'The King's Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II', by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh - Review

By Dennison, Matthew | The Spectator, January 31, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The King's Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II', by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh - Review


Dennison, Matthew, The Spectator


The King's Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

Little Brown, pp.354, £20, ISBN: 9781408704882

In a tone of breezy bravado in keeping with their concept of their subject's character, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have written a swashbuckling life of Charles II. This is narrative history that seldom slows to accommodate analysis, the Restoration court presented as the stuff of a TV mini-series: febrile, frenetic and vivid. At the centre of the vortex, Charles himself emerges as an amorous roisterer, dominated by his libido.

The King's Bed reminded me of the Ladybird history books of my childhood, biography in bite-size chunks, centred on suitably memorable happenings or themes, the events of the past pithily retold and pared down to externals. But while the Ladybird books were at pains to offer their young readers a wide-ranging (albeit short) overview of their subjects, Jordan and Walsh maintain a single focus: Charles's sex life. Their premise is straightforward. Sex for Charles was an obsession and a distraction. It shaped court culture and aspects of the life of the nation; it certainly affected his performance as monarch (no pun intended) and the politics of his reign.

The result is a book of enjoyable self-indulgence of the sort usually termed 'history without the boring bits'. As history it's a virtual non-starter, as shameless in its shallowness as any of the sleepy-eyed strumpets who occupied, however fleetingly, the bed of the title; as a story, it's a snappy paean to bad behaviour.

In the summer of 1670, a continental diplomat reported to his royal master: 'It is said the ladies have great influence over the mind of the said King of England.' The King's Bed sets out to prove the truth of that assertion. Here they all are, that cavalcade of plump lovelies, remembered in their portraits by Peter Lely and his imitators, full-lipped, pert-breasted and virtually identical in their attitudes of languorous loucheness: Barbara Palmer, later Duchess of Cleveland; the actresses Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn; Frances Stuart; Hortense Mancini; and Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, Louis XIV's spy. Charles encountered Barbara Palmer months before the monarchy was re-established in 1660. …

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