Charles II: Guide to the life, rule and children of the merry monarch


Charles spent much of his childhood at Richmond Palace in Surrey and was joined by two younger brothers, James and Henry (later the Dukes of York and Gloucester respectively) and four younger sisters, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne and Henrietta Anne.

Charles II: dates and highlights

Born: May 29, 1630

Deceased: February 6, 1685

Reign: After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II reigned as King of England, Scotland and Ireland until his death in 1685. He was also King of Scotland from 1649 to 1651.

Coronation: crowned King of Scots on January 1, 1651 at Scone; then King of England, Scotland and Ireland on April 23, 1661 at Westminster Abbey

Parents: Charles I and Henriette-Marie of France

Joint: Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal

Children: No legitimate children, and at least 13 illegitimate children of seven mistresses at the time of her death

Cause of death: Either stroke or disease caused by chronic kidney disease

Succeeded by: King James VII and II

How is Charles II’s childhood going?

Charles’s childhood was prematurely interrupted when his father’s royal authority began to crumble in the late 1630s, first in Scotland, then in Ireland and England, as civil war erupted in the three kingdoms.

The childhood of the future Charles II was cut short prematurely when his father’s royal authority began to crumble. (Photo by Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty Images)

While Charles I faced his Scottish Covenant opponents in the summers of 1639 and 1640, his eldest son remained in Whitehall. Even when Queen Henrietta Maria left for the Continent in 1642, young Charles remained with his father in the field, receiving nominal command of the Royalist war effort in western England in March 1645. After quickly leaving the royal court of Oxford for Bristol, Prince Charles never saw his father again.

As the military tide turned in favor of parliamentary forces, Charles fled Cornwall in March 1646 and settled in the Isles of Scilly and Jersey, before joining his mother at the expense of the court of King Louis XIV of France near Paris.

What happened after the death of Charles I in 1649?

While staying with his sister Mary in The Hague, Netherlands, Charles learned that the English Parliament had condemned his father for high treason and had overseen the execution of Charles I on January 30, 1649. When news of the regicide reached Edinburgh in February, the Scottish Parliament instantly proclaimed Charles II King of Scotland, England and Ireland.

Hoping to raise a royalist force to reaffirm monarchical authority in the Three Kingdoms, Charles sailed for Scotland in June 1650 and became the last monarch to be crowned in Scotland in a coronation ceremony at Scone Palace in Perthshire January 1, 1651.

But after launching an invasion of England on July 31, Charles’ Royalist army was heavily defeated by Republican forces under Oliver Cromwell on September 3, 1651 at the Battle of Worcester. After fleeing the scene, the 21-year-old king spent the day after the battle hiding in a local oak tree in Boscobel Wood, explaining why “Oak Apple Day” later became a national day of thanksgiving in England until 1859 and why ‘The Royal Oak’ remains one of the most popular English pub names.

The oak at Boscobel Wood, with the house in the background

Charles II, 21, spent the day after the battle hiding in a local oak tree in Boscobel Wood. (Photo by English Heritage / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

After spending 43 nights on the run, stealthily moving south, Charles sailed from Shoreham to the French coast and spent the next nine years enduring an itinerant and impoverished exile.

Having resided in various foreign courts in France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Netherlands, Charles formed an alliance with Philip IV of Spain. His two brothers, James and Henry, will fight unsuccessfully for the Spanish Habsburgs at the Battle of the Dunes, near Dunkirk, in June 1658 against an expeditionary force of 6,000 soldiers fighting for the Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, who supported the French under Louis XIV. army.

How did the Restoration of Charles II come about in 1660?

In September 1658 Oliver Cromwell died of natural causes and was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son, Richard, whose term was short-lived. After successive Republican regimes failed to secure stability, secret negotiations began between the exiled court of Charles II and the military governor of Scotland, General George Monck.

In April 1660, the court-in-exile issued a “statement” to the strategic wording of its Dutch base at Breda, reassuring the English political nation that, if he was reinstated as king, Charles would not seek revenge for the injuries. of the civil war, but would grant a large indemnity to its subjects and, in the religious domain, offer a “freedom to tender consciences”. In London, free parliamentary elections returned a royalist majority in the House of Commons and the Convention Parliament declared Charles II king of England since his father’s execution 11 years earlier.

Charles left the Dutch Republic and made a triumphal entry into London on May 29, 1660, his 30th birthday.

Leading a people traumatized by two decades of civil war divisions was far from straightforward. Along with recurring difficulties in raising sufficient Crown funds from Parliament, Charles’s inclination towards plans for religious accommodation and tolerance was rejected by supporters of the Uniformity Act (1662) which reimposed a narrowly Anglican church settlement in England.

A 20th century depiction of King Charles II in royal adornment

Charles II discovered that ruling a people traumatized by two decades of civil war divisions was far from straightforward. (Photo by DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / De Agostini via Getty Images)

The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-167) brought financial hardship and coincided with a large outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665. Another catastrophe ensued when the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the capital in September 1666, while the flagship of the Royal Navy, the Charles Royal, was humiliatingly captured in a Dutch raid on the River Medway in June 1667.

Did Charles II get married? How many children did he have?

In May 1662, Charles married the daughter of King John IV of Portugal, Catherine of Braganza, acquiring a generous dowry, as well as the commercial ports of Tangier and Bombay. Although the new queen failed to produce an heir, by 1667 Charles had fathered at least nine illegitimate children, from four different wives.

While living in exile, his eldest son, James (future Duke of Monmouth) was born in 1649 to Lucy Walter, followed by a daughter of Elizabeth Killigrew, Countess of Shannon. In 1657 Charles had a son by Catherine Pegge, by whom he also had a daughter the following year.

After the Restoration Charles had three sons and two daughters by Barbara Villiers (later Duchess of Cleveland). By 1673 Charles had also fathered two more sons of actress Nell Gwyn, as well as a son of his French mistress, Louise de Kéroualle (later Duchess of Portsmouth), and a daughter of another actress, Mary Davis.

A portrait of Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn was an actress and mistress of Charles II. (Photo by Edward Gooch Collection / Getty Images)

Why was Charles II called the “happy monarch”?

Although the overt sexuality of the king and his many illegitimate descendants proclaimed energetic virility and fertility, Charles II remains unique among British monarchs in that he flaunted his sexual conquests and publicly honored his natural children with aristocratic titles and royal privileges.

The traditional epithet attached to Charles II – “the merry monarch” – was less flattering when restored to its original literary context. As John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, had written of the king: “His scepter and his tail are of a length”, but “restless he rolls from whore to whore / A merry, scandalous and poor monarch”.

How did Charles II die and who succeeded him?

As Charles II failed to produce a legitimate heir through his wife, Catherine, his heir remained his younger brother, James, Duke of York, who had converted to Catholicism and in 1673 married a second wife Catholic, Marie of Modena.

Amid a rising tide of anti-Catholicism, the politics of the Restoration polarized, and in 1678 Charles received details of an alleged plot to assassinate him, install his brother as king and to bring England back to Catholicism. The political fallout from this “papist conspiracy” then turned into a full-fledged “exclusion crisis” when a parliamentary bill demanding that, because of his Catholicism, the Duke of York be removed from the line. of royal succession, passed its second reading in the House of Commons in May 1679.

Although Charles was a typically pragmatic, and at times unscrupulous, political operator, he refused to compromise the integrity of the hereditary succession, having himself been deprived of his English and Irish thrones for more than a decade after the execution. from his father in 1649.

Suspecting that public opinion feared a new civil war even more than a Catholic successor, Charles defeated his “exclusionist” opponents by dissolving the “Oxford Parliament” in March 1681 and never again convening an English parliament.

In early February 1685 Charles fell seriously ill, suffering either from a stroke or from the effects of chronic kidney disease. He died four days later, on February 6, after being secretly received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Charles II was succeeded by his brother who became King James VII and II and the first openly Catholic monarch of England since the unhappy reign of Mary Tudor.

Clare Jackson is Principal Tutor at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. The author of Charles II: the king of the stars (Penguin / Allen Lane, 2016) and Devil-Land: England under siege 1588-1688 (Penguin / Allen Lane, 2021), Clare also presented the BBC2 series The Stuarts and its sequel, The Stuarts in exile

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