Wednesday 25 July 2012

Charles II by Eleanor Updale

There's no point in me re-telling Charles II's story here.  It's easy enough to find the basic facts on thousands of Internet sites. Instead, here are few thoughts from me about why he is my choice for the History Girls' birthday month. 
But first some material for your pub quiz:  Did you know that the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) becomes King, he will be the first direct descendant of Charles II to reach the throne?
It's all because of his mother, Princess Diana, whose ancestors included two of Charles's mistresses: 

Barbara Palmer (Villers), 1st Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Castlemaine who produced Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton, and Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, mother of Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond.

The Duchess of Portsmouth (Squintabella to Nell Gynn) is also an ancestor of The Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker-Bowles) and The Duchess of York (Fergie).
Charles’s recognition and ennoblement of his bastards has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving.  And the potential Charles III has received two of the presents.
By the way, if you are near London before 30th September, you can find out more about Charles’s women in an exhibition of portraits called The Beautiful and the Damned.  I haven’t been, so I can’t give an opinion on how good it is, but there is information here
And while I'm being frivolous, let me admit that the women and the wigs are part of the attraction where I'm concerned.  I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit fed up with living in a world where the press imagines we prefer to be ruled exclusively by people no one wants to sleep with. It simply must have been more fun to have a figurehead with a smile on his face and some fire in his loins after the dowdy Commonwealth years.

But, birthday or no birthday, this is a serious website, so here is my serious point.  The other reason I like Charles II, or rather am attracted to his story and his era, is precisely because, as a child an young man, he lived through the Civil War and interregnum, and had a more varied and uncertain life than might have been expected for him at birth.  It seems that the experiences of his youth profoundly affected the atmosphere he created around him as a monarch, and though he himself did some pretty contemptible things (Secret diplomacy, a cavalier [ha ha] approach to Parliament, etc) he enabled, in others, achievements of lasting value which laid the foundations for the Enlightenment.

It always strikes me as odd that the textbook accounts of Charles pay little attention to his early life.

 He was only 12 when the Civil War broke out, and 19 when his father was executed. 

Now, while it can't have been that uncomfortable lodging in France with his cousin Louis the Sun King, or with royal relations in the Low Countries, it's important to remember that Charles couldn't have known what a hash Richard Cromwell would make of government, or that he would ever be invited to return as King. He must have grown accustomed to living in a different relationship to politics and God than that of his father and grandfather. Just as important, many of those who supported him before and after his exile lived through even more violent swings of fortune, (not just in the material sense, but in the level of confidence that they would stay alive). All of them had been forced to contemplate, and most had actually experienced, a life with little money, and precious little social status. And they all must have had a sense of how quickly their roles might change again.  

In many ways, living through the mid to late seventeenth century must have been like living in Eastern Europe in the late 20th or the Arab world in the early 21st.  Which horse do you back? Where do you draw the line between principle and a quiet life? And, on a personal level, what is the point of existence? The prospect of death focuses the mind, and for some can engender higher thoughts, which in quieter times can be the source of remarkable work.  Eventually, if only temporarily, societies settle down, and sometimes they have a little cultural spasm to go with it (if only, these days, winning the Eurovision song contest).  In Charles's realm, people were ready to take the breaks off, and he both left them to it, and sometimes lent a hand.

It mattered that he supported the Royal Society of Wren, Hooke and Pepys, even if his attention span was limited when it came to studying their scientific endeavours. He even (fleetingly, and before the Great Fire) took an interest in plans to improve the appearance and air quality in London through building controls and restrictions on the burning of coal.  After the fire, his personal interest in the reconstruction (not unaffected by the desire to match Louis VIII in self-aggrandisement) and his insistance on massive nationwide taxes and donations of wood, meant that Wren and Hooke could plan on a grand scale.  Thanks to him (and the influence of his exile in France) we have St James’s Park, St Paul's, and much, much, more.  
It mattered that Charles’s patronage brought painters like Lely and Kneller to the attention of other patrons who paid their bills.  It mattered that he, and the parliaments that served him, relaxed the censorship laws and allowed the Restoration dramatists to thrive.  And it also mattered that (if only, perhaps, to avoid too much scrutiny of his own religious stance) his world was relatively free of the need for public expositions of sectarian faith.  If you read the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from the time, and much of the correspondents between the Fellows, what is striking is that God just isn't there. He's not denied, nor discussed, nor celebrated.  He's just exempted from the language.  Religious argument continued elsewhere, of course, with as much passion as ever. But Charles didn't join in, and created an atmosphere in which others felt entitled to use their minds relatively freely to think outside the bounds of dogma.

Charles was still a flamboyant consumer extraordinaire, but he showed off by riding in the park, where his subjects could see him, and he posed by supporting creative talent rather than suppressing it. 
And he turned the lights back on.  it's easy to sneer at the Merry Monarch label, but it stuck because the tone he set was appreciated,

I have put the case for Charles too strongly.  You will be able to provide copious examples of him behaving monstrously. Without doubt, some of the freedoms enjoyed by his subjects were accidental. 

In one area there’s a comic parallel with today. As the postal service grew, Charles tried to implement a ferocious surveillance system.  By aiming to read everything, his spies ended up finding next to nothing.  The task was simply unmanageable.  How like our world, where we have more CCTV cameras than we have people to watch them, and where the best place for a terrorist to hide must surely be the endless queue for the cursory attention of security staff at an airport, or at any public event wearing a fluorescent yellow vest? 
Charles was no civil libertarian, but it’s worth reflecting that the worst attempts to deal with threats to the state by imposing imprisonment without charge, trial, or knowledge of the evidence for the prosecution happened under William III - in a reign often lauded (at least to the east of the Irish Sea) for its liberalism, simply because it began with something called the Bill of Rights.
I’m persuaded by John Evelyn’s verdict on Charles.  Acknowledging his extravagance, he nevertheless described him as ‘a prince of many virtues and many great imperfections, debonair, easy of access, not bloody or cruel.’
But this is a birthday month, so back to the party games.  Do I really like Charles because of the women and the wigs?  What would he look like with different hair?

Oh dear. Not my type, at all, it turns out.  Superficial, Moi?


Leslie Wilson said...

An engaging man, certainly - and I do admire him for getting out there during the Great Fire and fire-fighting himself, which you wouldn't find our current Royals doing. However, his treatment of the regicides was pretty savage. I like the story that Noel Streatfeild was told about one of her Quaker ancestors. When Charles was out and met this man - how different from today! he would sweep off his hat and bow to him - Quakers, of course, didn't give these marks of obeisance, even to the monarch. One day the Quaker said: 'Charles, I do not take off my hat to thee, so thou needs not take off thy hat to me.' I imagine he enjoyed the joke against him. I do much prefer him to his father, and to his brother, too, republican though I am.

Essie Fox said...


Louisa Young said...

Excellent post. Thank you.
He looks a bit like a missing member of Oasis, with the hair.
By the way I seem to remember that Louise de Keroualles was the first Louise in England.

bnachison said...

The "Merry Monarch" always seemed to me a much more complex (and rather darker) character than his popular image. A very interesting man!

And if I were holding a historical dinner party, he'd certainly be on the guest list!