Charles II

Charles II

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Charles II: was the king too randy to rule?

In late summer 1662, King Charles II stood on the roof of his banqueting house looking over his sprawling palace below. Beside him stood his famously voluptuous mistress, the raven-haired Barbara Castlemaine. King and concubine watched a dazzling procession arrive at the palace. It carried Charles’s new queen, Catherine of Braganza. She was moving from Hampton Court, where she and the king had recently honeymooned, to take up residence at Whitehall Palace.

This scene – the king and his mistress watching the queen arrive, in effect, alone – is the quintessence of Charles II’s hedonistic reign. He was besotted by sensuality. During his 25 years on the throne, he spent more time on the pursuit and enjoyment of women than in council meetings. He flaunted his mistresses in front of the nation and Queen Catherine.

His court shared his obsession with sex. Leading lights such as the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Danby were amoral, carefree and licentious. Venereal disease was so common among them that a specialist ‘pox doctor’ was on call in the court. None among his intimates could have been surprised in 1674 to hear that Charles was infected and that his French mistress of the time, Louise de Kéroualle, had berated him before the French ambassador for laying her low with the infection.

Charles has often been cast as a dextrous politician. But interests were neglected and decisions postponed in order to meet the demands of his social life. He once broke off talks on war and peace with a French delegation so as not to keep Barbara waiting for dinner. To reduce the tedium of government business (which he hated) he took to conducting state affairs from Barbara’s apartments in Whitehall Palace. The courtier John Evelyn commented that Charles would have made a good ruler, “if he had been less addicted to women”.

Addicted to love

Charles brought the addiction home from exile in 1660 after parliament issued the invitation for him to ascend a throne empty since his father’s execution 11 years earlier. In the intervening period Charles had remained in exile, living on the charity of the royal houses of Europe. He filled his days partying, riding, sailing and seducing women.

At his Restoration, a large retinue of exiled royalists came home, including Barbara, the daughter of an impoverished peer and wife of the courtier and politician, Roger Palmer. She may well have already become Charles’s lover. Two years later, Charles married Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the king of Portugal. Disastrously, the marriage did not produce a royal heir, while Barbara gave Charles several children. A boy, Charles, was born in Hampton Court in June 1662 while the newly wed king and Catherine were honeymooning there. The affront to the queen was the first of many insults Catherine would endure.

At Barbara’s behest, Charles insisted Catherine appoint her as a lady-of-the-bedchamber. The queen resisted, supported by the lord chancellor, Clarendon. Usually placid, Charles showed steely determination where sex was involved. He warned Clarendon, “who-soever I find use any endeavour to hinder this resolution of mine… I will be his enemy to the last moment of my life”.

Barbara’s new position meant she was ensconced in Whitehall, on tap for the king’s delight. Her huge palace apartments were ostentatious, while her spending almost certainly outstripped that of anyone else in the kingdom. Charles deluged her with gifts and allowed her to siphon off funds that would otherwise have gone to the exchequer. Custom duties brought her £10,000 per annum, beer tax another £10,000, post office revenue £5,000, and so on. One evening she lost £25,000 playing cards. Charles picked up the debt.

Barbara wanted Charles to make her position as a courtesan something grander, what the French called a maîtresse-en-titre, or official mistress. To satisfy her hunger for status, Charles piled aristocratic honours upon her, labelling her countess and then duchess. Barbara meddled in politics almost from the outset, gaining her first political scalp in 1662 when she helped arrange the sacking of the venerable secretary of state Sir Edward Nicholas. Later, she played the major part in the downfall of the even more venerable lord chancellor, Clarendon, who had made plain his view of her by refusing to utter her name and banning his wife from speaking to her.

Listen: Historian and author Linda Porter explores the lives of the many women who shared Charles II’s bed, on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

The queen, with the fortitude of a religious upbringing and the breeding of a royal princess, rarely gave vent to her feelings. As Charles paraded his mistresses, Catherine cried in private. Her agony was increased by the arrival from France of Charles’s illegitimate first-born son, James Scott, upon whom he doted. He made the boy Duke of Monmouth, a title worthy of a legitimate heir, which prompted Catherine to threaten to leave her husband and “never see his face no more”. It was an empty threat she had nowhere to go.

Though Charles had experienced sex when as young as 15, Monmouth’s mother, the Welsh beauty Lucy Walter, was his first meaningful relationship. John Evelyn described her as being “brown, beautiful, bold”. Lucy and Charles became lovers in 1648 when they were both just 18 and living in exile. Lucy was soon pregnant and Charles accepted the child as his. His friends abused Lucy as “a whore” and, under pressure, Charles eventually abandoned her and took away her son to be raised under his mother’s protection. Lucy reportedly died in poverty in Paris in 1658 not yet aged 30, possibly having had to take up prostitution.

Read more expert articles about the reign of Charles II…

A royal ‘pimpmaster’

Prostitution was not a profession with which Charles had a problem. He dallied with all sorts of women, of all social classes. Many were ‘actresses’ procured by his servant William Chiffinch, known as the king’s ‘pimpmaster’. Some came straight from brothels.

When the queen fell gravely ill, probably following a miscarriage, the talk in the court was that if Catherine died, Charles would marry Frances Stuart, a teenage beauty and one of the queen’s ladies-of-the-bedchamber. The queen recovered, only to miscarry at least twice more. Courtiers begged Charles to divorce her and marry Frances but he refused.

While these domestic matters transfixed the court, the country suffered humiliation in a naval battle. England was engaged in war with the Dutch, which had begun in the spring of 1665 in a struggle for supremacy of the sea and trade. In early 1667, the British crown ran out of money, and could not afford to refit the fleet and pay ships’ crews. When the crown asked parliament for the necessary £1.5m it replied that first it wanted to know how the £5m it had previously allocated to the exchequer had been spent. No answer was forthcoming. According to Samuel Pepys at the navy board, £2.3m was unaccounted for. It was rumoured that the king had lavished much of this on his mistresses.

With no money forthcoming, Charles made the momentous decision to lay up the bulk of the fleet in the Medway river. When the Dutch discovered this, they decided to finish the war in a decisive knockout blow. In June, the Dutch fleet was spotted massing off the Thames Estuary. Charles didn’t act. Two days later the Dutch sailed into the river Medway and burnt or captured the pride of the British fleet, even towing away the flagship, the Royal Charles. While this was taking place, the king was playing parlour games with Barbara and other favourites. Mobs gathered in London, denouncing the monarchy, with “the Countess of Castlemaine bewailing, above all others, that she should be the first torn to pieces”. As the Dutch sailed from the Medway into the mouth of the Thames, London panicked. Many people fled, thinking the capital was sure to fall. But the Dutch held off, and the capital was saved. Charles could do nothing but seek peace on the best terms possible.

Was Charles II out of touch with reality?

In the aftermath of all this, the king could not, of course, be blamed. The scurrilous and anonymous pamphlets that circulated in London blamed Barbara and even the Earl of Clarendon, who had been against the war from the beginning. A commission was set up to look into the royal finances, but it never sat.

The Medway Raid provided a graphic illustration of Charles II becoming detached from the realities of policy while spending too much time on personal gratification. There was a pattern to Charles’s behaviour he loved to escape into the feminine world of frivolity and lack of responsibility (for in the 17th century, women of high social standing were expected to exemplify the first and could never have the latter).

Stories abounded of how he hated serious conversation. He enjoyed being with women, making love to them, socialising with them, being pampered by them. Yet he remained curiously aloof, never falling in love, his interest remaining, as pointed out by the contemporary politician and writer, George Savile, carnal enjoyment. Charles’s emotional need for women’s company never developed into the mature bonds that most men and women enjoy. He wanted pleasure, but he also needed female solace and flattery.

Barbara’s demise as effective maîtresse-en-titre came in the wake of the 1670 secret treaty of Dover. This promised Charles huge French pay-offs to back Louis XIV’s war of conquest in the Netherlands while he agreed to turn Catholic. While this monumental deal was being concluded in Dover, Charles’s eye lit on a baby-faced lady-in-waiting in the French delegation. Typically, he deliberately prolonged negotiations on this hugely important pact just to see more of her.

The young woman was Louise de Kéroualle, the daughter of an impecunious Breton aristocrat. With the Sun King’s connivance, Barbara’s enemies, led by the Earl of Arlington, plotted the replacement of Barbara by the young Breton. Arlington tutored her in the ‘dos and don’ts’ of keeping the king happy. It was impressed upon her that the big don’t was “don’t talk business to His Majesty”.

It took a year before Louise was secure enough of his affections to allow him to bed her. A measure of how important the role of maîtresse-en-titre had become was that the whole court was invited to a huge celebratory party, at which their first coupling was expected. The celebration lasted two weeks, climaxing in a mock marriage between Charles and Louise.

The king allotted her a luxurious suite of chambers in Whitehall, showered jewels on her and allowed her to raid the public purses on an even greater scale than Barbara managed. Where Barbara had employed a fearsome temper to get her way, the softly spoken Louise employed tears, embraces and sympathy. Hers was the winning formula with the increasingly jaded king and in 1676 Barbara quit England for Paris, not returning permanently until 1682.

In thrall to his mistress

Widely decried as a French spy, Louise certainly appears to have served French interests well. Under her influence, Charles continually resisted popular pressure to contain French expansionism and stood by while France seized more and more of the Netherlands. The most abject moment came when Charles offered not to call parliament again without Louis XIV’s agreement. Louise’s French biographer Henri Forneron wrote of her: “During 15 years she was holding Great Britain in her delicate little hand, and manipulated its king and statesmen as dexterously as she might have done her fan.”

It is somehow fitting that in 1685, on the evening before the onset of his short and fatal illness, Charles enjoyed a soirée with three of his mistresses – Louise, Barbara and a more recent addition, Hortense Mancini. His contemporaries were not slow to pass verdict upon him. The bishop of Salisbury, who knew him well, said: “The ruin of his reign… was occasioned chiefly by his delivering himself up to a mad range of pleasure.” Sexual pleasure was indeed the problem. He was introduced to it before his 15th birthday, became addicted to it in exile, using it as a defence against a world in which his father had been executed and he himself robbed of his golden years.

When Charles suddenly gained the throne, for which he was unprepared, he continued in the same way, ruling, as the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope put it, “when love was all an easie monarch’s care”. Charles was simply the king who never grew up.

Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have written a number of history books together, including The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History (Little, Brown, 2012).

Charles II Facts

There was a common fear in Spain that Charles II’s marriage to Marie Louise d’Órleans left the Spanish crown susceptible to influence from France. Marie’s French attendants were often accused of plotting against the Spanish crown and one of her maids was even “questioned” for potential plots. When Marie Louise eventually ventured to live in Madrid, people rioted in front of the palace.


The Mistresses of King Charles II

Here are the seven mistresses of King Charles II who had children by him:

Barbara Palmer, known as Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland. She was the longest standing mistress for fourteen years and known for her beauty and promiscuity. She also had affairs with at least five other men. One of those was with the bastard son of Charles and Lucy Walters. Barbara used her feminine charms to secure positions for her friends and family. Yet together, she and Charles had six children. Only five would be acknowledged.

Louise de Kerouaille, also rumored to be a French spy. They had one son together.

Mary "Moll" Davis, was an entertainer, singer, and actress. Together, they had one daughter. She was the only mistress to be given a house, a pension, and a costly ring.

Catherine Pegge. Together they had a son.

Elizabeth Kilgore, Viscountess Shannon. Together they had a daughter.

Lucy Walters. Together they had a son.

Nell Gwyn, actress, and prostitute. Together they had one son.

The other mistresses were: Winifred Wells, Jane Roberts, Mrs. Knight, Mary Bogart and Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare, and Hortense Mancini.

King Charles II

When the Monument to the victims of the Great Fire of London was being made, architect Sir Christopher Wren wanted to place a statue of King Charles II at the top. The king refused, saying, “I was not the one who started the fire.” This shows what kind of man and ruler he was.

King Charles II was born on May 29, 1630. He was the first son born to the current king, Charles I (1600 – 1649). His mother was Queen Consort Henrietta Maria (1609 – 1669), a princess of France. She never had an official coronation or crowning ceremony so she is officially called a Queen Consort instead of Queen.
The Rule of King Charles I
Charles I had a lot more power than British Kings and Queens have today. It is because of Charles I’s misuse of that power that made Parliament demand that Kings and Queens have very little actual power to make laws. Charles was called “Tyrant” because he disbanded Parliament and ruled England, Ireland and Scotland single-handedly for eleven years. He did such a bad job that civil war broke out.
Charles I did many things to upset Parliament. He raised taxes whenever he felt like it, even when Parliament pleaded for him not to. He married a Catholic French princess when most of England was Protestant. The King lived a lavish lifestyle while many people in Great Britain starved.
The Civil Wars
The first Civil War (1642 – 1646) was fought between people loyal to the Monarchy, called Royalists and people loyal to Parliament, called Parliamentarians. The Parliamentary army was led by future Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658.) When Irish people rebelled, Charles I wanted to command the army to punish the Irish. Parliament claimed that it was the rightful commander of the army, not the King. Cromwell won the first Civil War in 1646, but another soon broke out.

There was a brief peace until yet another civil war broke out. Great Britain went through three civil wars in about 20 years. All of the wars finally ended in 1660, with over 200,000 dead from either battle or the starvation and sickness brought on by the wars. The official end of the war was when Charles II was crowned King.

Death of Charles I
The first civil war began when Charles II was 12 years old. His mother was in the Netherlands at the time trying to get money to pay for the Royalist army. When Charles II turned 14, he was given command of the Royalist army in West England. He did not do too well and was beaten. He managed to escape to the Netherlands. His father was not so lucky.

Charles I was captured by Cromwell’s army and put on trial. The King was charged with treason because he started a civil war where so many died and many more suffered. He was sentenced to death. He was executed on January 30, 1649 by having his head chopped off with a large ax. With Charles I dead and Charles II in exile, Cromwell became supreme commander of England until he died in 1658.

The Return of Charles II
Cromwell managed to be an even worse ruler than King Charles I. He had anyone who was not a Protestant or a Jew put to death. He banned horse racing and the theatre because he felt they were sinful. Cromwell’s reign is called the Protectorate, since Cromwell gave himself the title Lord Protector. He did give parliament back its powers.

After Cromwell’s death, his oldest son Robert became Lord Protectorate. He was unpopular and weak. Charles II realized that if he returned to England, he would have many supporters who wanted a Monarchy back instead of a future consisting of Lord Protectors. Charles II returned in 1650 with the strong support of Scotland, long before Oliver Cromwell died. Cromwell beat Charles II’s forces in 1651. Charles II fled England and waited for another good time to return. Charles II finally came home and smashed Robert Cromwell’s army in 1660. With his victory, he became ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Dogs and Horses
Charles II loved dogs, particularly small friendly spaniels. He often held court while playing with his dogs. He helped develop two small spaniel breeds today called the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the lesser-known English toy spaniel, which used to be called the King Charles Spaniel or “Charlies.” Many paintings of King Charles II and his family members include spaniels.

Charles II was completely unlike Oliver Cromwell when it came to horse racing. Charles II loved it. He required his entire court to attend the Newmarket races. When he lifted the ban on horse racing, Newmarket Racecourse started to be called “Old Rowley” which was Charles II’s nickname. He owned a successful thoroughbred stallion named Old Rowley who sired many offspring. Charles II would also have many offspring, although not as many as Old Rowley.

Charles II’s Rule
Charles II allowed Parliament to have much more power but he still retained the power to disband Parliament. This gave Charles II a lot of free time, which he spent at the races and having many extra marital affairs. He hoped that Great Britain would allow religious freedom. He even became a Catholic in order to help end a war with the Dutch. The French would not join Great Britain against the Dutch unless Charles II became Catholic.

Charles II’s reign saw many notable events, including three wars with the Dutch, The Great Fire of London in 1666 and a horrible plague in 1665. His becoming Catholic Angered Parliament and in 1681 Charles I banned Parliament for the last years of his life. However, he was a far more tolerant tyrant than his father.

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Charles II

Charles II was the eldest son of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria. He took the title of Prince of Wales, but was never formally invested with it due of the civil war that broke out violently in 1642.

Charles was born on 29 May 1630 and was just 12 years old when the Civil War broke out between the Royalists, who supported the monarchy, and the Parliamentarians who were led by Oliver Cromwell.

He was forced to flee to France in 1646, and lived in Europe with family members. His father Charles I, the King, was executed on 30 January 1649 at Whitehall in London.
Due to the Royalist's defeat in the war, a period known as the Interregnum occurred. The English Parliament, led by Cromwell, stated that any announcement of Charles being crowned king was illegal in England and Ireland.

However, after his father's death, Charles was invited to assume the throne of Scotland, on the understanding that he would sign the Scottish Covenant. He did this, being crowned on 1 January 1651.

In Scotland, he also found the support to mount a challenge to Oliver Cromwell. However, he was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and is said to have hidden in an oak tree, subsequently escaping to the continent in disguise.

Following this defeat, the country became a virtual dictatorship led by Cromwell, a Puritan who even banned Christmas.

Charles remained abroad until after the death of Oliver Cromwell. He was declared King by Parliament on 8 May 1660, and crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661. He was met with much public acclaim when he returned to London after his 30th birthday.

Charles' reign was marked by a great deal of change and upheaval. His supporters sought to sweep away all the visible remnants of the Parliamentary period and dated all documents as if Charles had been king since 1649. The king, who is thought to have had a leaning towards Catholicism, tried to introduce religious tolerance into the country but was faced with a hostile parliament, who forced him to sign the Clarendon Code, which re-established the Church of England as it had been under his father's reign.

Two notable historical events occurred during Charles's reign, including an appalling plague in 1665, which was halted by the Great Fire of London in 1666. This led to a substantial rebuild of the city.

Between 1665 and 1667, England was at war with the Dutch (second Anglo-Dutch war), which ended in a Dutch victory. In 1670, Charles signed a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France. Under this treaty, he agreed to convert to Catholicism and support the French against the Dutch.

In return for his support during the Third Anglo-Dutch war between 1672 and 1674, he received subsidies from France, leaving him some room to manouvre with parliament.

Charles arranged the marriage of his niece Mary to the Protestant Prince William of Orange in 1677 in a bid to re-establish his Protestant credentials.

Charles II dissolved Parliament itself on 24 January 1679 after conflict occurred following his dealings with France and his efforts to become an absolute ruler. It was also a period of anti-Catholic sentiment and witch-hunts. He ruled without parliament until his death in 1685.

Charles was renowned for his licentiousness and for keeping mistresses, the most famous of whom was the actress, Nell Gwyn. In 1662, he had married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, but their marriage was childless, resulting in some uncertainty about the succession.

He is known as the Merry Monarch in reference to both the liveliness and hedonism of his court as well as the relief to return to normality after ten years of puritan rule. Charles is also thought to have had 12 illegitimate children, with five of these being with his long-standing mistress Barbara Villiers, for whom the title duke of Clevedon was created.

Other mistresses included Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Killigrew and Louise de Kerouaille, duchess of Portsmouth. John Wilmot, the 2nd earl of Rochester wrote of Charles:

"Restless he rolls from whore to whore A merry monarch, scandalous and poor."

Charles was also a patron of the arts and sciences, founding the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and supported the Royal Society, whose members included Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle.

He was also the personal patron of Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt London after the Great Fire and constructed the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded by Charles in 1682 as a home for retired soldiers.

He died of a stroke at Whitehall Palace on 6 February 1685. The king was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. He was succeeded by his younger brother, as James II of England and James VII of Scotland.

The master of disguise

During his last three years of life, until 1685, he succeeded in winning the support of enough of the political nation to rule in safety but the price was high. He had failed to work with Parliaments, and so dared not call any which meant that England could not obtain war taxes and so was essentially paralysed in European affairs. Religious dissenters were once more savagely persecuted, and people who had opposed the king were purged from central and local government. The result might, in the long term, have been a stronger monarchy, but in the time allowed it produced a country that was weaker abroad and more bitterly divided at home.

Charles might be termed the 'Come-Back King' in more obvious senses than that of the restoration of his monarchy. Repeatedly, his ineptitude as a ruler drove his regime into trouble, and repeatedly his abilities were sufficient to drag it back from them, although it is arguable that national politics were left worse poisoned by hatred and doubt on each occasion.

He was, above all a master of disguises, and the greatest of all of these was the witty, sociable, good-humoured, easy-going individual which masked the reckless and unscrupulous politician that lay beneath. All who met Charles for a short time were utterly charmed. All those who knew him better served him with reservations. He treated public life like a masquerade but politics and statecraft are a more serious business than that.

The Restoration of Charles II

Many have seen the Restoration of the monarchy, which took place on 29 May 1660, as inevitable. Yet what is most surprising is its unexpectedness.

The execution of Charles I, was seen, at least by its perpetrators, as a 'necessary sacrifice'. Not all regicides were ideologically republican, nor did all republicans approve the king's demise. They were more concerned to root out the institution of monarchy than to dispose of its latest incumbent. Some regicides could envisage a replacement monarch - a compliant kinsman of Charles, say - rather than going about setting up a republic. But the circumstances of 1649 - the Rump beset by enemies at home and abroad, including a Prince of Wales, exiled, young, vigorous and likely to enlist foreign aid in coming back, even if it meant wading through blood - made both groups ready for a novel regime, a kingless Commonwealth.

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Believing that God would not “make a man miserable only for taking a little pleasure out of the way,” he had made quite sure of his own share and left at least 14 illegitimate offspring, of whom only James, duke of Monmouth, played any part in English politics. Mistresses like Barbara Villiers, duchess of Cleveland, and Louise de Kéroualle, duchess of Portsmouth, were always costly and often troublesome, but Charles probably paid a smaller price for his amours than for his laziness. He was tall and active and loved riding and sailing but, although robust enough to outsit his advisers at the Council board, he hated routine and prolonged application. This failing undermined the effectiveness of his government and led to his dependence on France. But the relaxed tolerance he brought to religious matters in the end may have contributed more to the stability of his reign than was lost by his shifty insincerity.

Charles fully shared the interests of the skeptical, materialist century that saw the foundation of the Royal Society under his charter, and he did something to foster technological improvements in navigation and ship design. The sincerity of his interest in England’s naval advancement is held by some historians to be the most important of his redeeming features, although, like his reputation for wit and high intelligence, it may not stand up to close examination. Any verdict on Charles is therefore controversial. A contemporary wrote of him that “he had as good a claim to a kind interpretation as most men,” and on this basis it may be agreed that his image as a man remains more attractive than his reputation as a king.

Section Summary

After the English Civil War and interregnum, England began to fashion a stronger and larger empire in North America. In addition to wresting control of New York and New Jersey from the Dutch, Charles II established the Carolinas and Pennsylvania as proprietary colonies. Each of these colonies added immensely to the Empire, supplying goods not produced in England, such as rice and indigo. The Restoration colonies also contributed to the rise in population in English America as many thousands of Europeans made their way to the colonies. Their numbers were further augmented by the forced migration of African slaves. Starting in 1651, England pursued mercantilist policies through a series of Navigation Acts designed to make the most of England’s overseas possessions. Nonetheless, without proper enforcement of Parliament’s acts and with nothing to prevent colonial traders from commanding their own fleets of ships, the Navigation Acts did not control trade as intended.


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