In 1681, when Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwyn travelled to see the king in Oxford, an angry crowd jostled her coach. In response, Nell pointed out to the crowd that, despite her scandalous relationship with the monarch, she was at least a Protestant. Renowned as a comic actress of considerable skill, Nell’s remark exposed two of Charles’s greatest weaknesses. He was, as the diarist John Evelyn pointed out, “addicted to women”, and one of the most unpopular of his mistresses was Nell’s rival Louise de Kéroualle, a Frenchwoman from the minor aristocracy of Brittany, whom Charles had created Duchess of Portsmouth. She was everything Nell was not, foreign, greedy – and Catholic.
“Pretty, witty Nell” was effectively playing to an audience when she reminded the crowd of the influence of Catholicism at court, perceived by many to be a threat to national security and identity. For it was not just the preening Louise, famed for her fashionable soirées, who attracted the king’s attentions. His chief mistress throughout the first decade of his reign, Barbara Palmer, countess of Castlemaine, converted to Catholicism in 1663. The previous year Charles had married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, who was, of course, Catholic. And the teenage ingénue Frances Teresa Stuart, with whom Charles was besotted, had been raised in the same religion in the French court. Charles’s last mistress, the Italian-born Hortense Mancini, duchess of Mazarin, was also nominally Catholic, though she does not seem to have been particularly observant.
The king’s private life, then, brought him into close proximity to the religion which the country thought it had comprehensively rejected at the Reformation. The behaviour of the king’s younger brother and heir, James, Duke of York and his wife, Anne Hyde, compounded the growing sense of unease. Both had converted to Catholicism by 1670. Anne died the following year, deserted by her family and some of her servants because of her new faith. James did not publicly acknowledge his conversion until 1673, aware of the likely outcry that would ensue. Though widely suspected, it was nevertheless a bombshell and caused Charles II a great deal of difficulty. He suspected that the country would not easily accept that his heir was a papist.
These fears were amply fulfilled during the Succession Crisis of 1679-81, when concerted attempts were made in parliament to bar James from the throne. The new heir, on this plan, would be Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. But the king rode through the storm. It helped that Monmouth was a flighty young man with few endearing qualities, and his illegitimacy was a major obstacle.
The king was firmly committed to the principle of legitimate descent. If he had misgivings about the Duke of York’s capacity to rule, he did not allow them to interfere with his convictions on such a crucial point. No one could have doubted James’s intentions by this time. He was now married again, to the 15-year-old Mary Beatrice of Modena, a girl who, it was said, had wanted to take the veil. So there would be yet another Catholic queen consort, this time beside a Catholic monarch.
Charles II remained imperturbable. He played off his ministers against each other and signed a secret treaty with his cousin, Louis XIV in 1670, in which he promised to return the country to Catholicism in exchange for a comfortable pension. He did not honour his promise, but took the money anyway.
In 1678 he came unscathed out of the furore surrounding the so-called Popish Plot, a fictitious conspiracy which claimed there were plans to kill Charles and return the country to Rome. This picture of evil Catholic bogeymen was an invention of one of English history’s most odious characters, the failed Jesuit turned scourge of Catholicism, Titus Oates.
The king thought it ludicrous but had to be seen, for a while, to take it seriously. Within three years he had sufficiently strengthened his position and calmed nerves to be able to dispense with his obstructive Parliament altogether, ruling without it for the last part of his reign. He could not, however, manage without women, who had been an essential part of his life since he had endured 13 years of exile as a young man.
None of these ladies, with the exception of Nell Gwyn, is as well known as the six wives of Henry VIII. This is a pity, as they are all worthy of interest. Barbara Palmer and Hortense Mancini, for example, were both women of great beauty, who led lives of such drama that they make the Tudor queens look quite staid.
Barbara had five children with Charles II, from whom many of our leading families today are descended. The proprieties meant nothing to this passionate woman. She posed for the court painter, Sir Peter Lely, as both the Madonna and Mary Magdalene, popular subjects among Catholics. The portraits are stunning but there is something unsettling about them, as if the sitter is flaunting her unsuitability. She is an unlikely object of religious reverence.
Hortense, however, did not hide behind the illusion of sanctity. One of the “five fair nieces” of the young Louis XIV’s Italian-born chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, Hortense was forced into an early marriage. Her husband was a prude who became progressively unhinged. He confined Hortense to a convent for a while until she managed to escape from France. She wandered across Europe for nine years, having a series of affairs, before she was invited to visit England. Hortense accepted gratefully and her affair with Charles, who had once hoped to marry her, lasted about a year around 1676. Unlike the king’s other liaisons, it was carried on with considerable discretion.
All of this and more had to be endured by Charles II’s shy but affectionate wife, Catherine of Braganza. Often dismissed as pious and lachrymose as well as rather dim, Catherine loved her husband dearly. After it became obvious that she could not bear children, they lived largely separate lives. But though devout, and finding her faith a comfort, Catherine did not retire into religiosity. Following her own inclinations and the example of her Catholic mother-in-law, Queen Henrietta Maria, she became a keen patron of the arts. She supported musicians and Italian and Flemish painters (a riposte to Louise de Kéroualle’s pro-French influence), indulged a taste for the finery of the east and is said to have introduced the English to tea-drinking. She was also much loved by her household. And it was Catherine, not Louise or Nell, who was with the king in his final illness. Moved by his suffering, she tried to comfort him by rubbing his feet. He had supported her when Titus Oates claimed she was part of a plot to assassinate him. Finally allowed to return home to Portugal in 1692, she ruled as effective regent for her nephew before her death in 1705.
So how do we sum up Charles II? For many, he is still the Merrie Monarch, handsome, popular, presiding over a rollicking court. A breath of fresh air, in other words, after the supposedly dour Puritan court of Oliver Cromwell. These myths die hard in our national memory.
But his critics, including his own courtiers, knew that the air was more foetid than fresh and that Charles II, described by a recent biographer as “a gambling man”, played his cards very close to his chest. In a reign when London was marked by plague, fire and ice (the Thames froze over completely in the Great Frost of 1683-4) and the English fleet was destroyed by the Dutch in the Medway, many citizens did not have warm feelings about their king. He wasted money on mistresses, was too friendly with the French and teetered on a tightrope while trying to balance the treatment of Protestant non-conformists and supporters of Catholicism. By the time he returned to England in 1660, the hardships of exile had marked him permanently. He indulged himself because he could.
His approach to government was pragmatic but cynical. He was intellectually lazy but by no means unintelligent. His deathbed conversion to Catholicism, apparently encouraged by his brother James, and performed by Father John Huddleston, the priest who had assisted him in his escape after the battle of Worcester, was perhaps the only time in his life he had not seen religion as a means to an end.