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Painting of Charles II with his wife, Catherine of Braganza

A brief history of the Restoration

Following a bloody civil war, Charles I was executed in 1649 for high treason and Britain entered a period in which it was governed as a republic. It wasn't a particularly fruitful time, however, as by 1660 Charles II was on the throne.

Image: Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza

It was one of the world’s greatest royal comebacks. After being sensationally toppled from power, the British monarch returned with a vengeance (literally). Here’s what happened.

The English Civil War

The Restoration was the dramatic sequel to one of the most titanic upheavals in this nation’s history: the English Civil War. This protracted mid-17th century conflict pitted followers of King Charles I against the forces of Parliament and came after years of friction between the king and Parliamentarians.

Charles’ belief in the absolute authority of the monarchy had long antagonised his subjects – he’d even gone as far as ruling without Parliament for more than a decade, in a show of autocratic stubbornness later dubbed the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’. As he was unable to raise revenue from taxes without Parliament, Charles resorted to deeply unpopular tactics like ‘ship money’, an archaic medieval levy originally intended to fund naval defences.

There were also religious grievances against Charles. He’d angered Parliament right at the start of his reign by marrying a Catholic princess, and in 1639, he’d triggered all-out conflict between Scotland and England after attempting to impose Anglicanism on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

This was the start of a series of wider, interconnected conflicts involving Scotland, England and Ireland which became known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Among these was the English Civil War, which commenced when the powder keg of tension between Charles and Parliament finally exploded in 1642.

Abolishing the monarchy

Most Parliamentarians were interested in reforming, rather than outright abolishing, the monarchy. However, attitudes towards Charles hardened when – after falling into Parliament’s hands in 1647 – he refused to make concessions and attempted to exploit divisions on the Parliamentary side instead. He then made the fateful decision to forge a secret alliance with the Scots, promising to establish Presbyterianism in England in return for their help against Parliament.

This was the final straw for the king’s enemies. In the words of the prominent Parliamentarian leader Oliver Cromwell, it was a ‘most prodigious treason’, because unlike the ‘former quarrel’ of the Civil War, which ‘was that Englishmen might rule over one another’, the king’s alliance with the Scottish would ‘vassalize us to a foreign nation’.

Charles was sensationally put on trial, declared a tyrant, and put to death in 1649. The beheading of the king marked the beginning of a brave new era for the nation, known to history as the Interregnum, in which it would be governed as a republic.

Some years later, Oliver Cromwell rose to the rank of Lord Protector, ruling as king in all but name. In true regal fashion, his son, Richard Cromwell, took over as Lord Protector after Oliver’s death in 1658, but he proved spectacularly ill-suited to high office.

Amid intense instability, due in part to rising debts and antipathy between Parliament and the army, the younger Cromwell was hopelessly out of his depth and resigned just nine months into his rule.

Setting the stage for the Restoration

Charles I’s son, also named Charles, had sought refuge in Europe during the latter stages of the English Civil War. The Scots recognised him as the rightful king following his father’s execution in 1649, triggering more armed conflict between the English and the Scottish. In 1651, Charles II led a Scottish invading force southwards through England – a doomed attempt to regain the throne which culminated in defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester.

Charles II was forced to flee the country – an epic adventure during which the fugitive king slept rough, disguised himself as a servant and even wound up hiding inside an oak tree. He eventually made it to mainland Europe in one piece, where he lived in exile with seemingly little hope of ever seeing England again.

However, the death of Oliver Cromwell, political turbulence in the Commonwealth, and widespread public disaffection with sombre Puritanism meant that conditions became a lot more favourable for the far-away monarch-in-waiting. George Monck, one of Oliver Cromwell’s top military leaders, filled the power vacuum in London, helping to bring about a new general election which led to Royalists being elected to Parliament.

The return of the king

Monck began secretly corresponding with the exiled Charles, leading the latter to issue the Declaration of Breda, named for the city in the Netherlands. This laid out the terms under which the monarchy would be restored, assuring freedom of religion, payment of arrears to the army, and a general amnesty for former opponents of the Royal Family. Most significantly, Charles promised to rule in harmony with Parliament.

Eager for a return to stability, Parliament agreed to the terms of the declaration and Charles II was proclaimed king in May 1660. He landed in Dover that month, reaching London on his 30th birthday. There was widespread rejoicing, with street parties, bonfires, celebratory firing of muskets and pistols, and the return of maypole dancing (which had been banned by the Puritans during the Interregnum).

While Charles II was later known as the ‘merry monarch’, he was also a vengeful one. And, though he’d promised a general amnesty in the Declaration of Breda, no mercy was to be shown towards the Regicides – those who had dared to sign his father’s death warrant.

Many of these were imprisoned or executed, and some were hung, drawn and quartered. Even the Regicides who’d already died were punished by way of posthumous executions, with Oliver Cromwell being ritually hung and then decapitated. Cromwell’s head went on to have a fascinating afterlife of its own, but that is another story.