Bios

Charles II

Charles II was the eldest son of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria. He took the title of Prince of Wales, but was never formally invested with it due of the civil war that broke out violently in 1642.

Charles was born on 29 May 1630 and was just 12 years old when the Civil War broke out between the Royalists, who supported the monarchy, and the Parliamentarians who were led by Oliver Cromwell.

He was forced to flee to France in 1646, and lived in Europe with family members. His father Charles I, the King, was executed on 30 January 1649 at Whitehall in London.
Due to the Royalist's defeat in the war, a period known as the Interregnum occurred. The English Parliament, led by Cromwell, stated that any announcement of Charles being crowned king was illegal in England and Ireland.

However, after his father's death, Charles was invited to assume the throne of Scotland, on the understanding that he would sign the Scottish Covenant. He did this, being crowned on 1 January 1651.

In Scotland, he also found the support to mount a challenge to Oliver Cromwell. However, he was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and is said to have hidden in an oak tree, subsequently escaping to the continent in disguise.

Following this defeat, the country became a virtual dictatorship led by Cromwell, a Puritan who even banned Christmas.

Charles remained abroad until after the death of Oliver Cromwell. He was declared King by Parliament on 8 May 1660, and crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661. He was met with much public acclaim when he returned to London after his 30th birthday.

Charles' reign was marked by a great deal of change and upheaval. His supporters sought to sweep away all the visible remnants of the Parliamentary period and dated all documents as if Charles had been king since 1649. The king, who is thought to have had a leaning towards Catholicism, tried to introduce religious tolerance into the country but was faced with a hostile parliament, who forced him to sign the Clarendon Code, which re-established the Church of England as it had been under his father's reign.

Two notable historical events occurred during Charles's reign, including an appalling plague in 1665, which was halted by the Great Fire of London in 1666. This led to a substantial rebuild of the city.

Between 1665 and 1667, England was at war with the Dutch (second Anglo-Dutch war), which ended in a Dutch victory. In 1670, Charles signed a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France. Under this treaty, he agreed to convert to Catholicism and support the French against the Dutch.

In return for his support during the Third Anglo-Dutch war between 1672 and 1674, he received subsidies from France, leaving him some room to manouvre with parliament.

Charles arranged the marriage of his niece Mary to the Protestant Prince William of Orange in 1677 in a bid to re-establish his Protestant credentials.

Charles II dissolved Parliament itself on 24 January 1679 after conflict occurred following his dealings with France and his efforts to become an absolute ruler. It was also a period of anti-Catholic sentiment and witch-hunts. He ruled without parliament until his death in 1685.

Charles was renowned for his licentiousness and for keeping mistresses, the most famous of whom was the actress, Nell Gwyn. In 1662, he had married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, but their marriage was childless, resulting in some uncertainty about the succession.

He is known as the Merry Monarch in reference to both the liveliness and hedonism of his court as well as the relief to return to normality after ten years of puritan rule. Charles is also thought to have had 12 illegitimate children, with five of these being with his long-standing mistress Barbara Villiers, for whom the title duke of Clevedon was created.

Other mistresses included Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Killigrew and Louise de Kerouaille, duchess of Portsmouth. John Wilmot, the 2nd earl of Rochester wrote of Charles:

"Restless he rolls from whore to whore A merry monarch, scandalous and poor."

Charles was also a patron of the arts and sciences, founding the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and supported the Royal Society, whose members included Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

He was also the personal patron of Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt London after the Great Fire and constructed the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded by Charles in 1682 as a home for retired soldiers.

He died of a stroke at Whitehall Palace on 6 February 1685. The king was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. He was succeeded by his younger brother, as James II of England and James VII of Scotland.