Monday 22 March 2010

A Pretty Witty King

I'm reminded by an article written by Jenny Uglow in the latest edition of the BBC History Magazine that it is almost three hundred and fifty years since the Restoration of the English monarchy in the person of Charles II, a joyful occasion after the disastrous republican and pseudo-monarchical experiment that followed the execution of his father in January 1649.

England after 1660, the England of Charles, is the time of Dryden, of Rochester, of Pepys and of Shaftesbury; the time of Titus Oates and the Popish Plot; the time of a Great Plague and a Great Fire; the time of the Great Cathedral that started its rise from the ashes like a phoenix. It's a period which has long exercised a particular fascination for me, going all the way back to my childhood.

My own particular research is concerned with the political struggles that saw the emergence of the two-party system; of the Whigs and the Tories, who were to exercise such dominance for so long, first the one and then the other. These names were actually introduced as insults by the opponents of the party in question. The Parliamentary group around Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, was originally called the Country Party, meaning that they sought to defend the interests of the country at large against the machinations of the court. Only after were they called 'Whigs', a name borrowed from a group of Presbyterian extremists and rebels in Scotland. The Whigs, never devoid of imagination, called the Court Party, those around the Marquis of Halifax who took the side of the King, Tories, after a group of Irish brigands! The labels stuck. The English have a genius, perhaps a unique one, for turning mud into a badge of pride!

So, yes, this was the time that gave us the Whigs and Tories and the political football that has been present ever since. It also gave us in Charles the so-called Merry Monarch, a serial adulterer second to none, whose mistresses often traded their favours for political influence and high titles, including Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, a wholly unscrupulous gold-digger and personal favourite of mine, who deserves to be far better remembered than the commonplace Nell Gwynn!

I have no doubt that if I had been alive then I would have been a Tory, a supporter of the King and the legitimate succession, though the succession when it came, in the shape of Charles' Catholic brother James, was to be an outright disaster. Still, I have mixed views about Charles, a man not that admirable as a man; a man whose cynicism often did not stop short at the shabbiest acts of dissimulation and betrayal, even of his closest friends and associates.

He may have been no more intelligent than his rigid and unbending father, in his own way as puritanical as the most committed roundhead, but he was certainly a lot more pragmatic, a lot more Machiavellian. His supposed agreement with Louis XIV to convert to Catholicism under the secret Treaty of Dover was little more than a vast confidence trick, a way of extorting money from his gullible French cousin, free of Parliamentary scrutiny. Even his supposed death bed conversion to Catholicism seems to me not to be entirely sincere, almost as if he was playing the literal-minded and unimaginative James in the same fashion as he had once played Louis.

In a way I suppose it is possible to excuse Charles some of his vices in that he had a long and hard apprenticeship; first the plaything of the Scots, given to more extreme forms of religious intolerance, in an early attempt to recover the throne, then the head of a threadbare court in exile, dependant on the charity of foreign princes. In the end he was restored in 1660, it must be remembered, not by his friends, not by the old royalist party, but by his former enemies, people who had previously taken the side of Parliament in the Civil Wars and after. So he had to be careful, always playing a close and not very principled game. He was a great survivor determined, as he once told his brother, never again to go on his travels. Perhaps John Wilmot earl of Rochester's poetic comment on the man is ever so slightly unfair but it is the one that for me still carries the greatest resonance;

We have a pretty witty king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

Oh, he did at least one wise one: he maintained James as his legitimate successor against all the political odds. For, as he once told his brother, only half in jest, nobody was ever going to remove him in his favour, something that all heads of state-and heads of government- would do well to remember. :-))

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