Even by comparison with the rest of an unstable world, England was a wild, radical country in the seventeenth century. Usually kings or regents or ministers were despatched by assassins or thrown out of windows but never brought to trial. England, however, tried a captive queen in privacy and then one of its own kings publicly, and both were beheaded with judicial solemnity. Such actions shocked Europe. By 1655 most discerning men would have bet that England would have a new semi-royal Statholder-like dynasty, the Cromwells, and never witness the return of the Stuarts. And certainly that was the view of most of Europe’s monarchs and their advisers for they were extremely reluctant to invest a penny in Charles II in exile. Even in 1658 his position to them looked hopeless.
In 1660 he returned to a tumultuous welcome and without the slightest opposition. In spite of plots, bitter opposition from some of the most powerful men of his kingdom, and the widespread detestation of his heir, James, Duke of York, he died in his royal bed and secured his brother’s succession. Both before and after his restoration his life was full of excitement, of suspense. There was the astonishing story of his escape to France after the Battle of Worcester. He was, after all, well over six feet, towering over most of his subjects: difficult to disguise, difficult to hide, yet he got to France and deliberately visited Stonehenge en route. It helped that no coinage had been struck with his face on it, and that there were few prints depicting him, so the vast majority of his subjects had not the faintest idea of what he looked like—except that he was tall and dark.
Even so, it is a hair-raising story, full of tension and courage but relieved by patches of farce. And then, when seemingly secure on his throne, it was rocked by the monstrous phantoms of the Popish Plot which threw London, and most of the provinces, into a reckless hysteria. Add for good measure the Plague, the Fire of London, the Dutch burning British ships in the Medway, and any biographer of Charles II is presented with a superb, gripping narrative.
Even had Charles II been as bleak a character as William III the story of his life would have been worth telling for the story’s sake generation after generation. But Charles II was a complex as well as an attractive character. Seduced by his nurse at fifteen, he took to women as some men take to drink or smoke. He was an unabashed sensualist, and he never concealed the fact. He acknowledged his bastards—a round dozen. He was never faithful to anyone and his barren Portuguese queen was often as welcome to his bed as his mistresses. He enjoyed a jolly little strumpet like Nell Gwynn at the same time as his maîitresse en titre, the Duchess of Portsmouth.
He was tender, kind, overwhelmingly generous, and totally disillusioned. On this aspect of his character Antonia Fraser is both fresh and original. For her, rightly, he is no “Merrie Monarch” but a cynical, melancholy man, a lover of the flesh but always conscious of the fleeting nature of its satisfactions. Also Charles was not lucky in his choices; most of his mistresses, whether well-born or low-bred, were rapacious harlots. They wanted him, they enjoyed him, they could be genuinely affectionate, but they do not seem—not one of them—to have loved him. And he, as all sensualists tend to do, fell in love with those who would not have him. And he was far from being a mere sensualist, always seeking, always seducing. He had a very pretty verbal wit; he was full of intellectual curiosity; he loved theater and music; he was a superb sailor and introduced yacht racing on the Solent and the Thames. He possessed charm and style. His character, as well as the events of his life, make him a splendid subject for a biography and Antonia Fraser’s book does him justice.
This is a far better book than either her Mary Queen of Scots or Cromwell, good as they were: the narrative is stronger, tenser, better structured; her perceptions of character go deeper and carry conviction. As always, Antonia Fraser has done her scholarly homework. She has read the pertinent monographs and articles; she has done some archival work, but mainly she relies on professional, academic scholars to provide her with material. This is done with care and dedication, and with very shrewd judgment on which scholars are reliable and which not. She has made good use, for example, of the work of K.H.D. Haley and John Kenyon. The result is the best biography of Charles II yet available: indeed it is one of the best historical biographies for some years.
By devoting a large amount of space to Charles II’s first thirty years—1630-1660—she shows excellent judgment. In early adolescence Charles experienced his father’s defeats; saw the crumbling of hope at Oxford; and then endured the anxieties about his father’s death in the remnants of his kingdom, the Scillies and then the Channel Islands. And his early manhood gave him not only experience of battle but of politics as he had to deal and compromise with the hard-faced elders of the Kirk of Scotland and learn to yield to them in hope—a forlorn one—of winning his throne back. At twenty-two he was a wandering, exiled monarch, flitting from court to court, from town to town, always short of money, sometimes even hungry, surrounded by bickering courtiers and a difficult family.
Every year his task of finding support, of generating hope for the royalists at home seemed more hopeless, more doomed. Yet it was the very failure of these years, I think, that made it so easy to get back in 1660. The major powers of Europe had ignored him. He was not in the debt of Spain, or France, or the Netherlands. He controlled no foreign troops, no foreign funds. Had he been strongly supported by any one of the great European powers during his years of exile, it would have made it more difficult for him to return without opposition. That was luck, for Charles tried hard enough to get their help.
What wasn’t luck was his own nature. He was the most unkinglike of kings. His friends and his enemies thought he was far too “easy,” that is, approachable, indifferent to protocol or deference. He liked nothing better than walking at a tremendous speed round St. James’s Park, the garden of his palace which had been lost to the people during the Commonwealth and which he never tried to get back. He raised his hat to everyone or would stop for a quick chat. True, he was not indifferent to a bit of royal ritual now and again, and reinstituted the Knights of the Garter, designing their present costumes. But he sent off his coronation robes to the theater so they could be used for Henry V—an act unthinkable in any other monarch. His courtiers wrote obscene lampoons about him and were rarely punished, except by a mild rebuke on a very half-hearted broadsheet from the Court. Vigorous in exercise, he was indolent in business, and totally free from arrogance. This easiness and approachability, as Antonia Fraser shows, worked in his interest. He did not behave like a king in search of absolution. Hence his manner helped to allay the suspicions of his subjects.
Nevertheless he approved highly of Louis XIV’s monarchy—far more highly than Antonia Fraser would allow—and would have preferred his own authoritarian rule without parliament, but he was too lazy, too cynical, too full of self-mockery to project himself as a royal icon in the way his father had, or as Queen Elizabeth I had before him. Nor would he undertake the steady, detailed application needed to build up a strong royal party in Parliament, in London, or in the provinces. L’état could never be Charles II even though he would have liked it to be. Hence, even to the most intransigent Whigs, he could never seem the threat that his father had been or his brother—dedicated and decisive—would be. He was a natural prevaricator, unless jolted by powerful events. By some freak of fortune he had been deposited on the throne of England. He enjoyed it after his own fashion and with considerable irony. And the luck was also England’s. He had the qualities for survival.
His indolence and his affability served him well—they were natural to him yet at the same time they masked his hopes and his intentions. His hope was for a strong, authoritarian, Catholic monarchy; his intention was to preserve his dynasty in its proper descent. The latter aim succeeded. The former, when pursued with remorseless efficiency by his brother, proved fatal to the monarchy. Had he been succeeded by a man as naturally cunning as himself, Parliament might have vanished, like the Estates General in France, from the political life of Britain.
I think Antonia Fraser slightly misjudges Charles’s long-term political aspirations and, indeed, she is often unsure when dealing with the intricate political conflicts of his reign, such as relations with the French and the City. But no other writer has been so convincing on the monarch himself. And I think that Antonia Fraser has never written better—her style is here freer, wittier; her judgments of men and women and their motives deeper. She is becoming a formidably good historian and biographer.