It is a literary accomplishment to write a detailed and well-researched biography so that it reads like a rollicking piece of great fiction. Antonia Fraser’s, King Charles II is, like her other fabulous historical non-fiction works, such a book. In this wonderful and erudite tome, she tells the tale of a monarch who, against a backdrop of religious, political and cultural upheaval, dissent and change, rises above the conditions of his early childhood and the untimely and savage death of his father, Charles I, and consequent exile, to restore the monarchy and an uneasy peace to England.
Known as the “merry monarch” (among other less favourable appellations) and for being lazy, lustful, debauched, dissolute and inclined to petticoat government, Fraser presents a different picture of this rather marvellous and fascinating king. Born to loving parents, Charles was given all that a young royal should be: a good education, belief in himself and his family, an understanding of the important role he was set to inherit, and an awareness of the religion he must adopt as his own: the Anglicanism of his father as opposed to the Catholicism of his mother.
Protected from much of what was occurring in the realm and beyond its borders, the execution of his father was a shock. First challenging Oliver Cromwell and his troops, Charles is later forced to flee England. His unbelievable flight (Fraser describes this period of his life wonderfully, claiming the truth is better than much of the fiction – she is right) allows for the rise and ultimate rule of the Protector, Cromwell and the period known as the Interregnum. Homeless and dependent on the grudging charity of his Scottish vassals as well as various rulers across the continent for many years and the loyalty of committed (if few) royalists, Charles, as Fraser argues, could not help but be affected both by what he endured (poverty, dependence, hunger, pain) and witnessed in the lives of others. These experiences would remain with him for the rest of his life.
Restored to the English throne in 1660 and returning by invitation of the Parliament that was only recently the enemy of the monarchy, Charles determines to be an arbitrator. For all the goodwill and gratitude Charles has, the return of the king also inspires opposition. Describing the rise of the Whigs and the development of the Tories, Fraser paints a picture of a city (London) and of a country slowly tearing itself apart with political and religious discord and suspicion and a monarch seemingly helpless to prevent it. Only, as the author acknowledges, he isn’t helpless at all. Learning from his mistakes, Charles uses whatever in his power to delay what he feels are poor decisions or the pressure of the Commons. Proroguing parliament many, many times, he manages (mostly, but not always) to avoid catastrophic results; procrastinating (like Queen Elizabeth First) becomes a strategy to exert benign control, a practising of what Fraser terms “negative capability”. It is a stroke of brilliance that allows Charles II to have his way without accusations of absolutism sticking.
Weathering the storms of anti-Catholic sentiment and various plots and accusations against the throne, particularly those delivered towards his immediate family, lovers, and favoured retainers, as well as enormous debt and an inability to repay it, Charles II also had a reputation as a seeker of pleasure and an irreverent ladies man. The father of his people, he was also father to 12 illegitimate children from different women – nobles, actresses, and gentry. In fact, the only woman with whom he had a long relationship and who did not produce a child was his wife, Catherine of Braganza – a tolerant and devout woman who stood by Charles even after his death.
A good, interested father, and a well-regarded lover, Fraser argues that far from using women, Charles II adored and respected them. Allowing women on stage for the first time in English history, and encouraging female playwrights such as Aphra Behn, women, according to Fraser, held a better position in the seventeenth century than they did in the nineteenth. But it wasn’t only women who piqued his insatiable interest, Charles also supported science, music, landscaping, building and, importantly, was the monarch who ruled throughout the Plague that decimated a quarter of London’s population in 1665, and earned the undying admiration of his people when he fought side by side with them during the Great Fire of 1666.
There was much to esteem about Charles II and, if it hadn’t been for his wheelings and dealings with his cousin, Louis XIV, from whom he was promised money ensuring he wasn’t dependent on parliament for the same, his record (disregarding morality) as a tolerant (he tried to introduce Bills to allow religious toleration, but such was the anti-papist sentiment in the country, the Commons and Lords wouldn’t pass it) would have been relatively unblemished. Relatively.
Certainly, the popularity of the king rose and fell according to various goings-on at home and abroad – war with the Dutch, religious persecution, accusations levelled against his brother and queen and the choler and sustained antagonism levelled against him by figures such as Shaftesbury who could stir up both the gentry and the masses.
Overall, however, Fraser tries (and succeeds) in persuading us that far from being a “merry” monarch, Charles II was melancholy, “cynical and dissimulating”. He was simply able to hide it well and present, especially in the first decades of his reign, a contented, “lazy” face. But she also describes him as “witty and kind, grateful, generous, tolerant, and essentially lovable, he was rightly mourned by his people…”
Beautifully written, impeccably researched, peppered with quotes from dramatists and poets of the age, as well as from Charles II himself and those nearest and dearest to him (such as his wife and his mistresses like Nelly Gwyn), we are given insights into the man “born the divided world to reconcile,” this is a book and life that is difficult to tear yourself away from.
For lovers of British history or just history; for those wanting an insight into the tumultuous Seventeenth Century and an oft misunderstood but charismatic ruler who formed a bridge between the Interregnum and the events leading to James II’s fall, as well as those that changed the world (from colonial expansion, trade and the beginnings of factories, never mind religious division and dissent), this is a terrific book by a marvellous historian and writer.