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King Charles II

the first British monarch to rule primarily as a ceremonial head of state

Charles II

Early Life

Charles was born at St. James Palace, London, on May 29, 1630, the second son of Charles I and Henrietta Marie of France. In 1638 the Duke of Newcastle was appointed as his governor, but his education was interrupted by the Civil War. In 1645 Charles I sent him into the west of England. In March 1646 the royalist defeats drove him to the Scilly Isles and later to Jersey, and in July he joined his mother in Paris. In 1648 he cruised with some English ships off the mouth of the Thames for a short time, after which he went to Holland. In January 1649 he sent a blank sheet of paper, bearing his signature, to Parliament, for the insertion of any terms which would save his father's life; the attempt failed.

King of Scotland

After Charles I's execution on January 30, 1649, Charles II was proclaimed King in Scotland and parts of Ireland and in the Channel Islands. He landed in Scotland on June 23, 1650, after pledging himself to Presbyterianism in both Scotland and England, and was crowned as King of Scotland on January 1, 1651. On September 3, 1651, Charles led a Scottish force of 10,000 into a dismal defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell's forces at Worcester. Charles was able to escape from Cromwell's clutches, but spent six week on the run before engineering passage to France. He subsequently roamed Europe for eight years before being invited back to England.

King of Great Britain and Ireland

By the end of 1659 a return to the old constitution was the only escape from the alternatives of military government or anarchy. A "free" parliament was summoned to meet in April 1660, while George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, opened negotiations with Charles. On April 4, Charles issued the Declaration of Breda, which promised a general amnesty and liberty of conscience, leaving the final settlement in each case to Parliament; it also promised that all questions about the transfers of lands during the years of revolution should be determined in Parliament. The Convention Parliament accepted the declaration, and Charles was proclaimed King of England on May 8.

King Charles II was formally crowned on April 23, 1661. When a new Westminster Parliament was elected, no representatives from Scotland were requested, so the Cromwellian Union of England and Scotland was dissolved.

England was overjoyed at having a monarch again, even though the monarch's powers had been severely limited by Parliament. Charles II's reign began the era that still exists in Britain, whereby the monarch holds primarily ceremonial powers while Parliament holds actual control of governmental affairs. It also marked the beginning of political parties in England. The Cavaliers, royalists who had been intent on preserving the king's authority over Parliament, evolved into today's Tory Party; the Roundheads, men of property dedicated to expanding trade abroad and maintaining Parliament's supremacy, evolved into the Whig Party.

Major Events of His Reign

On May 19, 1662, the Act of Uniformity was passed, enjoining the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

Charles' marriage to the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza in 1662 brought Bombay and Tangier to England as parts of Catherine's dowry.

English commercial expansion and minor political differences led to war with the Dutch, which was formally declared in February 1665. The war itself was indecisive, but England was weakened by the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666. Financial exhaustion led to negotiations, and in 1667 the Dutch, by burning the English ships in the Medway, enforced the conclusion of the Peace of Breda. Both sides kept their conquests, England obtaining the American colonies of New Amsterdam (New York) and New Jersey. Another war against the Dutch was fought from 1672 to 1674. Like the previous war, neither side made any significant gains in the subsequent peace.

The late-1670's saw a resurgence of anti-Catholicism in England, with the Whigs employing that sentiment in an attempt to unseat the heir apparent, Charles' Catholic brother James, from succeeding to the throne. The Whigs even tried to push an Exclusion Bill barring Catholics from holding public office through Parliament, but were thwarted.

King Charles II died on February 6, 1685, from complications following a stroke. He was succeeded by his brother, who assumed the throne as King James II.

Wife and Children

Charles married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, but sired no legitimate children with her. He did, however, have several illegitimate children, including: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch, by Lucy Walter; Charles, Duke of Southampton, Henry, Duke of Grafton, and George Fitzroy, Duke of Northumberland, all by Lady Castlemaine; Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond, by the Duchess of Portsmouth; Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St. Albans, by Nell Gwyn; and Charles FitzCharles, Earl of Plymouth, by Catherine Peg.


Encyclopędia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopędia Britannica, Inc., 1957

See Also

Charles I
New Amsterdam

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The Robinson Library >> England >> Later Stuarts

This page was last updated on January 01, 2019.