We’ve arrived at the top three in my list of real-life characters from the Mercia Blakewood novels, and so we reach the Restoration King himself, Charles II, whose reputation as a frivolous merrymaker hid a more devious side of his nature.
3: King Charles II (1630 – 1685)
‘I have learnt in my life how fragile a commodity is trust.’”Charles II, Traitor, Chapter Nine
In popular myth, Charles II has been branded with affection the ‘Merry Monarch’, a charming bon vivant who was a glorious breath of fresh air after the restrictions of the Puritan period. But the reality is of course more nuanced.
Charles was a conflicted character: on the surface he came across as a likeable ruler, allowing his subjects access to his private chambers to watch him dress and undress in a form of seventeenth century PR stunt, but underneath he was inevitably haunted by the events of his earlier years, and until later in his life he was never fully secure on his throne. Certainly he had a darker side, for he could be stubborn, merciless and even despotic, content at the end to dismiss his Parliament when it did not agree with his demands. And while he earned what could charitably be called a chivalrous reputation, happy to promote women in the theatre and – like Mercia Blakewood in Birthright and Traitor – employ them for espionage work, she was one of the luckier ones. Others, like the playwright Aphra Behn, went unpaid and were discarded when they were no longer of use.
Childhood of War
Born in May 1630, Charles was the eldest surviving son of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, sister to the King of France. Pan-European in his genes, his grandparents were the Scottish-born King James I (VI of Scotland) and his Danish queen Anne of Teck; and the French King Henri IV and his Italian wife Marie de Medici. A healthy child, when he grew past the trials of seventeenth-century infancy there seemed no question that he would become King one day. But when he was only twelve years old, all that changed.
In 1642, civil war broke out across the nation, pitting Charles’s father and the Royalist army on one side against Parliament under Oliver Cromwell on the other. At the first battle of the war, the Battle of Edgehill not far from Mercia’s home in Halescott, the young Prince Charles was nearly captured, and events continued to go badly for the Royalists. After a stint at the royal Court in Oxford, Charles was moved to the West Country where under ever increasing pressure from the Parliamentarians he was forced to Devon, then Cornwall, Land’s End, the Scilly Isles, then finally escape to Jersey and thence exile in Europe. It was there that at 18 years of age he received the news that his father had been executed, the monarchy abolished, and himself declared a wanted man. Initially he chose to fight back, landing in Scotland and raising an army, but in 1651 he was defeated at the Battle of Worcester, and after a series of narrow escapes he reached the south coast there to flee the country once more.
Exile and Restoration
For the rest of the decade Charles lived in bored exile, a young man in his twenties occasionally exciting himself with women and the odd attempt to influence matters back home, but holding little hope he would ever return. But in 1658 Oliver Cromwell died, his son proved an inept heir, and sick of strife the English appealed to their exiled prince to return to reclaim his throne. Charles gleefully promised to rule in full cooperation with Parliament, as well as to grant a general amnesty to all those who had sided against the Royalists in the war – with the glaring exception of the men who had signed his father’s death warrant, the so-called regicides like John Dixwell and Edward Whalley & William Goffe (all featured on this blog). And so on his thirtieth birthday, 29 May 1660, Charles arrived in London to be restored to his throne in triumph, so beginning that period in Britain’s history commonly called the Restoration.
At first Charles trod carefully, consolidating his power behind the scenes, aware his position was precarious. Nowadays, we characterise the first decade of his rule – in the middle of which Mercia’s adventures are set – with the three hardships of war, plague and fire. Britain’s principal enemy at the time was the Dutch, with whom Charles’s court soon became engaged in a battle for supremacy in trade: the 1660s saw the Second Anglo-Dutch war, during which the capture of New Amsterdam (as seen in Birthright) and the Battle of Lowestoft (as seen in Traitor) took place. Both were successes for the British, but soon events took a devastating turn.
In 1665 the Great Plague took hold, during which Mercia’s latest story Survival is set, seeing thousands die. Charles abandoned London for Salisbury and then Oxford for several months, only returning the following year. Then in 1666 the famous Great Fire of London raged, and in 1667 the Dutch sailed up the Thames and Medway to burn the British fleet and tow Charles’s very flagship – the eponymous Royal Charles – back to the Netherlands in disgrace (the royal arms from the stern is still on display in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum today). And yet despite these disasters, Charles’s popularity with the public only continued to increase, his reputation soaring when he took to the streets during the Fire to help fight the terrible blaze close up.
At the start of his reign, Charles married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, but their relationship was born more of diplomacy than affection. Although he treated her well, theirs was not a close partnership, nor did the couple produce a living heir. Instead Charles has become famous for his vast number of mistresses, from the powerful and political Lady Castlemaine (as seen in Traitor) to history’s most famous orange seller Nell Gwyn: indeed contemporaries referred to the King as Old Rowley, the name of his favourite stallion. He had a large number of children with these mistresses, perhaps not all of whom were known, but by and large he treated his offspring well, giving them preferment and title. Today, the current Duke of Cambridge is descended from Charles through two of these ennobled children, and will be the first direct descendent of Charles II to inherit the throne after a gap of well over three centuries.
Outside of politics and kingship, Charles held numerous enlightened interests. Forbidden under Puritan rule, he reopened the theatres with gusto, and required that women play female roles in difference to the practice hitherto. He adored sailing, owning a yacht docked at Whitehall Palace, the Folly, which Mercia visits in Birthright. He was the patron founder of the Royal Society, an institution established to further scientific endeavours that is still active today and to which John Winthrop Jr belonged (as in Puritan). He founded the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and The Royal Hospital Chelsea, home to the Chelsea Pensioners. He also had a passion for horse racing, frequently visiting Newmarket where the King Charles II Stakes take place yearly today.
In the late 1670s, anti-Catholic hysteria swept the nation when Titus Oates and others invented the so-called Popish Plot, alleging that Catholics were plotting to assassinate the King. Charles however was by and large tolerant of religious diversity, perhaps unsurprising when his brother was an avowed Catholic and he himself reputedly converted on his deathbed. Although he treated the fictitious claims with scepticism, others were taken in, and with Parliament baying for blood, 22 innocents were sent to their deaths.
False though it may have been, the plot exposed the general ill feeling towards Catholics in the land, and especially in Parliament. By the 1680s, with no heir of his own and passing his 50th birthday, Charles strove to ensure that his brother James would become King after him, much to the consternation of Parliament who had sought to exclude him as a Catholic. Now more secure on his throne and enjoying a high level of public popularity, Charles’s response to this obstruction was simply to dismiss Parliament altogether.
Like his father before him, he then ruled without a Parliament, surviving another plot to kill him – this time real – by aggrieved Protestants. Then in early February of 1685 he suddenly took seriously ill. Only 54 at the time, this suddenness led some to suspect foul play, but this was never proved and has since been shown to be unlikely. Over the next few days he was bled, given a remarkable quantity of dubious drugs, and had hot irons applied to his person. Despite these administrations, or perhaps because of them, the King’s initial signs of recovery proved brief, and he quickly deteriorated until around noon on 6 February 1685, Charles died.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey after an unostentatious ceremony, possibly to hide his supposed conversion to Catholicism. Neither was any monument to him raised, although a wax effigy was soon after created to stand over his grave. The effigy is still within the Abbey today, gazing out with a peculiar, pensive likeness. For two centuries after his death, Charles and the Restoration were celebrated on Oak Apple Day, a now officially defunct festival named after the Oak at Boscobel in which he hid after the Battle of Worcester, an escapade he delighted in recounting to all who would listen to the end of his eventful days.
Next: Barbara Villiers, otherwise Lady Castlemaine, power behind the throne
Photographs by Matthew Jackson / David Hingley
Portraits of Charles are licensed from the National Portrait Gallery under the Creative Commons licence scheme