Known as the ‘Merry Monarch’, the reign of Charles II differed dramatically from what had come before. Following the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I and years of Cromwellian dictatorship, the populace of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland welcomed Charles II’s return from exile and hoped for a return to normality. What they got was a lively, hedonistic king who enjoyed a close friendship with Louis XIV and enjoyed a similar taste for the finer things in life. Charles II approach to ruling his Kingdoms was one of flexibility, indulgence and cynicism. Ruling through the two greatest crises of the 17th century, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, Charles II was a relatively popular king whose attitude to England’s eternal religious divide was one of ‘live and let live’.
Key Facts about Charles II
- Charles II was born on May 29th, 1630 at St James’ Palace, London and was the eldest son of Charles I.
- Charles technically became King of England, Scotland and Ireland on his father’s execution on January 30th, 1649 but his rule was not acknowledged until Parliament invited him back from exile in 1660.
- He married Catherine of Braganza on 21st May 1661. Although she died childless, Charles II acknowledged 12 illegitimate children with various mistresses.
- Charles died on February 6th, 1685 at the age of 54 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.
The Life of Charles II
Charles was born under the stormy skies of the English Civil War. His father, King Charles I, fought against the parliamentary and puritan forces in England and Scotland throughout the 1640s. Young Charles joined his father in battle during the campaigns of 1645 when he was made commander for the English forces in the West Country at the age of just fourteen.
By 1646, it was clear that King Charles I’s cavalier forces were unable to defeat the might of Oliver Cromwell’s army and young Charles went into exile in France where he was to remain for nine years. Diplomatic efforts by the young Charles were fruitless and in 1649, King Charles I was beheaded in front of Whitehall Palace. Young Charles automatically became King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland but his kingdom remained under the control of dictator Oliver Cromwell England and entered a period known as the English Commonwealth. Charles II was forced to remain in exile throughout his twenties, reputedly living the enjoyable life of an idle royal libertine.
At Oliver Crowell’s death England fell into a state of political chaos. It was hoped that the restoration of the monarchy would bring peace and stability. On May 29th of 1660, Charles II returned to England and was restored to the throne to public acclaim. For the purposes of law, all documents were re-dated as though Charles II had succeeded his father in 1649. For those born after Oliver Cromwell’s England came to an end, it was as though it had never happened.
Charles was received less warmly by the powerful ‘cavalier parliament’, who were cautious and skeptical of the new king’s tolerance and reluctance to punish his political enemies. Members of the commonwealth regime went more or less unpunished under Charles and in response parliament limited the king’s access to funds and powers to effect law. Parliament also enacted the Clarendon Code, with Charles reluctant support, re-establishing the dominance of the Church of England.
Charles’ family and personal life had great significance for his reign. Soon after Charles’ restoration, his youngest brother Henry and his sister Mary died of smallpox. Charles’ oldest brother James secretly married Anne Hyde, the daughter of Lord Chancellor Edward Hyde, who quickly became pregnant. Charles responded by making Edward Hyde the Earl of Clarendon and pulling him further into his close circle of advisors.
In 1661 Charles was married to Catherine of Branganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal. Charles acknowledged at least twelve illegitimate children with various mistresses and ladies of court but in his marriage, he remained childless. This complicated matters as it became clear that his brother James, who was a vocal Roman Catholic, was now heir to the English throne.
During negotiations for Catherine of Braganza’s hand in marriage, Charles formed an alliance with Portugal which had been fighting a war against Spain since 1640 to restore its independence. Catherine’s dowry included Tangier in North Africa, Bombay (strategic for the British Empire), trading privileges in Brazil and East Indies and a lump sum in cash.
In 1665 Charles embarked upon the Second Anglo-Dutch war in the hope of taking control of major sea routes and ending the Dutch domination of world trade. The English royal navy was inadequate and with the Dutch’s surprise attack on the English fleet docked on the River Thames, the venture was a failure.
Charles promised to aid his first cousin King Louis XIV of France in warfare and convert to Catholicism in exchange for Louis’ financial support in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, which turned out to be similarly costly and fruitless. This agreement was known as the 1670 secret treaty of Dover. At the same time, Charles encouraged the global domination of the British East India Company by drawing up a series of five charters that promised the company the right to mint money, gain territory, wage war and exercise criminal jurisdiction in acquired areas of India.
Charles II’s reign is remembered for two of the biggest crisis to hit England in the 17th century, the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London. In September 1665, the death toll in London reached over 7,000 in one week. Sanitation and living standards in London were poor and the disease spread quickly. Charles fled London for Salisbury, taking his family and entire court with him while Parliament met in Oxford. The plague spread rapidly, taking over 100,000 lives in one year, about 15% of London’s population.
Believed now to have been spread via bites from fleas living on rats, the plague was only stopped by the next disaster, the Great Fire of London. Rumored at the time to have been started by Catholic conspirators, it was later discovered that the fire had started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. Raging from September 2nd of 1666 for five days, the fire engulfed the Medieval City of London, consuming an estimated 13,200 houses and 90 churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral. The death toll is thought to have been small but the fire left up to 80,000 of London’s inhabitants homeless.
In the succeeding years, Charles did not convert to Catholicism and still refused to take a hard line on religion in his kingdom. Strong anti-Catholic protests gripped the country throughout his reign but Charles refused to punish non-conformists to the Established Church of England. Charles even attempted to introduce religious freedom for dissenters with his 1672 Royal Declaration of Indulgence which parliament promptly forced him to withdraw.
Anti-Catholic dissent followed him throughout the remainder of his reign with the country divided by the pro-exclusion Whig political party and the anti-exclusion Tory party. Charles dissolved parliament in 1681 and ruled alone for the next four years. In 1683, a plot to murder Charles and his brother James was discovered and Charles reacted by having leaders and prominent members of the Whig party executed.
In a final twist to his generally antagonistic rule, Charles deferred to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, leaving the fallout of his shrewd tactical move for his brother James to deal with.
Legacy of Charles II
Charles legacy is primarily one of benevolence. At worst, he is seen as a lovable rogue, prone to saying one thing and doing another, but always acting in the interests of peace. Charles dissolved three parliaments during his reign, all of which tried to introduce Exclusion Bills to stamp out Catholicism in England with the advice, ‘we are not like to have a good end’.
Despite producing no legitimate heir, Charles did father many children whom he bestowed with gifts of dukedoms and earldoms. The public resented paying taxes to fund the King’s extended illegitimate family but nevertheless, many of Charles children went on to occupy prominent positions in English politics and society. Charles is thought to have ruled admirably during the two great crises of the 17th century, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, playing a role in organizing containment and rescue efforts.
A patron of the arts and sciences Charles founded the Royal Society to promote scientific research and the Royal Observatory. He also Royal Hospital Chelsea, dedicating it to the welfare of wounded soldiers.
Films and TV Shows Featuring Charles II
- Bonnie Prince Charlie (1923)
- Nell Gwyn (1934)
- Hudson’s Bay (1941)
- Lorna Doone (1951)
- The First Churchills (1969) TV Show
- Restoration (1995)
- King Charles II (2003)
- The Libertine (2004)
- The Great Fire (2014) TV Show
- Walsh, Michael & Jordan, Don (2015) The King’s Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II
- Frasier, Antonia (2011) King Charles II
- Hanrahan, David C. (2006)Charles II and the Duke of Buckingham: The Merry Monarch and the Aristocratic Rogue
- Harris, Tim (2005)Restoration: Charles II and his kingdoms, 1660–1685
- Keay, Anna (2008),The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power
- Wilson, Derek (2003) All The King’s Women: Love, sex and politics in the Life of Charles II
Locations Related to Charles II
- There is a statue of Charles II by Grinling Gibbons in the court of Royal Hospital Chelsea. Unusually the King is wearing ancient Roman dress. There are also statues of Charles II in London’s Soho Square, Edinburgh’s Parliament Square and near Lichfield Cathedral.
- Charles II was born at St James’s Palace in London.
- For some of his life, Charles II lived at the Palace of Whitehall of which only the Banqueting Hall survives in its original form.
- Charles II also lived at Hampton Court Palace in London.
- Charles II is buried at Westminster Abbey.