This article was first published in the April 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
Charles II, riding proudly at the head of a great procession, made his royal entry into London on 29 May 1660 in triumphant style. The crowds were so large that the king’s party, “brandishing their swords and shouting with inexpressible joy,” took seven hours to pass through the city.
With this merry parade, Charles Stuart reclaimed the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. After more than a decade of experiments in republican government, the return of the king was greeted with unbridled jubilation. The restoration of monarchy provided hope that the wounds inflicted by years of upheaval could be healed.
“Charles was welcomed back with great popular rejoicing because he appeared to offer the stability people longed for,” says Professor Tim Harris of Brown University, Rhode Island. “The republic had collapsed from within – the economy was failing and government wasn’t functioning. Charles presented himself as the man to solve all these problems.”
Until just two years previous, however, such a glorious return was a remote prospect for Charles, who had languished in continental exile ever since he’d fled the country, aged 17, at the end of the Civil War.
He did attempt to mount a challenge from Scotland in 1651 but his forces were seen off at Worcester. Hope for royalists returned only with the death of Cromwell in September 1658, his attempts to find stability through non-monarchical government largely dying with him.
Republicanism had shallow roots in England and, although Cromwell had held things together, it was impossible to establish a credible regime after his death. The army forced his son Richard to resign in May 1659.
Old animosities soon flared up between the army and the Rump Parliament, the rump of the Long Parliament, which had been purged by Colonel Thomas Pride in late 1648. In October 1659, the army dismissed the Rump and assumed power (though the Rump was recalled two months later).
That winter there was considerable agitation in London as people campaigned for a return to constitutional propriety. It took the intervention of General Monck, commander of the army in Scotland, to put an end to the chaos.
Monck marched into England on 1 January, reaching London by early February. Within days of his arrival, wrote Samuel Pepys, “Boys do now cry ‘Kiss my Parliament!’ instead of ‘Kiss my arse!’ so great and general a contempt is the Rump come to among all men, good and bad.”
On 11 February, Monck, who was in secret communication with Charles, forced the Rump to readmit the MPs excluded by Pride’s Purge, to arrange for a ‘free’ election and then to dissolve. Londoners celebrated with bonfires on which they symbolically roasted the hind quarters of oxen.
The new Convention Parliament was dominated by gentry, most of whom were sympathetic to the re-establishment of monarchy. On 1 May the House of Commons heard the Declaration of Breda – in which Charles promised a general pardon for traitors and ‘liberty of consciences’ – and passed a resolution to request his return. Just a week later both houses proclaimed Charles II as king.
Constitutionally, the Restoration turned the clocks back to the eve of civil war. Any legislation passed without the king’s consent was null and void but the era of divine right and prerogative power had passed; the king had to accept the role of parliament. And there was to be no orgy of revenge.
The Convention Parliament passed the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion in August, which offered pardon for past treason but excluded those involved in the trial and execution of Charles I, only a third of whom were executed. It also ordered the exhumation of the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and two others, who were duly hanged and decapitated at Tyburn on 30 January 1661.
The main task of sorting out the details of the Restoration settlement in church and state was left to the Cavalier Parliament, which sat from May 1661. It wasn’t to be easy. The disenchantment that had paved the way for the king’s return also presented daunting challenges. Indeed, while most welcomed the return of monarchy, the political stability that the new king had promised was to prove elusive, not least because of the divisions and tensions bequeathed by the upheavals of the previous two decades.
Boscobel House, Shropshire
Where Charles hid from Cromwell’s victorious troops
Following the execution of his father in 1649, Charles Stuart determined to regain the throne. He sailed from France to Scotland, where he was crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651.
Later that year, with 12,000 royalist troops, he marched into the west Midlands, a royalist stronghold. He hoped England would rise to his cause, but people were sick of war and few were prepared to march with their old enemy, the Scots.
Cromwell caught up with them at Worcester on September and destroyed the Scottish army. Everyone present praised Charles’s courage. “Certainly a braver prince never lived,” said one of his officers.
But he was forced to flee. With a reward on his head, the 21-year-old Charles took refuge at Boscobel Hall in Shropshire, where his Catholic hosts cut his long hair to help disguise him. Charles then set out for Wales, but found his way blocked by Cromwell’s patrols.
Returning to Boscobel, Charles hid his regal person among the leafy branches of an oak tree in Boscobel Wood. That night, he slipped back into the house, where Charles spent the night in a priest hole. Years later, as his ship carried him to Dover, Charles relayed the story to Samuel Pepys. “While we were in this tree we saw soldiers going up and down in the thicket of the wood, searching for persons escaped.”
After the Restoration, the tree became famous as the Royal Oak and by the early 1700s it had been all but destroyed by souvenir hunters. Yet from one of its acorns a younger tree, the Son of Royal Oak, grew up beside it, and visitors still flock to it today.
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Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire
Where Charles had another narrow escape
Having avoided his pursuers at Boscobel, Charles slipped away on the evening of 7 September. He made his way by horse and on foot to Moseley Old Hall, the home of Thomas Whitgreave.
At Moseley, Charles was provided with food and dry clothes. A Catholic priest washed his feet and he slept in a bed for the first time since his escape, but it wasn’t a completely comfortable stay. Parliamentary troops arrived at the house one afternoon to accuse Whitgreave of fighting at Worcester. Convinced of the proprietor’s innocence, the troops left without so much as searching the premises.
It was no longer safe at Moseley so Charles went on his way, heading south. By mid-October, after six weeks on the run, Charles arrived at Shoreham, Sussex, where he set sail for the safety of France.
A visit to Moseley Old Hall today will reveal the very priest holes in which Charles concealed himself, and the bed where he slept. The dramatic story of the king’s escape is told in an exhibition in the barn.
York Castle, York
Where Cromwell’s death mask is on display
With Charles II back in exile in Europe, Cromwell had effectively ended the Civil War. He dissolved parliament in April 1653 and, at the end of the year, declared himself lord protector. But Cromwell died five years later, on 3 September 1658, and with his demise the protectorate itself began to fall apart.
Cromwell’s son, Richard, succeeded him but soon lost the support of the army on which his power depended. As parliament and the army wrestled for power, the republic began to collapse from within. In this atmosphere of uncertainty the return of the Stuarts, and with it the old order, seemed the only viable solution. Within two years of Cromwell’s death, Charles II had made his triumphant return to reclaim his thrones.
In the days following Cromwell’s passing, several death masks were despatched around the country to provide evidence of his demise. One of those can be seen, warts and all, at York Castle Museum, offering you the chance to get up close and personal with one of the most infamous figures in British history.
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Royal Exchange London
Where the words ‘exit tyrannus’ were erased from a statue of Charles I
As General Monck forced the Rump to dissolve itself in March 1660, and bonfires blazed across London in celebration, the words “Exit tyrannus, regum ultimus, anno libertatis Angliae, anno Domini 1648”, (or “The last tyrant of kings died in the first year of liberty of England restored”) were removed from a statue of Charles I.
As Pepys recorded: “The writing in golden letters, that was engraven under the statue of Charles I, in the Royal Exchange was washed out by a painter, who in the day time raised a ladder, and with a pot and brush washed the writing quite out, threw down his pot and brush and said it should never do him any more service, in regard that it had the honour to put out rebels’ hand-writing.”
The original Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Charles II himself laid the foundation stone for the new building, which opened in 1669. Another fire destroyed it in 1838, but it was again rebuilt in 1844, surviving the Second World War. Today no traces of the statue or the inscription remain.
White cliffs of Dover, Kent
Where Charles II stepped ashore as king
Once word that the Convention had voted to restore the monarchy reached Charles in the Low Countries, he was quick to make arrangements to reclaim his crown. Having received myriad visitors, many bearing gifts of money, he left The Hague on 23 May, sailing in a fleet sent over by parliament.
Charles himself sailed on a vessel previously known as the Naseby, which had hastily been renamed the Royal Charles and decked out in finery on which his royal initials had been engraved or embroidered.
On the morning of 25 May, the 20-strong fleet approached the white cliffs of Dover, where great crowds had gathered to acclaim their returning king. The Kentish gentleman Sir Edward Dering recorded in his diary that he believed, “there never was in any nation so much joy both inwardly felt and outwardly expresst, as was in this Kingdom from the day of His Majestie landing at Dover”.
With the roar of cannon from Dover Castle and the shouts of his people ringing in his ears, Charles was rowed toward the beach where he stepped ashore as king after so many years in exile. In the midst of all the rejoicing General Monck, who had been so instrumental in ensuring his return, fell to his knees to greet the king but was quickly raised to his feet, a symbol of gratitude for everything he had done. From Dover, the royal entourage promptly set off toward London, where Charles would secure his throne.
Banqueting House, Whitehall, London
Where the king completed his triumphant return
On the morning of 29 May, his 30th birthday, Charles reached Blackheath, just outside London. There he enjoyed the acclaim of more than 100,000 men, women and children who had assembled to watch his march into the capital. Several hours later the king’s triumphal procession finally arrived at the Palace of Whitehall, the residence of English monarchs for more than a century.
There he responded to speeches of welcome, addressing the House of Lords with gratitude and a heartfelt 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.”
He proceeded to sit through a ceremonial dinner in the Banqueting House, the very building his father had been executed in front of just over a decade before. As he turned to leave he is said to have remarked, with typical deadpan grace, that had he only known the delight that would greet his return, he would never have spent so long abroad.
In the years following that heady day, Charles II spent much of his time in the Palace of Whitehall, where he entertained everyone from ambassadors to the court to his favoured mistresses. Fittingly, the king died there in February 1685. His successor, James II, was the last monarch to live at the palace, though the crown was famously offered to the future William III and Mary II there in February 1689.
Just nine years later, much of the palace was destroyed in a fire. The only surviving building, the Banqueting House, is now in the care of Royal Historic Palaces.
Tyburn Tree, Hyde Park, London
Where Cromwell’s exhumed body was hanged
Fulfilling a promise made in the Declaration of Breda, the new king and his Convention Parliament made sure that reprisals would be restricted to men directly involved in the regicide of Charles I. In the event, only 11 men were executed. That satisfied the nation’s thirst for revenge without initiating a bloodbath that might have proven counter-productive. But the new king wasn’t afraid to make an example of Cromwell, despite the fact he was already dead.
On 30 January 1661, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, the bodies of Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw were exhumed, taken to Tyburn, and hanged on the gallows. All were posthumously decapitated for their role in the regicide. This gruesome symbolic spectacle was witnessed by thousands of jeering spectators, who shouted curses at the architects of the republic. Cromwell’s head was then mounted on a pole and put on public display outside Westminster Hall. His body was thrown in a pit but Cromwell’s severed head wasn’t buried until 1960, at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
Executions had taken place at ‘The Tyburn Tree’ (actually wooden gallows from which several men could hang) ever since it was erected in the late 16th century. Many men met a grizzly end at this notorious London landmark until executions were moved to Newgate prison in 1783. Today a stone plaque set in the pavement at the junction of Edgware Road, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road marks the spot where the gallows once stood.
Westminster Abbey, London
Where Charles II was crowned
Less than three months on from the hanging of Cromwell, the people were diverted by the altogether more cheerful spectacle of the king’s coronation procession. On the day before the coronation, the king rode in a lavishly costumed cavalcade from the Tower of London to Whitehall.
“So glorious was the show with gold and silver, that we were not able to look at it, our eyes at last being so much overcome with it,” wrote Pepys. The following day, on 23 April 1661, Charles set out for Westminster Abbey to be crowned.
Pepys rose at four o’clock in the morning and managed to squeeze his way into the abbey, where he waited patiently for the king’s arrival. There he saw: “the abbey raised in the middle, all covered with red, and a throne (that is a chair) and footstool on the top of it; and all the officers of all kinds, so much as the very fidlers in red vests.”
When the crown was placed on the new king’s head, a “great shout begun”. Pepys described, “so great a noise that I could make but little of the musique, and indeed, it was lost to everybody”. When Pepys retired to bed, “the City had a light like a glory round about it with bonfires,” as the people celebrated the coronation of their king, who embodied so much hope and expectation.
Westminster Abbey is a breathtaking building, replete with some stunning stained glass. The scene of coronations since 1066, it is also the burial places of 17 monarchs. The abbey’s RAF Chapel is also the site of the original grave of Cromwell, marked by a stone tablet, which is usually covered by a carpet.
Words by Daniel Cossins. Historical advisor: Professor Tim Harris, author of The Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms 1660–1685 (Allen Lane, 2005).