The Restoration man. This is a portrait of King Charles II attributed to Thomas Hawker. It is an oil on canvas, painted circa 1680 that you can see in the National Portrait Gallery, London. You wouldn’t think he was called the Merry Monarch from this portrait! It was painted near the end of his life (he died 5 years later at the age of 55).
Charles II was the eldest child and son of King Charles I and the French Queen Henrietta Maria. He was born in 1630, but at the age of 14 was forced to flee to France due to the English Civil War – he never saw his father again. During the ‘Interregnum’ Cromwell declared that any mention of Charles being crowned king was illegal in England and Ireland.
After 11 years, and due to the unpopularity of the Puritan government, Charles was invited to return to England to be King. He returned to the throne, to great fanfare, in 1660. (Incidentally the Scots had made him their King in 1653 on the agreement he would not be head of the Church of Scotland – a situation still true of today’s monarch in Scotland!)
Charles’ reign was marked by a great deal of change and upheaval. Two notable historical events were the plague in 1665 (killing around 25% of the population of London) and the Great Fire of London in 1666 (destroying 80% of the housing in the City). Naturally this led to a substantial rebuild of the city – however all on the same medieval street pattern you can see today.
In 1662, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess. Sadly their marriage was unhappy and childless. Charles dealt with this by keeping mistresses! The most famous of whom was the actress, Nell Gwyn (who died penniless after the King died). Despite his unhappy marriage, Charles was known as the Merry Monarch in Restoration Westminster! He is thought to have had 12 illegitimate children (five with Barbara Villiers). Other mistresses included Elizabeth Killigrew and Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth.
Fortunately, it wasn’t all mistresses and partying. Charles founded the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the Royal Society (Sciences) and the Royal Hospital in Chelsea – and he was personal patron to Sir Christopher Wren, the famous architect.
Upon the Restoration, Charles pardoned many of the supporters of Cromwell’s parliamentary forces. However he did not pardon those directly involved in the execution of his father – in particular any signatories to the death warrant. Some were caught in England, tortured, executed – and properties confiscated. However, three men fled to the American colonies where they found some protection in New Haven; these men were Edward Whalley, William Goffe (a senior roundhead soldier) and John Dixwell. All evaded capture and died (relatively peacefully) in America. The three men are commemorated today by three intersecting streets in New Haven; Dixwell Avenue, Whalley Avenue and Goffe Street. The King was not at all pleased with New Haven for sheltering the regicides. So in 1665 he suppressed New Haven as a separate colony and joined it to Connecticut.