Charles II

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Charles II (1630-1685) was the King of England and Scotland from 1649 to 1685. He was the oldest son of Charles I. He was born on May 29, 1630 and lived in exile in France after his father was executed and Britain was run as a republic by Oliver Cromwell. He spent his years in exile working to win recognition, support, and reinstatement as king. He successfully led the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, which proved popular since it ushered in an era of pleasure and excess. Called the "Merry Monarch," he was notorious for his love of theater, music, hunting, and beautiful women, fast horses, and talented dogs. Charles did little to smooth over the divisions in politics and society which exploded after his death.

He established the rights of prisoners not to be held unless there was a good reason (the Habeas Corpus Act) in 1679.

He disbanded Cromwell's army of 42,000 men because it was heavily Puritan. In the years around 1680, rumors of a popish plot led to strife between Whigs and Tories, but war was averted, and the Tories proved victorious before Charles's death in 1685. Charles retained his throne to the end, but three years later his incompetent brother, King James II, lost it and went back into exile.


Historians debate how bad he was. One school argues that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was needed to reverse the continuation by James II of forcing on Britain a royal absolutism, which had begun in the final years of Charles II's reign. Only the intervention of William of Orange in 1688 brought about a change of direction, perhaps at the last possible moment, say these historians. Others (such as Miller (1991)) say Charles was too cautions to be very dangerous; he profound insecurity, arising from England's recent past of civil war and republican rule, meant that his priority was personal survival—the preservation of existing royal powers rather than their systematic extension. His brother James II was less pragmatic and more driven by his passionate commitment to Roman Catholicism. James did not seek power for its own sake, but aimed to place Catholics on an equal footing with Protestants by securing for them religious toleration and access to public office, which alarmed Protestants.[1]

Dutch wars

Charles fought very expensive naval wars with the Dutch, almost bankrupting the Crown; his fleet managed to seize New Netherland, soon renamed after his brother as New York.

After the restoration in 1660, the king cooperated with London-based merchants. He issued a series of anti-Dutch policies that reflected the mercantilist notion that weakening the rival was the way to wealth. Charles believed that advancing trade and shipping would strengthen the political and financial position of the restored monarchy. The merchants and chartered companies, such as the East India Company, Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa(which later became the Royal African Company), and Levant Company, thought economic primacy could be seized by defeating the Dutch. A combination of English naval force and privateering would, they hoped, cripple the Dutch Republic and force the States General to agree to a favorable peace. The Second Anglo-Dutch War, 1665–67, did not bring these results, however. Only some 450 Dutch merchantmen were captured instead of the 1,200-1,500 vessels taken during the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652-54. In 1665 many Dutch ships were intercepted, and Dutch trade and industry declined. After the initial shock had worn off. Dutch traders took precautions and benefited from the absence of the English fleet, and the Dutch maritime trade recovered from 1666 onward. However, English commercial interests were hit much more severely, and by the end of the war Charles' regime faced virtual bankruptcy. English attempts to gain economic dominance through violence had failed.

Religion and Politics

Charles's religious policy failed in the face of intense opposition from the Church of England. He persecuted the Quakers and directed John Hilton's gang of thugs to use criminal violence to repress religious Dissenters in London.

Harris (2005) shows the monarchy's recovery, following the near-disaster of the Exclusion crisis of 1679-81. Charles used ruthless skill in defeating this attempt, by his Whig opponents, to exploit popular anti-Catholicism in order to keep his brother James from the succession. Charles soundly defeated the Whigs, but at a cost of making the Crown the prisoner of a Tory, Anglican faction, upon whose continuing co-operation it now depended. James' alienation of this group after 1685, through his pro-Catholic policies, caused his downfall and the Glorious Revolution.

From 1670 there were sustained attempts to use excommunication as a tool to influence parliamentary elections. Ex-communicants could not qualify for membership of municipal corporations under the Test and Corporation Acts. Toward the end of Charles II's reign, as fear of Protestant dissent grew, excommunication was, however, used to deny voters the right to exercise their franchise. There was a concerted attempt, encouraged by the king, to ensure the election of a compliant Tory parliament through the use of excommunication in elections in borough seats. The attempt, reliant on bishops and spiritual courts, represented the high water mark of the 'confessional state.' Of questionable legality, the exclusion of ex-communicants from the right to vote was short-lived. The accession of James II and his Catholicizing policies created new alliances between Anglicans and dissenters and eroded the willingness of bishops to use excommunication as an electoral instrument. In 1689, the Toleration Act removed the principal cause of the persecution of dissent. The use of excommunication, nevertheless, represented an important attempt to unite the church and state for electoral reasons.[2]

Slave raids

Needing money, Charles used his navy to raid the coast of North Africa (around modern Morocco) for slaves in the 1670s-1680s. After receiving Tangier as part of a marriage dowry in 1662, Charles encouraged slave trading in the Mediterranean in order to have sufficient labor to construct a naval yard in his new acquisition. Admiral John Narborough, who commanded several slave-raiding expeditions during the 1670s, recorded these voyages, which targeted primarily Muslims. He suggested that religion, rather than skin color, was the most important determinate of who was enslaved. When the English abandoned Tangier in 1683 and stopped supplying food to the region, a number of enslaved Turkish and Moorish Muslims starved to death.[3]

see English Civil War

Further reading

  • Bryant, Arthur. King Charles II (1931), entertaining but old-fashioned online edition
  • Coote, Stephen. Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles II (2000), 396pp; popular history; well-written and very well illustrated
  • DeKrey, Gary S. Restoration and Revolution in Britain: A Political History of the Era of Charles II and the Glorious Revolution. (2007), a major scholarly history of the era
  • Firth, C. H. "The Stewart Restoration," in Cambridge Modern History (1908) vol 5 ch 15; old, useful summary online
  • Glassey, Lionel K. J., ed. The Reigns of Charles II and James VII and II (1997) 309pp; articles by scholars
  • Harris, Tim. Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (2005), 506pp; major scholarly history
  • Hutton, Ronald. The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales, 1658-1667 (1993)
  • Hutton, Ronald. Charles the Second: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1989), 584pp; scholarly biography
  • Miller, John. Charles II (1991); excellent scholarly biography
  • Miller, John. The Glorious Revolution, (2nd ed. 1997) excerpt and text search, solid scholarly overview
  • Ogg, David. England in the Reign of Charles II - Vol. 1 (1934), old, solid scholarship online edition
  • Pollock, John. "The Policy of Charles II and James II (1667-87)," in Cambridge Modern History (1908) vol 5 ch 15 old, useful summary online
  • Pincus, Steve. 1688: The First Modern Revolution (2009) excerpt and text search, major reinterpretation
  • Seaward, Paul. "Charles II (1630–1685)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004) online at academic libraries; excellent survey
  • Temperley, H. W. V. "England. (1687—1702)" Cambridge Modern History (1905) vol 5 online, solid older scholarship
  • Uglow, Jenny. A Gambling Man (2009), popular biography.
  • online books and articles


  • Dekrey, Gary S. "Between Revolutions: Re-appraising the Restoration in Britain," History Compass 2008 6(3): 738-773, advanced article reviewing ths historiography, reflecting the growing interest since 1980 in the politics and religion of the Restoration. Dekrey looks at the recent Restoration scholarship, provides an overview of the field, and offers suggestions about critical interpretive issues. He adopts a pan-British approach, seeking to find common patterns in the reigns of Charles II and James II in Scotland, Ireland, and England. He traces the instability of the Restoration settlements to their coercive treatment of Protestant dissenters, and offers suggestions for developing a three-kingdom framework for the treatment of Protestant divisions from the 1640s through the Glorious Revolution. Dekrey agrees that the crisis of 1679-81 was a multifaceted restoration crisis rather than an exclusion crisis, and suggests also that in England the competition of Whigs and Tories marked a turning point in the development of more modern structures for political debate and discussion. Dekrey examines the question of whether Charles and James turned toward absolutism thereafter in the broader context of the emerging state. His article considers the Restoration as a transitional era between the 'long Reformation' and the 'long 18th century.'
  • Goodlad, Graham. "Before the Glorious Revolution: The Making of Absolute Monarchy? Graham Goodlad Examines the Controversies Surrounding the Development of Royal Power under Charles II and James II," History Review, 2007 online edition

See also


  1. See Goodland (2007)
  2. William Gibson, "The Limits of the Confessional State: Electoral Religion in the Reign of Charles II," Historical Journal 2008 51(1): 27-47,
  3. G. E. Aylmer, "Slavery under Charles II: the Mediterranean and Tangier," English Historical Review 1999 114(456): 378-388,