The Tragedy of Charles II in the years 1630-1660
The Stuarts in Love
English history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has always attracted a breed of elegant, highly-educated, but essentially amateur historians who are the direct descendants of industrious nineteenth-century divines like Archdeacon Coxe and Robert Blencowe, or literary ladies like Mrs. Julia Cartwright Addy. They have a great reverence for original authorities (though they avoid unpublished manuscripts), but they either cannot or will not read the learned journals of the professional historians, or their monographs and indeed their knowledge of historical writing in general over the last twenty years often has curious and erratic gaps. This gives many of their books a curiously faded air, like the last fashionable novel on the table of one of Lord Macaulay’s young ladies. Their contribution to the sum of knowledge is minimal.
Mrs. Chapman’s speciality is compiling biographies of interesting people who are not quite important or significant enough to attract other historians; her oeuvre includes The Last Tudor King (Edward VI), Lady Jane Grey, Mary II, and (a real curiosity) Queen Anne’s Son. This time she has attempted something rather more ambitious, a study of the youth and exile of Charles II. Charles, Prince of Wales, left Whitehall in 1642 at the age of twelve, and did not see it again for eighteen years. He said goodbye to his father Charles I at Oxford in 1645, and the following year he was placed in nominal command of the royalist forces in the West of England; but the complete victory of the Long Parliament in the civil wars sent him on his travels, first to the Scilly Isles, then Jersey, and on to France and his silly little mother Henrietta Maria. In 1649 his father was executed by the triumphant Army and he became King of England, though not in the eyes of the English government. The Marquess of Argyll and the Presbyterian Kirk thought better of him, and he was crowned King of Scots in 1650; in 1651 he invaded England at the head of a Scots army, only to be defeated at Worcester. After seven weeks in hiding he escaped to France, and thereafter he shuttled between Paris, Cologne, Brussels, and Breda while he and his growing number of supporters waited for Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, to die. Die he did in 1658, and after eighteen months of utter confusion the King was recalled in triumph, without the use of force and without conditions.
Sir Arthur Bryant in his well-known biography of Charles II dealt only briefly with this period of his life. All the same, it is a trifle disingenuous of Mrs. Chapman to pretend that she is breaking new ground; Eva Scott’s books, The King in Exile and The Travels of the King, published as long ago as 1905, tell much the same story in much the same way. Miss Scott, in 1905, was apt to be more censorious about sex; Mrs. Chapman also gives some account of Charles’s boyhood, about which not a great deal is known; but apart from this there is little to choose between them. Miss Scott is perhaps duller, but she gives more detail.
Mrs. Chapman is sound enough on the historical background, and the stigmata of the amateur only show in her references to Scots Presbyterianism. (Why does this formidable and highly intellectual nationalist movement, to which Scotland and indirectly the whole Western world owes so much, rouse such horror today?) Her style is light, and agreeable enough in small doses, but in the perspective of a chapter or two it is rather flat; even the supreme climax of the Restoration of 1660 is muffed, and the Flight from Worcester, one of the great escape and adventure stories of all time, stuhffed with glamor, romance, and excitement, is curiously emasculated.
But it is Mrs. Chapman’s general thesis which will arouse most controversy. She argues that the humiliations Charles had to undergo in exile, the hypocrisies to which he had to stoop, the deceits he practised, permanently scarred his character, and influenced his conduct for the worse even after he had come to the throne and put these bitter years behind him. He was deceitful, unreliable, and treacherous, to his friends more than his enemies, and this because he grew cynical too early, because his upbringing was too precocious, because the conditions of exile inured him to betrayal, particularly his own betrayal of others. “The story of his youth,” according to her, “is of moral defeat: the holocaust of a soul. Of virtue there remained nothing but the façade; a spectral reminder of qualities corrupted and destroyed by disillusion, bitterness, misery and despair.”
Of course, exile was a most unusual apprenticeship to the English throne—when prolonged for fourteen years, at least—and it would be stupid to argue that it had no effect on the young prince. The only question is whether there was anything there to spoil, whether Charles II’s weaknesses were not his father’s and his grandfather’s Edward Hyde, his faithful servant in exile, was surely right when he saw in Charles’s chronic unreliability a reflection of his father Charles I’s untrustworthiness, which had undermined all attempts to save him from the scaffold. Hyde’s remark to one of his friends—“The King loves both you and me, and thinks us very honest and useful servants, but he will sometimes use another, of whom he hath not so good an opinion, as well or better than either of us”—was equally applicable to Charles I. Father and son were men of slight minds, with a streak of ruthlessness, or cruelty, often dismissed as “feminine.” Both of them give the impression of being thoroughly bored, which is not surprising. But Charles I at least had a highly developed interest in art, and seems to have enjoyed the stately ritual of Whitehall; his son had no comparable means of release. He did not enjoy liquor, and it is difficult to believe that he obtained any real enjoyment from women, though he had so many of them—certainly he could never handle them.
The nineteenth-century historians regarded his reign as a melancholy and dissipated prelude to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but of late years there has been a determined attempt to pass it off as a triumph for monarchy, only betrayed by the idiocy of James II. The King himself in this interpretation, is not only a major statesman but the epitome of the carnal virtues; “The perfect combination of patriot, wit, lover, scientist, and sportsman,” as Mrs. Chapman scathingly remarks. Yet really there is nothing to sustain all this but faith. At the Restoration in 1660 the position of the Crown was as strong as it had ever been since the accession of Elizabeth a century before; public opinion was solidly behind the King; in Parliament he had a firm majority. But all this was thrown away, and despite the superficial successes of his closing years, when he died in 1685 he left the monarchy much weaker than he found it. He was incompetent and erratic, like all the other Stuart monarchs, from James I through to Anne, and in addition he was idle and irresponsible in a way they were not. Mrs. Chapman’s thesis hinges on the assumption, which is a very bold one, that there was something greater and better in Charles II as a boy, something which would have distinguished him from the other members of his family and was destroyed by his exile.
It would be an insult to Mrs. Chapman, who has a serious purpose, to discuss her book in conjunction with Dr. Ashley’s, or attempt to compare them. The Stuarts in Love is an astonishing book to come from a distinguished historian of the seventeenth century, a man who has had one of the best academic trainings in the world, and who is the editor of one of Britain’s most distinguished intellectual weeklies.
The first four chapters, on love and marriage in the seventeenth century, have little connection with what follows, and have probably strayed from another book altogether (such as Dr. Ashley’s Life in Stuart England). They are chatty and superficial, and ignore the latest demographic research, but they are tolerably well written and in good taste; two modest blessings which are lacking entirely in the second part of the book.
This is of course devoted to the Stuart monarchs’ sex life (“The Stuart monarchs were a sexy lot,” brays the publisher). It has apparently been written in a tremendous hurry with the aid of the usual standard histories and a few second-rate biographies; there is no attempt at style, it is just a gabbling catalog. Moreover, he is careful to duck any really difficult subject, like Queen Anne’s lesbianism, and this and the fact that the book is arbitrarily divided into handy lengths, often irrespective of natural divisions, must lead an English reader to suspect that it was intended for serialization in The News of the World, The People, or another of those British Sunday newspapers whose tone and content are such a shock to innocent foreigners. The scrambling haste with which it is all thrown down on paper sometimes produces a touch of unintended humor—“The King,” we are told of James I, “did his duty by his wife both in public and in the bedchamber”—but for the most part, like all history written between the thighs, it is just dull and nasty. Take, for instance, Dr. Ashley on Queen Anne:
It has been stated that the cause of her failure to have healthy children was a hereditary venereal disease. But no solid basis for this assertion exists. As we have seen, there is no confirmatory evidence for Dr. Gilbert Burnet’s statement that Anne’s father [James II] was infected, although there is little doubt that her uncle [Charles II] was. One isolated statement, not from a good authority, claims that Anne’s mother had syphilis; but all we know for certain is that she died of cancer.
Now all this is just prurient speculation, and inaccurate at that. There is a very strong tradition that James II was infected with some venereal disease; it does not rest on Burnet’s statement alone; and some historians have held that his conduct in later life was symptomatic of third stage syphilis. Unfortunately there are massive inconsistencies to be explained before this theory can be accepted. There is every doubt that Charles II was infected, and in any case, what on earth has he to do with it? Is Dr. Ashley hinting that he slept with his niece, or his brother, or what? Really, the whole tone is such that speculations even more scabrous come unbidden to the mind. And is it worth citing “one isolated statement, not on a good authority,” or “assertions” for which there is “no solid basis”? This book is an episode in Dr. Ashley’s distinguished career which his admirers will want to forget.