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.
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.
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.
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.
Finally, here is Rufus Sewell in his role as Charles II, shown dissolving Parliament