made a visit to London on June 3, 1658. It had driven into the Thames River by an unusually severe storm, and gleeful Londoners were quick to take advantage of the stranded sea creature’s misfortune and harpoon it for valuable oil and blubber. It was only afterwards that they began to wonder if the horrendous weather, accompanied by wintery temperatures, pelting hail, and the visit of a gargantuan wale, might be omens of some major upheaval to come. Not long after, Oliver Cromwell fell grievously ill and died three months later.
He had been both a visionary and a tyrant, a hero for democracy turned into a champion for despotism.
He had created a Model Army to preserve the supremacy of parliament, and then gone on to dissolve parliament and make himself military dictator. He had beheaded a king for suspending the law of the land while at the same time depriving the same king of a lawful trial. He outlawed moral depravity at the same time as he forbade the celebration of Christmas. He made England respected on a world-scale, but made many Englishmen lose respect for themselves. He had provided religious liberty for Protestant sects and Jews, but wiped out or sold into slavery half the population of Catholic Ireland.
But though his leadership style had been paradoxical and he had dealt hard blows with an iron fist, he had at least managed to keep England from descending into a complete state of anarchy. Now that he was gone, his mild-mannered but incompetent son, Richard Cromwell, had taken over as Lord Protector. Before long, Richard escaped from the pressure of command by retiring to his country estate. The government was left in the hands of squabbling factions and the country once again tottered on the brink of total chaos.
For the first time, high-ranking members of the Commonwealth government began to seriously consider a restoration of the monarchy. A member of this party was Edward Montague. An affable country squire with broad interests and moderate viewpoints, he was a distant relative of Oliver Cromwell who had served as an officer for Parliament during the English Civil War. However, he had distanced himself from the proceedings that lead to condemnation and execution of King Charles and began to feel that the revolution he had helped inaugurate might have gone too far.
After Cromwell’s death, Montague joined the movement to bring back the dead king’s eldest son, Charles, and crown him as the rightful ruler. When the time had come to escort the exiled royal home to his native land, Montague volunteered his personal ship to ferry him across the channel. He even went so far as to change its name from “The Naseby”, which had been in honor of the Parliamentarian victory against King Charles I, to the “The Royal Charles”, in honor of the beheaded monarch’s son and heir. The year was 1660.
After this unexpected change of fortunes, the newly crowned King Charles II made it his priority not to go on his travels again and to all in his power to keep the Stuarts on the throne. One of his first acts as king was to have Oliver Cromwell’s body exhumed and decapitated, sticking his skull on a spike atop the roof of the ceremonial hall where Charles I had been condemned to death in 1649.
His head remained there for some twenty years, enduring heat, cold, wind, and rain indiscriminately until it finally could withstand no more and blew. It was picked up by a wayfaring soldier who turned it in at a pawn shop. From then on, it was a traveling specimen, installed in various cupboards and cubbyholes, public and private, until it finally reached Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge, where the young Cromwell had once been a fellow. There if found a place to rest in peace, away from memories of its former infamy.
After the long years of enforced Puritanical morality, the royal court degenerated into a state of total immorality as King Charles II led by example, picking up and discarded mistress after mistress and populating his kingdom with illegitimate royal children. He came to be styled “The Merry Monarch” or “Old Rowley”, the name of a stallion who had famously sired a large prodigy.
Daniel O’Neale, one of Charles’ servants sent out to spy on Lucy, recounted that “he (James) cannot be safe from his mother’s intrigues wheresoever he is. It is a great pity so pretty a child should be in such hands as hiterto have neglected to teach him to read or to tell twenty, though he hath a great deal of wit and a great desire to learn.”
Eventually, Charles did manage to attain custody of young James who was promptly sent to be raised and properly educated by Queen Henrietta Maria in Paris. When Charles became king of England, his young son eventually came back with him, and his father lavished favors on him while at the same time pursuing his womanizing career with verve.
Charles not only enjoyed women as lovers, but also as conversationalists, dinner companions, and a form of entertainment. He really couldn’t get along without several on the line at once. Jokes at the scandalous court were constantly being made about the king’s less than upstanding way with women. And the king played right along. Once, when a maid at court was heard singing a bawdy ballad about him, he knocked on her door. “Who’s there?” she inquired. “Old Rowley himself, madam, at your service,” he replied, cheerfully popping his head in.
All these supposedly merry improprieties were extremely painful for the king’s Portuguese Catholic wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza, who had fallen deeply in love with Charles when they wed. When she was first presented to him in England, he scoffed that she often melancholy (quite understandable considering the circumstances!) and commented that she resembled a bat because of her plain face and banana curls. But when push came to shove, Charles seemed to have developed an almost filial devotion to her, refusing to divorce her late in his reign to please Protestant Parliamentarians. Nevertheless, he continued to break her heart by spending more quality time and money on extramarital affairs.
One of his most famous mistresses was the red-headed, hazel-eyed Nell Gwyn, a cockney comic actress who caught the king’s fancy while selling oranges, lemons, and sweetmeats in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. She became the king’s favorite new sexual toy to fondle and, perversely, an instant folk heroine. Hard-swearing and uneducated, she scandalized the upper-classes with her no-nonsense attitude towards her own role as a glorified harlot.
But in addition to her voluptuous figure and lusty voice, Nell did have an attractive personality, which may have been how she managed to keep her position as one of the king’s top mistress until his death. She was honest, humorous, street-smart, and generally good-natured. After a maimed soldier approached her coach and begged her for alms, she took it upon herself to encourage the king to establish a hospital in London for disabled and aged soldiers, bringing about the creation of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, designed by none other than Sir Christopher Wren.
Charles was accepted by the most of the common people of England as an affable rogue, sometimes called “The King of Curs” because of his fondness for his spaniels and his generally naughty ways. He would often walk his dogs in St. James Park (at long last open to the public), feed the ducks in the nearby ponds, and chat with any of his subjects that happened to pass by. He enjoyed playing the French croquet-like game of paille-maille ( today known as Pall Mall) and spend leisurely hours with Nell Gwynn at the house he had given her conveniently set along the route of his favorite strolling place.
On February 4, 1685, Charles lay dying of apoplexy. The good-intentioned Thomas Ken, Anglican Bishop of
and Wells, tried to administer Anglican Communion to him. But the king put him
off, saying “There is time enough,” and “I will think of it.”
The Duke of York sensed his brother’s inner turmoil and sent away the crowd of visitors, except for the Earls of
Bath and Feversham. Then
he asked Charles if he would like him to send for a Catholic priest. “For God’s
sake, do,” the dying man replied.
Promptly James ushered in Fr. John Huddleston, the Benedictine monk who had saved Charles’s life so many years ago when he was a young prince on the run in
England. He had since become a
chaplain at Somerset House under the Queen Dowager, Henrietta Maria, and
Catherine of Braganza, and he had been patiently waiting in the queen’s room
that whole evening in case the king might desire to see him. Now he prepared
play his part in this final act of the long royal drama. “Sire, this good man
once saved your body,” James asserted. “He comes now to save your soul.”
Everything having been prepared, the door was double-locked. After answering the questions that the priest put to him, King Charles II was at long last received into the Catholic Church. Last Rites were administered the Eucharist was laid on his tongue. He had trouble swallowing it, and a glass of water had to be called for. But even now the king’s final thoughts drifting to another subject close to heart, and some his last words were said to have been: “Let not poor Nelly starve.” He then apologized for being “such an unconscionable time a-dying” and asked an attendant to draw the curtains so he could see the sun rise from his window. Close to noon on February 6, 1685, Charles breathed his last.
King Charles had loved Nell Gwyn more than any of his other mistresses in his life because she had not been greedy or jealous, but now that he was gone, Nell found herself financially and emotionally depleted. The Duke of York, now King James II, did pay off most of her debts grant her a pension in honor of the king’s dying request. Less than three years afterwards, Nell herself suffered a debilitating stroke which confined her to her bed.
She died soon after at age 37, still leaving behind numerous debts but also a legacy to aid the Newgate prisoners in London. She was buried in the Church of St. Martin-in-the Fields in
London. To fulfill one of
her final requests, Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a sermon
on the text from Luke 15:7 at her funeral: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more
joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous
persons who need no repentance.”
None can be sure whether the most cynical of Stuart kings and his hard-swearing mistress were sincere or not in their deathbed religious conversions, but history seems to have given them the benefit of the doubt.
|King Charles II, "The Merry Monarch", "Old Rowley", and "The King of Curs"|