Charles II was best known as the Merry Monarch but his reign also saw the rise of colonisation and trade in India, the East Indies and America.
He was born at St James’s Palace on 29 May 1630—the first surviving child of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. He was a robust and exceptionally large baby who inherited his Medici ancestors’ olive-skinned complexion and the Stuart charm.
Charles was declared Prince of Wales in 1638, but never formally created by letters patent.
The Duke of Newcastle taught Charles a wide range of subjects, including literature, chemistry and riding, fencing and shooting.
War and Exile
He was at his father’s side when the Civil War broke out between the King and Parliament. He proved tough and fearless in full battle armour, with sword and pistol, before his twelfth birthday. He narrowly escaped capture at Edgehill.
He grew into a tall, virile, lusty boy, quick-witted and attractive to women. He was bluff, genial, relaxed and ready to have a good time.
The Royalists were defeated at Naseby in 1645 so Charles escaped to France. He was offered asylum at the French court where he attended balls and parties to take his mind off the difficulties of exile.
Charles was proclaimed King in Scotland and Ireland when his father was executed and the abolition of the monarchy on 30 January 1649.
Oliver Cromwell established a new government in England. He borrowed Westminster Abbey’s Coronation Chair for his installation as Lord Protector in 1653.
Charles landed in Scotland and he persuaded his Scottish ally, the Marquis of Montrose to raise a Highland revolt against the Covenanters (Presbyterians) who held power in Scotland. Charles abandoned Montrose after the latter was defeated and captured, and began negotiations with the victors. He accepted the Covenant in return for their support, although he had no intention of keeping his promise, but happy to be crowned King on 1 January 1650 at Scone.
He marched into England where he suffered an overwhelming defeat at Worcester. Charles was a fugitive for six weeks, with a £1,000 bounty on his head. He disguised himself as a labourer and even hid in an oak tree as he eventually escaped to France.
Charles was virtually penniless, adrift and unwelcome. He grew cynical as his small court moved from Cambrai to Mons to Liège to Spa. Charles sank into apathy, depression and dissipation as he sought new mistresses and stopped caring what others thought.
Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, so his son Richard succeeded as Lord Protector.
Changes In Government
However Richard was forced to resign in May 1659, so negotiations began for Charles’s restoration.
His interest in science and discovery was given free rein as he founded the Royal Society in November 1660, including astronomy and navigation. (The Royal Charter was granted on 15 July 1662.)
Charles also had a laboratory built at Whitehall, often sending gentlemen ushers to the Royal Society with questions for the experts, and his own astronomical telescope (the “King’s Tube”).
The Royal Observatory, designed by Christopher Wren, was also founded in 1662.
Wren was also responsible for rebuilding London after the Great Fire in 1666.
The Second Anglo-Dutch War with the Dutch drained the economy dry without any immediate benefits except the capture of New Amsterdam (renamed New York) in America. A treaty was signed in July 1667.
Charles could not manage without Parliament whom he regarded as a necessary evil and a means of raising necessary funds.
He signed the Secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV in May 1670. His youngest sister Henrietta Anne acted as a go-between. Charles agreed to support the French king’s campaigns against the Dutch and convert to Catholicism in return for substantial subsidies.
Charles was devastated when his beloved sister Henrietta Anne died suddenly nearly two months later.
The parliamentary government began to develop the party system with the Whigs and Tories emerging for the first time.
Another secret treaty with France brought more subsidies providing he did not intervene in European matters. Charles dismissed Parliament in 1679 and ruled alone for the rest of his reign.
Territorial expansion and commercial energy increased in North America, the West Indies, West Africa and India.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in 1670 and Charles granted a huge tract of land to William Penn the Quaker in April 1681.
Charles, now aged 54, suffered a stroke at Whitehall on 2 February 1685. He died four days later from mercury poisoning and kidney failure after he converted to Catholicism. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with Anglican rites.
He was the last monarch to have an effigy carried at his funeral. The full-length wax figure, dressed in the oldest-known set of Garter robes in Britain, is still displayed in Westminster Abbey.
The throne passed to his brother James II.
Crofton, Ian, The Kings and Queens of England, Quercus, London, 2006
Erickson, Carolly, Royal Panoply, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2003
Falkus, Christopher, The Life and Times of Charles II, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London, 1972 (Reprinted 1984)
Fraser, Antonia, Charles II: His Life and Times (Abridged, illustrated format), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993
Fraser, Antonia [Editor], The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, (reprinted 2005)
Williamson, David, Debrett’s Kings and Queens of Britain, Webb & Bower (Publishers) Limited, London, 1986
BBC – History, Charles II
© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 7 May 2010 and Carolyn’s blog on 25 July 2016.