On May 29th, 1660. the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Charles II rode into the capital he had last seen as a twelve-year-old boy. The procession that carried him through the city of London towards Whitehall Palace was over 50,000 strong, and included the ranked companies of the army which had been raised to fight his father. Amid wild celebrations, screaming crowds, musket volleys and universal declarations of love and loyalty, Charles remarked in a wry aside that it was obviously his own fault he had been in exile so long, since there was no one in England who hadn't longed for his return.
Destined to be viewed from the vantage point of the Restoration, Charles II's decade-and-a-half in exile has always benefitted from the wisdom of hindsight. Like the king himself, historians have looked back on it through the lens of the years after 1660, and assessments have been coloured by assumptions about the sovereign he would become and the course his reign would take. In the case of the third Stuart "king of England, these have often been unforgiving.
For the prudish, Charles' colourful love-life, entangling him with a series of notorious mistresses and resulting in twelve illegitimate children, would be enough to seal his personal reputation. For historians of politics and power, his signature of the Secret Treaty of Dover in 1671--in which he took a pension from Louis XIV in return for a secret undertaking to return England to the Catholic church--and his death-bed conversion to Catholicism have been convincing evidence of his moral and personal weakness. As far back as the 1850s Macaulay described Charles II as
... addicted beyond measure to
sensual indulgence, fond of
sauntering and of frivolous
amusements ... without desire of
renown and without sensibility to
reproach ... honour and shame
were scarcely more to him than
light and darkness to the blind.
The political career of Charles II has received serious reappraisal in recent decades, and historians including Ronald Hutton, John Miller and J. R. Jones have painted much more subtle portraits of the king, sketching him more as a modern politician than a fairytale villain. However, the fourteen years between 1646 and 1660, during which--with the exception of an eighteen-month spell spent mostly in Scotland--Charles lived in exile, remain the most neglected of his adult life. According to the classic interpretation, it was during this period, without direction or purpose, that he learned the idleness, the informality and the moral flexibility that would come to define his reign after the Restoration. By living as an ordinary gentleman, he acquired the foibles and failings, manners and occupations of that station. Hester Chapman, writing in the 1960s, described his 'spiritual and intellectual progress from his seventeenth to his thirty-first year', under the title: 'the tragedy of Charles II'. Many historians still see the exile as being of marginal significance: in his 1991 biography John Miller devoted fewer than twenty pages (out of almost 500) to the period before 1660; J. R. Jones, in his biography, just twenty-two. The time has come to look again.
Charles II was born in 1630, into the most formal and ceremonious court in northern Europe. The king and queen of France (his uncle and grandmother on his mother's side) and the exiled Elector Palatine (his uncle on his father's) were named godparents at his christening, and he was participating in formal diplomatic receptions before he could stand. His education was shared between his governor, the charismatic Earl of Newcastle, and Brian Duppa, the elegant high-church cleric who would soon be bishop of Salisbury. He enjoyed a genuinely affectionate relationship with his parents and lived a closeted life between Whitehall and St James's palaces in the capital and relative rural seclusion at Richmond on Thames. …