ENGLAND UNDER CHARLES THE SECONDCategory: 17th century
Having become the King, Charles II did much to those who seemed to be his faithful subjects, while some of his enemies were executed in the most barbarous way. On the anniversary of the late King’s death, the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw were torn out of their graves in Westminster Abbey, dragged to Tyburn, hanged there on a gallows all day long, and then beheaded. Imagine the head of Oliver Cromwell set upon a pole to be stared at by a crowd, not one of whom would have dared to look the living Oliver in the face for half a moment!
Of course, the remains of Oliver’s wife and daughter were not to be spared either, though they had been most excellent women. The base clergy of that time gave up their bodies, which had been buried in the Abbey, and they were thrown into a pit, together with the bones of Pym and of the brave and bold old Admiral Blake.
The clergy acted this disgraceful part because they hoped to get the nonconformists, or dissenters, thoroughly put down in this reign, and to have but one prayer-book and one service for all kinds of people, no matter what their private opinions were. This was pretty well for a Protestant Church, which had displaced the Romish Church because people had a right to their own opinions in religious matters. An Act was passed preventing any dissenter from holding any office under any corporation.
The King had not been long upon the throne when his brother the Duke of Gloucester, and his sister the Princess of Orange, died within a few months of each other, of smallpox. His remaining sister, the Princess Henrietta, married the Duke of Orleans, the brother of Louis the Fourteenth, King of France. Charles’s brother James, Duke of York, was made High Admiral, and by and by became a Catholic. He was a gloomy sullen man, who married Anne Hyde, the daughter of Lord Clarendon, then the King’s principal Minister. It became important now that the King himself should be married, and many foreign monarchs proposed their daughters to him. The King of Portugal offered his daughter, Catherine of Braganza, and fifty thousand pounds: in addition to which, the French King, who was favourable to that marriage, offered a loan of another fifty thousand. The King of Spain, on the other hand, offered any out of a dozen of Princesses, and promised to give money, too. But the ready money carried the day, and Catherine came over to England.
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The whole Court was a great crowd of debauched men and shameless women; and Catherine had to degrade herself by their companionship. A Mrs. Palmer, whom the King made Lady Castlemaine, and afterwards Duchess of Cleveland, was one of the most powerful of the bad women about the Court, and had great influence with the King nearly all through his reign. Another merry lady named Moll Davies, a dancer at the theatre, was afterwards her rival. So was Nell Gwyn, first an orange girl and then an actress. The first Duke of St. Albans was this orange girl’s child, while the son of a merry waiting-lady, whom the King created Duchess os Portsmouth, became the Duke of Richmond.
The Merry Monarch was so exceedingly merry among these merry ladies, and merry lords and gentlemen, that he soon got through his hundred thousand pounds. To get money he sold Dunkirk to the French King.
Charles was like his father in being worthy of no trust. When a Prince, he promised to respect all religious opinions. Yet, having become the King, he he consented to one of the worst Acts of Parliament ever passed. Under this law, every minister who should not give his solemn assent to the Prayer- Book by a certain day, was declared to be a minister no longer, and to be deprived ofhis church. The consequence of this was that some two thousand honest men were taken from their congregations, and reduced to poverty. It was followed by another law, called the Conventicle Act, by which any person above the age of sixteen who wae present at any religious service not according to the PrayerBook, was to be punished. This Act filled the prisons to overflowing.
After that Charles II undertook a war with the Dutch, who interfered with an African company, established with the two objects of buying gold-dust and slaves, of which the Duke of York was a leading member. After some preliminary hostilities, the Duke of York sailed to the coast of Holland with his mighty fleet. In the great battle between the two forces, the Dutch lost eighteen ships, four admirals, and seven thousand men. This victory was soon forgotten, as the country was seized with another trouble. This was the year of the Great Plague in London.
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During the winter of 1664 it had been whispered about, that some few people had died here and there of the disease called the plague, in some suburbs around London. News was not published at that time, and some people believed these rumours, and some disbelieved them, and they were soon forgotten. But in May, 1665, the disease burst out with great violence, and people were dying in great numbers. The roads out of London were full of people trying to escape from the infected city. The disease soon spread so fast, that it was necessary to shut up the houses in which sick people were, and to cut them off from communication with the living. Everyone of these houses was marked on the outside of the door with a red cross. The streets were all deserted, and there was a dreadful silence in the air. When night came on, dismal rumblings used to be heard, and these were the wheels of the death-carts, attended by men who rang bells and cried in a loud and solemn voice, “Bring out your dead!” The corpses put into these carts were buried by torchlight in great pits.
In the general fear, children ran away from their parents, and parents from their children. Some who were taken ill, died alone, and without any help. Some were murdered by hired nurses who robbed them of all their money. Some went mad. Such were the horrors of the time.
The Great Plague raged more and more through the months of July, August and September. Great fires were lighted in the streets, in the hope of stopping the infection, but the rain beat that fires out. At last, the winds began to blow, and to purify the wretched town. The deaths began to decrease, the red crosses slowly disappeared, and the fugitives came back to the city. The plague had been in every part of England, and only in London it had killed one hundred thousand people.
The fleet had been at sea, and healthy. The King of France was now in alliance with the Dutch, though his navy was chiefly employed in looking on while the English and Dutch fought. The Dutch gained one victory; and the English gained another and a greater; and Prince Rupert, one of the English admirals, was out in the Channel one windy night, looking for the French Admiral, with the intention of giving him something more to do than he had had yet, when the gale increased to a storm, and blew him into Saint Helen’s. That night was the third of September, 1666, and that wind fanned the Great Fire of London.
It broke out at a baker’s shop near London Bridge. The fire spread and burned for three days. The nights were lighter than the days; in the day-time there was an immense cloud of smoke, and in the night-time there was a great tower of fire mounting up into the sky, which lighted the whole country landscape for, ten miles round.
The summer had been very hot and dry, the streets were very narrow, and the houses were wooden. Nothing could stop the fire. Thirteen thousand houses and eighty-nine churches were ruined by it. Being a real disaster for many Londoners, the Fire was a great blessing to the city afterwards,.for it arose from its ruins very much improved — built more regularly, more widely, more cleanly and carefully, and therefore much more healthily.
The Catholics were accused of having wilfully set London in flames. One poor Frenchman, who had been mad for years, even accused himself of having fired the first house. There is no reasonable doubt, however, that the fire was accidental.
The King flung away among his favourites the money which the Parliament voted for the war with the Dutch, and the English sailors were starving and dying in the streets. Meanwhile the Dutch came into the River Thames, and up the River Medway, burned the guard-ships, silenced the weak batteries, and did what they would to the English coast for six whole weeks. Most of the English ships that could have prevented them had neither powder nor shot on board then.
At that time Lord Clarendon was impeached by his political opponents. The King then commanded him to withdraw from England and retire to France. He did so, and died abroad some seven years afterwards.
There then came into power a ministry called the Cabal Ministry, because it was composed of Lord Clifford, the Earl of Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and the Duke of Lauderdale, C.A.B.A.L. As the French were making conquests in Flanders, the first Cabal proceeding was to make a treaty with the Dutch, for uniting with Spain to oppose the French. It was no sooner made than the King concluded a secret treaty with the French king, making himself his pensioner for starting war against the Dutch, and declaring himself a Catholic when a convenient time should arrive. This religious king had lately been crying to his Catholic brother on the subject of his strong desire to be a Catholic; and now he concluded this conspiracy against the country he governed, promising to become a Catholic.
As his head might have been far from safe, if these things had been known, they were kept in secret. Still the war was declared by France and England against the Dutch. But a very uncommon man, afterwards most important to English history arose among them, and for many long years defeated the whole projects of France. This was William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, son of the last Prince of Orange of the same name, who married the daughter of Charles the First of England. He was a young man at this time, only just of age; but he was brave, cool, and wise. His father had been so detested that, upon his death, the Dutch had abolished the authority to which this son would have otherwise succeeded (Stadtholder it was called), and placed the chief power in the hands of John de Witt, who educated this young prince. Now, the Prince became very popular, and John de Witt’s brother Cornelius was sentenced to banishment on a false accusation of conspiring to kill him. John went to the prison where Cornelius was, to take him away to exile; and a great mob who collected on the occasion, cruelly murdered both the brothers.
This left the government in the hands of the Prince, and from this time he exercised it with the greatest vigour, against the whole power of France, and in support of the Protestant religion. It was full seven years before this war ended in a treaty of peace.
After that William, Prince of Orange, came over to England, saw Mary, the elder daughter of the Duke of York, and married her. Mary was a Protestant, but her mother died a Catholic. She and her sister Anne, also a Protestant, were the only survivors of eight children. Anne afterwards married George, Prince of Denmark, brother to the King of that country.
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Charles II obtained great sums of money from the French king for his services. But he still wanted money, and consequently was obliged to call Parliaments. In these, the great object of the Protestants was to thwart the Catholic Duke of York, who married a second time. His new wife was only fifteen years old, and she was the Catholic sister of the Duke of Modena. Meantime, the King of France intrigued with the King’s opponents in Parliament, as well as with the King and his friends. The fears that the Catholic religion would be restored, if the Duke of York should come to the throne, and the low cunning of the King in pretending to share their alarms, led to some terrible results. A certain Titus Oates pretended to have acquired a knowledge of a great plot for the murder of the King, and the reestablishment of the Catholic religion. For that he was called the Saver of the Nation, and received a pension of twelve hundred pounds a year.
Soon another villain upstarted. His name was William Bedloe. He charged two Jesuits and some other Catholics with having murdered a certain magistrate Godfrey. Oates, going into partnership with this new informer, accused the poor Queen herself of high treason. Then a third informer appeared, and accused a Catholic banker named Stayley of having said that the King was the greatest rogue in the world, and that he would kill him with his own hand. All the persons accused by the informers were tried and executed. Then a Catholic silversmith, Prance by name, was accused by Bedloe. That poor wretch was tortured into confessing that he had taken part in Godfrey’s murder, and into accusing three other men of having committed it. They were arrested and executed together with Prance. Then the Queen’s physician and three monks were put on their trial, but they were acquitted, as Oates and Bedloe had for the time gone far enough. The public mind, however, was so full of a Catholic plot, and so strong against the Duke of York, that James consented to obey a written order from his brother, and to go with his family to Brussels, provided that his rights should never be sacrificed in his absence to the Duke of Monmouth, the king’s illegitimate son. But the House of Commons was not satisfied with this as the King hoped. It passed a bill to exclude the Duke from succeeding to the throne. In return, the King dissolved the Parliament. He had deserted his old favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, who was now in the opposition.
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To give any idea of the miseries of Scotland in this reign, would occupy a hundred pages. As the people did not want to have bishops, they were punished severely. In spite of that, the Covenanters persisted in worshipping God as they thought right.
The King sent the Duke of Monmouth to Scotland to attack the rebels there. Marching with ten thousand men from Edinburgh, he found them, in number four or five thousand. They were soon dispersed, and Monmouth was rather mild in persecuting them. That made the young Duke even more popular. The King’s son dreamed to be legitimated and to be proclaimed the heir to his father’s throne. And when the House of Commons renewed the bill for the exclusion of James from the throne, Monmouth voted in its favour. The House of Commons passed the bill by a large majority, and it was carried up to the House of Lords. It was rejected there, and the fear of Catholic plots revived again all-over the country.
Lord Ashley, of the Cabal, was now Lord Shaftesbury, and was strong against the succession of the Duke of York. The House of Commons were bitter against the Catholics generally. So the House of Commons refused to let the King have any money until he should consent to the Exclusion Bill.
But, as the King got money from the King of France, he could pay no attention to the House of Commons. But as they went on with the Exclusion Bill, Charles II dissolved the Parliament.
The Duke of York was in Scotland then. Under the law which excluded Catholics from public trusts, he had no right to public employment. Nevertheless, he was openly employed as the King’s representative in Scotland, and there he entertained himself in persecuting the Covenanters, growing more and more unpopular.
Having got rid of his Parliament, Charles became despotic. He wanted to control the corporations all over the country. If he could only do that, he could get what juries he chose, to bring in perjured verdicts, and could get what membeis he chose, returned to Parliament. Lord Shaftesbury, Lord William Russell, the Duke of Monmouth, Lord Howard, Lord Jersey, Algernon Sidney, John Hampden, and some others, used to hold a council together after the dissolution of the Parliament, arranging what it might be necessary to do, if the King carried his Popish plot to the utmost height.
They used to invite some of their friends to these secret councils. But somebody informed the King about these meetings, and most of these gentlemen were arrested.
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Lord Russell knew very well that he had nothing to hope. Of course, he was found guilty, and was sentenced to death. When he had parted from his children on the evening before his death, his wife still stayed with him until ten o’clock at night; and when their final separation in this world was over, and he had kissed her many times, he still sat for a long while in his prison, talking of her goodness. Hearing the rain fall fast at that time, he calmly said, “Such a rain tomorrow will spoil a great show, which is a dull thing on a rainy day.”
At midnight he went to bed, and slept till four. Even when his servant called him, he fell asleep again while his clothes were being made ready. He rode to the scaffold in his own carriage, attended by two clergymen, and sang a psalm, as he went along. After saying that he was surprised to see so great a crowd, he laid down his head upon the block, as if upon the pillow of his bed, and had it struck off at the second blow. His noble wife was busy for him even then. She used to be his secretary, and after her husband’s death that true- hearted lady printed and widely circulated his last words. They made the blood of all the honest men in England boil.
The University of Oxford distinguished itself on the very same day by pretending to believe that the accusation against Lord Russell was true. This paper the Parliament afterwards caused to be burned by the common hangman.
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The Duke of Monmouth had been making his uncle, the Duke of York, very jealous, by going about the country in a royal sort of way, playing at the people’s games, becoming godfather to their children. His father had got him to write a letter, confessing his having had a part in the conspiracy, for which Lord Russell had been beheaded. But he was ever a weak man, and as soon as he had written it, he was ashamed of it and got it back again. For this, he was banished to the Netherlands. But he soon returned and had an interview with his father, unknown to his uncle. It would seem that he was coming into the King’s favour again, and that the Duke of York was sliding out of it, when Death appeared to the merry galleries at Whitehall.
On Monday, the second of February, 1685, Charles II fell down in a fit of apoplexv. By Wednesday his case was hopeless, and on Thursday he was told so. Then the Duke of York got all who were present away from the bed, and asked his brother, in a whisper, if he should send for a Catholic priest. The King replied, “For God’s sake, brother, do!” The Duke smuggled in a Catholic priest to save the King’s soul.
Charles lived through that night, and died on the next day, which was Friday, the sixth of February, in the fifty-fifth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his reign.