Monday, May 10, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction: K is for King Charles II

I am conscious that it seems that I am cheating a bit when it comes to this challenge! I mean K is for many books would you be able to use just for that. Luckily it will make Q a bit easier so a bit of advance warning. My post for Q is most likely to be Q is for Queen someone or another. I haven't planned that far in advance yet!

To be fair though, King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland is one of the kings in British history that just fascinates me. He seems to be a man of contradictions, a man with incredible charisma and charm, but he was something of a tomcat, so I thought I would have a look at these contradictions and also look at the the books of Susan Holloway Scott who has been writing about Charles and his mistresses.

I should say though that reading Susan Holloway Scott's books weren't my first introduction to Charles II. I suspect that I probably read about him when I was going through my Jean Plaidy stage back in high school, but the first time I remember finding his character fascinating was when I saw Rufus Sewell in the title role of Charles II: The Power and the Passion. Now admittedly the fact that it was Rufus Sewell in the role may well have been a good part of the reason why I was fascinated, but that interest was fed when I read the historical fiction classic, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor.

Previously I mentioned contradictions, so I thought I would explore a few of them.

Charles' court has a reputation for being a very ostentatious and hedonistic but he spent 9 years in exile in comparative poverty following the execution of his father Charles I. When he was buried in Westminster Abbey in February 1685 there was no pomp at all. Indeed, there were two major events that changed the landscape of English history during Charles early reign, and not in a good way - the Plague that devastated the population especially during 1665, and also the Great Fire which destroyed so much of London in 1666. I think that it says something about the nature of the man when you hear that he was out trying to fight the fire alongside his people, and that he was quite relaxed about being out in public.

He was not able to father a child with his legal wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza, but he fathered at least 12 acknowledged children from a variety of mistresses. Whilst he had many, many sexual encounters in his lifetime, he did seem to love wholly once he gave his heart to one of his women, and whilst he loved some very highly placed noble women like Barbara Villiers, Lady Cleveland and the French noblewoman, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, but then he also had a lasting relationship with a young lady who started as an orange seller and then worked her way up to be an actress at a time when women were only just being allowed on the stage as performers, Nell Gwyn. Allegedly on his deathbed Charles implored his brother to "be well to Portsmouth, and let not poor Nelly starve". There seems to have been only one woman who was able to resist Charles charms - Frances Stuart resisted him for years, eventually marrying Charles Stewart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox.

Whilst I wouldn't want to marry a man with Charles morals when it comes to his sexual habits, I do admire the fact that despite being counselled to put aside his apparently barren queen, he was determined the he would not divorce his queen and take another queen, and supported his brother as his heir.

Charles was very much in favour of religious tolerance,  and constantly fought against the Parliament who wanted to exclude Catholics from holding positions in the Court. The Parliament was particularly concerned about his brother's accession to the throne given that James had converted to Roman Catholicism. Indeed Charles himself is said to have made a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. Despite his efforts, the Parliament passed acts of exclusion which meant that quite a few of the highest placed officials in the land had to resign from their positions due to the religious inclinations.

An interesting little fact is that if Prince William comes to the throne, he will be the first King of England descended from Charles through a couple of his illegitimate children.

Most recently, I have been rediscovering this interest in Charles, by reading Susan Holloway Scott's novels about his mistresses.

Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess Castlemaine and Charles II is about Charles' relationship with Barbara Villiers, who even before meeting Charles is portrayed as being something of a wild child, embarking on passionate relationships and licentious behaviour, generally throwing off the shackles of the puritan rules that had been in place during Cromwell's rule. Married to Roger Palmer, it is believed that none of her children were fathered by him, with at least 5 of her children rumoured or acknowledged as the king's offspring. Despite receiving many gifts and honours from Charles she wasn't happy when she was put aside, but that didn't stop her from pursuing other powerful men, some of them allegedly whilst she was still involved with Charles.

The second novel about Charles mistresses is The King's Favourite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II and is about his relationship with Nell Gwyn, the commoner who started as an orange seller, became an actress, and then became the King's mistress for an extended period of time. The Charles that we see here is quite often a lonely man who whilst surrounded by people doesn't have a lot of true friends - a role that Nell is happy to play. Her razor sharp wit kept Charles by her side for many years, but her somewhat less demanding requests of the king saw her not receive the same kind of rewards that her fellow mistresses were given.

This was actually the last of the three books I read a few weeks ago. I actually chose a Teaser Tuesday quote from this book when I was reading it.

The first of the books that I read was the third written, and is called The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth and Charles II. This novel is about a poor noble woman who finds herself firstly at the French court in the service of Charles's sister Henrietta, and then sent to the English court as a gift to Charles, not only with the expectation that she would be able to lure him to her bed, but also that she would then be able to spy on behalf of her homeland. You can read my full review of this book here.

To close I thought I would include a couple of quotes about Charles from his contemporaries. The first is from John Evelyn, a diarist who corresponded regularly with the more recognised Samuel Pepys:

"a prince of many virtues and many great imperfections, debonair, easy of access, not bloody or cruel" 

And by one of the famous wits who played was friends with Nell Gwyn, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

Restless he rolls from whore to whore
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

Finally, here is Rufus Sewell in his role as Charles II, shown dissolving Parliament


  1. So, I'm not the only one with a "thing" for Charles then. ;) I've added the books to my ever-increasing list of must reads -- thank you!

    A while ago I read an older book on Charles and Catherine that I really enjoyed, Margaret Campbell Barnes‘ With All My Heart. My thoughts are here.

  2. I don't now much about Charles, so your information was fascinating! I have read Forever Amber though, and thought it was a wonderful read. Amber was just so infuriating! I also have a copy of The Royal Harlot, and am excited to read it and get to now more about this king!! Great post!!

  3. No, not the only one! I had no idea that Margaret Campbell Barnes had written about Charles II. Off to add that book to my list! Thanks Leya

    Zibilee, I hope you enjoy Royal Harlot! Amber is one of those characters that you don't like, but you really like her book, a bit like Scarlett O'Hara.

  4. Marg, I'm (obviously) with you -- even 350 years later, there is just something about Charles II. :)

    There were parts of "The Power & the Passion" that I really enjoyed -- their version of long-gone Whitehall Palace seemed exactly right, and the costumes were gorgeous -- but I couldn't quite buy gorgeously green-eyed Rufus as the very dark Charles. I guess I'm still waiting for the ultimate movie-Charles {though the worst hands-down was John Malkovich with his fake nose in "The Libertine".) Who would you cast?

  5. Charles II is one of my favorite monarchs to read about. His court was so outrageously fun, and I love reading about Rochester and the Merry Band. I have The King's Favorite on my shelf to be read this summer. I REALLY, really want to watch The Power & the Passion - perhaps I will order it from Netflix tonight!

  6. Thanks for sharing--plenty of great reads recommended here, so I think you can get away with using K for King :) I used it for "Kingdom" so you're not alone :)

  7. I've always loved this period of history and King Charles and his ladies. Thanks for bringing my attention to a couple I haven't read.

  8. What an awesome post. I have all 3 of these books on my TBR.



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