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Charles II: The Man & Some Landmarks

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Charles II, the third of the four Stuart kings to occupy the throne of England, was born in St. James's Palace on May 29, 1630. His father, Charles I, was thirty years old at the time, his mother, Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV of France, was twenty-one. It was an inauspicious parentage. The notorious George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, had aimed in his policy at estranging the king from his consort, and with considerable success. The assassination of the duke in 1628, however, had been followed by a complete reconciliation, and thereafter the relations of Charles and Henrietta were more to their credit than any other circumstance of their ill-starred lives.

For a few years of boyhood the young prince was fortunate in his contact with an example of domestic piety that is not disputed by his father's severest critics. But the benefit was of brief duration, and its memory in after years was of small account against the handicap of character that was his inheritance. As man and wife his parents seem to have displayed constancy and tenderness, but for the rest they were poor stock for any man to spring from.

Charles I was the worst king in our history, insensible to the obligations of his office, arrogant towards his people, prejudiced and incompetent in his policy, cruel to his enemies and faithless to his friends. It is a heavy charge, but one that an acknowledged personal courage in extremity does little to mitigate. Henrietta Maria spent her life in a natural habit of intrigue, haughty and self-sufficient, unscrupulous in the means that she employed to interfere in affairs of state, and shamelessly indifferent to the interests and desires of her subjects. Their son might excusably have been a weak and vicious man. That he was neither says much for native qualities that survived many vicissitudes. That he was a pattern of virtue it would be folly to pretend, but it is folly also to see in certain notorious escapades the whole or even the salient character of the ablest, the wittiest, the most amiable and the wisest of the Stuarts.

At the age of eleven he learnt something of the troubles that were gathering on his house. He knew that Strafford was his father's most devoted friend, and he knew that this friend was now under sentence of death. He was sent to the Lords with a letter urging an intervention that the king knew very well none but himself could make. The boy saw the futile plea disregarded, and the next day heard that the royal power had been unable to save the great minister from the block.

Eighteen months later the Civil War had begun, and the Prince of Wales was present at the battle of Edgehill. For over two years he remained with his father's army at Oxford and elsewhere, until, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to take chief command of the royal forces in the west, with headquarters at Bristol. But the Cavaliers were by now fighting a losing cause. The disaster of Marston Moor was followed by that of Naseby in June 1645, and it was considered necessary to get the prince out of England for his own safety and as a hostage that might be used in negotiations with the Parliament. In March 1646 he landed at St. Mary's in the Scilly Islands, with a small following and in a state of destitution, Edward Hyde, afterwards Earl-of Clarendon, being his minister in charge. Six weeks later they moved to Jersey, and at Elizabeth Castle the little court was augmented by many refugees from the wrath on the mainland. In June, at the urgent solicitation of his mother, who had fled to France, he joined her there, and then began the fourteen years of wandering exile that preceded the Restoration.

They were years of continuous hardship and humiliation, often even of terror. Bad news from England was followed by worse, until, in 1649, came word of the tragic expiation at Whitehall. With this last blow all hope of recovering the Stuart fortunes seemed to have gone, and Charles became no more than an unwelcome beggar for alms at the courts of Europe. He and Hyde were reduced to literal penury, ill-shod and with threadbare clothes, and often without money for a meal. It was a bitter discipline, but it could not subdue the high-spirited energy of the young prince nor the steady confidence of his minister.

Both cherished a belief against every discouragement that somehow their fortunes would change. Hyde, with unwearying patience, dropped a seed here and another there at hazard on the diplomatic wayside, with intrepid faith in a most improbable harvest. Charles took livelier measures.

In June 1650 he slipped into Scotland at the invitation of the Covenanters, who hoped to use him in their own differences with the English Parliament. There he was bullied by the infamous Argyll, and preached at by bigots of the kirk in a succession of interminable sermons. In September Cromwell swept northwards to put a stop to all this nonsense, which he decisively did at Dunbar on the third of that month. Charles and the remnants of the Scots army reassembled at Scone, where, in January 1651 he was crowned king. By the middle of the year he had raised his forces again to twenty thousand men, and conceived the bold but hopeless enterprise of marching into England and there rallying the royalist arms in his cause.

In September 3, a year to a day after Dunbar, his army was destroyed by Cromwell at Worcester. Six weeks later he escaped in a small boat from Shoreham in Sussex, and on October 16, 1651, landed again in France. The story of those six weeks is one of the romances of history. The Boscobel oak, the devotion of the Penderel family, the agonised days in priest-holes and secret chambers, the protean disguises, the long pillion-ride with Mistress Jane Lane down to Bristol, and the precarious doubling and redoubling eastwards along the south coast, in a breathless narrative. It is said that during this time not less than forty persons were privy to his identity, are famous and not one of them betrayed him. He must have been an engaging fellow.

He was still under twenty-two years of age. "Two yards high," as we learn from a proclamation offering a reward for his arrest after Worcester, dark, even swarthy, of complexion, lustrous-eyed and elegantly built, he was a striking figure. There was already, as we imagine, a trace of the melancholy that is characteristic of his later portraits. Young as he was, he had been through a hard school, had come familiarly into contact with all sorts of people, and had suffered many disillusions.

When he was in power again he retained the easy accessibility that he had learnt in the days of adversity. He was far more a man of the world than it is commonly possible for a king to be, and, unlike his father, he genuinely enjoyed the society of his fellow-men. His amours were many, and have become celebrated, but they have unduly emphasised an aspect of his character that we are apt to forget was an aspect only. He was the merry monarch of tradition at no more than fitful intervals. To have known him well must have been to know a man reflective, shrewd, rather lonely, eager indeed for the pleasures of life, falling into occasional excesses in reaction against long and severe adversity. In most respects, it has to be remembered against uninformed gossip, he was very abstemious, taking strict care of a naturally fine constitution. Also he was an extremely capable man of affairs.

The Scots adventure was foolhardy and set for failure from the first, but even so it was a remarkable achievement for a boy of twenty, whose only passport from day to day was the exercise of his unaided wits. At the end of it he may well have shown more than levity- in his countenance. Back in France, the prospect seemed more hopeless than ever. But Hyde went on hoping, and encouraged Charles against any onsets of despair.

Hyde now believed, and rightly, that restoration of the Stuart house could be achieved by no efforts from without, but must in due time follow the collapse of the Commonwealth in internal dissension. And it happened so. While Cromwell lived, he was able to hold the new order together by his own personal will and supreme executive ability, but with his death the structure of his government crumbled. Englishmen of all parties realized that there could be no stability in the country under an elected ruler, that there was no one who could sufficiently command and control the confidence of the nation as a whole in this capacity. The symbolic figure of a king again became necessary, and there was no one to dispute the Stuart succession. And in 1660, Charles II, at the age of thirty, was crowned at Westminster, amid rejoicings of complete and general spontaneity. Among the men who were most active in bringing him back were many of the bravest and most devoted of Cromwell's old captains. They knew that there was no other solution to the national problem.

As a ruler Charles presents a very complex character. He could match the wisest heads of Europe in statesmanship, and he could match the most cunning in dexterity. And if Louis XIV of France essayed a contest in duplicity, he could match him, too, in that, and over-match him. He never stood on his dignity as Charles Stuart, but he was punctilious as to the dignity of the King of England. And in many respects he was an extremely good King of England. He had abilities that might have made him even a better. But the hard days had left him impatient of state pedantries, and Hyde, now Earl of Clarendon, with all his gifts, was inexorably a pedant. So that Charles rebelled, got bored, let things slide, ran off on his pleasure trips at inconvenient moments. He dropped his minister, not without reason and provocation, but unfortunately for his own reputation.

He then began to play with the idea of autocratic government that had brought his father to so tragic an end, but he always retained enough good sense to know the precise point beyond which he could not go with safety. On one occasion when the Duke ol York, afterwards James II, was urging him to exceed discretion, Charles observed that if his brother wanted to go on his travels again he could do so, but that for himself he had a fancy now for staying at home.

He became a familiar and popular figure in his capital. Scandal made free with his name, and indeed the truth was sometimes scandalous enough. But the wagging of tongues left him always unconcerned. He liked walking about with his spaniels, talking to chance acquaintances, gossiping with Fellows of the Royal Society, encouraging the playwrights, discussing a new coin or a new parterre in the gardens. Old Rowley knew his people as perhaps no other English king had done before, and if his achievement was but an imperfect realization of his gifts, he remains one of the perennially attractive figures of our history.

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