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Painting of Charles II

The Merry Monarch: The life of King Charles II

Born into a life of luxury in 1630 and heir to the throne, the young prince’s life of wealth, power and privilege looked set in stone. However, by the age of 19, Charles was an exile in Scotland.

Image: Public Domain

As he hid from Parliamentary soldiers in an oak tree after making his escape from the bloodbath at the Battle of Worcester, Charles Stuart must have paused to wonder how on earth it had come to this. Pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.

The English Civil War and Charles II’s exile

Born into a life of luxury in 1630 and heir to the throne, the young prince’s life of wealth, power and privilege looked set in stone. However, by the age of 19, Charles was an exile in Scotland - proclaimed king there in 1649 - and a wanted man in England.

The great clash between those loyal to Charles’ father, King Charles I, and those who sided against him under the banner of the parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell, ripped Charles’ world apart. Over the course of nine turbulent years, the English Civil War led to the exile of Charles’ mother and siblings in France, the trial and execution of his father, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic known as the Commonwealth. The war also turned Charles into a fugitive in his own land.

With the aid of a ragtag army of Scots, he made an unsuccessful attempt to regain his crown in 1651. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of his army was butchered at the blood-soaked Battle of Worcester. It was this calamity that led to Charles hiding up an oak tree in Shropshire. His escape across south west England became the stuff of legend and an anecdote the king bored people with for years to come.

Following the Battle of Worcester, Charles made his way to France to spend almost a decade in exile. The Commonwealth lasted until 1660. Cromwell had died two years before, succeeded by his son Richard who had no military or administrative experience. He resigned in 1659 and, amid genuine fears that the country would descend into anarchy, Charles was invited back to rule as king. He made a triumphant return to London on 29th May 1660, his 30th birthday.

Restoration of the Stuart monarchy

The Restoration of Charles II was pulled off fairly bloodlessly. Before being offered the crown, Charles had agreed that there would be no reprisals apart from those who had been directly involved in the death of his father. 104 men were excluded from reprieve, some of whom were hanged, drawn and quartered, others imprisoned and others still fled into exile in the Netherlands, France and the American colonies. Cromwell’s body was exhumed, hanged, beheaded and his rotting head was set upon a spike in Westminster Hall. It was a bloody start to the king’s reign, but not half as bloody as it could have been.

Charles very quickly settled into his role. An affable, likeable man with a legendary eye for the ladies and a keen interest in science, he delighted his subjects by putting an end to the excesses of Cromwell’s miserable puritan rule. Theatres that were closed during the Commonwealth years were reopened, spawning light-hearted plays and comedies; literature and music flourished and a general sense that people could let their hair down spread across the land. For the first five years of his reign, life for the lusty young king rolled merrily along. Unfortunately, events were about to take a rather catastrophic turn.

The Great Plague

The Great Plague arrived in London in the dying days of 1664, brought to the city by Dutch trading ships from plague-riddled Amsterdam. By April 1665, the disease was claiming the lives of nearly 400 people a week as it ravaged the denizens of London's overcrowded and filthy slums.

As warmer weather arrived, the disease ran rampant. The rich - the king among them - escaped to the countryside, while the poor, without the means to flee, were cut down in their thousands. At its height, the Great Plague killed over 7,000 people a week. Nothing had been seen on this scale since the Black Death laid waste to Europe in the 14th century.

The plague subsided as summer gave way to autumn and winter, so much so that Charles thought it safe to return to the city in February 1666. An estimated 100,000 had perished in what turned out to be the last great outbreak of plague in the country’s history. As 1666 rolled on, Londoners could be forgiven for thinking that things could only get better. They were wrong.

The Great Fire of London

Just after midnight on the morning of Sunday, 2nd September 1666, a fire broke out in the bakery of Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane. Within hours, a fire that the mayor claimed a woman could ‘p*ss out’ had turned into a raging inferno. Over the next four days, the conflagration reduced most of the city - including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange and the Custom House - to a smoldering pile of rubble and ash. The Great Fire of London, as it became known, displaced 20,000 people and destroyed 15% of the city’s housing stock. London would not see destruction on such a catastrophic scale until the Blitz.

Plans to rebuild London were put forward by some of the greatest architects of the age such as Christopher Wren and John Evelyn. Unfortunately, commercial pressures and the need to rehouse people quickly saw these plans abandoned as rebuilding took place along the same old streets as before. Most private rebuilding had been completed by 1671. The great public buildings erected to replace those that had been destroyed, such as the Wren-designed replacement for St. Paul's, took many more years to complete. By the time Wren’s masterpiece was declared complete in 1717, London had been transformed from a warren of thatched Medieval buildings to a far less flammable city of brick and stone.

Clashes with Parliament

While St. Paul’s rose above the newly built London skyline, Charles’ Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza had, by 1689, suffered four miscarriages. The couple never produced an heir. This posed a problem for Charles as his heir was his brother James. James was an unpopular figure and, worse, a Catholic. At the time, Catholics were persecuted in England, and the idea of one returning to the throne after the bloodbath of Mary I’s reign was beyond the pale for many.

To placate his subjects, Charles agreed that James’s young daughter Mary should be betrothed to the staunchly Protestant William of Orange. While this curbed some of the grumblings, they never fully went away because Charles was suspected of having a leaning towards Catholicism himself. This wasn’t surprising. While on the run from Cromwell’s forces, it had been Catholic families who had hidden the young king in their homes at great danger to themselves. The young Charles saw a different side to this persecuted minority as a result, and his sympathies even extended to trying to overturn the laws against Catholics with the Royal Decree of Indulgence in 1672.

MPs were furious, declaring the king had no right to arbitrarily overturn the laws Parliament had passed. In the face of stiff resistance, Charles withdrew his decree, but the humiliating climbdown angered him.

Over the next few years, Charles’ relationship with Parliament deteriorated further. Conflict over issues such as Charles’ reckless war with the Dutch, his pro-French (and therefore pro-Catholic) leanings and his dissolution of Parliament in 1679 – in an attempt to protect his Catholic friend Lord Danby from being tried for high treason – infuriated MPs (especially Protestant ones).

Matters finally came to a head in 1679 when the parliament that had succeeded the one dissolved by Charles I brought forward the Exclusion Act. The act proposed excluding Charles’ brother James from succeeding him to the throne. It was the last straw. Between 1679 and 1681, Charles dissolved four successive parliaments after each one tried to pass the Exclusion Bill. Finally, his patience ran out and he ruled for the remainder of his life without a parliament. Luckily, such was the goodwill of the people towards him, there was no uprising against his absolute rule as there had been against his father’s.

Charles II’s death

On the morning of 2nd February 1685, Charles awoke suddenly and gave out the ‘dreadfulest shriek’. Physicians rushed to the king’s bedside to find him white as a sheet, unable to speak and convulsing uncontrollably. What followed amounted to nothing short of four days of torture for the dying king.

The king’s physicians subjected Charles to a myriad of treatments from bloodletting and cupping (placing red hot glass cups on his skin), to forcing him to imbibe emetics to make him vomit the sickness out. Rather than alleviate his pain, these primitive treatments made things far worse, subjecting Charles to unnecessary agonies and, it is widely believed, contributing to his death.

He died on 6th February 1685, three months short of his 55th birthday. His last words to his brother were: ‘Be well to Portsmouth, and let not poor Nelly starve.’ Even as he lay dying, he was thinking of one of his favourite mistresses, the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn.

The playboy king, the loveable rogue, the legendary escapee, the so-called ‘Merry Monarch’ was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey ‘without any manner of pomp’ on 14th February 1685. He remained an extremely popular king not just until his end, but for many years after his passing.

7 facts about Charles II

1. Charles’ kill list

Whilst many welcomed the return of a monarchy to the country in 1660, 104 people specifically feared what was to come. That’s because those 104 found themselves on Charles’ ‘kill list’ for the part they played in the murder of his father.

Revenge was carried out swiftly and without remorse on those now called the ‘regicides’. Some fled but were hunted down, killed or brought back for torture and execution. A few, however, did manage to escape the king’s wrath and even made it as far as America. Their days abroad were far from peaceful though, with agents of the king constantly on their tails, preventing them from ever settling into new lives.

Even the dead had no reprieve from Charles’ vengeance, with Oliver Cromwell being famously exhumed, hung and beheaded. His head was stuck on a spike in Westminster Hall, where it remained for the next 30 years.

2. Charles and the Royal Navy

Britain has a long naval tradition that dates back to Henry VIII. When Charles II came to the throne, he inherited a large fleet of 154 ships, built up during the country’s time as a republic.

Under Charles’ reign, not only was the Royal Navy named so, replacing the former title of the English Navy, but the prefix HMS was also officially attached to the names of the English ships.

3. The lusty king

England’s had its fair share of playboy kings, none more so than Charles II.

The 6ft 2in tall king was often referred to as handsome, charming, well-dressed and beguiling. Whilst England’s monarch was married to Catherine of Braganza (the daughter of the king of Portugal), the marriage was one of convenience rather than of love. Neither spoke the same language which isn’t a good basis for any relationship.

Also not helping was Charles’ infamous womanising. Throughout his life, the king took numerous mistresses from which he sired at least a dozen illegitimate children.

Charles’ behaviour earned him the nickname ‘Old Rowley’, a reference to a famous racehorse known for its legendary fertility.

4. Charles and the new crown

As tradition dictates, a king needs a crown. However, the previous medieval crown worn by Charles’ father had been melted down after his execution. Therefore, Charles II needed a brand-new crown for his coronation in 1661.

Since the previous crown was said to belong to Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, the new one was called St Edward's Crown.

Rather befittingly, Charles II was the first to wear the new crown at a coronation, whilst King Charles III is the most recent. The 22-carat gold, 12-inch-tall crown weighs 2.23 kilograms and is adorned with 444 gemstones.

5. Champion of science

With a lifelong passion for science, Charles continued his love of the subject during his reign. Shortly after coming to power, he had a private laboratory built at St James’ Palace to conduct his own experiments.

In 1662, Charles granted a Royal Charter to a Fellowship of intellectuals who regularly gathered to discuss science. Thus, the Royal Society was born, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.

With the creation of the pioneering Royal Society, great scientific advancements were made under Charles’ reign, especially in astrology.

The improvement of marine navigation was vital for England’s seafaring ambitions and 17th century scientists believed a better understanding of the stars was the way forward. Charles not only appointed a Royal Commission to investigate this prospect but, on its recommendation, ordered the founding of Britain’s first state-funded scientific institution, the Royal Observatory.

John Flamsteed was appointed as the first Astronomer Royal. He moved into the new observatory in 1676.

6. Popularity is king

Unlike his father before him, Charles’ reign was a popular one. So much so that he survived a series of unfortunate events that might otherwise have toppled lesser monarchs. Not only did the Great Plague ravage London in 1665, but the city was nearly burnt to a crisp a year later during the Great Fire of London.

In his later years, Charles constantly clashed with Parliament, dissolving it on several occasions. Whilst abroad he conducted a reckless war with the Dutch. Did the people rise up? No, they didn't. They even tolerated his French-leaning, pro-Catholic tendencies, whilst their taxes helped pick up the bill for Charles’ many mistresses.

Why was the public so tolerant? With sour memories of the republic still raw in people's minds, the thirst for constitutional upheaval was severely lacking. The charming playboy monarch was therefore allowed a certain amount of grace that those before him were not often granted.

7. Secret Treaty of Dover

In 1670, Charles found himself in a spot of financial bother. To alleviate his woes, he signed a secret deal with the French, known as the Treaty of Dover.

In it, Charles agreed to convert to Catholicism (at some point) and promised to supply King Louis XIV with military aid in their wars against the Dutch. In return, Charles received a six-figure yearly pension from the French, along with a bonus when he informed the English public of his conversion.

In the end, Charles never received the bonus as it took him 15 more years to convert, finally doing so on his deathbed in 1685.