The Merry Monarch – King Charles II

King Charles II’s life can read like a synopsis of an action movie. Charles is on the run in a war torn country, later on a quest to avenge his murdered father. He was on the front line in battle and valiantly tried to put the flames out in the Great Fire of London. He had many leading women in the form of his mistresses along with his loyal wife who tragically could not give him children. I am going to tell you the story of Charles, the man. And as all stories should let us start at the beginning. 

Charles was born in 1630; his parents were King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria. Charles was the first heir to all three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. All was going well as Charles was growing up but during 1642 when he was 12 Civil War broke out in England between his father and Parliament. On Christmas Day 1645, the prince received a letter from his father telling him to leave England with no delay. In typical teenage fashion, he delayed until he had no choice. He eventually sailed from Lands’ End to the Scilly isles on the night tide of 2nd March 1646. From there he went to Jersey and then to Paris to be reunited with his mother.

five children charles 1 Lely
Five Children of King Charles I – Sir Antony van Dyck , 1637. Royal Collection

Charles father was executed on 30th January 1649 at the Banqueting House, Whitehall Palace. Upon hearing the news, Charles broke out into bitter weeping. He was 19 years old. He was unable to speak and sat alone for several hours. He was proclaimed King of Scots in February and was crowned King of Scotland at Scone on the 1st January 1651. 

Charles decided to attack England in an attempt to defeat the Cromwellian forces and reclaim his throne. It is said that Charles was a good captain. He knew the regiments and their names and was extremely passionate about his cause.

During the Battle of Worcester when many of the soldiers thought that the cause was lost and began to throw away their weapons Charles went among them, trying to inspire them to fight and not give up. In an inspirational speech, like those you hear in epic movies of today he commanded them to continue the cause and said that “I had rather you shoot me… than let me live to see the consequences of this day” ‘ But in the end the battle was lost and Charles was defeated. This defeat would lead to one of the most fascinating periods of Charles life – he was now a man on the run.

Arriving at Boscobel, Shropshire, Charles attired himself in common clothes and had his black locks cut. The only problem was shoes for his feet, which even when cut to assist his size and make room, still rubbed and hurt his feet. A far cry from his usual princely attire.

royal oak pub sign

A reward was offered of one thousand pounds for his capture; more than a lifetimes wage for most people in the country. On one occasion, he famously hid up in the branches of an oak tree, along with a Major from his army. They would remain here for most of the day with Charles napping on the lap of the major, while Roundheads were searching the woods below. It was not until the evening that they dared to venture down and back to the house. Later the Oak tree became a symbol of royalty.

Charles moved from place to place at times with assistance from loyalist and even Catholics. On one occasion, he joined a party of people who disguised him as a servant. Although he did struggle with the correct behaviour expected of a servant. Those with him who knew his identity had to be quick thinkers to keep him safe. On one occasion Charles actually walked through a group of Cromwellian soldiers! He was able to evade capture and managed to gain passage to France and his mother. He would not return to England until his Restoration in 1660.

In 1658 Oliver Cromwell died. The title of Lord Protector was passed to his son Richard; He was easily persuaded to give up the title a year later. And the wheels were put in motion to bring back the monarchy and restore Charles to his throne. It took nearly a year for this to happen. In May, Parliament proclaimed that King Charles II had been the lawful monarch since the execution ofCharles I. He could finally go home. He left the Netherlands and began his journey back to England and to London. In a triumphal procession through London, on the 29th May, his 30th Birthday, ending in the Banqueting House. Charles was restored as King, however, the power that his predecessors had was not his. Now a King or Queen was there by hereditary right, not divine.

During the negotiations to restore Charles to his throne, the topic of those responsible for his father’s death came up.  Some of those responsible Charles decided, had to face punishment such as fines and imprisonment. Others were not so lucky. A number of the regicides would face a traitor’s death including four people who had already died! Oliver Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed at Westminster Abbey along with the bodies of Judge John Bradshaw, Judge Thomas Pride and Henry Ireton. These people, Charles felt were the main players in the decision to execute his father. They were all put on trial and attainted for treason. Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw’s bodies were hung, drawn and quartered (as much as a corpse can be) at Tyburn with Charles watching. However it is said that he prevented 19 more executions, saying that although he could not forgive them he was weary of hangings. 

cromwell corpse hanging
Illustration showing the execution of some of those who signed King Charles I death warrant
King Charles II, attributed to Thomas Hawker, 1680. National Portrait Gallery

It was during his restoration in 1660 that Charles is documented as saying ‘Odds fish, I am an ugly fellow’, when inspecting a portrait of his person. Even as a baby, he was thought of as ugly –his mother, Henrietta Maria had said as much in a letter. He was described as having fine black eyes, a large ugly mouth, a graceful and dignified carriage and a fine figure, and was at least 6 foot tall. He had a dark complexion, which he inherited from his Italian ancestors. He was not considered a beauty of his day but there was something about this man that allowed him not only to be able to attract many women into his bed but some of these women would respect him and stay with him for many years. 

Catherine of Braganza, Dirk Stoop, 1661/2. National Portrait Gallery.

In 1673 rumours started of Charles divorcing Catherine due to her inability to have children. Various ideas were put forward including putting her in a nunnery. The Duke of Buckingham suggested that they kidnap Catherine and send her to the Colonies to live out the rest of her life in moderate comfort but forgotten, the indication given out that she had run away. Charles was outraged by this. We are not sure if Buckingham meant this in jest or was serious. Catherine would suffer at least two miscarriages. Charles on the other hand would be a father to at least 14 children.

Catherine was his wife but Charles had many mistresses who would occupy the other parts of his life, which Catherine never could. He flaunted convention and paraded his mistresses in court, giving them wealth, titles and influences in political debate. This was something done in France and Charles may have picked up the idea when he was living there. Women were his weakness. The diarist Samuel Pepys said in his diary that ‘he is at the command of any woman like a slave…and cannot command himself in the presence of a woman he likes.’ 

We do not know the exact number of mistresses that Charles had. We do know more about some than others. The main ones are Barbara Villiers who bullied and tried to control him. We then have Nell Gwyn, the commoner, an actress. She was mistress to Charles for a long time and the only one who was actually faithful to Charles. The other mistress who featured prominently in Charles life was Louise de Kérouaille (pictured below), a lady from the French court. She would have preferred to have been Charles wife rather than mistress. She was extremely unpopular with the English people who thought she was a French spy (and possibly was).

Louise by Sir Peter Lely, c1671

Other than his love of women, Charles also had a love of dogs, especially one breed – the toy spaniel. Samuel Pepys said “All I observed there was the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business.” It was actually proclaimed that no building was off limits to his dogs, including Parliament, it is still in the law books today! In 1925, the breed was named the Cavalier King Charles after King Charles II and his love of them.

Of his personality, Charles has gone down in history as the Merry Monarch. However, this was only part of him. He had to learn to take pleasure when he could get it, after all it could be gone within an instant. He was betrayed and forced to rely on others while he was in exile. This experience made him form a tough stern exterior to everyone, except his children and his dogs. That was where he got his enjoyment along with his visits to the theatre. He liked to be one of the people and to give them the feeling that he was accessible to them.

Architecture, music, painting, theatre and gardens were all directly affected by a man who had travelled and resided for long periods abroad in France and the Netherlands. He and his court were part of the public domain and this exerted even more influence on the direction of taste. He would become involved with the formation of the Royal Society in 1662. A society in which the members could have scientific discussions and findings through experiments. Other members being Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys, and later Isaac Newton. 

During 1685 Charles would suffer two strokes and after the second looked as if he was going to improve. In a matter of days he had a third which killed him. Just before dying it is believed that he converted to Catholicism. He also requested for Nell to be looked after and to tell Louise that he loved her. When Charles was dying, Catherine, his wife sent a message to beg his pardon if she had offended him in all her life, to which he answered, ‘alas, poor women. She asks my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart’. He was lifted up to see the day break and soon after died.

Charles was 55 years old when he died. He had been a prince for 19 years, a King in exile for 11 years and King of England for 25 years. During his lifetime, he had lost his father, three sisters and a brother. He left behind him 14 illegitimate children whose descendants today include Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, Camilla Parker Bowels (Prince Charles wife) and David Cameron’s wife Samantha. He was succeeded by his brother James, King James II, who would later flee the country.  He was a man of political strength and cunning. He always gave the impression of being kind to all those he met and was at ease with his public, allowing them access to their monarch, which previous monarchs had not done. In appearance, he seemed a happy and charming man, going down in history as the Merry Monarch

Sources:

Fraser, A (2002) Charles II.

Jordan, d and Walsh, M ( 2013) The Kings Revenge. Abacus.  London.

Keay, A (2008) The Magnificent Monarch Continum: Cornwall

Massie, A. (2010) The Royal Stuarts. Jonathan Cape. London.

Mastes, B (1988) The Mistresses of Charles II Constable: London.

Norrington, R (1996) My Dearest Minette. Peter Owen: London

Uglow, J (2009) A Gambling Man: Charles II. London: Faber and Fabers.

Wilson, D. (2004) All the Kings women Pimlico. London

Online:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_(England) accessed 07.01.2015

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descendants_of_Charles_II_of_England accessed 01.02.2016

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