Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles IIby Stephen Coote
Royal Survivor is an important new biography of Charles II, one of Britain’s most glamorous kings. In a sweeping narrative that takes the reader from palaces and battlefields through exile, bitterness, triumph and deceit, acclaimed biographer Stephen Coote strips away the sentiment that has clouded Charles’s "merry monarch" image. He reveals Charles as an/i>… See more details below
Royal Survivor is an important new biography of Charles II, one of Britain’s most glamorous kings. In a sweeping narrative that takes the reader from palaces and battlefields through exile, bitterness, triumph and deceit, acclaimed biographer Stephen Coote strips away the sentiment that has clouded Charles’s "merry monarch" image. He reveals Charles as an altogether more fascinating, brave and dangerous man––a gambler, a rogue, a survivor.
Born into the opulent court of the early Stuarts, the boy Charles had wealth and security taken from him as he was plunged into the agonies of the Civil War. After the defeat of his family, he learned the hard lessons of exile. Charles, determined to regain the throne that was rightfully his, led a Scottish army into England but was defeated at the Battle of Worcester. Then followed his thrilling escape: the King of England, disguised as an ordinary man, fled for his life. Years of poverty and homelessness ensued, and when a chain of unforeseen events restored him to the throne in 1660, Charles had become a tough and cynical survivor.
Stephen Coote depicts the twists and turns of Restoration public life, weaving these together with the major events of the day, including the Plague and the Fire of London. He takes us behind the scenes of Charles’s private life to meet the many mistresses: the lustful and ambitious Lady Castlemaine, the beautiful but rapacious Lady Portsmouth, the gloriously streetwise Nell Gwyn and the exotic Hortense Mancini. Coote offers a vivid account of a nation growing ever more hysterical as fears
of absolute monarchy and Roman Catholic influence gripped the land and climaxed in the Popish Plot.
Royal Survivor profiles an extraordinarily shrewd man who outlasted his enemies to save the monarchy, even as forces were slowly forming that would make England the cradle of modern democracy.
- Palgrave Macmillan
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.11(w) x 9.21(h) x 1.14(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Black Boy
The King was at prayers when they brought him the news. He showed no emotion, and only when the service was over did he collapse in grief at being told that his favourite, the great Duke of Buckingham, had been savagely murdered. The assassin was one John Felton, a half-crazed army officer with a grudge and, as he believed, a divine mission to rid the England of Charles I of the man who was hastening it to ruin.
In his preparations for this task Felton had, a few days earlier, made his way to Tower Hill, where he bought a tenpenny knife. The London through which he stole his way was seething with anger. From open-air pulpits preachers thundered against the Duke's policies, their words mingling in Felton's mind with his own fury at being passed over for a promotion. In the House of Commons, exasperated Members framed a resolution declaring the Duke to be `the cause of all the evils the kingdom suffered, and an enemy to the public'. These words, along with a couple of brief prayers, Felton copied out on a piece of paper which he then sewed into his hat. If he were to be killed by the Duke's attendants in the confusion that was bound to follow the murder, there should at least be no doubt as to his motive. His was the anger of the people of England with a grandee who had led them into a series of disastrous foreign wars, who had persuaded the King to marry a brazenly Catholic French princess and who was even now marshalling in Portsmouth another great army to help those Frenchmen trapped in La Rochelle by the forces of Richelieu. The compulsory billetingof these raucous soldiers infuriated those obliged to provide for them, and Felton's anger caught the mood of the time.
Felton himself left London on foot and made his way to the coast. He arrived in Portsmouth on Saturday, 22 August 1628, a little before nine in the morning. He went straight to the house where the Duke lodged. Buckingham's servants were putting the last touches to his finery, adjusting his lace ruff, arranging the rope of pearls he wore over his doublet and scenting his hair. His chamber was crowded with his fellow peers and officers of the fleet and the army, as well as a group of voluble Frenchmen loudly insisting that the expedition be launched with all speed. Felton would have to bide his time.
When Buckingham's toilette was at last complete, the noisy company was informed that breakfast was ready. The Duke rose and made his way to the door, the rich hangings were drawn up, and, as he walked along the passage, he turned to speak to one of his aides. This was Felton's moment. The tenpenny dagger flashed from his side. Rising over the Duke's shoulder, it fell with such vehemence into its victim's chest that those around could hear the dull thud it made as Felton called out for mercy on the Duke's soul. The fatally wounded man then staggered forward, pulling at the blade in his heart and crying out that the villain had killed him. He died almost instantly, his body ignominiously spreadeagled across the dining table.
The murder affected everybody, and, while the people of London lit bonfires in the streets and the grief-stricken King retired to his bed, Queen Henrietta Maria seized her opportunity. Her marriage to Charles had been rancorous from its earliest days, and after six weeks the couple had parted only to meet and row again. Henrietta Maria had found her husband cold, formal and inhibited by a serious stutter. Above all, she resented his being so wholly subdued by the Duke. For his part, Charles quickly discovered that his bride was an immature and spoiled girl of fifteen, and he proceeded to treat her with contempt. But the daughter of Marie de Medici and Henri IV was not easily cowed and she had, besides, a naturally manipulative mind. Sensing that the depth of her husband's grief might yet put him in her power, she went to the King's side and offered him comfort.
What started as a ruse laid bare an emotional truth. To their mutual delight, the couple soon found that the murder of the favourite had removed an impediment to their intimacy, and over the following months courtiers noticed that the reserved, humourless Charles and his vivacious little Queen were gradually falling in love. The King, wrote one observer, `wholly made over all his affection to his wife'. Peace was settling on the royal household. When Henrietta Maria was ill, Charles was constantly at her side. When she recovered, he jousted before her in kingly magnificence. Soon it was noticed that the Queen was pregnant. In an age of terrible child mortality, the premature baby was `cut down the same instant that it saw the light', but the Queen, entering her halcyon days, wrote thanking God that `the danger is past, and as to my loss, I wish to forget it'.
She went to Tunbridge Wells to complete her recuperation and to take the waters which were well known for their effects on women wishing to bear children. Fretting at being parted from her husband, the restless Queen soon decided to move on to Oatlands Palace near Weybridge, where Charles paid her a surprise visit, and there, in the rapture of their meeting, another child was conceived. By the last months of 1629, Henrietta Maria was certain she was pregnant again, and news of her condition rapidly spread. A soothsayer predicted that she would give birth to `a son and a strong child'. The King confessed that his happiness entirely depended `on this new hope that God has given us'. The weeks passed, the rounding out of the Queen's body was keenly observed, and in October one of her servants was seen scurrying about London in search of mussels that were urgently needed to satisfy a royal craving.
Expectation mounted, and the Queen's mother sent her daughter voluminous advice, a beautiful sedan chair and a little jewelled heart to wear around her neck. This charm became so important to the Queen, so absolute an assurance of her future happiness, that she would tremble if she found she had forgotten to put it on. As her pregnancy advanced and her time approached, her dwarf and her dancing master were sent to France to fetch a famous midwife. This was considered by many to be a slight. Surely the heir to the English throne should be brought into the world by good, Protestant, English hands? Such murmurs of disapproval were rapidly followed by public pleasure when it was learned that the unlikely emissaries had been captured by pirates, but the arrival from France of a band of Capuchin friars was an altogether more ominous sign. Here, once again, was a flagrant display of that Roman Catholicism whose presence at the centre of power caused such concern.
It was decided that the palace at Whitehall was not a suitable place for the lying-in, and the quieter St James's was chosen instead. There, in a room off the Colour Court, a bed sumptuously hung with green satin was prepared, and in this, around four in the morning of 29 May 1630, as Venus hovered brilliantly in the skies, the Queen's labours began. They were to continue through nearly eight hours, and a while after midday she was delivered of a large and swarthy boy the second Charles Stuart of that name. He was handed over almost at once to a wet nurse and, as the King rode away to give thanks in St Paul's, six women of impeccably Protestant credentials came forward to rock the royal cradle.
While church bells pealed and bonfires once again flamed along the streets, men and women listened to every scrap of gossip they could glean about the heir to the throne. Distinguished foreigners wrote home with the tiniest details. The Venetian ambassador, having carefully approached the royal nurses, gravely informed the Senators of the Serene Republic that the future King of England `never clenched his fists but always kept his hands open'. This, he was told, was a good sign. Charles would be `a prince of great liberality'. Such old wives' tales certainly had more to recommend them than the laborious predictions of the astrologers. The sturdy baby curled in his cradle and sucking his thumb would, they said, grow into a man with a thin beard, a shrill voice and a `mincing gait'. It was not quite clear if he would live to be 108 or a mere 66 years old, but it was certain that he would be `very fortunate' and `attain wealth by marriage and war'. In only one respect were these pious hopes correct. Charles, the fortune-tellers declared, would be a nimble-witted, practical king, `particularly fond of mathematicians, sailors, merchants, learned men, painters and sculptors'.
While the gossips and astrologers looked to the Prince's worldly fortunes, the clergy prepared for his christening. This was the first step in inducting him into his future role as the head of the Church of England, and thus the defender of the true, Protestant, Anglican faith. This was a matter of the gravest importance, and the King insisted on what he considered a suitable measure of Protestant ceremonial. He wrote to the Capuchin friars telling them `not to trouble themselves about the baptism of his son, as he would attend to that himself'. He then arranged for his friend Bishop Laud to conduct the ceremony, which was held on 27 June in the private chapel of St James's Palace.
The rooms through which the little Prince was carried were hung with fresh tapestries, and the baptismal gifts were lavish. The Duchess of Richmond presented the child with a diamond ring worth £8000. The City fathers offered a gold cup `a yard in length'. The Lord Mayor of London donated a silver font which was placed on a rostrum in the middle of the aisle so that the use of the Anglican rite would be clear to all. The choice of godparents nonetheless caused some concern. The Queen's family had to be involved, but Marie de Medici and Louis XIII embodied for most English people that horror of continental Roman Catholicism which ran so deeply through the nation's mind. The appointment of the Catholic Countess of Roxburgh as governess of the Prince's household also raised alarm (although she was soon replaced), and ardent Protestants, some of whom had secretly hoped that the Queen would prove barren, again muttered in discontent. For all the King's efforts, a suspiciously papist atmosphere clung round his son's baptism, and, as it ended and cannons thundered from the Tower, so a Puritan minister complained that he could see little cause for joy since he was `uncertain what religion the King's children will follow, when brought up under so devoted a mother to the Church of Rome'.
The mother herself was alternately bemused and enthralled by her child. He was, first of all, a very large baby who at four months could have passed for an infant a year old. This was a characteristic he may have inherited from his large-boned Danish grandmother on his father's side, but, if this was so, his other prominent feature was a marked contradiction to this Scandinavian background. `He is so dark I am ashamed of him,' the Queen wrote. This swarthiness was something Charles almost certainly acquired from his Italian, Medici ancestors, and it was so obvious a characteristic that he would later be referred to as `the black boy'. What was also clear was that the Prince was both strong and intelligent. At four months he was teething, and his proud mother wrote that `his size and fatness supply the want of beauty. I wish you could see the gentleman, for he has no ordinary mien; he is so serious in all he does', she added prophetically, `that I cannot help fancying him far wiser than myself.'
A household was provided for the Prince in St James's Palace. There, at an annual cost of £5000, some two to three hundred servants chamberlains, doctors, lawyers, needlewomen, pages and scullions presented a suitable air of opulence as they went about their business in the richly carved and painted rooms. The Queen was not expected to nurse her baby herself, but she had her own ideas on how infants should be reared, and, at her insistence, Prince Charles was not wrapped in the swaddling bands of conventional babyhood but was dressed in loose white linen cloths and soon afterwards in tiny shirts. At seven months he was reported as `continuing in a blessed prosperity of health' which lasted through 1631, when the Countess of Dorset became his official governess. Among other matters, the Countess replaced the Prince's first wet nurse with Mrs Christabella Wyndham, who stayed with Charles for four years. The baby became strongly attached to this woman, and Mrs Wyndham was later to play a significant role in Charles's youth. Meanwhile, as the little Prince toyed with his sweet-tasting gum and sugar dolls, and began to take `a strange and unaccountable fondness for a wooden billet, without which in his arms he would never go abroad or lie down in his bed', so siblings were regularly added to the royal nursery. Princess Mary was born when Charles was eighteen months old and was followed, two years later, by his mother's favourite, the blue-eyed James, Duke of York. Of the other royal children to survive into adulthood, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was born in 1639, and Princess Henriette Anne in 1644.
There came the inevitable childhood illnesses to prove the toughness of the Prince's constitution. In 1633, just before his father was due to travel to Scotland, he caught a fever. He had been with the King in the royal park at Greenwich until after sunset, and later insisted on watching his father from a window at which he was allowed to stand 'with no hat upon his head or neck-cloth upon his neck'. The following day he was `very heavy and drowsy', and was found to have a cold. As the fever rose, his doctor became alarmed. He consulted with colleagues who diagnosed the cause of the illness as a boil on the Prince's neck. Various remedies were prescribed. An ointment was ineffectually applied, a cooling drink was vomited up, and the eight experts gathered in the stuffy room eventually decided on the extreme measure of administering milk clysters `to refresh his intestines and assuage his pain'. The agonising result was that Charles began to vomit blood, and a panacea of chicken broth laced with senna and rhubarb was ordered. By this time the child's natural resilience was beginning to assert itself. Although he was still nauseous and suffering from diarrhoea, his fever started to abate. He was made to swallow more broth `with every good success' and, a week later, was eating `heartily' despite being in poor spirits. He continued to recover, and by the time his father returned to Greenwich in July he was able to greet the King `with the prettiest innocent mirth'.
Such nursery delights were a world away from the political forces gathering outside. After Buckingham's death the King resolved to continue with his favourite's policies, but the widely unpopular attack on La Rochelle which had stirred the ire of Buckingham's murderer proved a humiliating disaster and, with this defeat still rankling, King Charles had been obliged to face a session of Parliament during the summer of 1629. The small love he already had for that institution was darkening to deep mistrust. His mind preyed on the fact that words from Parliament's remonstrance against Buckingham had been sewn into his murderer's hat and were recognised as a principal reason for the favourite's death. This document (known as the Petition of Right) had also pressed on royal powers, prohibiting imprisonment without trial and the levying of taxes `without common consent by act of parliament'. Charles had been obliged to accept the Petition, but he was resolved that the Commons should not tamper with his ancient prerogative powers, and by the time Members met in July 1629 the prejudice was hardening in his mind that certain of them at least were evil men resolved on destroying the fabric of society.
The session rapidly became acrimonious, King Charles insisting on his right to collect such long-established taxes as tonnage and poundage, while Puritan Members of the House insisted on their right to discuss financial and religious matters. The clash, noted the Venetian ambassador, `generates very great rancour, and there is great fear of a rupture'. This soon came about. Charles, realising that he was losing control of the House, ordered it to adjourn for a week. Cries of `No! No! greeted the announcement, and the Speaker was forcibly held down in his chair so that proceedings could continue. Angry motions against Catholicism and arbitrary taxes were then passed as royal officers hammered on the locked doors. Eventually the session ended, but at the urgent meetings of the Privy Council that followed, the King resolved on a course of action that would determine not only the next eleven years of his reign but the entire course of his son's youth.
He made his announcement with all the dramatic resources at his disposal. He rode to the House of Lords dressed in his most sumptuous regalia and there, having pointedly refused to grant the Commons the ancient courtesy of being invited to hear his speech, he addressed the peers on the matters nearest his heart. There was, he now firmly believed, a conspiracy by a handful of ill-affected persons who were determined to wreck the ancient practices of the realm. Although, as he assured the House, `princes are not bound to give account of their actions but to God alone', Charles felt it became him to tell `his loving and faithful nobility' about the plot he believed was launched against him. The loyal need not fear. Rather than tolerate dangerous novelty and insubordination, the King would `maintain the ancient and just rights and liberties' of his subjects and rule without a parliament. He rode home, an observer wrote that evening, as if he had freed himself from a great yoke. The House at Westminster was now silent, and Prince Charles would pass the years of his boyhood with only the vaguest knowledge of Parliament as an institution bitterly opposed to his father's wishes.
The King himself, entering on the period of his personal rule, retreated to his various palaces. Of these, Whitehall was the most important, and it was in this vast, rambling conglomeration of buildings, spread out over twenty acres, that the boy Prince began to learn the ways of English royal life. The palace itself was situated on the north bank of the Thames, between the law courts at Westminster and the great commercial hub of the City of London. The seething life of the capital stretched up to its walls and even beyond since a public thoroughfare ran through the site. For all that a knight marshal was supposed to keep the area clear of undesirables and make sure that no squatters' shacks were built near by, the little silk-clad Prince would have seen the stalls selling fish and other perishables that were clustered all around. This press of people, the noises and the smells, were all unavoidable. Even the royal family, when in residence at Whitehall, could never wholly escape them. Porters were supposed to control those who entered the court itself, to turn away those not wearing `gowns or fit habits', and deny access especially to those carrying offensive weapons. Nonetheless, for all the care that was taken, robbers occasionally broke in and, if condemned by the Court of the Royal Palaces, were hanged outside the Holbein Gate. Their dangling corpses were a ghastly warning to others, and an indication to the boy Prince of his father's powers.
Beyond this pullulating and often brutal world lay the decorous life of the court. Here, amid the ceremoniousness, the Prince came to know his father as a remote, sad-eyed and fastidious man, `imperious and lofty' as contemporaries described him. Order and hierarchy obsessed the King, for these were his way of convincing himself that his authority could create the dignity he craved. At the start of his reign he had cleared the gilded gothic and renaissance rooms of the crowd of `fools and bawds, mimics and catamites' that had revelled through them in the days of his father, James I. Now the palace rules were pinned up for all to read. Fifty-eight gentlemen pensioners were in constant attendance on the King, while 210 yeoman warders guarded him night and day. Here too, immortalised in the portraits of Van Dyck, gathered that generation of refined, silken courtiers, the women with their perfect complexions enhanced by glorious pearls, the superciliously beautiful young men idly displaying their long legs and graceful hands. It was for such a world that Van Dyck also painted that perfect invocation of royal childhood, the canvas in which the sallow and plump-faced Prince Charles, just seven years old and surrounded by his brothers and sisters, stares out at the spectator with dark, observant eyes as he rests his hand on the head of a subdued but watchful dog.
Mealtimes especially saw this little boy learning the ways of one of the most refined royal houses in Europe. Both for dinner (which was served between midday and two o'clock) and for evening supper, the Prince was required to enter the elaborate dining hall with his hat on. This was removed while the chaplain said grace and then replaced as the boy sat down at the right-hand end of the table. Kneeling pages then held out a silver-gilt ewer of scented water and a napkin. When Prince Charles had rinsed his hands, he made his choice from the dishes that were shown him, and a gentleman carved and tasted his portion before serving it. Other kneeling pages surrounded him while he ate. One offered bread, another wine, while a third held a bowl beneath the Prince's chin to catch any drops that might fall. No one spoke on these occasions unless the King led the conversation, but as the Prince looked round the elaborate, pillared dining room, so he could see, in the soft light that filtered down from the high windows, the luxurious formality of his father's court. On a service table richly draped in crisp linen stood an array of gold and silver plates, crystal flagons and drinking vessels. A silver wine-cooler held a collection of bottles. Liveried servants made their silent way across the black and white marble-paved floor. At the far end of the great room, from the respectful distance of a gracefully proportioned gallery, privileged observers gazed down on the scene and were watched in their turn by the royal dogs lying on the cool of the floor.
While such ceremony appeared to surround the King with dignity, the ways of his wife's circle were altogether more contentious and, from the time of his earliest boyhood, they made Prince Charles a subject of the public's often irate concern. The Queen's chapel was the particular focus of attention. This exquisite building had been designed for her by the architect Inigo Jones, and the Queen herself had laid the silver foundation stone at a lavish ceremony conducted in front of some 2,000 people. In the remarkably short space of three months the completed chapel now `a paradise of glory' fitted out with huge sculpted angels, `hidden lights', gold plate and a Rubens altarpiece was ready for consecration. At the service a priest preached on the text `This is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes'
To the serious Puritan merchant passing by, his mind running on profits and predestination, this was the last thing the chapel was. To such people it was a building to inspire shuddering distaste and call up a host of deep and bitter fears. Were not Roman Catholics the national enemy? There were still grandfathers alive who might just remember the sailing of the Spanish Armada. Many more could recall the hysteria that had gripped the country when the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered. And for all good Protestants there was the work popularly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. There, in lurid and bludgeoning detail, they were offered accounts of those of the godly who had been executed in the great battle between true religion and the papal Antichrist. To such minds, the Roman church's belief in the transubstantiation of the communion bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was obscene. Its veneration for the Virgin and the saints had no warrant in the sacred authority of Scripture. Such things, it was believed, were superstitions urged by a cunning priesthood who exercised an excessive power over their followers and were attempting to extend the tyranny of Catholicism to the shores of England itself.
For some there was evidence that they were getting their way. The Queen's priests, it was said, had made her house a safe haven for the loathed Jesuits, and she herself willingly accepted the undignified penances that were inflicted on her. The news letters made it clear to those willing to believe such things that Henrietta Maria was sometimes made to go barefoot and to eat out of wooden dishes like a servant. Worst of all, she had gone to Tyburn to say prayers for the souls of those Roman Catholics who had been executed there. She had been so carried away with her enthusiasm, it was alleged, that she had fallen to her knees by the gallows and clutched her rosary in her fingers. Now she had persuaded the King to relax restrictions on entry to her chapel. There were those who had seen that the heir to the throne himself was regularly brought there to worship in the Catholic rite. So great was the outcry that the King declared that the boy's visits should cease. For a while he was persuaded to change his mind, but when the irresolute father finally put his foot down resentment against the Queen had deepened and she took to organising private parlour games for the Prince. The prizes in these were sacred medals and crucifixes. Coming upon one such occasion, the dismayed King ordered his son to hand back all he had won.
This little incident took place in the Queen's apartments where the growing Prince came to know a world more intimate but no less sumptuous than that of his father. Here, in the wainscoted rooms, hung with tapestries and the Italian masterpieces sent to her by the Pope's envoys, Henrietta Maria housed her Negro servants whose colour set off the pallor of her own skin. Here she was entertained by her dwarves, among them Jeffrey Hudson who, at a bare eighteen inches tall, had once been brought to the dinner table hidden in a pie. It was in these rooms, among the silver-plated tables and cabinets of lignum vitae, that Henrietta Maria, careless of expense, ordered lace, embroidery, rare flowers and precious stones. Here, too, the Queen sat countless times to Sir Anthony Van Dyck as he perfected her image, ignoring, as a courtier must, her protuberant teeth and concentrating instead on her ripening beauty, on the dark ringlets that fell so alluringly round her brow, and on her exquisite taste in dresses, whether of formal black, amber, oyster or stormy blue.
When she was bored or feeling a mother's love, Henrietta Maria summoned her eldest son to her apartments. There his quick eyes watched those courtiers who were drawn to her by the lure of influence men happy to chatter in that thin, heady mixture of Catholic piety and Platonic love which characterised the Queen's circle. Mr Waller might be reading a poem. The soft-handed clerics Monsignor Panzani or George Conn might deftly turn the conversation to matters of the faith, while beside his mother would be Harry Jermyn, `the Queen's prize servant', a handsome man in an ox-like way, a gambler and a swordsman who was obviously her best friend. All of these people were careful to flatter the Prince when he appeared, leaning forward with their worldly, attentive faces to take what seemed a genuine interest in his enthusiasms. Then, when his presence was no longer required, attendants took Charles back to the nursery and his mother returned to her other interests a fitting for a new gown perhaps, or a last look at the lines of the masque in which she and her husband were to dance that night.
By STEPHEN COOTE
St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 2000 Stephen Coote. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Stephen Coote was educated at Magdelene College, Cambridge and at Birkbeck College, University of London. His previous biographies include John Keats: A Life,A Play of Passion: The Life of Sir Walter Raleighand most recently, W.B. Yeats: A Life. Stephen Cootelives in Oxford.
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