Harry Widener went down on the Titanic at the age of 27. He was the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family whose patriarch began life as a street vendor and ended it as one of the richest men in America; one of his early coups was a contract to supply the Union army with meat. Harry grew up amid priceless collections of pictures, coins, and especially books. When he graduated from Harvard in 1907 he was already an accomplished bibliophile and by the time of his premature death, had amassed more than 3000 rare books and manuscripts. His library included autographed first editions of novels by the Brontës, Dickens and Thackeray and nearly everything that he could find associated with Robert Louis Stevenson. He also had a number of trophy items like Shakespeare’s First Folio (though copies of the Folio were not so hard to find: his contemporary Henry Folger collected 79). In 1912 the Wideners visited London, where Harry purchased a rare edition of Francis Bacon’s Essays. They set out for home on the Titanic, but only Harry’s mother arrived; her husband and son were never seen again. In her son’s memory, Eleanor Widener built the greatest university library in the world. Harry’s collection was preserved intact and housed in the heart of the building, its treasures on permanent display. Among these is Charles II’s copy of the Eikon Basilike.
One can only wonder what the exiled prince thought as he read this tribute to his father’s martyrdom. Did it spur him to seek revenge? Is this what induced him to make a corrupt bargain with the Scots in 1650 and plunge headlong into ineffectual battle against his hardened enemies? Or did it persuade him that he was a helpless victim? Did William Marshall’s engraving of the sacrificed Stuart, so obviously modelled on the sacrificed Christ, encourage him to endure patiently the ‘solitude and sufferings’ of the Eikon’s title page? Is this why he wallowed in self-pity and spent himself in flirtations and illicit liaisons? Was he relieved to be free of the cares of government or was he desperate to regain his rightful inheritance? Should that day ever come, would he obey his father’s prayer on the scaffold to forgive those who had betrayed him or would he insist on retribution? Charles II had nearly a decade to think about these questions, with little prospect of ever seeing England again. In Britain the active plots in his name against the Cromwellian government were all disasters; in Europe he was running out of friends and money. By the end of the 1650s he was staring at a future of shabby exile, dependent on handouts from princes who were beginning to see the wisdom of making their peace with the existing English government. As he approached his 30th birthday in 1660 his black curls and blacker eyes matched his prospects. The Eikon Basilike must have been cold comfort.
Then, all of a sudden, everything changed. The English government fell apart quickly and absolutely, and no sooner was there serious discussion of restoring the king than an invitation arrived for him to return. It is easy in hindsight to find it unsurprising that there were cheering crowds, flower-strewn highways, wealthy tradesmen and their wives waving from the upper windows of the mansions that lined the Thames. But this was far from being the only possible outcome. Less than three months earlier Milton had published a plea to his countrymen to reject the restoration of the monarchy, which he viewed as the acceptance of voluntary slavery. In London tens of thousands of veteran soldiers were quartered an easy ride from the City, many of them disaffected and all of them unpaid. Heavy chains blocked off the city’s main thoroughfares and shops were boarded and protected by armed citizens. The political situation was extremely volatile. Charles had the promise of safe conduct from General Monck, commander of the Parliamentary forces in Scotland, but was Monck in any position to guarantee his promise? He had played little role in army politics and many believed he had been shipped off to Scotland to keep him out of the way. Radical pamphleteers accused him of selling out the ‘Good Old Cause’ and even moderates believed that the king should return only on terms negotiated in advance. When Monck arrived to welcome Charles, would that be a signal for a peaceful restoration or another military coup? Charles II chanced his life and his crown when he returned unarmed in 1660. It was the first of many gambles, in Jenny Uglow’s useful trope, and it was the one that hit the jackpot.
The restoration was accomplished with unexpected ease. National anxiety dissipated as if a fresh wind had blown through a fetid swamp. Fears of risings, coups or assassination proved groundless. The armies simply melted away; even now no one really understands what happened. Former royalists, their ranks swollen by many whose loyalty would not bear scrutiny, poured in to kiss the king’s hand and offer their service. He joked that with so many supporters it was a wonder his father had lost. His former opponents were as willing to be co-opted as Charles was to co-opt them: a dukedom for Monck, an earldom for Pepys’s patron Sandwich, who had sailed the king home on the Naseby, now rechristened the Royal Charles. There were some exemplary punishments, however, and the mouldering corpses of Cromwell and Henry Ireton (Cromwell’s son-in-law and a general in the Parliamentary forces) were dug up and symbolically executed, their skulls attached to spikes above Westminster Hall (Cromwell’s would remain there for 15 years). There were countless scores to settle: houses had been demolished, estates confiscated, blood spilt. Either the king would have to unleash a reign of terror or he would have to act as if nothing had happened. He never gave any indication why he chose one course over the other, but soon he was behaving as if his decade on the Continent had been merely a gentleman’s Grand Tour. Now that he could afford it, he indulged his considerable appetites: his reign instituted a period of official gaiety and frivolity that is deliciously recorded in the diaries of those who pressed their noses up against the palace windows, Pepys, Evelyn and the Comte de Grammont.
For generations historians have been in two minds about Charles II. Some have seen him as a practitioner of realpolitik, conscious of the limitations of what he could achieve and comfortable with them. His success resulted from having judgment but not principle. He might have preferred a religious settlement that would have brought Presbyterians into the Church of England, but he was willing to let his bishops scupper this rather than lose the support of his base. He never withheld royal consent from a single retributive act of Parliament, despite the suffering it brought to his people and despite his own crypto-Catholic leanings. He accepted the Corporation Act, which purged dissenting tradesmen from town governments, and the Clarendon Code, which punished dissenting ministers, without a murmur of protest, and, at least in the first decade, permitted the enforcement of the penal laws against Catholics. This allowed him and his ministers to govern successfully, at least in the early part of his reign. In foreign policy he allowed anti-Dutch mercantile interests to bully him into a war that brought very unfavorable comparisons with the successes of the Commonwealth and of Cromwell after the Dutch sailed up the Medway and towed away the ship that had carried him back from exile. Supporting the merchants was the price he had to pay for his annual income and the burgeoning customs revenues that would ultimately make him financially independent of Parliament. There was no greater example of his sophisticated understanding of the politically possible than his relations with Louis XIV. Realising that a French alliance was in his interests, he made Louis pay him to enter into and maintain it. He brilliantly dangled promises he never intended to keep as bait to lure Louis into further subsidies. In this view, he was a hard-headed politician who could engineer the fall of even the most powerful ministers once they had outlived their purpose.
In another view, Charles was less capable. Undereducated and with little practical experience of rule, he found himself, through no effort of his own, on the throne of one of the most powerful nations in Europe. He was quickly out of his depth. He left every crucial decision about politics to the Convention and every one about religion to the Convocation. Everything had to be explained to him as if he were a child. After spending his youth running wild through the courts of Europe, he loved to drink, to gamble and to womanise; his close friends were dissolute pranksters like the duke of Buckingham and libertines like the earl of Rochester. Charles rankled at the guidance of his senior ministers, not because he disagreed with their policies but because they attempted to restrain his behaviour. He was his grandfather’s rather than his father’s child, inattentive to business, addicted to pleasure and wildly inconsistent.
This is very much the perspective of Jenny Uglow in this cleverly presented and sumptuously illustrated book. She is captivated by the king and tells his story with wit, grace and a bit of embellishment. She admits that there is something about this king that she finds irresistible, and as her account makes clear, few women at the time resisted the Caroline allure. The narrative speeds along, people are always dashing to one place or another, and all the old chestnuts about Charles are thoroughly roasted. Concerned only with the first ten years of his rule, her book captures the king in the full flush of his sexual potency: in this account the king spends more time in bed than on the throne. Details of Queen Catherine’s wedding night menstruation, which prevented the consummation of her marriage, receive more space than the provisions of the Corporation Act. Charles’s ménage à trois with Barbara Palmer and Frances Stuart is treated with more seriousness than the revolutionary financial settlement that put his household in order. The fall of the earl of Clarendon is narrated as if the king was changing mistresses, not ministers.
Sex sells and there is plenty of it in this book. Sex anticipated, sex performed, sex remembered. The king and his courtesans romp through the royal palaces. The chapter on the Dutch War is interrupted by a discussion of Rochester’s abduction of Elizabeth Mallet. This is treated as an escapade, although abduction was the statutory equivalent of rape and Mallet’s male relations would have been acquitted had they killed the earl on the spot. But the king forgave his friend’s transgression and so does Uglow. Charles’s taste for actresses is documented in a chapter entitled ‘Sweet Ladies’, the sweetest of whom was the orange girl herself, Nell Gwyn. Every juicy detail is preserved. Nell’s ascent among the king’s mistresses was not without its travails, for the duchess of Castlemaine was a formidable opponent, but Nell was soon ensconced in a convenient hideaway and quickly impregnated.
What is unexpected about this book is Uglow’s tolerant, boys-will-be-boys perspective. Women at court were treated as sexual objects only if they were lucky: more often they were used and discarded. This is as true for the actresses who found the sex trade an obvious alternative for their skills as for the girls from fine families who came to court as maids of honour and were treated as if they had gone backstage at a Led Zeppelin concert. Uglow does not protest at the king’s taste for adolescent girls or raise an eyebrow at the way they were passed on to lesser courtiers once he’d had his fill. Charles’s stalking of Frances Stuart and the sexual extortion to which she was subjected are depicted as courtship. There is no such thing here as unwanted attention. Catherine of Braganza is repeatedly praised for accepting public sexual humiliation with dignity. This attitude seems to have caught the public mood recently. The postmodern age of sexual puritanism may be nearing its end; and what better historical model for its transformation could exist than the era that rejected Puritanism?