Charles II (England)

Charles II (king of England, Scotland, and Ireland)

Charles II, 1630–85, king of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1660–85), eldest surviving son of Charles I and Henrietta Maria.

Early Life

Prince of Wales at the time of the English civil war, Charles was sent (1645) to the W of England with his council, which included Edward Hyde (later 1st earl of Clarendon) and Thomas Wriothesley, 4th earl of Southampton. In 1646, Charles was forced to escape to France, where he stayed with his mother and was tutored by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In 1649, Charles vainly attempted to save his father's life by presenting to Parliament a signed blank sheet of paper, thereby granting whatever terms might be requested.

Exiled King

After his father's execution (1649), Charles was proclaimed king in Scotland and in parts of Ireland and England. He accepted the terms of the Scottish Covenanters and went (1650) to Scotland, where he was crowned (1651), after agreeing to enforce Presbyterianism in England as well as Scotland. In 1651 he marched into England but was defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the battle of Worcester. Charles then escaped to France, where he lived in relative poverty. The Anglo-French negotiations of 1654 forced Charles into Germany, but he moved to the Spanish Netherlands after he had concluded (1656) a treaty with Spain.

Restoration and Reign

In 1660 Gen. George Monck engineered Charles's Restoration to the throne, and the king returned to England. Charles had promised a general amnesty in his conciliatory Declaration of Breda, and he and Clarendon, who became first minister, acted immediately to secure passage of the Act of Indemnity, pardoning all except the regicides. Charles also favored religious toleration (largely because of his own leanings toward Roman Catholicism), but the strongly Anglican Cavalier Parliament, which first convened in 1661, passed the series of statutes known as the Clarendon Code, which was designed to strike at religious nonconformity. The king attempted unsuccessfully to suspend these statutes by the declaration of indulgence of 1662, which he was forced (1663) to withdraw.

Charles's government endorsed the foreign policy of the Commonwealth with its Navigation Acts, which contributed to the outbreak (1664) of the second of the Dutch Wars. While the war was being waged, London suffered the great plague of 1665 and the fire of 1666. Clarendon fell from power in 1667, the year the war ended, to be replaced by the Cabal ministry.

Charles then took England into the Triple Alliance (1668) with Holland and Sweden, but he simultaneously sought the support of Louis XIV of France, with whom he negotiated the secret Treaty of Dover (1670). By this treaty, designed to free the king from dependence on Parliament, Charles was to adopt Roman Catholicism, convert his subjects, and wage war against the Dutch, for which Louis was to advance him a large subsidy and 6,000 men. In 1672 the third Dutch War began. Many suspected it to be a cloak for the introduction of arbitrary government and Roman Catholicism. Charles was forced to rescind (1672) his second declaration of indulgence toward dissenters, to approve (1673) the Test Act, and to sign (1674) a peace with the Dutch.

Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, became chief minister on the disintegration of the Cabal and inaugurated a foreign policy friendly to Holland. Charles, unable to secure money from an increasingly hostile Parliament, signed a series of secret agreements with Louis XIV, by which he received large French subsidies in return for a pro-French policy, although he feigned sympathy with the anti-French movement at home. His alliance with Louis, however, was broken (1677) by the marriage of his niece Mary to his nephew (and Louis's archenemy) William of Orange (later William III).

Anti-Catholic feeling in England exploded (1678) in the affair of the Popish Plot (see Oates, Titus), in which Charles did not intervene until his wife, Catherine of Braganza, was accused. However, the affair was made use of by the 1st earl of Shaftesbury, who led a movement to exclude Charles's brother, the Catholic duke of York (later James II), from succession to the throne, promoting instead the claim of Charles's illegitimate son the duke of Monmouth.

In 1681 the king dissolved Parliament to block passage of Shaftesbury's Exclusion Act, and thenceforth Charles ruled as an absolute monarch, without a Parliament. His personal popularity increased after the exclusion crisis and particularly after the unsuccessful Rye House Plot. He took steps to root out the supporters of exclusion (now known as the Whigs) from positions of power, coercing municipal governments into obedience by the threat that he would rescind the city charters.

Charles died a Roman Catholic and was succeeded by his brother James. He had no legitimate offspring but many children by his various mistresses, who included Lucy Walter, Barbara Villiers (duchess of Cleveland), Louise Kéroualle (duchess of Portsmouth), and Nell Gwyn.

Character and Influence

Charles was a ruler of considerable political skill. His reign was marked by a gradual increase in the power of Parliament, which he learned to circumvent rather than manipulate. The period also saw the rise of the great political parties, Whig and Tory; the advance of colonization and trade in India, America, and the East Indies; and the great progress of England as a sea power. The pleasure-loving character of the king set the tone of the brilliant Restoration period in art and literature.


See contemporaneous accounts by G. Burnet, J. Evelyn, and S. Pepys; letters ed. by A. Bryant (rev. ed. 1955) and H. Pearson (1960); biographies by A. Fraser (1978, repr. 2007), J. R. Jones (1987), J. Abbott (2009), and J. Uglow (2009); G. N. Clark, The Later Stuarts (2d ed. 1955); D. Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (2 vol., 2d ed. 1963).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Charles II (England): Selected full-text books and articles

King Charles II By Arthur Bryant Longmans, Green, 1931
England in the Reign of Charles II By David Ogg Clarendon Press, vol.1, 1934
The Restoration of Charles II By Roots, Ivan History Review, March 2000
Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress By John H. Wilson Dell Publishing, 1952
FREE! Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, Secretary of State to Charles II By Violet Barbour American Historical Association, 1914
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Charles II begins on p. 29
A Constitutional and Legal History of England By Goldwin Smith Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955
Librarian's tip: Chap. 16 "Charles the Second and James the Second: Political Arithmetic"
Essays on the Later Stuarts By Godfrey Davies Huntington Library, 1958
Librarian's tip: "Charles II in 1660" begins on p. 1
Charles II Hides in the Boscobel Oak By Cavendish, Richard History Today, Vol. 51, No. 9, September 2001
FREE! Charles II By Osmund Airy Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904
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