Historical Notes: Charles: an ever popular, hands-on monarch

Edward Marston
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:54

THE RESTORATION was mired in compromise from the start. A Stuart sat once more on the throne but the scope and character of his kingship differed greatly from that of his father. No absolute power, no Star Chamber, no unparliamentary taxation and only an attenuated Divine Right. In 1664, the French ambassador observed that England had a king but "at the bottom, it was very far from being considered a monarchy".

What shone through was the personality of Charles II. Schooled in a civil war and stamped by long years in exile, he returned with a spirit of forgiveness, determined to heal and to pacify. Religious wounds proved too deep for his surgical skills but his ward rounds brought considerable succour elsewhere. Along with an understandable wariness, he embodied the optimism and goodwill of the Restoration.

Charles was a highly visible king, making regular public appearances and dining at midday in the Banqueting Hall beneath the eyes of the scores of people who passed to and fro in the galleries above. Pomp and ceremony were limited by financial restrictions but he always blossomed on formal occasions. He was a hands-on monarch, actively engaged in affairs of state, vigorously promoting arts and sciences, keeping in touch with the mood of the populace and, during the Great Fire, taking his turn at fighting the flames with buckets of water.

A crucial feature of his rule was the revival of the ceremony of touching for the king's evil. Hundreds of diseased subjects came before him each time, firmly believing that his magic fingers could cure them of the king's evil, scrofula, or of other serious ailments. Scorning the danger to his own health, Charles performed the ceremony with great dignity, laying both hands on each person during readings from the Gospels. Various miracle cures were reported.

Pepys, who witnessed the event in April 1661, thought it "an ugly office and a simple one"; but Count Magalotti gave a more detailed and admiring account in 1669. The popularity of the occasion did not wane. As late as Good Friday, 1684, Evelyn's Diary tells us that

there was so greate and eager a concourse of people with their children, to be touch'd of the evil that six or seven were crush'd to death by pressing at the Chirurgions door for Tickets.

Six years after his accession, Charles was required to take a central role in a second restoration. In 1666, London was burned to the ground. Destruction was comprehensive - 87 churches, 44 livery halls and over 13,000 houses. Within the city walls, 400 acres perished. When the smoke cleared, Charles once again took a hands-on approach, talking to architects, reviewing their schemes, helping to plan for the future.

Pressure of time and shortage of money ruled out a radical new design for the city but a set of strict building regulations made it a cleaner, healthier and safer London when it rose from the ashes. There were no monstrous carbuncles for this Charles to deride. Thanks to the work of Wren, Pratt, May and their successors, the restored London was a striking advance on the medieval city it replaced. Unhappily, much of it fell foul of those sternest architectural critics - the Luftwaffe.

Charles II had so many faults that they tend to mask his virtues. On the credit side, we must place his personal involvement in a whole range of public activities and his readiness to engage with his subjects. He was no absentee monarch. Operating in difficult circumstances, he ruled a divided country with true political adroitness and a genuine feel for the needs of his subjects. Other English monarchs have lasted longer and achieved more but none has remained so enduringly popular.

Edward Marston is the author of `The King's Evil' (Headline, pounds 17.99)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments