Charles II, son of Charles I, became King of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland in 1660 as a result of the Restoration Settlement. Charles ruled to 1685 and his reign is famous for the 1665 Great Plague that primarily affected London and the 1666 Great Fire of London.
Charles was born on May 29th 1630 at St. James’s Palace in London. He received his education from the Bishop of Chichester and the Earl of Newcastle. However, what would be deemed his formal education ended when the Civil War broke out in 1642. Any education Charles received after the war broke out was dislocated by the necessity of his family having to move. In 1645, Charles, the heir to the Crown, had to flee England. He spent the next five years as a royal refugee in Jersey, France and the Netherlands.
Charles was in The Hague when he received information that his father had been executed in January 1649.
In 1650, Charles landed in Scotland to lead a Presbyterian rebellion against the English government. On September 3rd, 1651, an army led by Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots. The Scots were also defeated at Worcester (3rd September 1651) after their army had invaded England. This defeat forced Charles abroad again and it placed England very much under the control of Cromwell. Charles lived with his mother in Paris. As a Daughter of France, Henrietta Maria received a small state pension. By 1654, diplomatic relations between England and France started to improve and Charles once again had to move – this time to Cologne.
However, Cromwell’s domestic policies did not endear him to the English and when he died in 1658 it is said that his coffin was guarded by some 30,000 soldiers as it was driven through London before his burial. While it is probable that contemporary commentators exaggerated this figure, there is little doubt that by the time of his death, Cromwell had created a society whereby you were either for Cromwell or against him – with little in between. Many celebrated his death and between 1658 and 1660, it became clear to the government that the restoration of the monarchy was of vital importance if society itself was not going to fragment.
General Monck, commander of the Protectorate’s army in Scotland, believed that the only way to unify the country was for the restoration of monarchy with Parliament governing the country. In this way the people would have an individual to rally around while Parliament continued to represent the will of the people when it came to decision-making. Monck had much sway in London, if only because his loyal army had a good reputation at a time when the armies of Parliament elsewhere in the land were being seriously weakened by desertions. Monck had always maintained connections with Royalists so it was only a matter of time before he and Edward Hyde discussed the terms of any potential restoration.
Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, negotiated the Restoration Settlement on behalf of Charles. The final settlement was based on the Declaration of Breda (April 1660) in which Charles promised liberty of conscience, a land settlement and arrears of pay for the army. However, Parliament was to work out the details of these intentions– a sign of the relationship Charles and Parliament was to have. Parliament wanted to make it clear that they would not tolerate any similar behaviour associated with Charles I. Charles II would not have needed reminding that his father had paid with his life as a result of taking on Parliament.
Charles landed at Dover, Kent, on May 25th, 1660. There seems to be little doubt that the Restoration was a highly popular event and contemporary writers record the celebrations that greeted Charles in Dover that extended all the way to Rochester.
Charles himself was too astute to get himself involved in similar political situations to his father – though he was also lazy and preferred enjoying himself to involving himself in political intrigue. However, despite his reputation for licentious behaviour – in stark contrast to the era of the Puritans – Charles was not totally passive when it came to Parliament and politics.
Probably most peoples’ perception of Charles II is of a man who wanted to enjoy himself – and there can be little doubt that Charles disappointed with regards to this - hence his nickname 'The Merry Monarch'.
Charles had many mistresses while King of Great Britain. Probably the most famous was Nell Gwynn though others included Lucy Walter and the Duchess of Portsmouth. Charles acknowledged that he fathered fourteen illegitimate children.
The reign of Charles can be divided into specific parts.
The Earl of Clarendon was the most important political figure between 1660 and1667 and he dominated political affairs between those years.
The Cabal was the most important political entity between 1667 and 1673.
Sir Thomas Darby dominated politics between 1673 and 1679.
The Exclusion Crisis occurred between 1679 and 1681.
Between 1681 and 1685, Charles dispensed with Parliament and ruled as an absolute monarch.
Charles II died from a stroke on February 6th, 1685.
“He lived with his ministers as he did with his mistresses; he used them, but he was not in love with them. He showed his judgement in this, that he cannot properly be said ever to have had a favourite, though some might look so at a distance. He tied himself no more to them than they did to him, which implied a sufficient liberty on either side.
He had backstairs to convey information to him, as well as for other uses; and though such information is sometimes dangerous (especially to a prince that will not take the pains necessary to digest them) yet in the main that humour of hearing everybody against anybody kept those about him in more awe than they would have been without it. I do not believe that ever he trusted any man or any set of men so entirely as not to have some secrets in which they had no share; as this might make him less well served, so in some degree it might make him the less imposed upon.”
“He is very affable not only in private but in public, only he talks too much and runs out too long and too far; he has a very ill opinion both of men and women, and so is infinitely distrustful; he thinks the world is governed wholly by interest, and indeed he has known so much of the baseness of mankind that no wonder if he has hard thoughts of them; but when he is satisfied that his interests are likewise become the interests of his ministers, then he delivers himself up to them in all their humour and revenges. He has often kept up differences amongst his ministers and has balanced his favours pretty equally amongst them…..he naturally inclines to refining and loves an intrigue….he loves his ease so much that the great secret of all his ministers is to find out his temper exactly and to be easy to him. He has many odd opinions about religion and morality; he thinks an implicitness in religion is necessary for the safety of government and he looks upon all inquisitiveness into these things as mischievous to the state; he thinks all appetites are free and that God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure. I believe he is no atheist, but rather he has formed an odd idea of the goodness of God in his mind; he thinks to be wicked, and to design mischief, is the only thing God hates.”
Gilbert Burnet – published in c1683.