King Charles II, “The Merry Monarch,” was born on May 29, 1630 to King Charles I of Britain and his French Catholic wife, Henrietta Marie of France. His father was executed at the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall palace on January 30, 1649. Charles was forced to live in exile in Europe (after successfully eluding his would-be captors by hiding in an apple tree) during the Interregnum in which Oliver Cromwell ruled. After his death in 1658, following a period of political confusion and unrest, a newly-elected Parliament restored Charles II. Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed and his head was chopped off.
Charles had the height of (6’2”) his grandmother’s family from Denmark and the black hair and brown eyes of an Italian grandmother and French grandfather. He was considered “swarthy” for an Englishman. Charles had a close association with the Catholic Church which, given the religious unrest in England for more than a century, was a cause for concern to Parliament. His mother and probably three grandparents were Catholic and he himself converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Despite his Catholic affiliations, the new Parliament which was Royalist and Anglican passed a series of laws that sought to create a uniform religion and liturgy.
When Charles returned from exile in the Netherlands in 1660, he inherited a poor kingdom and his profligate lifestyle created even greater debt. Charles and his family had been relatively poor while in exile and he had lived a less sheltered life than most monarchs. He had already fathered one bastard son in his mid-teens and quickly acquired a succession of mistresses—most of whom he kept close at his palace. A popular poem of the period stated:
Restless he rolls from whore to whore
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.
Although he acknowledged a dozen illegitimate children by seven mistresses, he and his queen, Catherine Braganza of Portugal, were childless (despite four pregnancies).
All of his mistresses lived well but some were more demanding than others. When one of the carriages from the palace was surrounded by a crowd shouting against one of Charles’ particularly greedy French mistresses, Nell Gwyn—a former actress who remained with Charles throughout his life—popped out of the coach and replied: “Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.“ When a coachman attempted to defend her when she was called a whore, she told him that she was a whore and to find something else to fight over. Only one woman, Frances, Stuart, was able to withstand all of Charles’ efforts of seduce her.
Nell and Charles apparently were in love. When he chastised her for naming one of her two sons by him Charles, she replied that he hadn’t given her anything else to call him by. When demanding a title for her son, she actually held the child outside the window threatening to drop him unless her demand was met. The Duke’s descendents survive to this day.
On February 2nd, 1685, Charles suffered a stroke and died four days later. One of his deathbed requests to his brother and successor James was “Let not poor Nelly starve.” James paid off her debts and gave her an estate. She survived Charles by two years, dying from a stroke at 35.
While King Charles left no direct heir to succeed him, when Prince William and Kate Middleton have a child who will reign in Britain that will change. Prince William, through his mother (Princess Diana), is directly descended from two of Charles’ bastards—the Dukes of Grafton and Richmond. Next week, “Goodbye to the Stuarts.” Today, I’m blogging at http://www.caseycrow.com/ on “It’s All About Diving In” Rita Bay