Charles II and his court
Charles II is one of the most enigmatic and colourful monarchs in British History. Forget the Tudors, the Stuarts are where it’s at for scandal, betrayal, and power trips… not to mention a healthy dose of sex, adultery and illegitimate children!
The Restoration, a term used to mark the re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 after the Interregnum and parliamentary rule, often includes the entirety of Charles II’s reign, which ran from 1660 – 1685.
The country had been shaken by the English Civil Wars, the execution of Charles I, and the puritan Interregnum and military rule of Oliver Cromwell. But now, their prince had returned, and Charles II ascended to his throne on the wave of support for the monarchy that had been abolished just eleven years earlier. In 1660, to the fanfare of public joy and excitement, Charles II returned from his long stay in exile to be crowned king. His return to England was celebrated with street parties, bonfires, ceremonies and parade, and the royal procession through the streets of London and his coronation day were so successful that they were reported to have taken place without one drop of blood being spilled.
For many people the return of Charles represented a shift in the cultural and social landscape of England; one that moved away from the old regimes, and towards a new way of modernity and prosperity. But for others some of the changes proved a little too extreme.
The Merry Monarch
Charles II was nicknamed the ‘Merry Monarch’ for good reason; indulgence, exuberance and pleasure became the new aspirations of the upper classes. The arrival of the king saw London become the new fashionable, social hub of the country and the playground of the nobility. Theatres were re-opened with women on the stage for the first time, public taverns were drawing in men and women from across society, the king and his courtiers brushed shoulders with the common folk in the city parks, and the court especially was host to raucous parties and illicit encounters.
While in exile, Charles had spent considerable time at the French court, which was notorious across Europe for its decadence and sexually active courtiers and ladies. On his return to England, he brought many of the French trends with him, and turned the previously dry and plain English court into a hedonistic palace of pleasure.
The upshot of all this was that at Whitehall, pleasure, entertainment and free love reigned supreme. Charles surrounded himself with young, bawdy courtiers - rakes and libertines, as they were known - who were concerned more with having fun through gambling, drinking, womanising and partying than anything else like work or family. The ladies of the court were having a great time too – they were encouraged to be witty, intelligent, brazen, and sexually liberated rather than following the outdated ideals of women who were passive, obedient, and virtuous. The palaces were a merry-go-round of adultery, with women playing an equally active role as men.
A diary entry from the courtier John Evelyn, a supporter of the monarchy and Charles II, but a fierce critic to his court, summed up palace life well:
“I am never to forget the unexpressable luxury, and prophanesse, gaming, and all dissolution, and as it were total forgetfullnesse of God (it being Sunday Evening) which this day sennight, I was witnesse of; the King, sitting and toying with his Concubines Portsmouth, Cleaveland, and Mazarine: etc: A French boy singing love songs, in that glorious Gallery, whilst about 20 of the greate Courtiers and other dissolute persons were at Basset round a large table, a bank of at least 2000 in Gold before them… it being a sceane of uttmost vanity.”
The public nature of Charles’ adultery was a whole new issue for many to contend with. Until now, most English monarchs, though they had private mistresses, were much more subtle about their affairs. But Charles, true to his nature, was excessively open about his many illicit affairs.
Mistresses and Illegitimate children
Another common practice in France that Charles quickly adopted back at home was the tradition for the monarch to have a maîtresse-en-titre, a woman who held the official position of the King’s chief mistress. These women were publicly acknowledged, given apartments at the palace, showered with wealth, and had political influence with the King and court.
Charles was no stranger to mistresses; he had already bedded several beauties over on the continent and fathered four illegitimate children before he had even been declared king and sailed back to England. But now he wanted to introduce a new dynamic to his court back home, and he had a conquest on the horizon: Barbara Palmer, the outstandingly beautiful and married noblewoman who had been part of the entourage that accompanied him back from the continent for his coronation. Charles began his reign as he would continue to do for the rest of his life: with a recognised mistress at his side.
It is difficult to put exact figures on how many women were considered Charles’ acknowledged mistresses, but there were certainly at least fourteen women who are considered so, because they were either with him in a long-term capacity, or had children with him, or both. On top of that, he had countless flings with other women, and also used the services of prostitutes. It could be argued that he had some kind of sex addiction – though they wouldn’t have called it that at the time!
Meanwhile the queen, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, was left isolated, unhappy and side-lined by the “Windsor beauties”. It was common knowledge that the king enjoyed the company of his mistresses above anyone else.
Questionable morality wasn’t the only concern that people had about Charles’ relationships, because with the mistresses came thirteen illegitimate, but officially recognised, children. They would need to be provided for, and the ever-generous Charles ensured that they were well looked after. They had the best education, were raised to the highest ranks of the nobility, had apartments at the palace and estates in the countryside, received the most prestigious offices available, and were granted pensions and annuities from the crown, not to mention the gambling debts that had to be paid off. With a few exceptions, most of the illegitimate offspring grew up to be just like their parents: frivolous, entitled, and greedy.
The issue was only made worse by the fact that Queen Catherine was unable to have children. And, in the absence of any legitimate heirs to the throne, the expenditure and efforts spent on his illegitimate children, who could never ascend to the throne, were deemed as excessive and lamented by many.
Cuckolds all a row
At court, and on the streets of London and beyond, the pre-occupation with sex at the palace became a hot topic for satirists, poets and playwrights. At the centre of the concern about this sexy new court life were Charles’ mistresses. No longer simply objects for the men at court to enjoy, these women were able to enjoy the sexual liberation of the court, while exploiting it to their own advantage by gaining wealth, prestige, and influence.
Some people liked them – it made the king seem more human, especially when he took on his common mistresses like Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn, and for those who themselves wanted to experience a more free and exciting love life, the beautiful mistresses and the decadent court lifestyle were alluring. But many more people thought that these nobles represented everything that was wrong at court: immorality, corruption, and debauchery.
Cuckolds all a row, England, The Joy of Dance through the Ages, www.dancilla.com
Most of the poems, ballads and other satirical works came from outside critics like religious groups or anti-monarchists. But some of the satire came from within the walls of the palace and Charles’ closest friends.
The most famous was James Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a young rake who was part of the circle of Charles’ favourite courtiers. His 1673 poem, “A Satyr on Charles II”, was a crude and no-holds barred stab at Charles’ sexual exploits and mistresses at the expense of the kingdom. Rochester, who was himself a man of excessive pleasure and passions (he died aged 33 from various venereal diseases and alcoholism), was banished from court for several months for this critique, though Charles, who just couldn’t resist the company of his libertine friend, soon let him return to court.
While Charles was less keen to take criticism, he was happy to laugh at everyone else’s expense. He found all the sexual exploits of his court to be most amusing and enjoyed the scandalous gossip as much as anyone else. One of his favourite court dances was the aptly named “Cuckolds all a row” which he called for as the opening country song at the new year’s eve ball in 1662.
A polarising character
For some, Charles was a thoroughly modern monarch, a man of culture and splendour, and a king who brought life back into a dull and austere country. He re-opened all the theatres and allowed women to act on stage for the first time ever, reinstated public holidays and feasts that had been banned under the Protectorate, and tried to practise religious tolerance and attempted to appease all groups in question. Charles was also an incredibly accessible man, who strolled in St James’ Park, attended the playhouses, and frequented the taverns of London. He had a wide variety of interests such as philosophy, science and experiments which led to the founding of The Royal Society and the Royal Observatory. And, in many ways, his style of rule laid the foundations of what we now recognise as the modern monarchical system.
But, to others he was an embarrassment to the kingdom and to the institution of the monarchy. He despised paperwork and whenever possible he palmed off official administration to his more willing ministers, preferring instead to enjoy the pleasure of his court. He spent excessive amounts of money on his mistresses and illegitimate children, usually drawing funds from the privy purse and the exchequer, at the expense of the country. People believed that when it came to state matters, his mistresses either influenced his decision making, or distracted him from it altogether. To critics he gambled with the country’s finances, safety, and alliances, and showed little competence while doing it.
Then, as now, the figure of King Charles II divided opinion.
The legacy of Charles II
However Charles is perceived as a man and a king one thing is certain: he has endeared himself to the public imagination in a way that no other king, bar Henry VIII, has done.
Not only that, but he has altered the make-up of the aristocracy and the royal family. If he had sired legitimate heirs to the throne, he may have spent more time with Catherine, and less time proving his fertility and manhood with other women. But several of his descendants, products of illicit affairs and children born out of wedlock, are prominent members of the British royal family even today.
Meet Charles' Mistresses