Review: Anna Keay, The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power

The following review by me has just appeared in the latest edition of BBC History Magazine (thanks to Sue Wingrove for permission to reproduce it here.)

The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power, by Anna Keay Hambledon Continuum, 319 pp. £25.

The notoriously sybaritic Charles James Fox, apparently without a trace of irony, described the reign of Charles II as ‘a disgrace to the history of our country.’ Anna Keay’s important and lucid book adds weight to a number of recent biographies which have helped to revise the picture of the ‘merry monarch’, stressing the shrewd and serious operator behind the louche stereotype.

Concentrating upon Charles II’s use of and participation in ceremony, Keay demonstrates that far from being indifferent to court ritual, the king was an assiduous observer of royal ceremony. Charles carefully used this to sustain and increase his power, evidenced by his desire to maintain etiquette even in the straightened circumstances of exile in 1650s.

The book is full of arresting details, such as Keay’s revelation that Charles II touched 100,000 of his subjects for the ‘King’s Evil’ (scrofula) during his reign, amounting to 2% of the entire population. This dedication to the ritual was in marked contrast to his father’s reluctance to perform the ceremony.

As the 1680s progressed the court became more formal, access to the king more restricted and its rituals more consciously modelled on the French. The public rising and going to bed of the king, the leveé and couché, were introduced, grand new public rooms built in Windsor and a prospective ‘English Versailles’ planned (but never completed) at Winchester. If the emphasis on the earlier years of Charles II’s reign had been upon munificence and approachability, in the king’s later years, it was upon magnificence and power. The Maundy Thursday ritual of washing the feet of the poor, emphasising the monarch’s humility, was tellingly performed by a stand-in – the bishop of London – during the 1670s.

Keay is very strong in unpicking what Charles hoped changes at court would achieve politically but she spends little time in considering whether these alterations secured the desired result. For example, she discusses Charles’ decision to reintroduce public dining as an attempt to counter the ‘public relations fiasco’ of the Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667. One wonders just how effective such royal spin was against verse libels as hostile as the Fourth Advice to a Painter which pictured Charles as a Nero-like figure who

‘when the Dutch fleet

Arriv’d,

Saw his ships burn’d and, as they burn’d, he

Swiv’d.’

Equally, how did Charles II’s care for court decorum square with the notorious activities of courtiers like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and the king’s bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth? Did the French influence displayed at court in antagonise a Protestant nation, fearful about Louis XIV’s pretensions to be ‘Universal Monarch?’

Nonetheless, this is a very valuable book which reminds us of the court’s persistence as an influential institution in an era widely depicted as dominated by Parliament. Keay clearly demonstrates that, despite the challenge posed by the regicide and revolution, royal ritual, ceremony and gesture remained powerful forms of political communication.

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