Today is the anniversary of Charles II’s birthday. He is 387 years old, but he doesn’t look a bit over 40. In honour of timeless Charles, I thought it would be fitting to introduce you to his early years.
The following article was originally written for the English Historical Fiction Author’s Blog (EHFA) and published on May 2, 2016. If you are interested in English history of all ages, I can’t recommend a better site to explore.
When people think of Charles II of England, they usually think of Charles the Merry Monarch. Yet there was more to this intelligent man than the number of mistresses (and illegitimate children) he had. His life was defined by war, loss, and exile, and in the end, restoration. He fought to reclaim his father’s throne during one of the most tumultuous and complex times in English history. To understand who he was before becoming the Merry Monarch, allow me to introduce his early years when he was still the Prince of Wales.
Charles was the eldest son and heir of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria (sister to Louis XIII of France). His grandfather, King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) united the crowns of Scotland and England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Charles was born on May 29, 1630 in St. James’s Palace in London, and as the story goes, a bright star shone in the afternoon sky to mark his birth. Ironically, this star was Venus.
Charles took after his mother’s French heritage, with his dark looks. Henrietta Maria called him her ‘black boy’, though not with affectionate fondness. Whereas most mothers are often blind to their children’s ‘imperfections’, Henrietta Maria was hypersensitive. Shortly after Charles’s birth, Henrietta wrote about her son to a former nanny, “he is so fat and so tall…I will send you his portrait as soon as he is a little fairer, for at present he is so dark I am ashamed of him.” Charles never became fair, but at 6’2” he fulfilled the promise of exceptional height.
Over the next several years, Charles was joined by a clutch of brothers and sisters in order of birth: Mary (later Princess of Orange), James (King James II & VII), Anne, Elizabeth, Henry (Duke of Gloucester), and Henrietta (Duchess of Orleans, but known affectionately as Minette). He was particularly close to his brother James, who ultimately ascended the throne after him. The two had experienced the upheaval of the civil war together, and even when James later converted to Catholicism, Charles supported his decision even though it was politically inconvenient. Some have attributed Charles’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism as having signalled his support for his brother on the eve of James’s ascension to the throne.
When Charles was eight, he was given over to the care and education of William Cavendish, then Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Cavendish was a notable horseman and the father of dressage. A long-time political player from a wealthy family, he instilled in Charles the gift to see men for what they were and the ability to work with them according to their talents. He also fostered in Charles a love of horsemanship.
Charles’s keen wit came through even at this young age. Having a strong aversion to taking physic, he wrote a clever note to Cavendish, which also demonstrated his affection for his guardian:
“My Lord, I would not have you take too much physic, for it doth always make me worse, and I think it will do the like with you. I ride every day, and am ready to follow any other directions from you. Make haste to return to him that loves you. Charles, P.”
Charles had a very different personality than his stubborn father. Had he been king during this time, war may very well have been avoided, and with it, years of bloodshed.
But civil war did break out, and Charles’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end in 1642 when Parliament raised an army against his father. Charles was given a titular captaincy and a troop of horse named after him, the Prince of Wales Regiment. At this time, his dashing cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, came to lead his Majesty’s horse, and the young Charles looked up to his cousin as any impressionable twelve-year old would.
During the first major battle of the war (Edgehill), Charles should never have been anywhere near the fighting, and yet typically, he was and had a close shave with the enemy. His safety, and that of his brother James, was entrusted to the famous physician, Dr. William Harvey. In later years, the doctor became celebrated for documenting the circulation of blood, but at this moment, with two armies clashing on a field, the good doctor withdrew with his charges to the shelter of a hedgerow and the comforts of an absorbing book. The fighting heated and now being too close for comfort, Charles and his brother fled across a field to reach the safety of a barn. An enemy troop of horse saw the pair running, and without realizing who they were, gave chase. Fortunately, another Royalist troop headed off the enemy cavalry before they could capture the King’s sons, thereby avoiding a checkmate.
In March 1645, Charles had been named Captain-General of his father’s forces in the west and was stationed in Bristol, relying on Edward Hyde as one of his chief advisors. Charles has always proved loyal to those who had shown him loyalty; years later when he won back his throne, he elevated Hyde to Chancellor and bestowed upon him an earldom.
By June 1645, the war had turned against the King. Following their defeat at Naseby, the Royalist army was in shambles. It soon became necessary to send Charles to the west where he would be safer from the threat of Parliament. As well, plague was becoming a threat in Bristol. Charles and his retinue left Bristol and travelled west to Barnstaple, and in September, continued to Cornwall. But by the spring of 1646, the mainland was not safe for the King’s heir, and he was forced to sail for the Isles of Scilly and then to Jersey.
Sailing across the Channel to Jersey flared Charles’s sense of adventure. While on board the privateer, the Proud Black Eagle, he took the helm for a time. His ship was forced to flee from a fleet of Parliamentary ships, but they managed to safely sail into Jersey harbour.
Clearly this made an impression on him, for when he needed to come to his father’s aid, he chose to do it on the water. In 1648, one of the king’s supporters in Scotland, the Duke of Hamilton, raised an army for the King who was a prisoner of Parliament by this time. Wanting to be in readiness to join in the fray, Charles left France for Holland with a small fleet under his command. With some degree of schadenfreude, he happened to chance upon a naval mutiny in the Parliamentary fleet. Ten ships put aside their officers and placed themselves under Charles’s command. From there, Charles and his expanded fleet sailed for the Downs.
In the Channel, while waiting for favourable news on land, he played the privateer (or pirate, depending on your perspective). Things did not always go well for the Pirate Prince. His fleet suffered from internal divisions and a betrayal from some of the Prince’s supporters (though it was thwarted). Even the weather conspired against him. Just as his ships were geared to engage against the Parliamentary fleet, a fierce storm drove them apart. Unfortunately, rescuing the King was not in the cards, and Cromwell defeated Hamilton’s army.
One thing bore fruit from Charles’s Channel runs, an act of respect that paid dividends three years later. One of the prizes he seized was a ship captained by Nicholas Tattersell. Charles readily released the ship, which was no small relief to Tattersell. Years later, when Charles was a desperate fugitive with a reward of a thousand pounds offered for his capture, his last hope for finding passage on a ship ended up with Tattersell. Though Charles dressed and acted like a commoner, Tattersell had not forgotten the man who had captured his ship—nor did he forget that the Prince had promptly released it to him. Tattersell agreed to help Charles and spirited Charles safely to France.
And finally, one of my favourite stories of Charles involves the carte blanche. Before his father’s execution on January 29, 1649, after Parliament had tried and found the King guilty, the story goes that Charles sent a carte blanche (a blank piece of paper with his signature) to Parliament so that they could fill in their own terms for sparing his father’s life. If true, the ramifications to Charles were enormous.
Did it actually happen or is it a 19th century fabrication or error? I like to believe in its veracity, not only because it is his signature that appears on the bottom of this blank document, but also is entirely in keeping with the nature and character of Charles Stuart, Prince of Wales.
Charles II Signature, by Connormah, Charles II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Memoirs of the Court of Charles the Second, Anthony Hamilton
Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe: Excerpt From: Lady Anne Harrison Fanshawe.
Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, by John Stubbs
Carte Blanche, by T. C. Skeat