Charles II was born in 1630, the son of Henrietta Maria and the widely unpopular King Charles I, the first and only English monarch ever to be tried, sentenced and executed. After his father’s execution, Charles wasn’t crowned king immediately. Instead, he had to wait 11 years before England was ready to be led by the monarchy once again.
An Unusual Journey to the Throne
Unlike most monarchs, the crown wasn’t handed to him upon his predecessor’s death, nor did he snatch it from them. Though Charles later shuffled the paperwork and backdated his reign to the time of his father’s death, the country was actually governed as a republic for the 11 years after Charles I’s execution in 1649, with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.
The younger Charles was in the Netherlands at the time of his father’s death and he had no idea how to return to England and claim his country.
He first journeyed to Scotland and was indeed crowned as king there in 1651. He marched into England along with an army of 17,000 men, meeting Cromwell and his army in Worcester. The Battle of Worcester that resulted brought Charles nothing but defeat, however, and left him a fugitive. He fled to Europe and stayed there for the next nine years.
The Restoration of the Monarchy
Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 and his son, Richard Cromwell, abdicated in 1659. After this, there was a feeling amongst the English that they were ready to be led by the monarchy once again – it was time for a fresh start.
King Charles II rode into England in 1660 to reclaim his rightful throne to rapturous celebrations, which seem fitting considering the king’s charming and fun personality.
The new king brought with him a sense of culture and sophistication that he’d gained from his exile in France. It was something England sorely lacked at the time. He quickly reopened theatres, established classical standards in the arts and gave his approval to the Royal Society, a prestigious scientific body.
The Reign of King Charles II
Charles’s 25-year long reign was defined by his joviality and charisma but also by his complexity, his opportunistic tendencies and deception.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Charles had his share of conflicts with Parliament and he too believed in the Divine Right of Kings.
Perhaps his first downfall was his disposition for seduction. Despite marrying the Portuguese Catholic, Catherine of Braganza, Charles took many mistresses and had many illegitimate children. He and Catherine had no children together, however, which left his Catholic younger brother, James, as his heir. He was easily distracted from the many issues England faced during his reign by entertainment and pleasure.
Meanwhile, England was going through a tough time. In 1665, the great plague spread across the country, mainly in London, and killed 100,000 people. The following year, the capital city went up in flames in the Great Fire of London. The tragedy burnt down a lot of the city, including the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral. England was also at war with Holland, which ended in 1667 with a Dutch victory.
Protestantism and Catholicism
Like the reigns of his predecessors, Charles II’s time on the throne was also marked by the tug of war between Protestantism and Catholicism.
His mother was a Catholic and he grew attached to her religion – at heart, he was surely Catholic. Protestantism, however, offered him power. He spent his life torn between the two.
Perhaps due to his own somewhat secret Catholic beliefs, Charles wanted religious toleration. It was never quite that simple though. He did try to bring about toleration of Catholics but Parliament was always strongly opposed, often leaving him little choice.
During his time as a fugitive, a Catholic priest, Father John Huddleston, helped Charles escape. In return, Charles promised him he’d grant Catholics freedoms if and when he came to the throne. When he eventually did become king, however, it wasn’t a promise he could keep. The Protestant Church of England was determined to reestablish its power and Parliament and bishops insisted on new laws that gave the church total supremacy.
Partly to gain Protestant favour, Charles even arranged the marriage of his niece, Mary, to the Protestant William of Orange.
It wasn’t until 1685, when Charles II was unexpectedly dying, that he was able to be true to his Catholic beliefs. With the knowledge he was soon to die, Parliament had no hold over him. He was visited once again by Father John Huddleston and, finally, he outwardly converted to Catholicism.
With no legitimate children, Charles also left behind a Catholic heir to the throne – his brother, James.