Historians have often seen Charles II as a problematic monarch. Victorians disapproved of his morals—no English sovereign acknowledged more bastards than he. Moreover, he died a Catholic. Modern historians have tended to focus more on his political tactics—his supposed shiftiness, his pro-French foreign policy, his ‘absolutist’ tendencies. He has been portrayed as the foil to political opponents like Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury—figures who struggled to rein in royal power and whose efforts ultimately ushered in constitutional monarchy in Britain. The dust jacket copy for Tim Harris’s outstanding book Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms describes the king as “a cynical, brutal ruler, one of the very few truly repressive British kings.”
My new book shows Charles in a different light. Charles II was in many ways Britain’s first ‘modern’ king. He patronized the new science by granting the Royal Society its charter. He established the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and appointed the first Astronomer Royal. He created his own chemical laboratory at Whitehall. He patronized the theater and encouraged women to take the stage for the first time. His views on trade and foreign policy displayed an emerging idea of a ‘national interest’ that would displace religion and dynastic factors in the conduct of British affairs.
And Charles II was ‘modern’ in another important way: politically. From 1678 until 1681 the king faced a political crisis that threatened to overwhelm his dominions, possibly reigniting the civil wars that had marred the mid-seventeenth century. Confronted with a purported plot against his life, he avoided war, restored political stability and ushered in a new political world, in which two parties vied peacefully for power.
When King Charles left Whitehall Palace for a morning constitutional on August 13, 1678 he had no idea that his life would soon be upended. Christopher Kirkby, a courtier who acted as an assistant in the King’s laboratory, excitedly informed his master that an assassination conspiracy, hatched by sinister Catholics, was near execution. Kirkby learned about the plan from Israel Tonge, a Church of England minister obsessed by Jesuit conspiracies. And so the ‘Popish Plot’ was born.
Charles personally questioned Tonge, who spun an elaborate tale involving a team of Irish assassins armed with pistols, silver bullets, and daggers. If these methods failed, Tonge told the king that Queen Catherine’s Catholic physician, Sir Geroge Wakeman, planned to poison him. Charles’s death would trigger a Catholic uprising, accompanied by a general massacre of Protestants. Charles’s Catholic brother, James duke of York would then ascend the throne and restore Catholicism as the national religion.
It was an astonishing story. But there had been genuine threats to the king’s life before. Charles “knew not what it could amount to,” and left the matter in the hands of his Lord Treasurer, Thomas earl of Danby. The king then went to Windsor, where he would fish and gamble for a few days. In this he lived up to his critics’ charges of indolence and neglect. But the days of dalliance were near an end for Charles II.
For Danby, news of the plot came as a lifeline. His task was to shepherd royal policies through Parliament, whose new session would open in a few weeks. His job had become more difficult by 1678, largely because of the increasingly effective opposition offered by lord Shaftesbury and his clients in the House of Commons. Shaftesbury intended to force the king to sack Danby—and make himself head of a new ministry. Danby hoped Tonge’s explosive charges would rally Parliament behind the government. But he reckoned without Shaftesbury, who told a friend, “Let the Treasurer cry as loud as he pleases against popery,… I will cry a note louder and soon take his place.”
This is precisely what happened. The new Parliamentary session opened in October in the midst of a national panic: the London magistrate who first interviewed Tonge and a fellow informer, Titus Oates, disappeared from his home and turned up dead, murdered, everyone assumed, by vengeful Catholics. Danby’s investigation, run through the Privy Council, turned up startling evidence about the underground Catholic community in England. Shaftesbury, aided in particular by Oates, ran his own parallel investigation in Parliament—and he used Oates and other artful perjurers to overshadow Danby. That there was in fact no assassination plot, and no conspiracy to plant James on the throne or massacre thousands of Protestants was immaterial to the opposition. Using the lies of Oates and several other equally infamous perjurers (such as ‘Captain’ William Bedloe, a thief and counterfeiter), Shaftesbury succeeded in undermining Danby, who by early 1679 resigned, soon to be accused of treason.
The collapse of Danby’s ministry left King Charles in an uncomfortable position. His skepticism about the plot had grown steadily since Oates became the principal informer, and he now expressed doubts about some of Oates’ accusations. He could not believe, for example, that John lord Belasyse, a decrepit former Royalist officer—who had taken a bullet in the head on behalf of the Stuart dynasty—could possibly be the commander of an army of Catholic rebels as Oates claimed. And Charles’s skepticism hardened when Oates, clearly guided by Shaftesbury, widened his accusations to include not only the duke of York, but the Queen as well. This was too much. “They think I have a mind to a new wife, but for all that I will not see an innocent woman abused,” Charles said.
Protecting his wife and defending the lawful succession now forced Charles into uncharacteristic action. His first strategy was to play by the old rules. In late January 1679 he dissolved Parliament and called new elections. He negotiated with moderate opposition leaders (and not Shaftesbury), hoping that a new Parliament would be more governable. It was not. Opening in March, the new body renewed the Plot investigation and moreover considered a bill excluding James from the succession. Charles attempted to co-opt Shaftesbury in April, remodeling the Council and making Shaftesbury its president. But the earl continued his pursuit of both James and the plot, thinking that Charles could be pressured into abandoning his wife and brother.
But Charles found a new resolution of his own. He began a vigorous campaign to vanquish his enemies, playing by new rules. Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s doctor, was acquitted in July 1679—the first Catholic to escape an unjust conviction, probably because of royal pressure on the presiding judge. Another Parliamentary election followed in October, and when the elections returned a strengthened opposition, Charles sacked Shaftesbury and skillfully used his power to set the dates of Parliament’s sessions to delay its meeting for a full year. During the hiatus, the king replaced Shaftesbury’s supporters with reliable men of his own and encouraged the production of political literature attacking Exclusionists and the reality of the Plot. In 1680, he called new elections and ordered Parliament to meet in the royalist stronghold of Oxford rather than in Westminster. The political climate was white hot and the prospect of open violence loomed. But the king outmaneuvered his enemies and began a vigorous pursuit of his political foes. Removing the remaining Exclusionists from office, he also stepped up pressure on Oates and his fellow perjurers. Skepticism of the Plot’s reality grew, in part thanks to a vigorous propaganda campaign supported by the king.
By the end of 1681 Charles II had made himself secure through the creation of a political party dedicated to supporting his brother’s succession. He had also kept the peace and augmented his own authority. By 1683 his political opponents grew so frustrated at the king’s dominance they plotted a royal assassination of their own—the Rye House Plot. Implicating Shaftesbury and other leading Exclusionists, informers revealed the conspiracy and after the resulting treason trials the Exclusion movement was both literally and physically dead. It would re-emerge transformed—and far more successful—thanks to the ineptitude of James II. But Charles II, Britain’s first modern king, had improvised the rules by which British politics were played for generations to come.