Charles II

Charles II had a very multi-cultural lineage. He was of the Stuart line that was vaguely Scottish. His Grandfather James VI of Scotland and James I of England married a Danish Princess. His mother was the daughter of Henry IV of France and Marie de Medici of Italy. He was over 6 foot tall and had a dark complexion from his maternal Grandmother.

At the age of nine, his father Charles I invaded Scotland to impose the Anglican prayer book on the Scots. They said no and the War of the Three Kingdoms, known as the English Civil War started. Charles I insisted on the Divine Right of Kings and came into opposition with Parliament. Charles I was eventually executed in 1649 and Charles sought support in Scotland with no success. He fought the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and was on the run and in hiding for 6 weeks before escaping to France. He stayed there and in the Low Countries before being recalled to the Monarchy in 1650. He triumphed in adversity while on the run and was impoverished while in Europe. This clearly made him a more down to earth and wiser man than his haughty father.

On his return he executed nine of those who had condemned his father. He did not seek revenge, but sought justice and took a balanced view. Charles believed in toleration, he had Catholic relatives and was helped by them when on the run. He had been aided by Presbyterian Scotland and believed in freewill. But after the devastation of the Wars when 13% of the population of England died, Parliament was in no mood for this. A series of laws in the early 1660’s enforced Anglicanism on England.

In 1665 there was a serious outbreak of plague in London, with up to 7,000 deaths a week. The next year followed the Great Fire of London, where a dry summer and an east wind helped wooden London burn. He had great plans to rebuild London in great Classical style with the help of the architect Christopher Wren. But the problem of money and ownership of the land prevented a grand new vision. But St Pauls was rebuilt and stands testament to that vision.

There was a new scientific movement happening. Bacon, Locke and Newton were the beginning of the Enlightenment in England. There were others in Scotland and France who were taking a logical and reasoned look at the Universe and seeking to understand it. Charles was a great supporter. He also encouraged the colonisation of America, the West Indies and the East Indies.

He had to contend with the new thrusting Dutch Republic that was challenging for power in the region. He also had to negotiate with his lavish cousin Louis XIV. Charles was always hamstrung by lack of finance. This was not helped by his large entourage of lovers.

Charles II had always been amorous and fathered his first illegitimate child in Jersey. He became the Duke of Monmouth and had a chance of inheriting the throne. His wife was Catherine de Braganza from Portugal, who tragically was unable to bear children. He had twelve children and seven acknowledge lovers. Many of whom were given titles and power in the court. Although this seems decadent to us today. Since the dramatic loss of life in the War, there was a surfeit of single women and a need to make babies. There was also a reaction to the Puritan ways and a certain licentiousness pervaded the country. This was prevalent and some rather bawdy theatres.

There was also a return to Catholicism for some. Charles brother James, who was the heir to the throne, converted and became quite hard-line. There were others too who returned to Rome. Parliament split between Whigs who wished to exclude Catholic James from the throne and Tories who sought to keep him. He was kept and lasted three years and it led to a non-Catholic England in 1715. There were various Popish plots which undermined the court and caused a stir in London which led to some innocents being executed without the King being able to prevent.

He died in 1685, he converted on his death bed to Catholicism. Like his grandfather, Henry IV of France he saw professed religion for a monarch as a political issue. Henry has won the crown of France, in 1588, when defeating the Spanish the French King Died. Henry was a Protestant, but opposition to this, from the people, persuaded him to convert to Catholicism as a political act.

Charles was a wise man, who was neither weak nor tyrannical. He led the country out of the Civil War nightmare and established a sensible religious settlement, encouraged science and the arts and steered the country through a potentially difficult time. But possibly his greatest gift was to get people having fun again.

Conway-Laird (2017)

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