King Charles II


The story of King Charles II is one of enduring fascination. The golden childhood of the boy Prince in the Van Dyck portraits gave way to an adventurous youth in Civil War England and abroad, ending traumatically when his father was executed in 1649. Charles II, King at eighteen, succeeded to 'nothing but the name'. After his valiant attempt to regain the throne was defeated by Oliver Cromwell at Worcester, the King made his epic escape - to years of exile, poverty and humiliation in Europe.

The 'miraculous' Restoration ushered in a reign colored by a series of equally dramatic events: the Great Plague, the Fire of London, two Dutch Wars, the bizarre Popish Plot, and finally the efforts of the Whigs to exclude his Catholic brother James from the succession, culminating in the King's unexpected triumph over them at the Oxford Parliament of 1681.

A lover of women, passionate planner of parks and palaces, and friend of the arts, this was the man who was to overcome the many problems of his reign and died not only in control of his country but in the affection of his countrymen.

Charles II, of the House of Stuart, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, was born in London on May 29, 1630. The first-born child of Anglican King Charles I and Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV, King of France, Charles II was heir to an increasingly vast kingdom and to the myriad of social, political and religious controversies then plaguing the monarchs of Europe. As a youth, Charles gradually began assuming on the public role proscribed for him. Taking his seat in the House of Lords at the age of ten, he could not be immune to the turmoil fomenting between his father and Parliament. In 1642, Charles assumed nominal command of Royalist troops, and he and his brother James, Duke of York - later King James II - barely avoided arrest at the Battle of Edgehill. He joined Charles I's failed march on London and sat in the Oxford Parliament. As negotiations between the King and the Long Parliament deteriorated, Charles, Prince of Wales, was sent into the Royalist regions of western England. He would never see his father again. Charles and his counsel, including Edward Hyde - Lord Clarendon in the Restoration court - frequently moved from early 1645 until July 1646, when the prince fled to France under the protection of his mother.

Charles stayed in Paris for two years, during which time Thomas Hobbes served as his tutor. He accompanied his elder cousin Prince Rupert's Royalist fleet to England in July 1648. Returning to Holland, he received news of successive Royal defeats. In January 1649, the Prince of Wales made a final effort to spare his father's life, reportedly signing a blank sheet and sending it to Parliament to fill in their terms. Shortly after Charles I's execution on January 30, 1649, Charles II was proclaimed King of Scotland. Charles accepted the Presbyterian covenant after some negotiation, promising his and his domains' conversion, and his coronation took place at Scone, Scotland on January 1, 1651. In London meantime, Parliament passed an immediate act preventing the succession of any of Charles Stuart's heirs, and formally dissolved the House of Lords and the office of the King in early February of 1649.

As King of Scotland, Charles II summoned his army to defend against impending attacks by Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces. With his army of ten thousand Scottish troops, Charles entered England by August of 1651. He garnered additional support from loyal English subjects, but his army was outnumbered three-to-one at the Battle of Worcester on September 3rd. Charles personally led a flank of his army, but the offensive failed. Following this final defeat of the Royalist cause, Charles remained in hiding for six weeks, even traveling into London, before escaping again to France.

Nominally, Charles remained King of the Scots, holding court in Paris. An allowance paid him by the French court kept him dependent upon Henrietta Maria, and his advisors recommended he maintain a quiet profile. The French government refused Charles's offer to command English ships that might defect in the First Anglo-Dutch War, and a provision of the peace of 1654 was the expulsion of the English Royal Family. In the summer of 1654, after a stay in Flanders with his sister, the recently widowed Princess of Orange, Charles established his court at Cologne. He sought to secure diplomatic ties with Spain, and an alliance with the Spanish Netherlands in early 1658 enabled him to move his court to Brussels. Here he awaited the opportunity to effect an uprising in southern England against the Protectorate.

Cromwell's death in August 1658 encouraged attempts to reconcile France and Spain and bring a unified force to attack England; however, Royalist defeats in England precipitated the failure of these negotiations. From Brussels, Charles communicated with leading members of the "Free" Parliament elected in 1659 and sent counsel to present terms to General George Monck on his approach toward London. Under the direction of Monck, the English army offered Charles the throne. Charles signed the Declaration of Breda on April 4, 1660, promising pardons to Parlimentarians, payment of army salaries in arrears, validation of land purchases made during the Interregnum, and "liberty of conscience" regarding religious matters. Parliament proclaimed him King Charles II in London on May 29, 1660.

The restoration government of Charles II, determined to quickly establish amicable relations, conducted few detailed negotiations regarding his ascension to the throne. Charles adhered to the provisions of the Declaration of Breda to varying degrees: he pardoned all his and his father's opponents, save those who signed Charles I's death warrant; he restored lands lost by the Church and the Crown, but left to private negotiation questions of ownership of lands previously belonging to Royalists and dissenters; he kept control of the armed forces with the Crown; and he restored the Anglican bishops' seats in the House of Lords, yet later diplomatic endeavors involved secret pledges to convert his country to Catholicism. Religious matters would bring the greatest challenges throughout Charles II's rule.

In May of 1661, Charles II announced in the opening of his first Parliament his upcoming marriage to Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the Catholic King of Portugal, John IV. The two bore no children together; however, Charles had more than a dozen children with several mistresses. His son James Croft, born during Charles's exile in France, came to England in 1665. The King named him the Duke of Monmouth later that year. Anglican leaders in Parliament repeatedly presented him as the King's rightful heir over his brother James, Duke of York, who both converted to Catholicism and married a Catholic princess after the death of his first wife. Throughout his reign, Charles battled Parliament over concessions he made in favor of Catholics and other non-conformists, including Quaker William Penn, to whom he granted charters to Pennsylvania in 1681 and Delaware in 1683. Parliament issued successive acts limiting the representation of non-Anglican citizens, and Charles countered with Declarations of Indulgence, suspending repressive laws. Appeasing agitators, Charles married his neice Mary, daughter of the Duke of York, to the Protestant Prince William of Orange in 1677.

Catastrophes marked Charles's early reign; however, a devotion to cerebral and expansionist endeavors shone through his actions. A resurgent plague in 1665 killed seventy thousand people in London and thousands more throughout the country, and the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed two-thirds of the city. The Navigation Acts of 1660 led to an unpopular war with the Dutch, culminating in an attack on the Thames in 1667. In 1660 he sponsored the creation of the British Royal Society, encouraging scientific research. He exhibited his penchant for the arts in overseeing the rebuilding of London and in sponsoring artists such as Christopher Wrenn, who designed the renovations of St. Paul's Cathedral, among other London landmarks. Carolina, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were chartered during his reign, and the 1667 Treaty of Breda with the Dutch conceded to Great Britain control of Delaware and New Netherland, which the English renamed New York. In the wake of the failed war with the Netherlands, Charles dismissed his Lord Chancellor, Lord Clarendon.

A turbulent political climate brought a succession of varied ministerial combinations, beginning with the "Cabal" ministry (derived from the first letters of the five advisors' names). Charles pursued wavering relations with the French and the Dutch, secretly allying with the French several times in exchange for generous allowances. A Third Dutch War was fought throughout Europe from 1672 through 1678; however England made peace with the Dutch in 1674. Fears of "popery" led to the development of the Whig and Tory parties, and conspiracies to damn Catholics and their supporters failed, bolstering Charles's popularity. In 1678, the "Popish Plot" falsely alleged collusion by Jesuit priests to kill the King in order to secure the succession of his brother, prompting a witch hunt that eventually included accusations against the King's treasurer and the Queen, whom Charles vigorously defended. In the wake of the scheme, Charles and Parliament again reached an impasse over religious issues.

The final years of Charles's reign recalled the political climate into which he had been born. Parliament, having previously excluded from public office all Catholics except James, Duke of York, used the agitation stirred during the "Popish Plot" to prevent the imminent succession of the King's brother. In 1679 Parliament passed an Exclusion Bill preventing the Catholic James from assuming the throne. Charles dismissed the offending Parliament, hoping the next would not issue a similar act. The King dissolved three successive Parliaments, yet his personal popularity grew. A 1683 Whig assassination attempt on the lives of the King and the Duke of York - "The Rye House Plot" - failed, resulting in the execution of Lord William Russell and Algernon Sidney. Coercing local governments by threatening to withdraw city charters, the next Parliament had a far lower proportion of Whig representatives to Tories and did not press for an Act of Exclusion.

Charles II died on February 6, 1685, following a stroke earlier that month. Converting on his deathbed, Charles died a professed Catholic. He remains were interred in the Chapel of Henry VII. The Duke of Monmouth, Charles's illegitimate son, presented a failed challenge to James II's ascension to the throne. Parliament's challenges to the Duke of York would be vindicated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which William and Mary of Orange, daughter and son-in-law to James II, would ascend to the throne.

Source: "Charles II." In The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 3. Edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, 1190. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968; Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom from 1603: Charles II (r.1660-85) .Buckingham Palace, 2003. (June 20, 2003); Charles II: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland .Columbia Encyclopedia Online, Sixth Edition, 2001. (June 20, 3003); Plant, David. British Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1638-60 . David Plant, 2003. (June 20, 2003).

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