The Restoration is a fascinating period of English history, the huge religious upheavals, bigotry, fears, debates, philosophical breakthroughs and scientific discoveries are, however, often overlooked in favour of focussing on the fascinating and debauched court of Charles II and his personal sexual proclivities.
As the father of between 13-18 illegitimate children (depending which account you read), Charles made up for his long period of exile and deprivation when he returned to England with great fanfare and promises – one of the main ones he made was the Declaration of Breda (before he set sail for England to take the crown) – a promise that swore religious toleration providing the religion didn’t threaten the peace of the kingdom. This was important to the English who, despite having made the decision to restore the monarchy and (mostly) enjoying throwing off the shackles of Interregnum Puritanism, were also incredibly cautious and suspicious of Popery and France.
During Cromwell’s reign, Protestantism in various guises had prospered and while the Church of England was set to return as the dominant religion along with Charles, the Parliament didn’t like what “liberty to tender consciences” implied and didn’t accept this. This was due to the fact they didn’t want Catholicism to take root in their soil ever again. Not only was Charles II’s mother a staunch Catholic, but Louis XIV, the Catholic King of France, was his cousin, so it was incumbent upon Charles to prove he had England’s best religious interests at heart. But, he also had to keep his cousin (whom he later came to depend on for financial support) happy, so the balancing act between public Protestantism and private beliefs began.
Enter, according to Marci Jefferson in her terrific novel, The Girl on the Golden Coin, Frances Stuart who, rather than simply being an object of Charles’s desires and affections, is dragged from the relative margins of history to play a central role in court and transnational politics.
Beautiful, charming and by all accounts very sweet (but according to contemporary accounts – albeit by men – not very bright), Frances was raised out of poverty by the French Court and King Louis who, like any man who came into her orbit, fell for her charms and then, at the whim of Charles’s sister who also had feelings for Louis and was jealous of the attention he was showing Frances, sent to England to remind Charles of his obligations to his cousin among other things – at least, that’s the story the way Jefferson spins it.
I’ve written before about the way women are so often elided from history, or presented as little more than ornamental, despite evidence to the contrary. Even this period – governed by the bold and large presence of King Charles who loved and, according to some historians, deeply respected women – where women took to the stage for the first time, were writing books, plays (Aphra Behn), treatises and challenging men even in the realm of science, it’s still a time that celebrates women most for their beauty, ability to seize male attention (especially the king and court) and the sensual pleasures and scandals they offered. The women we most hear and read about are the various mistresses of Charles II and his much-put-upon queen, Catherine of Braganza, as well as some of the leading actresses of the day, such as Nell Gwynne.
While Jefferson plunges her heroine into this male-dominated society, she foregrounds these various women as well – the quiet pious but kind queen, the brash, manipulative Barbara Castlemaine and, of course, the beautiful and sought after, Frances Stuart – a relative of the royal family – as well as some female theatre luminaries. Whereas many accounts, non-fiction and fiction discuss the fact Frances avoided the King’s overtures to make her his mistress, remaining a “virgin”, resisted his professed love and admiration for her, Jefferson turns this on its head and has Frances as an able and willing participant in an affair that almost undoes the monarchy.
While history will contest much of what Jefferson creates in this novel, I love her spin on history and the role she gives Frances. The woman cannot have been as stupid as records suggest. She made a good marriage, kept the friendship of the monarch, even after refusing him (or not if you believe the novel), befriended the queen and other women vying for Charles’s attention, and was immortalised by the king by being made the model for Britannia for a newly minted golden coin.
Rather than being side-lined by history, in this novel, Frances, like the actresses the king loved, takes centre stage and directs many a production, even if those cast don’t know it. Surviving the plague and Great Fire, through Frances’s eyes and ears, we’re given access to many bedrooms and boudoirs of the Restoration, and see many of the feminine (and male) machinations first hand. While sometimes the wider political repercussions are not made evident, this story is about Frances first and foremost and certainly, in that regard, her personal politics and decisions are the most important.
A really good read for lovers of history, the women at its heart, and this specific period as well.