Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

The Reign of Charles II—The "Merrie Monarch" (1660—1685)

We read that in May, 1660, Charles II entered London in triumph, and that the whole nation seemed to give itself up to feasting and revelry. John Evelyn, who saw it, writes: "Shouting with inexpressible joy, the ways strewed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine, the mayor, aldermen, and all the companies, in their liveries, chains of gold, and banners; lords and nobles, clad in cloth of silver, gold, and velvet; the windows and balconies all set with ladies; trumpets, music, and myriads of people flocking, even so far as Rochester . . . I stood in the Strand and beheld it and blessed God. And all this was done without one drop of blood shed . . . but it was the Lord's doing."

We may well ask what it all really meant. Did it mean that the Civil War had been a mistake, and that the nation wished to be ruled by kings, as it had been in the days of the Tudors and the Yorkists?

Doubtless many of the old Cavaliers thought so. But when they saw the king restored, they forgot that he had been restored, not by a royalist victory, but by a parliamentary general (Monk).

The king was restored without any of those treaties such as had been discussed years before between Charles I and the Parliament. His promise that everything should be settled by a free Parliament was thought to be more satisfactory than any treaty. The Restoration was therefore the restoration of Parliament as well as of Monarchy, and the fact that the Parliament turned out to be composed of Royalists was due to the temper of the nation and to nothing else.

There is no doubt that the event known as the "Restoration" was a very important crisis in our history. It was a revolution, just as the setting up of the Commonwealth had been; and, just as the character of Cromwell in that period influenced the destinies of the whole nation, so the character of Charles II helped to decide the direction in which the nation was to develop. But Charles influenced our history as much by what he did not do, as by what he did. Had he been a king with a strong will and a taste for hard work, he might have become a despot like Louis XIV, his cousin, then reigning in France. It was fortunate for England that Charles threw away the opportunities which a foolish nation placed in his hands.

The newly elected Parliament was to meet in May. In the interval, the country was strongly royalist in feeling. It was then that the trial and execution of the Regicides took place. The elections resulted in a strong Cavalier Parliament. Only about sixty Presbyterians gained seats, although London continued to send four. This Parliament sat until 1679, and is known as the Long Parliament of the Restoration. This, of course, was contrary to the Triennial Act, but that Act was repealed as being a reflection on the king. Charles knew he was not likely to get a Parliament more favourable to him, so he took care not to dissolve it for eighteen years.

His first work was the restoration of the Church of England. Charles himself cared little about the Church. His private inclinations were towards Catholicism, and eventually he became a secret Catholic. He wished to secure toleration for Catholics, and would have agreed to some toleration for the Presbyterians. But the temper of the House of Commons was now so violently Anglican, that even without Clarendon the restoration of the Church was certain.

The discredit of the famous persecuting statutes belongs rather to the Commons than to Clarendon, the minister, although it is true he opposed the king's desire for toleration. The first of these acts, the Corporation Act  (1661), was directed against the Presbyterians, who were still numerous and influential in the towns. This act compelled all members of town councils or corporations, mayors, aldermen, councillors, and other officers, to receive the Holy Communion according to the rites of the Church of England. They had also to call the king Supreme Head of the Church and to take the oaths of allegiance and non-resistance to the king. By this means all power in the boroughs was placed in the hands of Anglicans, who thus could see that Anglican members were elected to Parliament.

In the following year the old Act of Uniformity, passed in 1559, was renewed. By this act it became impossible for any one to hold a Church living, or to be a tutor or a schoolmaster, who would not swear that he believed everything in the Book of Common Prayer. All the clergy were also compelled to be ordained by a bishop.

More than 1,200 rectors and vicars gave up their livings rather than conform to these laws, and for some years in many parts of the country it was difficult to find men able to take their places.

It was, however, still possible for the Presbyterians and other Puritan sects to worship in their own chapels, and the ejected clergy swelled the ranks of these "Dissenters." So a further act was now aimed at them. The Conventicle Act  forbade more than five persons besides the members of a household to meet for worship except according to the Prayer Book, under penalties of fine and imprisonment. For a third offence the offenders could be sent out of the country.

Lastly, a Five Mile Act  was passed, and this forbade "any nonconformist minister to come within five miles of any corporate town (or borough), or of any place in which he had formerly held a living; unless he would swear that he believed it to be unlawful to take up arms against the king, or try to change the Government either in Church or State."

These were harsh laws, but it was still possible to evade them; and even without evading them, it was still possible for Nonconformists to exist. Their numbers grew in spite of fine and imprisonment. The persecution of the Dissenters, like that formerly practised against the Catholics, was never very systematic. Every now and then there would be an outburst of persecution, and the gaols would be filled with men whose only offence was a conscientious objection to conform to the Prayer Book. Even a single magistrate could harass and ruin any poor Dissenter in his neighbourhood.

Foreign affairs, particularly our relations with France and Holland, were of great importance from Charles's accession until the end of the period (1715). The King of France, Louis XIV, was Charles's cousin; and just about the time of Charles's restoration, he was by his own industry and ambition trying to make France the most powerful monarchy in Europe. The main fact in European history from that time until 1715 was the struggle against Louis, who was seeking to make himself master of Spain, of the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium), of the States bordering on the Rhine, and even of Holland itself. Alliances were formed, chiefly by Holland, to resist and break down the French power.

In 1665 this great struggle had not yet begun, but by his attack on Holland, Charles foolishly played into Louis's hands. For Holland and England were the two strongest naval powers, and Louis was glad to see them destroy each other. It was his policy to prevent England from allying with Holland. With this purpose, after the first Dutch war was over, he bound Charles by secret treaties not to ally with the Dutch. Charles was a clever diplomatist, and extorted vast sums of money from Louis as the price of his agreement. But it was a shameful bargain, for it meant that an English king was bribed to act against the real interests of the English nation, and to support a Catholic tyrant against a free Protestant nation (Holland).

The Dutch war was the first stage in this dishonest, foolish foreign policy. In the year following the Great Fire of London and the Plague, the Dutch actually sailed up the Thames and burned sixteen ships at the gates of Chatham Docks. London was in a panic, and those who were not frightened were ashamed.

In order to give toleration to the Catholics, Charles was willing to give it to the Nonconformists. He issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, which suspended the penalties against Catholics and Nonconformists alike. But the next year the Protestant party passed the Test Act, requiring all officers of the crown to take the sacrament according to the Church of England. The Duke of York, the heir to the throne, had declared himself a Catholic. In 1678 the rumour of a great Popish plot was spread. The Whigs—as the Roundheads came to be called—introduced the Exclusion Bill to exclude the duke from the throne, but the Tories—the successors of the Cavaliers—rallied round the duke and the king. Charles II died in February, 1685.

The main course of events during the reign has been told, but it is difficult to see just how much had been gained or lost during the twenty-five years since the Restoration. It must have seemed to the Whigs that the Civil War had been fought in vain. In reality it was not so. More progress had been made than the people of the time were aware of. First of all, Charles II had never attempted, as his father had, to oppose a united Parliament. He could only go as far as the Tory party would support him, and his power was therefore dependent on a party that frequently had half the nation on its side. Secondly, it was only by accepting a pension from France that he had been able to maintain so much independence. Thirdly, he had to consent to many things distasteful to him. Parliament insisted on its right not only of fixing the amount of supplies for the Government, but of deciding upon what objects the money should be spent. And it was in this reign that the House of Commons asserted the right, against the House of Lords, that they alone had control over all votes of money.

The Whigs had almost succeeded in altering the succession to the throne. They did succeed in getting one law passed which ranks among the greatest laws in English history; this was the great Habeas Corpus Act. Magna Charta had said, "No freeman shall be taken and imprisoned unless by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." Nevertheless, during hundreds of years it was possible for a king to evade the law in the case of men arrested for political crimes. Many attempts had been made by Parliament to prevent kings interfering with the course of justice, and to secure either a speedy trial or the release of such prisoners. The Habeas Corpus Act now secured this end, by making judges and other officers liable to a heavy fine if they refused to bring men to trial at the first opportunity.

In addition to all this, Shaftesbury and the Whig lords who acted with him had shown that, without resort to civil war, a large party in Parliament, backed by the voters in the country, could make it difficult for any Government to act in defiance of the wishes of the people. Political parties had come into existence; and in a few years that party which could secure a majority of members on its side in the House of Commons would be able to control the Government. For good and evil, this was one of the greatest results of the political life of the reign of Charles II.

It remains to say something of some other matters of interest in this reign. The Great Plague has been mentioned. This happened in 1665, during the war with the Dutch. There had been many previous plagues. Indeed, in the Middle Ages plague was seldom absent for any long time; and in the seventeenth century London had suffered several times.

The city itself was very unsanitary, and the new districts that had grown up to the east and south were still worse than the city. For months the plague raged. At the end of August the streets were deserted, and business was almost suspended except for the supply of food. All who could escaped from the plague-stricken city, except a few doctors and Puritan clergymen. In September a thousand persons a day died, and altogether some eighty thousand, or about one-fifth of the whole city population, were carried off by the plague alone.

Great Fire of London


Next year, 1666, the Great Fire broke out. Pepys writes in his Diary, September 2nd, 1666: "Some of our maids, sitting up late last night, called us up, about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the city. Bye and bye Jane comes and tells me she hears that above three hundred houses have been burnt down to-night, and that it is now burning all Fish Street by London Bridge. . . . So off I go to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me it began this morning in the king's baker's house in Pudding Lane . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods and flinging them into the river, or bringing them into lighters." His account is the most vivid we possess, but too long to quote in full.

Charles II's reign was not fruitful in great men. In literature, the one great name that stands out above all others is that of John Milton. But although he lived on until 1674, and wrote his greatest poems in the early years of the Restoration period, he belongs to the earlier age, when Puritanism was triumphing over its foes. He wrote in defence of the Parliament, and even justified the execution of the king. The Commonwealth appointed him Latin Secretary to the Council of State. But he soon became blind, partly in consequence of his close attention to his duties and to study.

When the Restoration came, misfortune fell upon him. He was imprisoned for a short time and lost much of his property. He was, however, able to live in quietness and obscurity, in a house in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields, London. His greatest poems, "Paradise Lost," "Paradise Regained," and "Samson Agonistes," were all written in this last period of his life. No one who has not read these magnificent poems can realise the grandeur of Puritanism at its highest and best.

Writers were not wanting in Charles II's reign. John Bunyan wrote his marvellous "Pilgrim's Progress" and other works, such as "The Holy War" and "Grace Abounding." But he, too, belonged in sympathy to the previous age, and of all the writings of the seventeenth century, his are the most expressive of the popular Puritan spirit.

Dryden, Andrew Marvell, Otway, Cowley, Edmund Waller, Butler, and other poets were a sad falling off from the age of Shakespeare and Milton. Clarendon's History, the Diaries of Pepys and Evelyn, and other memoirs give us wonderful pictures of the men and manners of the time. But, with these notable exceptions, books and plays were more frivolous, and written mostly for amusement.

Christopher Wren


In art nearly all the greatest painters were foreign, and these were greatly inferior to their predecessors, Rubens and Vandyke, whom Charles I had employed. One very great architect there was, Sir Christopher Wren, the, builder of St. Paul's Cathedral, Greenwich Hospital, and scores of London churches. The Fire of London furnished him with the greatest opportunity any English architect has ever enjoyed, and Wren has left more monuments of his genius than any of his successors.

Henry Purcell, the first notable English musician, lived at this time. In natural science, Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle began their researches and discoveries, and gathered round them in the Royal Society, founded in 1662, a band of scientists—careful thinkers and writers—who did much to spread an interest in real knowledge of the natural world.