What would have happened if Charles II had been executed in 1651?

Not much, I tell the Guardian.

Published in: on March 19, 2012 at 6:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Digital history: Yay! Boo!

The other day I was looking for P. J. Norrey’s 1988 Bristol Uni thesis on the relationship between central and local government in Restoration Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. Imagine my joy when I found that the BL’s new digital thesis service, Ethos, had a PDF copy that I could download for free. Within minutes, I had the whole thesis on my laptop. No more going blind in dusty microfilm rooms, no more hours spent by the photocopier, now I could read the thesis on the train, in bed, while I ate my dinner even!

And now the downside. I was looking at Norrey’s thesis for some discussion of the dispute that followed the tendering of a loyal address from Lyme Regis giving thanks to Charles II for his declaration in the wake of the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament. Prior to looking at Norrey’s thesis, I had thought about doing a research trip/busman’s holiday to Lyme to look at the quarter sessions records which discuss the case.

But not only does Norrey talk about John Wildman‘s attempted revival of the principle of popular election at the June 1679 election in Marlborough, an incident relatively little commented on by the ex-Leveller’s biographers, he also gives chapter and verse on the dispute over the Lyme address. So no ice-creams for me after a hard day in archives.

Ah well, swings and roundabouts eh?

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


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


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.

Age of Intrigue

While looking at my blog stats I noticed that people had clicked over from the following: an online RPG based in the Restoration period!

Welcome to the Age of Intrigue. This is a historical variant palace politics play-by-post game. We start with a snapshot in history (The Restoration under Charles II of England), and use the past history leading up to game start, including many historical figures as non-player characters, but throw in a healthy dose of fictional characters and deviations from history. Freed from the shackles of actual history, anything can happen. The King could be assassinated. A fictional character could rise to Lord Chancellor. No English history scholars will be at an advantage and we make no apologies for any aspect of the game that deviates from “actual history.” It is the uncertainty about the present and the future that adds zest to a game.

The reign of Charles II was selected because it is a grand moment in history in which corruption was rampant and political and religious intrigues dominated the court. Much as Dumas gave life to a court in France, we give life to a time in English history where the monarch yearned for divine rule, a Parliament was trying to maintain some semblance of power, the arts and sciences were reborn, religious intolerance was barely contained, and the end of a tyrannical and Puritanical rule caused the most libertine period in English history. Virtue was replaced by hedonism. Loyalty gave way to scheming, while duty gave way to ambition.

Come join us in the Age of Intrigue and see if you can survive in a palace of passions, plots, power.

Sounds, well, intriguing

Published in: on July 30, 2008 at 9:59 am  Comments (1)  
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The Royal Touch

I’m currently reading Anna Keay’s The Magnificent Monarch, which contains the following fascinating fact about Charles II use of the ‘Royal Touch’. Keay estimates that Charles touched near on 100,000 subjects for the ‘King’s Evil’ over the course of his reign, meaning that roughly 2% population at the time took part in this ritual.  Aside from demonstrating the importance that both king and public attached to the ritual, it’s also a powerful illustration of the degree of contact between the monarch and the people at this point in time. There’s something to think about here in terms of my James II paper, I think. Though the circumstances of James’ captivity in Kent were exceptional, the closeness between king and public was not.

Published in: on July 27, 2008 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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Prince Charles visits Worcester, brings cheque book

On a royal visit to Worcester, Prince Charles will apparently pay off a £451.13 debt to the clothiers of the city left by Charles II in 1651 (incurred in providing uniforms for his army.)

However, with the help of the fabulous Measuring Worth website, I think Charles actually owes, in today ‘s money, the good clothiers of Worcester £47298.30 (not including interest – somebody else can do the sums here.) I hope he’s brought his cheque book, (or brought the flunky who brings his cheque book.)

On another point, are there still clothiers in Worcester?