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King Charles II (1979)

par Antonia Fraser

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707623,714 (4.01)32
The story of King Charles II is one of enduring fascination. The golden childhood of the boy Prince in the Van Dyck pictures gave way to an adventurous youth in Civil War England and abroad, ending traumatically when his father was executed in 1649. Charles II, King at eighteen, succeeded to `nothing but the name'. After his valiant attempt to regain the throne was defeated by Cromwell at Worcester, the King made his epic escape - to years of exile, poverty and humiliation in Europe. The `miraculous' Restoration ushered in a reign coloured by a series of equally dramatic events: the Great Plague, the Fire of London, two Dutch Wars, the bizarre Popish Plot, and finally the efforts of the Whigs to exclude his Catholic brother James from the succession, culminating in the King's unexpected triumph over them at the Oxford Parliament of 1681. A lover of women, passionate planner of parks and palaces and friend of the arts, this was the man who was to overcome the many problems of his reign and die not only in control of his country but in the affection of his countrymen. In this meticulously researched biography, Antonia Fraser offers important judgements and reassessments on central questions of the reign, such as Charles's relationships, his attitude to Kingship, his patriotism and his religious beliefs. Above all she has succeeded in writing a totally compelling narrative, both moving and exciting, and showing all the skills and insights which have secured her place as one of the foremost biographers of our time. `A rich feast of instruction, drama and entertainment' TLS `The fullest and most sophisticated account of the most charming and approachable of English Kings' OBSERVER… (plus d'informations)
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If I had to pick out an English monarch to hang out with, I think I would choose Charles II. The medieval kings are – well – too medieval. Henry V is a possibility but I suspect his reputation owes too much to Shakespeare. The Tudors are all a little dicey; Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were both intelligent and talented but you’d have to watch what you said carefully or you’d end up on Tower Hill staring at a big black block. Lady Jane Grey was reputed to be the smartest woman in England but didn’t last long enough to confirm that. The Hanoverians/Battenburgs/Windsors are just too dull, and the rest of the Stuarts too religious. Charles II had grown up in adversity and it gave him an appreciation for how the other half lives; he was famously polite to all he met, whether whores or duchesses (often both at once, in his case); had a dry sense of self-deprecating humor; and was highly interested in science (founder of the Royal Society). And, of course, there’s always a chance you might be able to pick up a discarded mistress.


Charles II has been resting below the pavement of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey for 300+ years now, and therefore can’t comment himself; therefore, Antonia Fraser’s Royal Charles has to speak for him. This is one of Fraser’s excellent, straightforward biographies, just reporting the facts with just enough speculation on motives and psychology to make it interesting.


Charles II had the pampered youth of a royal heir until everything blew up in the English Civil War. His most famous exploit in the conflict consisted of escaping from the rout of the Royalists at Worchester; he was already technically king then, since his father had been executed two years earlier. At various times he hid in an oak tree and a priest hole; pretended to be a common servant, and somehow managed to avoid suspicion despite being a head taller than the average Englishman until he could be smuggled to France. In exile he was impoverished and wandered around the Continent, watched by Parliamentary spies, until his surprising recall by General Monck after Cromwell’s death (at one point there was a semiserious suggestion that he marry one of Cromwell’s daughters, which would have made future English politics interesting). He was surprisingly (for the time) tolerant of his former opponents (although 13 of the men who had signed his father’s death warrant were hanged, drawn and quartered, those who fled to the Continent or the Colonies were generally left alone; I suppose I somebody had beheaded my father I would be equally or more severe). In terms of religion, he pressed for toleration for Catholics and Dissenters but was rebuffed by Parliament.


In foreign policy he allied with France, resulting in a humiliating war with the Netherlands in which the Dutch regained their valuable colony of Surinam while the English were only allowed to keep worthless New York. Charles received a subsidy from France that allowed him to dismiss Parliament (otherwise his source of finances).

A lot of Charles’ fame comes from his bevy of mistresses; at least fifteen, with fourteen illegitimate children (and no legitimate ones). His first, Lucy Walter, was a contributor to the “Exclusion Crisis” that complicated the end of Charles’ reign. With no legitimate children his successor would be his brother James, who was Catholic; there were various claims that Charles had actually married Lucy Walter and thus their son, James, Duke of Monmouth, was legitimate and the Protestant heir to the throne. Charles signed a formal document disavowing this but the 17th- century equivalent of “birthers” kept at it; Monmouth eventually met his end in 1685 after an abortive rebellion against James II (if you’re an old movie fan, the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion is the event that starts the Errol Flynn pirate film, Captain Blood; it’s also the driver for the novel Lorna Doone, which spawned some films as well). Charles appears in some recent movies himself, notably Restoration (played by Sam Neill) and Stage Beauty (Rupert Everett). Interestingly enough, although Fraser wasn’t aware of it at the 1979 date of this biography, Princess Diana was descended from two different sons of Charles II – Henry Fitzroy (by Barbara Villiers) and Charles Lennox (by Louise de Kérouaille); thus if Prince William ever takes the throne he’ll be a Stuart descendant.


The biography gives good explanations of various events in Charles’ reign that I’d run across in readings but never understood – the Popish Plot; the Rye House Plot; and the Exclusion Crisis. All of these were concerned ensuring there was a Protestant on the throne of England. It’s a repeated reminder that religion was once vastly more important in politics than it is today; historical novelists often treat their subjects as if they were atheists and it’s disconcerting to see the extent that differences of religion influenced life and death in the past. While I am respectful of all religions sometimes I think we don’t realize how lucky we have it; people who want more religion in politics seem not to realize that there’s no guarantee their beliefs will come out on top.


A well done biography of an interesting if flawed man. Good pictures of the participants, and well referenced and index. ( )
1 voter setnahkt | Dec 18, 2017 |
Charles II was born while his father was still king of England, but before he was fully grown England had revolted. First Charles I was dethroned, and then he was beheaded. Charles II spent his youth in exile, often narrowly escaping capture, always indebted to others. The constant danger and espionage turned him from a hot-headed prince into a tightly controlled man.

review tbc ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Comprehensive biography, although maybe not the most exciting writing. It is very 'pro Charles II', and I have read before accounts that are not that one sided. Still, I have to say that author provides very convincing arguments in Charles favor. ( )
  everfresh1 | Jan 10, 2013 |
A colourful, well written and comprehensive biography. However, the author comes across as very pro-Charles and pro-Royalist, sometimes to the point of sycophancy. That said, I understand that she is also quite sympathetic to Cromwell in her biography of him (though not here), so maybe in part at least her attitude reflects a close identification with a subject she must spend a lot of time focusing on, given the length and thoroughness of her works. ( )
1 voter john257hopper | Dec 17, 2008 |
3952. Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration, by Antonia Fraser (read Nov 7 2004) I sort of have a project to read a biography of each British sovereign, and reading this was in pursuance of that aim. Fraser is an expert biographer, as I knew from reading her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots (on 7 Mar 1970), Cromwell (on 18 June 2000), and Marie Antoinette (on 28 Oct 2001), so when I saw this one on Charles II I thought I would read it. Charles II was born May 29, 1630, and so was 18 when his father's head was cut off on Jan 30, 1649, but was in exile until 1660. So he was still king for almost 25 years before he died Feb. 3, 1685, a deathbed convert to Catholicism even though his regnal years were years of persecution for English Catholics. This book was a good book. There are still quite a few English kings or queens I have not read a biography of--I count 19, so I guess I won't get one read of all of them unless I work at it more than I have, this book being the first I've done since reading two biographies of Henry VIII on 13 and 15 Feb 2003. ( )
1 voter Schmerguls | Nov 10, 2007 |
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The story of King Charles II is one of enduring fascination. The golden childhood of the boy Prince in the Van Dyck pictures gave way to an adventurous youth in Civil War England and abroad, ending traumatically when his father was executed in 1649. Charles II, King at eighteen, succeeded to `nothing but the name'. After his valiant attempt to regain the throne was defeated by Cromwell at Worcester, the King made his epic escape - to years of exile, poverty and humiliation in Europe. The `miraculous' Restoration ushered in a reign coloured by a series of equally dramatic events: the Great Plague, the Fire of London, two Dutch Wars, the bizarre Popish Plot, and finally the efforts of the Whigs to exclude his Catholic brother James from the succession, culminating in the King's unexpected triumph over them at the Oxford Parliament of 1681. A lover of women, passionate planner of parks and palaces and friend of the arts, this was the man who was to overcome the many problems of his reign and die not only in control of his country but in the affection of his countrymen. In this meticulously researched biography, Antonia Fraser offers important judgements and reassessments on central questions of the reign, such as Charles's relationships, his attitude to Kingship, his patriotism and his religious beliefs. Above all she has succeeded in writing a totally compelling narrative, both moving and exciting, and showing all the skills and insights which have secured her place as one of the foremost biographers of our time. `A rich feast of instruction, drama and entertainment' TLS `The fullest and most sophisticated account of the most charming and approachable of English Kings' OBSERVER

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