Charles II of England: History, Family, Reign & Achievements
Charles II was the ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1660 to 1685. During this period, which came to be called the Restoration Period, the monarchy was re-instituted and the political relations between the Parliament and the king were restored after the Civil War that tore through Britain for many decades.
From his war effort during the English Civil War to the Restoration period that saw him push for religious tolerance and political reconciliation, here is everything that you need to know about King Charles II, including the king’s response to the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London.
Family and Early Years
The eldest surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France, Charles was born Charles Stuart in 1960 at the St. James Place in London, England. He was crowned Prince of Wales shortly after he was born.
Prince Charles’ early life was not particularly interesting. In the 1642, the enduring conflict between his father, Charles I, and the Parliament had climaxed into the First English Civil War. Charles had participated in the Battle of Edgehill and at age 15, was involved in 1645 campaigns during which period he was named the titular commander of the English forces in the West Country. Foreseeing the victory of the Parliamentarian forces, he left England to escape capture. He went to the Isles of Sicily, and after a brief stay in Jersey, left for France.
Later in 1648, Charles headed off to The Hague. He believed The Hague would be more helpful towards the Royalists than France would be. However, he could not make use of the Royalist fleets he took charge of, neither could he get to Scotland soon enough to join the Royalist Engager army to fight against their foes. Consequently, the Royalist troops were defeated at Preston.
Meanwhile, his father Charles I was captured in January, 1647. Though he managed to escape, he was taken for the second time in 1648. Prince Charles made attempts towards his father’s rescue but his efforts failed. Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649 and the monarchy was abolished and Oliver Cromwell, a staunch anti-monarchist, went on to become the first Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Following this turn of events, England was declared a republic. The Scots were extremely shocked to hear about the king’s execution. In spite of England becoming a republic, they proclaimed Charles as king at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh. However, they would not allow him inside Scotland until he had consented to their demands to make Presbyterianism, rather than the Episcopal Church governance, the official religion in all three of his kingdoms. Eventually, Charles reached Scotland and unwillingly signed the Solemn League and Covenant, making official his rejection of the Episcopal religion.
The Restoration and Coronation of Charles
Charles stayed abroad until he heard the news of Oliver Cromwell’s death. Cromwell had earlier led the Parliamentarian troops in their victory against the Royalists, and had subsequently ruled the British Isles as Lord Protector. Following his demise, the Protectorate of England was terminated, re-establishing the Commonwealth of England. This period witnessed the setting up of a Royalist House of Commons. In May, 1660, Parliament, largely with the help of the very distinguished and influential George Monck, declared Charles king.
Charles, who was by then 30 years old, returned to England to an ecstatic people, a nation that had clearly grown fed up of the stringent policies of Oliver Cromwell’s regime, the major generals, and Parliament. Charles’ reign promised unity, progress and glamor. There was a palpable sense of optimism among the people. Charles II was crowned king on April 23, 1661.
The Reign of Charles II
Charles II’s early years as king witnessed a terrible health crisis called the Great Plague (1665-1666). This caused numerous deaths totaling about 7,500 every week during that time. In London alone, about a quarter of its residents was killed by the plague, which was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. To ensure his safety, Charles left for Salisbury. Similarly, Parliament relocated to Oxford.
The king and his top advisors would not return to London until early 1666. The king’s return was met with another disaster. Barely seven months after the bubonic plague, the Great Fire of London occurred (in September 1666). Partially caused by the hot temperatures and dry weather, the fire allegedly started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. It gutted over 13,000 houses and about 87 churches.
Owing to the extent of destruction caused by the Great Fire of London, many parts of the city were rebuilt. The king strongly encouraged those rebuilding efforts as he feared that homelessness in the city could foment a rebellion against his rule. Therefore, his immediate response was to issue a proclamation, ordering nearby cities to receive Londoners with open arms.
Again, in the mid-1660s, England was involved in the Second Anglo-Dutch War with the Dutch. The War ended in a victory for the Dutch. Charles II signed a secret agreement with Louis XIV of France, who was by the way his maternal cousin, in 1670. The treaty, among other things, required the English monarch’s conversion to Catholicism.
It is said that the king was also determined to aid the French in their fight against the Dutch in the case of another war which turned out to be the Third Anglo-Dutch War. The French, on their part, would give him subsidies that would help him navigate his way around the Parliament.
Accomplishments of Charles II of England
Charles set about restoring many things that had been repressed under the Republic. The Church of England was re-opened, theaters were back for business and all kinds of entertainments thrived.
Under the leadership of Charles II, there was an increase in colonization and trade in India and America. There was also the Passage of Navigation Acts that guaranteed Britain would have sea power in the future.
In 1663, Charles saw to the passing of the Staple Act. This stipulated that items from foreign ports would come with duties in England before being conveyed to their various colonies. This brought revenue to the kingdom.
He was committed to improving the conditions of trade in the country. Consequently, he established the Lord and Plantation, which was an administrative body that would focus on strengthening the relations between the monarchy and the colonial governments.
He worked to achieve religious tolerance and freedom under his leadership. In pursuit of this, he signed the Royal Declaration of Indulgence of 1672, which prevented the prosecution of Catholics. However, there was some stern opposition of those policies by Parliament.
Charles II’s achievements weren’t just confined to the political landscape; the king actively promoted culture, science and arts. He founded the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. In 1660, he issued a royal charter for the Royal Society, an organization that aims to promote the study of natural sciences.
Marriage & Foreign Policy
Charles married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662. The marriage gave him the Bombay and Tangier territories as dowry. Though Catherine bore him no children, he had many illegitimate children with different mistresses.
To show his gratitude towards the help he had in restoring the monarchy, Charles gave North American lands as gifts to eight Lords Proprietors.
In 1668, England became friends with Sweden and the Netherlands in order to band together and fight against Louis XIV in the War of Devolution.
In an effort to solve his financial problems, Charles signed the Treaty of Dover in 1670. This meant that he was entitled to receive an amount of £200,000 annually from the French monarch. In return, Charles would provide troops for Louis and convert to Catholicism. Louis would also supply him with 6,000 troops if there should be an uprising against him as a result of the conversion. Charles also hoped to use the secret agreement, which was signed at the town of Dover in England, to exact revenge at the Dutch.
In 1670, Charles, by a series of acts, granted the British East India Company access to independent territorial acquisitions, to produce money, to have authority over troops, to build alliances and to be able to make civil and legal decisions over the acquired areas in India.
Death and Succession
The cause of Charles II’s death was said to have been stroke (or an apoplectic fit). The king died on the morning of February 2, 1685. He was 54 years old. There some rumors that floated around that the king was poisoned, although there exist no concrete evidence to substantiate such claims.
Due to the fact that he had no legitimate children, Charles II was succeeded by his younger brother, James, who was later crowned James II of England and VII of Scotland.
Did you know?
Below are a few more interesting facts about Charles II:
- Charles II was only 12 years old when the English Civil War broke out (in 1642).
- Having dissolved Parliament in 1681, owing to the uncovering of the secret deals he had with France, Charles II went on to rule England all by himself until 1685, when he passed away.
- When he came to throne in 1660, Charles II quickly set out on a mission to target all the people who signed his father’s (Charles I) death warrant.
- Owing to the fact that he had no legitimate children of his own, his Catholic brother James, Duke of York, was named heir to the throne. Charles II did however have many illegitimate children by his numerous mistresses.
- In attempt to shore up support from Protestants in his nation and Europe, Charles II married his niece Mary (the daughter of James) off to Protestant monarch William of Orange. His niece and nephew-in-law would later jointly rule Great Britain and Ireland.
- Charles II is said to have become a Catholic on his death bed.
- The king was nicknamed ‘Merry Monarch’ due to his lively and sometimes self-indulgent lifestyle.
Facts about Charles II
Birth Day and Place – May 29, 1630; St James’s Palace, London, England
Died – February 6, 1685; London, England
Reign – 1660 – 1685
Coronation Date – April 23, 1661
Successor – James II
Predecessor – Charles I
Mother – Henrietta Maria of France
Father – King Charles I of England
Spouse – Catherine of Braganza (married in 1662)
Siblings – James (later James II of England); Mary, Princess of Orange; Elizabeth, Anne, Henry, Henrietta
Children – no legitimate child; however, he had over a dozen illegitimate children