I heard on radio this morning that today, May 29, is the anniversary of the birth and accession to the throne of Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1660 and 1685. In this instance, the mention was just a preface to playing a piece of music from the period; however, I had to smile. As a writer and an amateur historian, I have a rather special relationship with this king. Also, while I am generally no big fan of royalty or the institution of monarchy, I do have reasons to have sympathy for Charles.
It is a strange coincidence that I had been thinking about him recently. I use an exercise bike in the evenings, and in order to distract myself from the intense pain that this sometimes causes, I put on a DVD. This week, I had chosen a BBC miniseries about Charles II, without any conscious realisation of this day’s importance. As I sweated, toiled and suffered I was able at least to enjoy Rupert Graves’ sensitive portrayal of a complex man who seemed to have virtue and vice in equal measure. There are points in the programme where one cheers, such as when he defends religious toleration; other parts, such as when he gives in to the insane demands of his advisors and his mistresses, have all the allure of witnessing a giant car accident.
I have other reasons to recollect Charles II from time to time; the first piece I submitted for my Master’s degree course in Creative Writing was entitled “The Court Poet”, and told the story of a bard who had been hired by this monarch. While it was an amateurish effort on my part, it was a point of departure for all my writing afterwards; I was particularly proud of how I had captured the character of Charles’ famously boistrous mistress, Nell Gwynne. For example, after the poet presented his credentials to the king, Nell interjected: “He’s sweet. Are we keeping him?”
It was not until this morning, however, that I found out for quite how many writers, playwrights and poets for whom Charles also represented a beginning. I was previously aware that Charles tore off the constraints on theatre which had been imposed by Oliver Cromwell, his dictatorial and Puritan predecessor; indeed, during Charles’ reign, women were allowed on the stage for the first time. However, it was also said on the radio that he that created the post of Poet Laureate, a position he gave to the accomplished and inspiring John Dryden. Truly, Charles’ Restoration saw a rebirth in the arts, a revolution that perhaps secured Britain’s reputation as a centre of culture. This is a pride of place the nation holds to this day. In other words, I and every other writer, musician and artist in this country, owe him a debt of gratitude.
Despite the sometimes uneven nature of his reign, there is much to learn from his political philosophy as well. One of the first reasons why I felt obliged to write about him was the discovery of his creed, which in some respects mirrors my own: according to the historian Antonia Fraser, his earliest tutors advised that he should be sceptical and moderate, and to be suspicious of ideologues. This was rare advice given the period in which he lived; his was a time in which oscillating between extremes seemed to be the norm. The Tudors, the predecessors to the Stuarts, had put England through periods of rampant Protestantism and heretic-burning Catholicism before settling on middle-way Elizabeth. James I, the first Stuart king which followed Elizabeth’s reign, was a middle-way Protestant, but his son, Charles I, was so determined to impose High Church Anglican religious harmony on the entire British Isles that he managed to provoke a civil war, which ended with him with having his head chopped off. Charles II’s brother, James, later James II, also had problems with extremes: he was a Catholic, and couldn’t stop himself from flaunting his faith to a nation that had reached a more-or-less Protestant settlement. James II was dumped by Parliament and the Dutchman William of Orange in 1688, in what later became known as the “Glorious Revolution”.
Charles II, in contrast, radiated good sense. He was pragmatic when he needed to be: in order to gain the throne, he was willing to cut a deal with the Scots and convert to the Presbyterian creed. This deal fell through, however.
After he was restored (thanks to the chaos left behind by Cromwell’s death), he had Catholics in his government; perhaps this may have been because he was la closet Catholic, he certainly converted to to the faith on his deathbed. That said, during his reign he remained a Protestant king; he understood that ideology should end where good governance began. As such, his overall emphasis was on religious toleration; he had little patience for rabble rousers like Titus Oates. He also acted as if he didn’t quite believe in the fire and brimstone that the religion of the age seemed to summon at every possible instance; while the BBC miniseries is just a drama, it is telling that one of its most effective passages occurs after the Black Death has struck London in 1666. A representative of the city comes to visit Charles in Oxford and informs him of the widespread belief that somehow the vistation of the disease is due to the immorality of Charles’ court. Charles replies, “Curious then that we continue as gaily as we have before, meanwhile it is the poor people of London who are dying.” I have no idea if he said these exact words; however the point is, given his track record, it sounds like something he would say.
The other appealing aspect to his character is his mercy. The country was in sympathy with him upon his restoration; he could have used this in order to gain a greater measure of revenge on those responsible for executing his father and depriving him of the throne. Indeed, there was a list of 50 people who were purposefully excluded from Charles’ amnesty; however, out of these, only 9 were executed. The rest were merely imprisoned or simply excluded from office. “Blood lust”, another feature of the age, was simply not part of his character.
There is a downside to Charles, however: while he was moderate in many respects, he did believe in the absolute authority of the monarchy. He dismissed Parliament in 1679. He was also less than honest: he signed secret treaties with France, and took Louis XIV’s money to help sustain his reign. His ideological suppleness was interpreted negatively by wits of the age, including John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester:
God bless our good and gracious king,
Whose promise none relies on;
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
But having heard this, Charles’ response was not to get angry, but to reply:
That is true; for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.
It’s difficult to be too harsh towards someone who possessed so much candour and good humour. However, apart from fits of Restoration revivals and the occasional documentary or miniseries, mentions of Charles II are limited in comparison to those of Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria or Henry VIII. One can understand the emphasis on Elizabeth, given how she led the country into a prosperous age and was key to defeating the Spanish Armada of 1588. However, Henry VIII was a syphilitic wastrel who bankrupted the country; he dragged the nation into Protestantism only to get money by raiding Church property and to have more chances of fathering a son with a greater variety of women. Queen Victoria had a lot of children, and for good or ill, thus managed to perpetuate the same genes throughout most of the royal families of Europe; in terms of actual progress, however, much of that died with her husband the Prince Consort Albert. After Albert departed, Victoria succumbed to ceaseless and petulant mourning; the monarchy had to be pushed back into public affections by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. In contrast, Charles II seems unpretentious, quick witted, aware, and astute; he is definitely not getting the prominence he deserves, nor the recognition he should receive from those involved in cultural pursuits. So perhaps it falls to me, as one of his few open admirers, to raise a glass on this day and say heartily: wherever you are, Happy Birthday, your Majesty.