Last week saw the anniversary of the death of the last king to be a king in the full sense, Charles II. His death was the catalysis that transformed the British political being from a ruling king and his parliament to a monarchy that worked with and eventually handed most of their powers to the elected body of the Commons and the non elected House of Lords.
Charles was known as the merry monarch, he restored the monarchy after the puritan republic experiment that banned theatre, Christmas and generally the things that make life worth living. Charles indulged in many of the things that make life worth living, he partied, he frolicked with his many mistresses, he gambled, he drank and he loved horses. His other past times included the theatre and introduced the post of the poet laurite and he had a love for art that can be seen in the pictures of his mistresses.
He was a king that had to flee after the royalist defeat of the Civil War and heard of the execution of his father, Charles I while in exile. He lived in poverty moving around European courts as a king in exile and was eventually welcomed back to Britain in 1660 by General Monk after the death of Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard or as he became known Tumbledown Dick, to rule as his father did. Republicanism had failed and what Britain needed was a Monarch.
It is worth noting that once Oliver was in power he was hardly a Republican he was made the Lord protectorate, he had a ceremony that was a coronation in all but name and without a crown, when his mother died he gave her a state funeral that would have rivalled Queen Victoria’s or Churchill’s. He lived in Royal palaces like Hampton court and Whitehall then still a Royal court and then secured the protectorate to his son, not because he showed great promise as leader but just that he was his son. Again royal inheritance in all but name. In other words it was a very British form of republicanism.
Due to the lack of legitimate children the throne passed to his Catholic brother James. James unlike Charles was peak headed and determined to rule as a catholic and demand to rule like his father and the French King who believed in the divine Rights of Kings. A reformed protestant country was never going to accept a Catholic King. Two attempts to rid the country of King James II, one an epic fail the other a bloodless coup.
The First was a badly organised Rebellion lead by Charles eldest illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth. (worthy of many posts) in short he had the support of many protestant peasants from the west country, many only armed with faith in the protestant faith, Monmouth and a pitchfork. The rebellion kept the kings men on the run but eventually failed and Monmouth was picked up in Ringwood, Dorset and brought to his Uncle King James. No Trial was needed as a bill had been passed in Parliament and he went to his death on Tower Hill. It was not a good end, it was reported that it took between 7-9 strikes and the executioner ended up sawing the tendons of his neck.
If only Monmouth had waited until James had produced a Catholic heir and proved unpopular. Eventually parliament invited William of Orange, Charles nephew and his wife (James Daughter Mary from his First wife) to take the throne they signed the English Bill of rights that ultimately ended the rocky relationship between Parliament and the crown. This was a bloodless coup and England Ireland and Scotland found themselves under a protestant monarchy again.
Charles II died of Stroke in 1685 on 6th February in Whitehall. He mentioned his beloved mistress Nell Gwen in his last words and he had converted to Catholicism on his death bed.
He was a master of manipulation and double dealing. He was able to balance politics and manage his ministers. He struggled with his women, his mother, his wife his mistresses, he suffered great loss with his father, his siblings, Minette and Henry as well as Queen Catherine’s miscarriages. He was the last true King of England. We owe so much to him, for if he had not come to reclaim his throne, we could well be a republic, with no Christmas, music or theatre.