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Charles II: The “Merry” Monarch

 

The Granting of the Royal Charter by King Charles II in 1670, by E.A. Cox, 1920

Charles II granted the Royal Charter of Hudson’s Bay Company May 2, 1670. A prerogative of the Crown, the Charter was, in effect, a personal gift from the monarch to the original Hbc investors. But who was this most generous benefactor?

 

The eldest surviving son of Charles I and French Princess Henrietta Maria, Charles II was born in 1630. His father’s reign was a calamitous series of events which began with a refusal to deal with Parliament – leading to an 11 year period during which Parliament did not sit at all – and escalated into Civil War. Religious differences exacerbated affairs with a growing Protestant population in England and Scotland increasingly at odds with the Catholic King.

War between the Royalists, known as Cavaliers, and the Parliamentarians, called Roundheads because of their unique helmets, broke out in 1642 and lasted until the Royalist forces were defeated in 1645. Charles I surrendered to the Scots who turned him over to Parliament which imprisoned him, tried him for treason and executed him in 1649. At the age of nineteen, already an experienced soldier in his father’s behalf, Charles fled into exile in France.

Parliament ruled the country and Oliver Cromwell, Puritan orator and the creator of Parliament’s New Model Army, ruled Parliament. Over the next decade Cromwell would take more and effective control of the state, especially after becoming Lord Protector in 1653. Meanwhile, Charles II was proclaimed King in Scotland in 1651. Later that year he led 10,000 Scots to a dismal defeat at Cromwell’s hands at Worcester in an abortive attempt to regain his throne. He fled to Europe once more. But time was on his side. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 and the Protectorate passed to his son Richard. But almost immediately plans to restore the monarchy were afoot.

General George Monck, in control of the army and a Member of Parliament, was well placed to orchestrate Charles’ return. The Declaration of Breda, issued by Charles in May of 1660 and which outlined the conditions under which he would agree to serve as King, was accepted by Parliament and Charles entered London on his 30th birthday, May 29, 1660. After years of war and upheaval expectations were high. Only nine of those complicit in his father’s death were executed, the rest were pardoned, land purchases occurring during the interregnum were confirmed and the “liberty of tender consciences”, i.e. a guarantee of the freedom of religion, seemed to set the tone for a promising reign. But misfortunes, coupled with the new King’s profligate habits, dogged his rule.

In 1665 bubonic plague erupted in London, killing between 70,000 - 100,000. In September of 1666 the Great Fire of London occurred. Lasting five days it consumed almost two thirds of the city, reducing it to ruins and dispossessing another 200,000. The following year the English suffered a series of naval defeats at the hands of the Dutch that culminated in the capture of the English navy’s flagship Royal Charles. All these events had a detrimental effect on England’s economy. The country could have used a conscientious ruler who took his role seriously and would have promoted the country’s interests before his own. Charles II was not to be that person.

Instead his behaviour was an interesting mix of laziness, indifference and sentimental indulgence. Chronically short of money, Charles tended to raise it wherever and however he could. His marriage is a case in point. Upon his Restoration there were numerous contenders for the position of Queen Consort. The ultimate choice of Portugese Infanta Catherine of Braganza was almost certainly due to the large dowry that came with her, a sum of 50,000 pounds which was matched by an equal amount from the French king Louis XIV. In fact, Charles remained a “pensioner” of Louis for many years.

 

His Majesty King Charles II, by Sir Peter Lely, n.d.

Oil on canvas

But where his father Charles I had managed to support himself financially without Parliament’s help for years, in part by selling lucrative corporate monopolies, Charles does not seem to have followed this route, at least insofar as HBC is concerned. In fact, instead of making money from his grant to HBC, Charles set the requirement of a periodic rent of two beaver and two elk in the unlikely event of the Sovereign visiting Rupert’s Land – an event so unlikely that it did not occur for 227 years! Why such a deal for HBC? Well, the fact that the King’s cousin Prince Rupert was Governor and most of the original shareholders were senior figures in his government – people like General Monck, who had since become Earl of Albemarle – might have had something to do with it.

 

Much of Charles’ money went to support his mistresses and their offspring. Although he remained married to Catherine of Braganza until his death, Charles II had no children by her. But he is known to have had at least fifteen mistresses, often several at once, and acknowledged fourteen illegitimate children. This reputation as a womanizer is the source of his nickname “The Merry Monarch”.  Lucy Walter was the mother of his eldest son, James (later Duke of Monmouth), who would one day lead an army against his Catholic uncle, the King’s brother James, Duke of York. Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine (later Duchess of Cleveland), bore the King no less than five children, three boys and two girls. His favourite mistress, and the one who seems to have shared a sincere love with him, was Nell Gwyn, a former orange-seller and actress. More than twenty years his junior, Nell nonetheless remained faithful to the King until his death.

Charles’ reign is significant both for the Restoration of the monarchy and the establishment of modern party politics.  The Whigs (Liberals) arose from the remains of the Roundheads, men of property dedicated to expanding trade abroad and maintaining Parliament's supremacy in the political field and the Cavaliers evolved into the Tory Party, royalists intent on preserving the king's authority over Parliament. The King’s tolerance in religions affairs allowed the country to get back on its feet without major strife. But this tolerance had little lasting effect: his brother and successor James II’s adherence to the Catholic faith would cause him to lose the throne in 1688.

Charles II died of a stroke in February 6, 1685, at the age of 55. He became a Roman Catholic on his deathbed.