In her first line, Antonia Fraser describes her book as ‘a labour of love’. Given her somewhat romantic view of Charles II’s many affairs of the heart and her warm sympathy for the King, it is a doubly apt admission. The book is much more, however, than an account written around the royal harem. It is a portrait drawn from the absorption of many sources. No biographer of the supposedly indolent yet Merry Monarch (rightly shown here to be more of a hyperactive melancholic) can avoid dealing in detail with his love-life, but none so far has had her skill at re-heating so many sauté’d dishes and making such an appetising meal of them. She serves up what seems to be every morsel ever written about her hero’s ‘sexual nature and exploits’ (as her meticulous index puts it, just above the item for ‘shoes, attention to’), from his initiation by his former wet-nurse when he was nearly fifteen, through his eight leading mistresses and 12 recognised bastards, down to the last relaxed years with the Duchess of Portsmouth. There is also some modern sauce. Charles may have been sexually, if unconsciously, attracted to his sister, Henriette-Anne, who was married to the sexually ambivalent brother of the French king.
It is all beautifully told, with lively asides. We are informed that Charles’s alleged debauchery, as opposed to ‘sheer love of women’ and ‘great physical energy’, was not very great: that there is nothing to go on, really, beyond dirty-minded rumours – with Pepys scenting out three-in-a-bed, as did Rochester, obsessed with the subject of impotence, ‘perhaps his own as much as Charles’s.’ The Whigs and the Whiggish detractors of the King are firmly put down. Perhaps that is why Queen Victoria, of all people, is called in evidence. She held, as does Antonia Fraser, that Charles, ‘for all his moral failures, was one of the most attractive of her predecessors’.
The Whiggish historians for whom Charles could do nothing right have, of course, long been out of fashion, although one of their greatest opponents, Sir Arthur Bryant, changed his 1931 view some twenty years later, saying of his earlier work: ‘if I were to rewrite it now … I might try to balance my understanding of the king and the men of the loyal party … with a greater understanding and sympathy for those who opposed them.’ ‘Charles,’ he concluded, ‘cannot be called a great king or a great man.’ Historians have continued to be divided about Charles, not so much about the moral issues (thankfully, a great deal of cant has been removed from the argument), but much more about the contribution which he made to the political and economic development of the country. Antonia Fraser tries to be fair but comes down heavily on the side of Charles. His opponents are not shown in a good light, even if it is generally admitted that there were some very murky figures among them. In contrast, the King is almost invariably the victim of circumstances, or of his own nature. Or he believes he is acting in the interests of the country, as when he lied to the House of Commons about the Secret Treaty of 1670. We are told on this occasion that ‘the end very often justifies the means.’ It is not an argument the author or anyone else would care to apply, for instance, to such wretched practitioners of the same principle as Titus Oates and his fellow fabricators of Popish Plots.
Good biographers, carried away by their subjects, are liable to get into the skin of their heroes. Antonia Fraser seems to have some of Charles’s antipathy to Clarendon, that much abused Polonius. He is unjustly accused of writing ‘quite lewdly’ about the king. More accurately, she conveys his attitude of a fussy nursemaid, intensely irritating to Charles. ‘How he nagged,’ she writes. Charles’s non-Catholicism until his death-bed reception into the Roman Church is accepted as a virtual certainty, and his earlier reported participations in the Mass are compared to the behaviour of those Protestant tourists on the Continent today who wander into a Catholic service. The truth is probably that Charles was sceptical of all religions. On one occasion, he held off receiving a French priest-instructor whom Louis XIV wanted to send, saying, surely with tongue in cheek, that he would like to receive one who was a scientist so that they could discuss the scientific basis of Catholicism. Essentially, he saw the Catholic Church as a bulwark of the pro-French alliance he was building abroad, and of the absolutist regime at home to which he was increasingly committed in his last years. Moreover, Catholics were truly some of his best friends. We shall probably never know what his religious opinions were. Perhaps they are best expressed by the remark, passed, presumably, as he gazed out of his palace at Whitehall, that the only visible church he knew was the one on Harrow-on-the-Hill.
Charles possessed many virtues, and among them, his sardonic, hypocrisy-piercing temperament is undeniably attractive. Who can resist his utterance on meeting the cheering, unanimous crowds in 1660 – that it must have been his own fault that he had been so long abroad? No monarch before and few since have been so unstarchy, and have had the ability to mix so freely with ordinary people. His early statesmanship and clemency (increasingly absent in his later years) in opposing and preventing a cruel White Terror were remarkable. His interest in science, however much that of an occasional dilettante and patron, was genuine and forward-looking, as was his promotion of shipbuilding and of the Navy. He fostered the arts. His bravery and humanity during the Great Fire won universal acclaim. It is possible to make a substantial catalogue of such achievements, and this Antonia Fraser does.
But no valid assessment of his contributions is possible unless the political context in which they were made is considered, and the outcome of his policies discussed. Here the book lacks a certain balance. Dealing with the grounds for the condemnation of Charles, Antonia Fraser thinks he has been harshly judged on two main issues: for receiving hidden French subsidies, and for his secret undertaking to Louis to declare himself a Catholic at some unspecified date in the future, in return for French money and even for troops to crush any opposition. The first charge she rebuts on the score that everyone was doing it: receiving foreign bribes and subsidies was known under Richard Cromwell. The second she rebuts on the score that Charles saw it as the most effective way in which the French king could be bound to him, rather than the other way round. From this standpoint, it can be argued that Charles was ensuring a firm alliance against the Dutch – perhaps the most consistent action in a lifetime of opportunism. The flaw in the argument with which Antonia Fraser does not really get to grips is that Charles’s policy on the long-term view involved a disastrous underestimation of the danger to England from an extension of the power of France. The experience of France as Britain’s greatest rival came later, and was not available to Charles, but it needs to be recognised that some had already detected signs of the Anglo-French rivalry of the future, notably in such developments as Colbert’s protectionist policy, colonial disputes in the West Indies, and the luke warm feeling among City interests and in the East India Company for another Dutch War. Moreover, a victory over the Dutch by means of a French alliance led by an ambitious, expansionist Louis would have had the effect of shattering the Spanish Netherlands, and of turning the Low Countries into a French Protectorate. To argue that this was of no concern to England is to ignore one of the abiding principles of the country’s diplomacy from the 16th century to our own day. Not that Antonia Fraser argues in this way. The miserable failure of Charles’s foreign policy is just not adequately discussed. Neither are the fruits of it at home: the possibility of blackmail by Louis, who was in a position to disclose the terms of the Secret Treaty and ruin Charles, and the division of the nation brought about by mounting distrust of his motives in allying himself with authoritarian and Catholic France.
Ultimately, improvements in the collection of revenue and taxation, and the provision of a large subsidy from Louis in 1681, enabled him to rule without Parliaments until the end of his reign. A period of reaction followed, during which the Rye House Plot to kill the King (its genuineness is still a subject of debate) helped to consolidate his power and to discredit the Whigs. Antonia Fraser tells us comparatively little about this period, or about the direct influence of Charles and the wielding of his prerogative powers. The climate of opinion may be judged by the state of affairs at Oxford: a Fellow of Lincoln College was expelled for recommending Milton to his pupils, and John Locke was driven from Christ Church at the behest of the King. The much more extraordinary events in which Charles gained control of the City of London, packed the bench with judges like Jeffreys, purged JPs, and silenced his opponents by censorship, occupy less space than that given to one of the royal mistresses.
Still, Antonia Fraser has produced a very good biography. Her mastery of a great range of sources is impressive, her ability to make the past come alive with fact, argument and topical allusion enviable. If she overwrites occasionally (‘Charles was no Newton’), she can be forgiven for it because of the style and pace of her narrative. The building shown in the illustration after page 208 is not Ham House, and the first pineapple to be grown in England was not produced there, although the picture now hangs in that house. The fruit was probably first grown, and presented to Charles, at Dorney Court near Windsor.