). Wren refused, though was later tasked with the restoration of Old St Paul’s Cathedral to a more classical style. Before work could get fully underway, the site was ravaged by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Wren took on the full redesign, resulting in the spectacular landmark that survives to the present day – though true to the society’s principles, the project was not without some experimentation. During the build, Wren used new techniques with gunpowder to demolish walls that remained after the fire; however, Wren’s chosen method wasn’t easy to control, and several workers were killed. By 1669, he had been appointed King’s Surveyor of Works, and supervised the building and maintenance of all the royal palaces.
As well as taking a keen interest in architecture and science, Charles II was also patron to a mass of artwork. His investment wasn’t merely aesthetic; the king was savvy to the prestige and power that a collection of art could convey. One of his first acts as king was to hunt down the many works that had belonged to his late father, a large number of which had been sold by the government during the Interregnum.
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Over the course of his reign, Charles amassed a significant collection, with art playing a vital role in representing his legitimacy and authority as monarch. He often employed foreign painters, most notably the Dutchman Peter Lely, who often painted the king wearing his robes of the Sovereign of the Order of the Garter. Charles also recognised the value of art in strengthening diplomatic ties – in 1660 he accepted a gift that included sculpture and furniture from the Netherlands (although the present did not ensure peace; by 1665, the Second Anglo-Dutch War had begun).
Art wasn’t all business for the king. Charles’s willingness to experiment meant changes for the lives of women, too. During his years spent abroad in exile, the king had witnessed women performing in public theatres on the continent. Upon his restoration to the throne in 1660, the king overturned the rigid Puritan rules that had banned theatrical performances, and decreed that women should be allowed to act on the stage.
Female actors such as the king’s mistresses Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn were able to make a name for themselves, while other women, such as Aphra Behn, were able to achieve success as writers. While undoubtedly offering one form of progress, the parts for women were often bawdy and specifically intended to titillate Restoration audiences; so-called ‘breeches roles’ saw women playing men.
These roles offered the chance for theatregoers to see the shape of women’s legs – and perhaps also give a glimpse into how social progress continued to be shaped by the king’s own indulgent lifestyle.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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