Un-Kinglike King

Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration

by Antonia Fraser
Knopf, 524 pp., $16.95

Charles II
Charles II; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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