Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The moment in English history known as the Commonwealth found democracy reborn but in its infancy, when the common man was testing his strength against centuries of another notion: rule by monarchy, a hereditary line of governance here-tofore inaccessible by talent or aspiration, neither questionable nor questioned. For a brief time, the forces of political and social dynamics were such that Oliver Cromwell, representative of another notion—the idea of puritanical righteousness as a parliamentary prerequisite for a governing force—gained the ascendancy against the traditions of monarchy, enough so to raise a great army and defeat in a series of battles Charles I, from a long line (not always uncontested) of English kings.
The “Commonwealth” would be termed the interregnum by subsequent scholars with hindsight; Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, giving the name “Restoration” to his reign until 1685. When Cromwell’s faction beheaded Charles I in 1649, the nineteen-year-old son of the monarch was forced to flee and wait for political events to come back around, as they always do. Sometimes with great entourages of royalist armies, at other times ignominiously disguised as a peasant or woman, Charles II did manage to escape to France, where an uneasy alliance was formed between himself and the French King Louis XIV, a “friendship” built not so much out of love and devotion (these countries had warred through their entire history) as from the French king’s fear that something like Charles I’s fate could be in store for him, should this antimonarchic sentiment spread through Europe. It would take another hundred years and two more Louis before France, too, discovered the power of the people against monarchic repression.
As Charles went through his royal friends—France, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands—he relied on the inherent sense of greatness that he apparently carried with him, even when his finances no longer allowed him to indulge in pomp. Enduring eleven years of a fairly luxurious exile which included protracted stays in The Netherlands and in Spain, Charles II managed to survive until the moment when the reactionary forces of Cromwell, ever watchful for a weakness, determined that perhaps monarchy was not so awful after all. When the Parliament’s annay, led by George Monck, turned against the new regime and, with the Navy, entertained support for the exiled king, Charles saw his opportunity and returned in triumph to London, restoring the Crown to England.
The events that formed Charles’s royal character really began with his father’s troubles and eventual execution at the hands of Cromwellian forces. Hutton gradually builds a portrait of Charles, at once courteous and devious, forceful and vacillating, a true friend and a traitorous turncoat.
Who was the man around whom so much military, political, and personal effort was being expended? Was his own powerful personality enough to bring a nation back to royalist rule, or could anyone with the title have brought forth the same energetic response when the time became right again? Was Charles in fact a driving force, or merely a passive pawn in someone else’s game? Ronald Hutton explores the possibilities, and concludes that he was a hollow king, whose predilections for unfaithfulness and duplicity, paired with a strange loyalty to his followers, made the unique combination that, in turn, brought the present form of parliamentary government into the modern world.
Court members fall in and out of favor as part of the king’s quixotic predilections toward favorable or unfavorable factions working toward important or trivial influences. The sense of English history becomes an impulsive, momentary, poorly thoughtout reaction of a petulant or weak- willed or stubborn or easily gulled monarch, as though the governance of England were left in the hands of a rich child giving out and taking away toys to doting but hypocritical uncles.
The work is divided into sixteen chapters, thirteen of which are a chronological division of Charles’s reign, a few years at a time. Two preliminary chapters get the subject through boyhood and adolescence (as the Prince of Wales); a concluding chapter muses on the hollowness and insubstantiality of the monarch “in a masquerade.” The study examines in more detail than previous biographies the monarch’s relations with Scotland and Ireland. Scotland’s own political troubles are first used by Charles to his own ends, and then exacerbated by his political decisions after his restoration to the throne. Ireland, itself laboring under economic and religious troubles, had as an added problem the confiscation of lands under Cromwell, now to be returned to royalists. Elaborate notes to Hutton’s exhaustive and often obscure sources, while occasionally and briefly annotated, serve the next sedulous scholar better than the current reader. Hutton chooses to digress or otherwise comment on the main stream of his thought right in the text, not in footnotes.
The result is a thick...
(The entire section is 2057 words.)
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