ON May 29, 1660, exactly thirty years after his birth, Charles II entered London amid such popular rejoicing as exceeded anything in England’s memory. Twenty thousand men of the city militia escorted him, flaunting their banners and brandishing their swords, through streets strewn with flowers, hung with tapestry, noisy with trumpets and bells and hailing cries, and lined with half the population of the town. “I stood in the Strand and beheld it,” wrote Evelyn, “and blessed God.” 1 It marked the temper of England, and the failure of Puritanism, that whereas six years of war and turmoil had been required to depose Charles I, not one drop of blood had been shed in restoring his son. All through that ecstatic summer Englishmen flocked to Whitehall to greet the King. “The eagerness of men, women, and children to see his Majesty and kiss his hands,” said one witness, “was so great that he had scarce leisure to eat for some days. . . . And the King, being as willing to give them that satisfaction, would have none kept out, but gave free access to all sorts of people.” 2 He said he wished to make his people as happy as himself.
If he had taken any problem very seriously in those triumphant days, the difficulties bequeathed to him would have darkened his honeymoon. The cash in the Exchequer amounted to £ 11, 2s. 10d. The government was in debt by two million pounds. The army and navy were several years behind in pay. England was at war with Spain. Dunkirk was precariously held at a cost of £ 100,000 per annum. Ten thousand Cavaliers who had fought for Charles I, and had been despoiled by Cromwell, begged for compensation. Ten thousands patriots petitioned for sinecures. Charles said Yes recklessly, and trusted Parliament to find funds.
Parliament too was happy. Its first mood was one of ecstatic submission to the restored monarchy: “We submit and oblige ourselves and our posterities to your Majesty forever.” 3 The House of Commons voted “that neither themselves nor the people of England could be free from the horrid guilt of the late unnatural rebellion, or from the punishments which that guilt merited unless they formally availed themselves of his Majesty’s grace and pardon”—whereupon the members went in a body and knelt before the amused monarch to receive his absolution. 4 The Commons felt added guilt for having assembled without the summons or consent of the King; it called itself humbly a “Convention” until Charles eased its conscience by declaring it a legitimate Parliament. 5These ceremonies over, the Parliament annulled all such legislation of the Long Parliament as had not received the consent of Charles I; but it reaffirmed those concessions which that King had made to Parliament, including its own supremacy in all matters of taxation; and these concessions were confirmed by Charles II. Parliament shared with the King in a crucial victory of the civil power over the military: the arrears of pay due the army that for a decade had ruled England were paid; the forty thousand men disbanded and went home.
Charles had agreed to pardon all his enemies except those that Parliament should exclude from amnesty. Parliament spent weeks debating whom to spare and whom to kill. On July 27, 1660, the King went to the House of Lords and pleaded for an early and merciful decision:
My Lords, if you do not join with me in extinguishing this fear, which keeps the hearts of men awake . . . , you keep me from performing my promise, which if I had not made, I am persuaded neither you nor I had been now here. I knew well there had been some men who could neither forgive themselves, or be forgiven by us; and I thank you for your justice towards those—the immediate murderers of my father; but—I will deal truly with you—I never thought of excepting any others [from the amnesty] . . . This mercy and indulgence is the best way to bring men to a true repentance . . . It will make them good subjects to me, and good friends and neighbors to you. 6
Parliament wished for a wider vengeance, but Charles insisted that pardon should be offered to all except those who had signed the death sentence of his father. 7 Of these a third were dead, a third had fled; twenty-eight were arrested and tried; fifteen were condemned to life imprisonment, thirteen were hanged, drawn, and quartered (October 13–17, 1660). Thomas Harrison, the first to suffer, “looking as cheerful,” noted eyewitness Pepys, “as any man could do in that condition,” spoke bravely from the scaffold, saying that his course in voting for the death of Charles I had been dictated by God. 8 “He was presently cut down,” says Pepys, “and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there were great shouts of joy.” 9 On December 8 Parliament ordered that the corpses of Cromwell, Ireton, and John Bradshaw should be exhumed from Westminster Abbey and be hanged; it was so done on January 30, 1661, as a way of celebrating the anniversary of Charles l’s death. The heads were exposed for a day on top of Westminster Hall (where Parliament met), and then the remains were buried in a pit under the gallows of Tyburn; all of which made John Evelyn rejoice at “the stupendous and inscrutable judgments of God.” 10 Another victim, Harry Vane, once governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was hanged (1662) for having been instrumental in procuring the execution of Strafford. In this case the King’s mercy slept; he had promised to spare popular “Sir Harry,” but the prisoner’s boldness at trial hardened the royal heart.
On December 29, 1660, the Convention Parliament dissolved itself to make way for elections to a more representative delegation. In the interim the government faced the only hostile demonstration that questioned its popularity in the capital. It had done nothing to silence the religious sects that still hoped for a republican regime; Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Independent, and Fifth Monarchy divines preached hotly against the monarchy, and predicted that God’s vengeance would fall upon it soon in earthquakes, or sheets of blood, or swarms of toads invading the houses of royal magistrates. On Sunday, January 6, 1661, while the King was at Portsmouth seeing his beloved sister Henrietta off to France, a wine cooper, Thomas Venner, raised the cry of revolt in a congregation of Fifth Monarchy “saints.” His excited hearers armed themselves, ran through the streets crying out that only Jesus should be king, and slew all who resisted them. For two days and nights the city was in terror, for the Saints scattered in all directions, killing heartily; until at last a small company of guards, which the confident government had relied upon to keep order, rounded up the raiders and led them to the gallows. Charles, returning in haste to his capital, organized new regiments to police it.
On April 23, feast of England’s patron St. George, the happy King was crowned in Westminster Abbey, with all the solemn gorgeous ceremony so precious to monarchy and so dear to the people; and the restored Anglican hierarchy took care to impress upon their anointed rake his obligation to defend the faith and the Church. On May 8 the new “Cavalier Parliament” convened, so called because its majority was more royalist than the King, and lusted for revenge against the Puritans. Charles had difficulty in dissuading it from resuming the slaughter of his father’s enemies. It restored, theoretically, much of the royal prerogative that had been lost by Charles I: no legislation was to be valid except with the consent of both Houses and the King; and he was to have supreme command of England’s armed forces on land or sea. It re-established the House of Lords, and returned to that chamber the bishops of the Established Church; but it refused to renew the Star Chamber or the Court of High Commission, and the right of habeas corpus was retained. Cavalier properties confiscated under Cromwell were restored, with little compensation to the purchasers. The old aristocracy regained wealth and power; the dispossessed families turned against the Stuarts, and later joined with the gentry and the middle classes to form the Whigs against the Tories. Charles, in the first half of his reign, was too lackadaisical to assert any absolute authority; he allowed the Cavalier Parliament to continue for seventeen years despite his legal right to dismiss it; in practice he was a constitutional king. The essential result of the Rebellion (1642–49), the passage of supremacy from king to Parliament, and from the Lords to the Commons, survived the Restoration despite the theoretical absolutism of the Crown.
It was the good fortune of Parliament that Charles had no liking for government. He behaved as if, after fourteen years of wandering and hardship, he had now been granted by Providence the right to be happy, and had been admitted to a Mohammedan Paradise. Sometimes he labored at affairs of state; his negligence of them has been exaggerated; 11 and toward the end of his reign the nation was surprised to see him take direct charge and acquit himself with skill and resolution. But in these honeymoon years he delegated to Edward Hyde, whom he made Earl of Clarendon in 1661, the administration of the government and even the determination of policy.
The character of the King entered influentially into the manners, morals, and politics of the age. He was predominantly French in parentage and education. His mother was French; his father was the great-grandson of Mary of Guise or Lorraine; add to this a Scottish, a Danish, and an Italian grandparent, and we get a rich but perhaps unstable mixture. From his sixteenth to his thirtieth year he had lived on the Continent, where he learned French ways, and saw them at their best in his sister Henrietta Anne. His dark hair and skin remembered his Italian grandmother, Marie de Médicis; his temperament was Latin, like that of his great-grandmother Mary Queen of Scots; his sensual lips, his shining eyes, his long intrusive nose, and perhaps his taste for women, came from his Gascon grandfather, Henry of Navarre.
Sexually he was the most scandalous leader of his time, for his example set loose the looseness of his court, of London society, and of the Restoration theater. We know thirteen of his mistresses by name. When, aged eighteen, he came from Holland to England to fight for his father, he found time to beget, by the “brown, beautiful, bold” Lucy Walter, a boy who grew up as James Scott, whom he later acknowledged as his son and made Duke of Monmouth. Lucy followed Charles to the Continent and served him faithfully, apparently with some now nameless aides. Soon after occupying the royal palace he called Barbara Palmer to comfort his weariness. As Barbara Villiers she had set London agog with her beauty. At eighteen (1659) she married Roger Palmer, who became Earl of Castlemaine. At nineteen she found the King’s bed, and soon won such domination over his complaisant spirit that he gave her an apartment in Whitehall, lavished great sums upon her, and allowed her to sell political appointments and to influence the fate of ministers. She bore three sons and two daughters, whom he acknowledged as his own. He had his doubts, however, for amid her royal devotions she carried on liaisons with other men. 12 Her piety grew with her promiscuity. In 1663 she announced her conversion to Catholicism. Her relatives sought the King to dissuade her, but he told them that he never meddled with the souls of the ladies. 13
In 1661 Charles thought it time to marry. From many suitors he chose Catherine of Braganza, daughter of John IV of Portugal, for she was offered to him with a dowry providentially fitted to the needs of a spendthrift ruler and a merchant state: £ 500,000 in cash, the port of Tangier, the isle and (then small) city of Bombay, and free trade with all Portuguese possessions in Asia and America. In return England pledged aid to maintain the independence of Portugal. When the precious Infanta reached Portsmouth Charles was on hand to greet her; they were married (May 21, 1662) at first by Roman Catholic rites, then by Anglican. He wrote to her mother that he was “the happiest man in the world,” and he bore gallantly with her train of hoopskirted ladies and solemn monks. She fell in love with him at first touch. Everything went well for some weeks; but in July Lady Castlemaine gave birth to a boy, at whose christening Charles stood godfather—another case of taking God’s name in vain. Having left her husband, Barbara was now completely dependent upon the King. She begged him not to desert her; he yielded, and soon resumed relations with her, with the most scandalous fidelity. Forgetting his usual good manners, he publicly presented Barbara to his wife. Catherine bled at the nose with humiliation, swooned, and was carried from the room. Clarendon, at Charles’s urging, explained to her that adultery was a royal privilege, recognized as such by the best families on the Continent. In time the Queen adjusted herself to her consort’s Oriental ways. Once, visiting him and seeing a tiny slipper beside his bed, she graciously withdrew lest “the pretty little fool” hiding behind the curtains should catch cold; 14 this time it was the actress Moll Davis. Meanwhile Catherine tried repeatedly to bear Charles a child; but, like Catherine of Aragon with an earlier King, she had several miscarriages. In 1670 Parliament passed a bill enlarging the grounds for divorce; some courtiers, anxious for a Protestant heir, advised Charles to divorce Catherine for sterility, but he refused. By that time he had learned to love her deeply, after his own fashion.
Pepys pictures the court as of July 27, 1667:
Fenn tells me that the King and my Lady Castlemaine are quite broke off, and she is going away, and is with child, and swears the King shall own it . . . or she will bring it into Whitehall . . . and dash the brains of it out before the King’s face. He tells me that the King and court were never in the world so bad as they are now for gaming, whoring, and drinking, and the most abominable vices that were ever in the world; so that all must come to naught. 15
By 1668 Charles was tiring of La Castlemaine’s tantrums. On one of his last visits to her he interrupted John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, who, according to Bishop Burnet, jumped from the window to avoid a scene with the King. 16 Charles made her Duchess of Cleveland, and supported her, with the public money, to the end of her career.
It is pleasant to relate that one woman apparently repulsed the royal rooster: Frances Stewart, who was credited with “the finest face that perhaps was ever seen”; 17 “It was hardly possible,” said Anthony Hamilton, “for a woman to have less wit or more beauty.”18 The King continued to importune her even after she had married the Duke of Richmond. Pepys describes him as rowing alone at night to Somerset House, “and there, the garden door not being open, himself clambered over the wall to make a visit to her, which is a horrid shame!” 19
In 1668 Charles saw Nell Gwynn acting at the Drury Lane Theatre. Born and bred in the lowest poverty, entertaining tavern drinkers with her songs, selling oranges in the theater, taking minor parts, rising to leading roles in comedies, she kept through all her career a spontaneity of good spirits and good will that charmed the blasé King. She made no difficulties about becoming his mistress; she drew large sums from his ailing purse, but she spent much of these in charity. Soon she had to compete with a siren sent from France (1671) to keep Charles toeing the French and Catholic line: Louise de Kéroualle, whose aristocratic airs Nell mimicked impishly. All the world knows how, when the London populace mistook Nell for her Catholic rival and jeered her, she put her pretty head out of the coach window and cried: “Be silent, good people; I am the Protestant whore.” 20 She continued to share Charles’s favor to the end of his life, and was in his thoughts at his death. La Kéroualle, soon made Duchess of Portsmouth, angered London because she was looked upon as a very expensive French agent, draining the King of forty thousand pounds a year, amassing jewelry, and living in such luxury as turned honest John Evelyn’s stomach. 21 Her reign ended in 1676, when Charles discovered Hortense Mancini, the vivacious niece of Cardinal Mazarin.
Charles had other faults. In his youthful misfortunes he had lost all faith in humanity, and judged all men and women as La Rochefoucauld described them. Hence he was scarcely capable of devotion—except to his sister—but lost himself in infatuations; and no sincere and lasting friendship cast any substantial glow upon the shallow brilliance of his life. He sold his country as readily as he bought women. He set his court the example of gambling for great sums. Despite the careless charm of his manners he showed at times a lack of delicacy that could hardly have been found in his father; so, for example, he drew Gramont’s attention to the fact that his household attendants served him on bended knee. 22 He was not often drunk, but was “horribly” so a few days after the issuance of an edict against drunkenness. 23 He was usually tolerant of criticism, but when Sir John Coventry, overstepping bounds, asked in open Parliament “whether the King’s pleasure lay among men or the women,” Charles bade his guardsmen “leave a mark” upon him; they waylaid Sir John and slit his nose to the bone. 24
And yet there were very few who could help liking him. Not since the youth of Henry VIII had an English king been so popular with his court. His physical vitality was ingratiating. There was no meanness in him; he was considerate, kind, and generous; even after paying his courtesans he found means for charity. He made his park a sanctuary for diverse animals, and saw that no harm came to them. His favorite spaniel slept, mated, littered and gave suck in the King’s bedchamber. 25 He put on no airs, was affable and approachable, and quickly set his interlocutors at their ease. Everyone but Coventry agreed in speaking of him as “the good-natured king.” 26 Gramont reckoned him “of all men one of the most mild and gentle.” 27 According to Aubrey he was “the pattern of courtesy.” 28 He had polished his manners in France, and, like Louis XIV, he doffed his hat to the lowliest women. He was far ahead of his nation in tolerance of diverse opinions and faiths. He drank to the health of his political opponents, and delighted in satire even when of himself. His sense of humor was the delight of the court. Pepys describes him as leading an old country dance called “Cuckolds All Awry.” His merrymaking was only briefly interrupted by news of plague, fire, bankruptcy, or war.
His mind was not profound, but there was remarkably little nonsense in it. He disposed of a man who claimed to tell fortunes by taking him to the races and noting that he lost three times in succession. He had a keen interest in science, made experiments, gave a charter and gifts to the Royal Society, and attended several of its meetings. He had no particular interest in literature, but much in art, and treasured his Raphaels, Titians, and Holbeins. His conversation had much of the vivacity and variety of that of the cultured circles in France; he talked well of poetry with Dryden, of music with Purcell, of architecture with Wren, and was a discriminating patron in all these fields. There must have been a great deal to be loved in a man whose sister, on her deathbed, said of him, “I have loved him better than life itself, and now my only regret in dying is to be leaving him.” 29