Charles II (1630-1685) was king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1660 to 1685. Restored to the throne after the Cromwellian experiment, he prevented a renewed outbreak of civil strife for a critical generation.
Charles II, the son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, was born in London on May 29, 1630. For the first 8 years of his life, he was heir apparent in what seemed a quiet land. By 1638 he must have been aware that the calm was that deceptive moment before the storm. By the time he was 12, his father's kingdom had been torn apart by civil war, and by 1646 Charles was in exile. In 1649 he watched helplessly from the Continent while his father was tried and executed in England. This set of circumstances, and the demeaning 10 years of poverty and plotting that followed, seemed to be the paramount influence in his life. Unlike his brother James, the Duke of York and later King James II, he developed a suspicion not of men but of the ideologies that moved men. Ironically it was lack of ideological commitment, and his suspicion of such commitment, that made him suspect in his own times and that has condemned him in the eyes of many historians.
After 1649 Charles's principal interest was the reestablishment of the monarchy, and he used whatever means he thought necessary to achieve this end. In March 1650 he accepted the Scots' offer of support in his effort and accepted the Scots' covenant and Presbyterianism as a concomitant to such support. With the failure of Charles and the Scots at the battle of Worcester in 1651, the prince never again evidenced any interest in Presbyterianism other than repugnance.
On his accession in 1660 Charles ended the trails and execution of regicides long before royalist appetites were appeased, and he refused to sponsor any attempts to appropriate, from former supporters of the Commonwealth, land sold by royalists during the interregnum. Moreover, he tried without success to arrive at a broader Anglican religious dispensation in 1660 and to contradict the St. Bartholomew's Day oath, which turned Nonconformist ministers out of ecclesiastical livings in 1662. These actions proceeded from the declaration he had made at Breda in April 1660, in which he attempted to persuade Gen. Monck and Parliament to return England to the monarchical form. His attempts, however, to implement this declaration came long after Monck's army had disbanded and after the Cavalier Parliament had been elected. Historians point out that this declaration was in keeping with Charles's disposition,
which was marked by a reluctance to act and a tendency to make enemies and to mask intention with the appearance of wit and love of pleasure.
Although Charles could and did act decisively in moments of crisis, he preferred to act through ministers who would serve as lightning rods to consume popular displeasure. When it served his purposes, he would undermine and deceive his own ministries. Thus, although the Earl of Clarendon served as Charles's first minister from 1660 to 1666, during the last 3 of those years he could only partially depend on royal support. In 1666, because of the disgrace of defeat in the Dutch war and the loss of Clarendon's abilities to control the lower house and produce revenues, his enemies pushed for his impeachment. Charles, who had never approved of Clarendon's religious policies or his high-handedness in government, joined in the destruction of the ministry.
Following the attempted impeachment and the exile of Clarendon, Charles turned to the formation of a government whose chief ministers were those who sponsored the old opposition. This group, known collectively by the initials of their names as the Cabal, was never used in a truly collective sense. To Charles, the Cabal's principal function was to lead the lower house of Parliament to a more generous posture in funding the government and to an acceptance of the royal policy on religion. The members of the Cabal were more likely to be consulted individually rather than collectively by the King, and certain members of this ministry were privy to, and sponsors of, certain aspects of the royal policy in which the others had no knowledge or interest. The ministry was not successful in leading Parliament and was already breaking up when Charles promulgated his Declaration of indulgence in 1672. On this issue—the use of the royal power to suspend religious statutes and to establish by administrative fiat Charles's goal of religious toleration— the ministry was shattered.
To Charles, the Cabal had been disappointing from its earliest days. It had not produced a subsidy-granting majority from the anti-Clarendonians in the lower house. Further, the attempts by two of its members, the 2d Duke of Buckingham and the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, to build a power structure through anti-Catholicism and suspicion of the heir apparent frightened both other members of the ministry as well as the King.
The failure of the King's Indulgence and the subsequent anti-Catholic Test Act of 1673 forced Charles to look for new ministerial leadership. In Sir Thomas Osborne, soon to be Earl of Danby, Charles found a new figure to lead his government. Danby had been instrumental in bringing down Clarendon, but his policy and supporters closely followed Clarendon lines with the single exception of an anti-French rather than an anti-Dutch foreign policy. Danby, however, demonstrated a genius at finance that had never been a strength of Clarendon's government.
From its inception Danby's coalition was faced with an opposition led by Shaftesbury and Buckingham and their followers. The principal issue used by this opposition was the suspected Catholicism of the King and court and the known Catholicism of the Duke of York, the heir apparent. From 1674 Parliament spent progressively more time on debating whether Danby and his supporters or Shaftesbury and his were more virtuously anti-Catholic. In the meantime the King was, in the late 1670s, forming a northern alliance against French expansion.
In 1678 Titus Oates appeared with the tale of a Popish Plot to assassinate the King. Although Shaftesbury and the opposition were not connected with Oates, they soon turned national hysteria over the plot to their advantage. They launched a double-pronged attack to overturn Danby and to exclude York as the heir apparent. Supplied with evidence and funds from the French ambassador, Shaftesbury's party demanded Danby's impeachment. At this point Charles was forced to take over the management of the government. With enormous skill, he used the controversy over Danby to distract Parliament from Shaftesbury's primary aim—changing the succession to the throne.
During the 3 years of the plot hysteria, the King used every device to divert, split, and madden the opposition with the hopes that in time the nation would become suspicious of Shaftesbury's intentions. By 1681, Charles was able to dismiss Parliament.
From that time until his death, on Feb. 6, 1685, Charles personally directed the government. He was able to destroy the opposition, and on his death he left a possibility for absolutism which was greater than any seen in England since the time of Henry VIII.
Further Reading on Charles II
Arthur Bryant, King Charles II (1935; rev. ed. 1955), is the best study of Charles, but it is idolatrous and should be balanced with the more Whiggish general work by David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (2 vols., 1934; rev. ed. 1962), and the neutral, disappointing volume by G. N. Clarke, The Later Stuarts, 1660-1714 (1934; 2d ed. 1955), vol. 10 in "The Oxford History of England" series. Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies (1907), contains a highly romantic and not very trustworthy chapter on Charles II. Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658-1660 (1955), is a specialized study.
Additional Biography Sources
Fraser, Antonia, Charles II: his life and times, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993.
Fraser, Antonia, Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration, New York: Knopf: distributed by Random House, 1979.
Hutton, Ronald, Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Oxford England: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Jones, J. R. (James Rees), Charles II: royal politician, London; Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987.
Miller, John, Charles II, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1991.
Ollard, Richard Lawrence, The image of the king: Charles I and Charles II, New York: Atheneum, 1979.
Palmer, Tony, Charles II: portrait of an age, London: Cassell, 1979.
Wheatley, Dennis, "Old Rowley": a very private life of Charles II, London: Arrow Books, 1977.