Charles the Second

by Ronald Hutton
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2057

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.

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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 prose style reminiscent of Marcel Proust rather than Bernard Shaw. Yet, Hutton does have a design and a direction; it takes careful reading and attention to the rivulets of data running off of the main flow, however, to follow his logic from paragraph to paragraph. There is no doubt that the author knows his subject and period intimately; he moves through the details of court intrigues, appointments, changes of wind, accidents of chance, and long-ranging consequences like an entertainment columnist with an inside track on all the gossip.

Unfortunately, his work does not make for very juicy reading, and this in a time when scandal was big business. Disappointing to the modern reader is the paucity of personal details regarding Charles and the arts, the theater, the ladies, the clothes, the courtiers (as companions), and the other accoutrements of everyday royal life. For example, Nell Gwyn, the single most famous royal actress/courtesan in English history, gets only nine extremely brief mentions, and even has to share a paragraph with virtual unknowns Moll Davis and Mrs. Knight. The theater does not appear at all as a separate index entry, and the poets and playwrights of the day are treated like insignificant rabble—only George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, is mentioned of the five or six best-known Restoration stage wits, and that because of his political office as Master of the Horse and because his satire of a colleague, as Sir Cautious Trouble- All in a play, caused him to be called out to a (politically motivated) duel. Hutton chooses not to recount the story of Charles’s escape from Scotland after losing the battle to Cromwell’s forces, stating that it had been done more colorfully elsewhere (Samuel Pepys gives an account, for example). To hear Hutton speak is to imagine a king who was a king every second of every waking moment, not a human being thrust by fortune into running three countries. What is left out is most often what makes such a biography a lasting and continually rewarding fountain of historical information. Hutton quibbles, even with himself rather than paint with broad strokes. We stand too close to the man to see his full portrait.

The book is not easy to read, for several reasons: First, the names of the characters in this drama are long and changing, and the titles they bear move from person to person with alarming regularity. Charles had very few weapons in his arsenal, but he could grant titles, and he did so with a gusto that diluted, perhaps, all of his gifts. His faithful followers did not always have the best intentions themselves, and Charles had to sort out the merely politically active from his honest friends, a fewer number, to be sure. As the Masters of the Bed Chamber and Masters of the Horse and members of the Privy Council came and went, their names and titles intermingle in a way that daunts the common reader. Also, as is often the case with historical biography, a “character” in the drama of the events will have many names and titles (and the titles will change persons) as well as nicknames. The index helps a little: “Clarendon, see Hyde.” In one turn Hutton talks of Edward Hyde, another time of Clarendon, another the earl (one of hundreds), but they are all the same person, a difficult way to follow Hutton through his already difficult material. Consequently, it is difficult to follow the events and characters without total concentration.

Complicating the granting of royal privileges was the fact that the interregnum government has seized land from the gentry, and now these lands had to be confiscated and returned. How was Charles to do so and still maintain the delicate balance of powers around him? If he was too severe with his parliamentary detractors, the thin alliance would shatter and he would again be on the run, but if he did not reward those who had faithfully followed him to other countries, how could he count on anyone else’s loyalty? Given the complicated situation, Charles employed what Hutton sees as a characteristic stance: In the final analysis he answered to his own personal comforts and preferences. He was not a king zealous of his country for the love of it, but for the privileges of kingship that went along with his royal heritage, unjustly (in his eyes) taken from him in his salad days, and therefore to be thoroughly enjoyed now.

The book is organized, to be sure, around a chronology that Hutton sees quite clearly. Unfortunately, he does not choose to bring the reader along with him on his ramblings through the arcane records of English history. There are, for example, no subheadings other than the chapter titles, which themselves are nothing more than dates and a brief descriptive passage. His paragraphs are long and complex. The organizational principles by which Hutton moves through his prodigious research are sound, but one gets the impression of complex events overlapping in different arenas, and the reader must concentrate on several events at once. This is definitely not a browsing book; the chapters do not make sense read at random, because Hutton assumes that the reader is as familiar with the characters and events as he is, an impossibility. Occasional wit emerges, but not much.

If Hutton’s study is exhaustive in some details, other omissions are disturbing. The people are not there. The world of England is represented only in the royal company and the opposing factions, arrnies, and diplomats. Very, very seldom are the common people even seen. Nor, oddly, is the human Charles. What has remained are intrigues, wars, maneuvering, lost and stolen confidences, the general system rather than the historical moment. By concentrating on the cause-effect relationship, and ignoring the human event, Hutton has reduced a colorful historical period to a series of inevitabilities marred by accident. The value of Hutton’s study, then, lies in its prose translation of government documents, letters, and so forth, into some sort of narrative in which the facts can be found imbedded, but not flowering.

Was Europe changing during Charles’s flight and exile, or was he symptomatic of an undying sense of monarchy pervading the rest of Europe? In other words, did the people want their independence from a monarchic system, or were they still enamored of a single great patriarch/matriarch, charged by birth and heritage to be their leader? Hutton never really gets at the question of England as a people, preferring to treat it as a political arena; this is a book about the governors, not the governed.

It is a temptation to assume that Hutton’s earlier work, The Restoration, dealt with all the other layers of culture during that time. In fact it does not; the years just before and just after the actual change of government are discussed in their political details, but again, Hutton does not deal with the common mise-en-scene of the age. The Restoration is an interesting time, as recorded by theater scholars and cultural sociologists, but Hutton has managed to strip it of its glamor.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. March 25, 1990, XIV, p.9.

Choice. XXVII, July, 1990, p.1876.

The Guardian. November 30, 1989, p.27.

History Today. XL, June, 1990, p.55.

Library Journal. CXV, March 1, 1990, p.98.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p.19.

San Francisco Chronicle. March 4, 1990, p. REV9.

The Spectator. CCLXIV, February 17, 1990, p.32.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 6, 1990, p.378.

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