What was the Restoration?

In short, the Restoration was the re-establishment of Charles II as king of England following more than a decade of different types of constitutional regime. Charles II’s father, Charles I, had acceded to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1625, but his reign had been tumultuous. In the late 1630s, his authority had started to collapse, and he’d faced increasing challenges to his rule in all three kingdoms, which blew up into what we think of now as the Civil Wars.


The conflict lasted through the 1640s until the decision was taken by a purged parliament and army leaders to put Charles I on trial, and he was executed in 1649. At that point, his eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales, who was 18, was immediately named as his father’s successor in Scotland, thereby becoming King Charles II. The Scots very pointedly declared the young man to be not only king of Scotland, but also of England and Ireland.

He spent the next 11 years in exile, trying to support royalist attempts to re-establish the monarchy during the unstable years of first the English Commonwealth, and then the Cromwellian Protectorate. There was a bewildering succession of short-lived regimes that followed Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, but in the spring of 1660, parliament made the decision to invite Charles II back as king of England.

Today, we tend to date the Restoration from the re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660, but Charles II always dated the start of his reign as the moment of his father’s death on 30 January 1649.

How did the Restoration come about?

You might think that the Interregnum – the period between Charles I’s death and Charles II’s restoration – would have been a time of settling down following years of upheaval, but the reality was that there was never any real security about what the next year might look like. Part of the reason for Oliver Cromwell’s popularity was that he appeared to bring stability.

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I think most historians would probably say that the way the Restoration turned out in 1660 was the result of several complex factors that only came together in the 18 months before it actually took place. Cromwell died in September 1658, and it was quickly announced that his eldest son, Richard, would succeed him as lord protector, even though he had little in the way of military or political experience. Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate was short-lived, and he was unable to command the confidence of MPs, or indeed the army, on whose power the Protectorate essentially sat.

A series of confusing constitutional experiments followed Richard’s resignation in May 1659, and there was a lot of affection for what was known as the ‘good old cause’ (re-establishing a Republic). But increasingly, there were also irreconcilable divisions between the army and many civilian politicians, as well as a general feeling of constitutional exhaustion and a desire for normality.

And all the time, there was Charles II’s court in exile, biding its time and ready to offer everything that the English people thought they needed at that stage – stability, traditional government and so on – but waiting for the right moment to make a serious move. It was much more desirable for Charles II that his own people restore him to the throne; there were serial offers, especially in the late 1650s, from countries like Spain and France to help with an armed invasion on his behalf. But that wouldn’t have done much to help Charles’s legitimacy or credibility with the English people.

A Victorian-era painting imagines Oliver Cromwell gazing at the body of Charles I, whose death warrant he had signed in 1649 (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A Victorian-era painting imagines Oliver Cromwell gazing at the body of Charles I, whose death warrant he had signed in 1649 (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

After this succession of different types of constitutional regime, there was a great deal of instability, to put it mildly, and in 1660, parliament invited Charles II to reclaim his throne. Charles himself was skilful in helping to draft literature confirming that, if restored as king, he would not prioritise vengeance. The Declaration of Breda, drafted by the exiled court in April 1660, made it clear that Charles wanted to offer stability, to respect the rule of law, and work with a free parliament.

On the religious front, he famously promised “liberty to tender Consciences, and that no man shall be disquieted... for differences of opinion in matters of Religion”. It was certainly a reassuring manifesto and one that seemed to offer stability and legitimacy.

How was Charles II received when he returned to England?

Once his return had been agreed, things happened very quickly; Charles, who was staying in the Protestant Dutch town of Breda where he worked closely with the English deputations, was less than a day’s sailing from England. After a series of farewell banquets and ceremonies, he sailed to Dover, famously accompanied by a 27-year-old Samuel Pepys, who recorded it all in his diary.

Upon landing they moved with a lot of pomp and ceremony to Canterbury and, finally, on 29 May 1660 (Charles’s 30th birthday), he made his entry into London where there were crowds of people cheering and welcoming him. He then attended dinner in the Banqueting House – the same building his father had been executed in front of in 1649, and is now the only surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall. Most people, I think, were relieved and surprised that his return had taken place in so bloodless a manner, and that the emphasis was on celebration rather than division.

How quickly would news of Charles II’s return have spread?

Very quickly. When Charles I was beheaded on 30 January 1649, the news had travelled to Edinburgh fast enough for Charles II to be crowned king of Scotland just a few days later, on 6 February. One of the interesting dilemmas of the Restoration for the exiled court was that owning any image of Charles II had been made a crime during the 1650s, so there were few pictures of the king when he returned in 1660. Consequently, there was much anxiety to distribute images of him; some of these were crudely drawn tavern signs and woodcuts, and many purists were appalled at the character of such images.

But the Restoration court needed to disseminate as many likenesses of him as possible. A state portrait is traditionally commissioned at the accession of a new monarch, but, because of the precariousness of the situation, it was decided not to create a formal portrait of Charles’s English coronation in 1661. More than any other monarch, Charles II was always aware that his survival on the throne depended on his subjects wanting him there.

Despite this, there was still a great amount of state theatre to the occasion. Charles had decided that his coronation day would be 23 April 1661 – St George’s Day – and for the rest of his reign, the great National Saint’s Day and his crowning would be celebrated together.

Were there any repercussions for the Cromwell family?

One thing I’ve always found remarkable was the obvious vengeance directed at Oliver Cromwell himself. Despite all the Restoration’s rhetoric of forgetting and moving on, vengeance was targeted towards those directly involved in Charles I’s execution. Accordingly, Cromwell’s body – like those of other regicides who had died before 1660 – was exhumed, subjected to a ritual hanging, drawing and quartering, with his head placed on a spike.

One of several death masks made following Oliver Cromwell’s demise (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
One of several death masks made following Oliver Cromwell’s demise (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the college that Cromwell had attended as an undergraduate, and to which, in 1960, his severed head was entrusted and buried. To this day, the exact location of the head within the college is a secret, such is the sensitivity that surrounds it. But apart from that, there was remarkably little vengeance directed towards the living members of the Cromwell family; even Richard was left alone and lived until he was 85.

What was life like in Restoration England?

There were lots of different strains to it. The image of Charles II as the ‘Merry Monarch’ has become almost synonymous with the era – the flowing curls, cavalier costumes, the reopening of the theatres. For the rest of the country, though, on a day-to-day basis, there must have been a lot of apprehension. This was a population that had risen in revolt against their government and then lived through a bewildering and discombobulating 20-year period.

The radicalism of the Civil Wars and the ideas that had been articulated – be it about annual parliaments or universal suffrage – could never be simply ‘unthought’. The historian Jonathan Scott has talked about this being a population that had all the hallmarks of something like PTSD, living through a traumatic period and instinctively inclined to become alarmed by any moment of instability, fearing a return to civil war and revolution.

In the late 1670s and early 1680s, when Charles’s reign became unstable during the so-called Exclusion Crisis [when moves were made to exclude Charles’s Catholic brother and heir, James, Duke of York, from the succession], there were real fears that ‘1641 is come again’ and the chaos of civil war would be repeated.

Did the Restoration have a discernible impact on the status of women in society?

For most women, restoring the monarchy was assumed to restore all the patriarchal structures and authority that had been in place before the Civil Wars. There had been something of an explosion of female publishing and petitioning during the conflict and later, too, in the 1650s, but a lot of that would have declined during the Restoration period.

But women’s agency is evident in other areas of life. A lot of women had been widowed in the Civil Wars, and many continued to occupy responsible roles into the Restoration or spent years petitioning on behalf of injured or deceased family members. So there were different avenues of female influence.

The idea of state mistresses was something that Charles II’s reign really epitomised in a way that the English monarchy hadn’t seen before, and many people looked to the king’s mistresses, particularly the French-born Louise de Kéroualle, who became duchess of Portsmouth, as alternative avenues to Charles. That’s just one sort of woman in a privileged position, though; the general emphasis was very much on re-establishing traditional, patriarchal norms of social order.

Many of the more radical ideas about gender that had emerged in the preceding decades couldn’t be forgotten, though, and we find that, wrapped up in the fears of a descent back into civil war that were expressed by many men at the time, were concerns about the return of the sorts of articulate women who were publishing in the 1650s.

Dr Clare Jackson was speaking to Elinor Evans


This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed