Charles II has always been a personal favourite of mine. His strength of character and loyalty has always put him head and shoulders above other kings, in my humble opinion. Like his father, Charles showed resilience and determination and while he may have had faults, cowardice was not one of them.
From the very start, Charles knew it wasn’t going to be easy stepping back into England as the king. After Oliver Cromwell, Parliament had dangled the juicy carrot in front of Charles and he had snatched it willingly. But what he soon came to realise was that the Divine Right of Kings no longer existed. Parliament was in charge now and everyone was taking it for granted that the king was just their instrument and theirservant, not the other way around as he and his family still firmly believed. He could no longer levy taxes without their consent because Parliament had decreed that they had the final authority on absolutely everything. They were in control, not the other way around.
On the day Charles and his handful of supporters stepped foot in England and gazed about in astonishment at the huge crowd greeting them, he must have wondered if he was asleep or dreaming. It had been eleven years since Cromwell had first deposed him. It was ten years since the Battle of Dunbar and it was eight years since he had hidden in the oak tree to escape capture. On 29th May 1660, his 30th birthday, people cheered, banners waved, church bells pealed and he waved happily to the crowds grinning widely, showing gleaming teeth beneath his dark moustache, his eyes twinkling in his swarthy face. Throughout his exile, he had always hoped to return to England as king but he would have never imagined it would be with such overwhelming acceptance. It was obvious that the English people were more than ready to have a return of the monarchy and a return of age-old traditions and customs. And he wasn’t about to disappoint them.
It marked a new historical period about to unfold and no other time in history was more important since William the Conqueror and the Normans in 1066.
Unfortunately, behind everything Charles did was the issue of money, or more precisely, the lack of it. He owed a lot of money to William of Orange for the eight years when he and his family had lived in The Hague during Cromwell’s rule. Eventually, he had exorbitant costs with his many mistresses and he regarded the allowance given to him by Parliament as meagre, barely enough to cover half of his expenses. With hands out every way he turned, Charles was willing to agree to almost anything if there was more money in his pocket at the end of it all. But it never, at any time, gave him pause in his loyalty to the English people.
And then, in the eyes of his Parliament, he made a big mistake. Of all the choices of brides available to him, what they had not expected was that Charles would find a Catholic one in Catherine of Braganza. With so many eligible young princesses champing at the bit hoping the handsome English king would notice them, they were astounded that he couldn’t find one who was more suitable. It was only when he told them of her sizeable dowry that they were mollified.
Catherine had not expected much from marriage. From her point of view, marriage and all that went with it, was an unavoidable duty. But when she met Charles, she was surprised at how much she actually liked him. He was thoughtful, considerate, even amusing, and yet iron-willed and shrewd with an understanding of how to get the most out of people. She loved his silent strength and she quickly fell in love with him.
Sadly, she was just one of many who loved Charles. There was Barbara Villiers, Hortense Mancini, Catherine Pegge, Elizabeth Killigrew, Lucy Walter, Louise de Keroulle, Winifred Wells and Nell Gwynn. To name just a few. For a girl who had been sheltered for most of her childhood in a Catholic convent close to the palace, Catherine wasn’t prepared at all for the life Charles offered her.
It seems that every time a tragic and momentous time in history is about to occur, a comet streaks across the sky. To superstitious England, it was sometimes seen as a sign of good fortune but most times, it ended up a prediction of evil. And they were right. The Plague filtered into London from an infected ship and the outbreak surpassed all previous horrendous figures. There seemed no way to stop the disease from spreading.
It was a fire that eventually stopped the progress of the disease and it was this same fire that showed England the lengths Charles would go to save his country and the people. In the early hours of 2ndSeptember 1666, medieval London went up in flames. As the fire raged, Charles and his brother James helped the bucket brigade tirelessly into the nights and it was only days later the city was saved.
In the chaos, Charles did not delay rebuilding the gutted city. His people already had few possessions but now they were destitute. His plan was to build a new city with improved hygiene and fire safety at any cost. Out of two terrible disasters, Charles began a rebirth.
It was then however, he made his second mistake. He signed a secret treaty with his cousin King Louis XIV of France that basically put money into his own pocket at the same time that Parliament were putting money into another of his pockets to do the opposite. The French alliance led to a serious falling out with Holland who angrily surged up the Thames, plundering without mercy. Once again, Charles came to the rescue with a strategy that included ‘fire ships’ creating a panic to break the Dutch formation. Once again, Charles saved England.
While all this happened, his wife Catherine suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. By June 1669, she and Charles were both forced to accept the fact that Catherine had suffered her last pregnancy and there would be no children. And Catherine crumbled.
As Catherine struggled, the last thing Charles needed was Parliament putting pressure on him regarding an heir. The way they saw it, the only way around the problem was for him to divorce Catherine and legalise his first illegitimate son, James Crofts, to Lucy Walker.
There’s no doubt about it, James was a fine young man and the finest of Britain’s soldiers. He had been educated in a school near Paris and a marriage had been arranged for him to wed a Scottish heiress. He was even created Duke of Monmouth with subsidiary titles of Earl of Doncaster and Baron Scott of Tynedale. His new name, Charles declared, would be James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth and his son would fit into the English society and the Peerage of England.
But for all the love Charles felt for his son, James lacked one ingredient. And that was legitimacy. Because of that, James Scott would not be the future king of England. That was reserved for Charles’ brother, James Duke of York.
For all his blunders, there was always two things Charles was consistent in: the love of his family and his belief in the Divine Right of Kings. His father had died because of that belief and he had endured many harsh years of his life in exile because of it. Cromwell had taken that ‘right’ away from him and it was because of that same belief that Cromwell had plunged the country into rebellion and civil war. There was no exception to this rule and Charles wasn’t about to fawn or kowtow to a Parliament who thought differently. If he shirked that belief now, he would be nothing but a fraud. He had stood by his wife Catherine when Parliament had almost ordered him to find a new fertile wife and he stood by his brother James as the rightful heir to the throne of England. He had made bad decisions in the past but there would be no faltering on these subjects. In this, I believe he showed a magnificent depth and strength of character.
Charles left no legitimate children but we know of a dozen by his 10 mistresses. The present Dukes of Buccleuch, Richmond, Grafton and St Albans descend from Charles in a direct male line and Diana, Princess of Wales, was descended from two of Charles’s illegitimate sons: the Duke of Grafton and the Duke of Richmond. Also, through Charles II and his mistress Louise de Kerouaille, their son Charles Lennox Duke of Richmond would become the ancestor of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Sarah, Duchess of York.
Lady Diana’s son, Prince William, second in line to the present British throne, is likely to be the first monarch descended from Charles II and Stuart blood will once more run through the veins of future kings and queens of England.