Royal Charles

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Lady Antonia Fraser is both a creative author, having published novels and poems, and a devoted royal biographer. In the latter enterprise, among other works, she has written Mary, Queen of Scots (1969), Cromwell: The Lord Protector (1973), and King James VI and I (1974). This latest publication therefore continues her studies of English rulers of the seventeenth century. In Royal Charles, the author integrates numerous sources of information in her orderly re-creation of events in the life of Charles Stuart II. She makes use of previous biographies (noting that there are relatively few of them, considering the popularity of this King); contemporary accounts of the Restoration period, such as the diaries of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys; correspondence of public figures; and references made in plays and poems.

Charles II was a popular King, partly because of his own nature and partly because of events in which he participated. The facts of his life are briefly these: his early teenage years were spent accompanying his father, Charles I, in that King’s frustrating military career in the west of England. At seventeen he was sent by his father to France to be with his mother, and he was in Holland when word reached him of his father’s execution in 1649. A rout at Worcester at the hands of Cromwellian forces in 1651 dashed any hope of winning his kingdom; Charles barely escaped with his life. His years of exile in Scotland and later in France were penurious. After being recalled to assume the throne of Great Britain in 1660, Charles II returned to England and ruled for twenty-five years until his death in 1685.

The execution date of Charles I, 1649, provides a convenient reference point for the history of England in the seventeenth century. Charles I had inherited his throne in 1625 from his father, James I, and had reigned for twenty-four years with ever-increasing difficulties. The eleven years thereafter were an interregnum during which Oliver Cromwell was dictator; it was a time of imposition of strict Puritan religious doctrine as well as governmental control. Two civil wars took place during the interregnum, so that by the end of the 1650’s, England was weary of strife and hardship and longed for a return to order, even the old order. The restoration of the monarchy, therefore, in the person of Charles I’s exiled son, crowned Charles II of Great Britain after his return in 1660, was welcomed then and appreciated ever after as a calm after the storm.

A glance at this volume’s index reveals that the chronological presentation of events in the life of Charles II, on nearly a month-to-month basis, is the predominant substance of the book. Fraser appreciates how forces and issues increasingly came to bear on Charles and maintains the King’s point of view by relating and judging the effects of events on him. She attempts, for the most part successfully, to explain the subject’s views and opinions, to examine his motives, and in general to assess his character.

The facts of Charles II’s life support the observation that he seems never to have acted so much as reacted to the events of his time. In exile as a young man he formulated no steadfast plans of action, but rather was led from one insecure situation to another; eventually, he relied mostly on his mother for support and barely subsisted. In 1660, he did not restore the monarchy to England by an act of his own will, but, rather, received his kingdom almost by default, having it thrust upon him by a war-weary constituency. His reign was not marked by singular advances in government or by avowed policies or ambitions of particular note. Events or achievements, such as the Dutch Wars or the economic successes late in his reign, were not due to his leadership, unless one is willing to attribute the relative stability following the interregnum to his presence. A casual observer might, in fact, conclude that the events of Charles II’s life were nearly all unsuccessful; they were years of ignominious exile, lost battles, defeats abroad, and continual incapacity to deal directly with parliament and other bureaucratic units. Yet careful scrutiny of the outcome of this King’s endeavors yields a more fair appraisal.

This biography presents such a balanced evaluation. Fraser contends that Charles II was, in private matters as well as in public policies, much more successful than is popularly acknowledged; she argues that he did better as a ruler, achieving more for his country through his patience, than many another more outwardly triumphant king may seem to have achieved...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)