The Character of Charles II (2023)

Charles II

The Character of Charles II (1)
Reproduced from E Beresford Chancellor, Old Rowley (King Charles II), The Lives of the Rakes (London: Philip and Allan & Co., 1924) ii.


Charles II was born in 1630 under, it was said, the influence of an auspicious new star that had appeared in the heavens to announce his birth. He was present at the Battle of Edgehill, the first engagement in the English Civil War in 1642, but was for much of the war shuttled about from place to place, as his father was concerned that the young Prince of Wales not fall into the hands of Parliament. He spent much of this time in the care of his future chief minister, Edward Hyde.

Following the execution of his father in 1649, Charles was invited to Scotland to be crowned king of that nation, the Scottish Covenanters under Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll, having fallen out with the English Parliamentarians. He was crowned at Scone in 1650, but was soon chafing under the restrictions placed upon him by his new "subjects." A Scottish invasion of England in 1651, led by the new King, ended disastrously at Worcester, where the combined Scottish-English Royalist forces were routed by Oliver Cromwell; Charles, after a brief but gallant attempt to rally his troops, fled, finally finding refuge on the Continent after a series of harrowing adventures which were later to become an integral part of his "legend." He spent the next 9 years in exile, surviving mostly upon the charity of foreign monarchs, and apparently with little chance of regaining his birthright.

In 1658, however, Cromwell died, and, in the year and a half of political instability that followed, the English began to look again to the House of Stuart for leadership. Events took a decisive turn when George Monck, one of Cromwell's generals, marched his army from Scotland to London in January of 1660, unseated the Rump Parliament, and invited the King home again. Charles, with the guidance of Hyde, who still directed him, issued the Declaration of Breda, which proclaimed his moderation and willingness to rule according to constitutional precedent; he was welcomed back to England in May of 1660 by wild and rapturous crowds.

The first 2 years of Charles's reign were spent attempting to heal the divisions that two decades of civil war and strife had wrought, a task in which he was guided by Hyde, now created Earl of Clarendon. The attempt to reconcile "old" Royalists and the Presbyterian loyalists (such as Monck) who had engineered his return was only partially successful, and the seeds of future party politics were sown. In 1662 he married Catherine of Braganza, a Portugese princess who brought with her Tangiers as a dowry. The marriage was not a successful one, although the King and Queen continued to live together reasonably amicably despite Charles's many infidelities. Unfortunately, the marriage remained childless, a fact that was to generate much future trouble, as it left Charles's brother James, Duke of York, as heir to the throne.

In 1665, he committed England to a war with the Dutch which began promisingly, but ended disastrously in 1667; the price of this failure was the political existence of Clarendon, whom Charles seems to have been quite willing to scapegoat for the defeat. Clarendon fled into exile in France, where he spent the remainder of his life preparing his History of the Great Rebellion for publication. Charles, meanwhile, appointed a new administration headed by Henry Bennet, the Earl of Arlington; this was often referred to as the "Cabal" ministry by contemporaries, a reference both to the initials of the administration's chief ministers, and to the supposedly sinister and secretive nature of their policies. In fact, Charles himself was very much in command, and, in 1670, signed the Treaty of Dover with the French which included a secret parallel treaty that was kept hidden even from Arlington. The secret portions of the treaty made provision for clandestine financial support from Louis XIV, in return for which Charles was to convert to Roman Catholicism, and prepare for the conversion of England in the future. Charles gladly accepted the money; he showed little sign, however, of either changing faiths himself, or of leading England back into the Popish fold.

Despite the secret subsidies from France, Charles remained in financial difficulties, a situation not improved by his entry, on the side of France, into another war with the Dutch in 1672; this war too went poorly for the English, and was concluded indecisively in 1674.

In the meantime, however, political turmoil was beginning to make itself felt at home. The public exposure, in 1672, of James, Duke of York's conversion to Catholicism, and widespread rumours about the contents of the secret parallel treaty of Dover, began to undermine the King's political position, and he found himself facing an increasingly intractable Parliamentary opposition. Charles's own failed attempts to introduce Bills of Toleration, relieving Dissenters and Papists of many of the legal restrictions placed upon them, further increased suspicions. All came to a head in 1678 with the "revelation," introduced by the religious mountebank Titus Oates, that there was a Papist conspiracy afoot to assassinate the King, and place the Duke of York upon the throne.

The "Popish Plot" was an almost complete fabrication, but for close to 3 years it created political havoc in England, as the opposition (or the "Whigs," as they were coming to be known) exploited the anti-Catholic and anti-Yorkist hysteria in order to exclude James from the succession and seize effective control of the government. Charles's dilemma became more personal, and more difficult, when the Duke of Monmouth, a favourite illegitimate son of the King, was advanced as a new candidate for the crown upon Charles's death. Charles and his allies (the "Tories") bided their time and weathered the storm, however, obstinately refusing to abandon the legitimate heir, the Duke of York. At last, in 1682, the tide began to turn irrevocably, as the English people began to tire of the political chaos. Following the revelation of a real, Protestant plot to assassinate the King (the "Rye House Plot") in 1683, Charles and the Tories were able to move decisively, and crushed the opposition. The "Tory Revenge" that followed seemed to represent an almost complete victory for Charles; even that most troublesome of Whig strongholds, London, was silenced effectively when the King revoked its charter.

Unfortunately for Charles, his victory came too late for him to enjoy properly; he died in 1685, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. For his brother James he left a kingdom that was fast regaining its prosperity, and had apparently left political tumult behind it.


The character of Charles II remains something of an enigma today, as it was, it seems, also to his contemporaries. His oft-quoted determination, following his return from exile in 1660, never again to embark upon his "travels," is sometimes seen as a key to understanding his conduct as king, and there may be a great deal of truth to this. Charles seems to have been a survivor: certainly, he seldom let "principle," which had proven so disastrous to his father, and which would, in turn, help bring about the fall of his brother, endanger his throne. In one area only did he prove inflexible: his stubborn defence of his brother James, and of the latter's right to succession, during the Exclusion Crisis suggests, at least, a strong sense of family loyalty.

Ideologically, Charles probably tended towards the absolutism so characteristic of all of the Stuarts, but he was not so foolish as to pursue royal power nakedly. Where his father and brother might insist publicly upon the Crown's absolute independence with regard to Parliament and nation, Charles worked clandestinely, finally achieving this independence by means of a series of secret deals and under-the-table payments from the French king, Louis XIV. His apparently complete victory over the Whig Exclusionists after 1682 was the fruit of opportunism rather than of careful planning or the single-minded pursuit of an idealized conception of monarchy. Samuel Pepys's comment in 1667 on attempts to establish a standing army that would help enforce the Royal will is telling if not perhaps entirely fair: "the design is, and the Duke of York [i.e., Charles's brother James] is hot for it, to have a land army and so make the government like that of France: but our princes have not brains, or at least care and forecast, enough to do that."

Indeed, Charles's competence as both a political manager and national leader are very much open to debate. Some have seen him as a wily and astute, if unscrupulous, manipulator both of public opinion and of the political scene; others have characterized him as one who merely staggered from crisis to crisis, succeeding, ultimately, more by dint of good luck than by ability. Certainly his policies, both domestic and foreign, through the later 1660s and 1670s were fairly disastrous: England fared poorly in two wars against the Dutch, and found its foreign policy increasingly dictated by France. On the domestic front, resentment against the apparently arbitrary and pro-Catholic policies of his governments simmered for nearly two decades before finally exploding into a real threat against his rule with the Popish Plot crisis that erupted in 1678. Mismanagement of finances, and of Parliament, also forced Charles, in 1672, to issue a Stop on the Exchequer – a de facto declaration of government bankruptcy.

On a personal level, Charles could evidently be a delightful companion: witty, generous, and immensely accessible, he charmed both the members of his own court, and, more surprisingly, the common people, with whom he never lost his enormous personal popularity. He could be very gentle and compassionate: while his numerous amours and the high public profiles maintained by many of his mistresses were doubtless an enduring humiliation to his queen, Catherine of Braganza, he seems to have had real affection for her, and worked very hard to protect her when she, briefly, became a target of the anti-Catholic hysteria of 1678-1681. He could also, on occasion, be very tolerant: he endeavoured, on numerous occasions, to protect both Quakers and Roman Catholics from oppression (although, when really pressed, he was also willing to abandon both). On the other hand, his sense of political loyalty was not always of the best: his willingness to throw the always-loyal Earl of Clarendon to the political wolves in 1667, and his abandonment of Lord Danby in the later 1670s, are among the less creditable of his political manipulations.

Charles II was probably the last English monarch to be truly in touch with the literary scene of his day. He was an avid reader of "light" (i.e., non-religious) literature, and was particularly attracted to witty satire, even when he himself was the target. He was the most important patron of the theatre of the age, and his influence upon the Restoration drama, both as benefactor and as arbitrator of taste, was far from negligible.

One of the best known and most interesting assessments of Charles's character was that of one of his chief ministers, George Savile, the Marquis of Halifax, who served both as an ally and in opposition; first published in 1750, it is here given in part:

He had a mechanical head, which appeared in his inclination to shipping and fortification, &c. This would make one conclude, that his thoughts would naturally have been more fixed to business, if his pleasures had not drawn them away from it.
He had a very good memory, though he would not always make equal good use of it. So that if he had accustomed himself to direct his faculties to his business, I see no reason why he might not have been a good deal master of it. His chain of memory was longer than his chain of thought; the first could bear any burden, the other was tired by being carried on too long; it was fit to ride a heat, but it had not wind enough for a long course.
. . .
He grew by age into a pretty exact distribution of his hours, both for his business, pleasures, and the exercise for his health, of which he took as much care as could possibly consist with some liberties he was resolved to indulge in himself. He walked by his watch, and when he pulled it out to look upon it, skilful men would make hast with what they had to say to him.
He was often retained in his personal against his politic capacity. He would speak upon those occasions most dexterously against himself; Charles Stuart would be bribed against the King; and in the distinction, he leaned more to his natural self, than his character would allow. He would not suffer himself to be so much fettered by his character as was convenient; he was still starting out of it, the power of nature was too strong for the dignity of his calling, which generally yielded as often as there was a contest.
It was not the best use he made of his back stairs to admit men to bribe him against himself, to procure a defalcation, help a lame accountant to get off, or side with the farmers against the improvement of the revenue. The King was made the instrument to defraud the Crown, which is somewhat extraordinary.
. . .
He could not properly be said to be either covetous or liberal; his desire to get was not with an intention to be rich; and his spending was rather an easiness in letting money go, than any premeditated thought for the distribution of it. He would do as much to throw off the burden of a present importunity, as he would to relieve a want.
When once the aversion to bear uneasiness taketh place in a man's mind, it doth so check all the passions, that they are damped into a kind of indifference; they grow faint and languishing, and come to be subordinate to that fundamental maxim, of not purchasing any thing at the price of a difficulty. This made that he had as little eagerness to oblige, as he had to hurt men; the motive of his giving bounties was rather to make men less uneasy to him, than more easy to themselves; and yet no ill-nature all this while. He would slide from an asking face, and could guess very well. It was throwing a man off from his shoulders, that leaned upon them with his whole weight; so that the party was not gladder to receive, than he was to give. It was a kind of implied bargain; though men seldom kept it, being so apt to forget the advantage they had received, that they would presume the King would as little remember the good he had done them, so as to make it an argument against their next request.
. . .
It must be allowed he had a little over-balance on the well-natured side, not vigour enough to be earnest to do a kind thing, much less to do a harsh one; but if a hard thing was done to another man, he did not eat his supper the worse for it. It was rather a deadness than severity of nature, whether it proceeded from a dissipation of spirits, or by the habit of living in which he was engaged.
If a King should be born with more tenderness than might suit with his office, he would in time be hardened. The faults of his subjects make severity so necessary, that by the frequent occasions given to use it, it comes to be habitual, and by degrees the resistance that nature made at first groweth fainter, till at last it is in a manner quite extinguished.
In short, this Prince might more properly be said to have gifts than virtues, as affability, easiness of living, inclinations to give, and to forgive: Qualities that flowed from his nature rather than from his virtue.

[Text from Mark N. Brown, ed., The Works of George Savile

Marquis of Halifax, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) 499-502]

Further Reading

Bryant, Sir Arthur. King Charles II. London, New York, [etc.]:

Longmans, Green and co., 1931.

[A rather old-fashioned, but very readable account of King Charles's life and times.]

[DBW stack DA445.B77]

Hutton, Ronald. Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland, and

Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Oxford; Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

[This remains the seminal account of Charles II. By one of the foremost historians of the period, it tends to focus upon Charles's political biography, particularly in the domestic sphere, and is correspondingly a little scanty on personal detail: nonetheless, Hutton's characterization of the King as a rather unlikable and ineffective political opportunist has become very influential. An important book, and a valuable resource, particularly if one's focus is upon the politics of the age.]

[DBW stack DA446.H93 1989 ]

Masters, Brian. The Mistresses of Charles II. London : Blond &

Briggs, 1979.

[Not surprisingly, given its focus, this book tends a little to the "popular" side of history. Nonetheless, it is probably the best full-length account of Charles's mistresses, and of their impact upon court life and politics in the period.]

[DBW stack DA446.M38]

Miller, John. Charles II. London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.

[Although not as influential as Hutton's biography, this book serves as a useful companion, and counterbalance, to it. Miller is a highly reputable historian, and here provides a rather different focus upon the character of Charles II than does Hutton. It is also a somewhat more accessible book.]

[DBW stack DA446.M55 1991]

Palmer, Tony. Charles II: Portrait of an Age. London : Cassell, 1979.

[DBW stack DA445.P27]

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