The Merry Monarch
Issue#8: James Bundy continues his series: Catholicism and the Making of Modern Britain. In part 2, he looks at the reign of King Charles II and its effect on Catholicism in Britain.
The first essay of this series, the Last Catholic Monarch, explored the life and reign of King James VII & II. One of the difficulties James faced, however, was the political situation that his predecessor and brother, King Charles II, left him. Whilst it is widely regarded that Charles built up his power to become one of the most powerful European monarchs in the 17th century, this essay will show that this power was built by tapping into the anti-Catholic sentiment in the country, leaving his brother, King James VII & II, in an incredibly difficult position when he became king.
Before reading the life of King Charles II, my knowledge of his reign was based on the Horrible Histories song which declared him the “king of bling”. Whilst there is an element of truth within this title, it fails to accommodate many aspects of Charles’s life. Charles is an extremely complex character which made him a real delight to read and write about. Brought up in the era of Civil War, a war which saw his father be executed, Charles had a natural mistrust of others. From this derived a personality which mastered telling people what they wanted to hear whilst concealing how he truly felt. This extended to his policies as king, often implementing acts which went against his conscience but were popular within the population.
Charles’s ability to play to popular demand helped him become one of the most powerful monarchs of the 17th century, but sadly it also meant a rise in anti-Catholic sentiment. Anti-Catholicism was prevalent in British society since the Reformation and Charles tapped into these attitudes to show the people that the King was on their side. From a Catholic perspective, what makes this even more disappointing is the fact that Charles himself displayed sympathies towards Catholicism before his reign and converted to the faith on his deathbed.
Born on May 29th, 1630, Charles II was only a child when the English Civil War commenced. His Father, King Charles I, was preparing to go to war against parliament and despite his young age, Charles II was involved in these preparations and understood that the war put at risk his accession to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Even more worryingly, the securities of royal life were falling apart. Before even reaching his teenage years, Charles knew that his life, and the life of his father, were under severe risk. When the tide of the war turned in favour of Parliament, Charles I ordered his son to join his mother, Henrietta Maria, in France. After his son’s move to the continent, things continued to get worse for King Charles I, especially in January 1649 when he was put on trial in front of a purged House of Commons. Charles II frantically tried to save his father’s life, but to no avail. Seeing this as an unjust execution, Charles II developed a deep suspicion about the true intention of Parliament, and this he carried into his future reign. Analysing this from a three kingdoms perspective, Charles II also continuously feared that Cromwell supporters would combine with those disaffected in Scotland and Ireland to mount a more serious challenge.
Growing up in this atmosphere of uncertainty, Charles learned the importance of keeping his opinions to himself. At the same time, however, Charles knew that he had to keep the prospect of restoration alive to keep up the hopes of the Royalist supporters.
From this developed a habit of telling people what they wanted to hear, whilst keeping his opinions to himself. This skill was finetuned in France, where the ability to charm others was highly encouraged by high ranked officials. It was improved even further after the Battle of Worcester, when Charles used the underground network developed by Catholic families to smuggle priests across the country. These Catholic families taught Charles the importance of small details in storytelling, such as speaking with the local accent. By perfecting the ability to tell stories, Charles realised that he could utilise this skill as King to show the people that their interests would be pursued by the King, but this was not enough. As well as trying to persuade the people by shaping the political narrative, he had to satisfy them by giving them some policies that they longed for. Thankfully, in Charles’s perspective, he knew how to deploy realpolitik. This skill, however, only developed after many trials and errors during Cromwell’s reign.
The first of these was the deal he struck with the Scottish Covenanters after the execution of his father. The Scottish Covenanters were a rigid presbyterian group and wanted Charles to worship in the presbyterian rite before giving him their support. Charles concluded that the best way to keep the support of the Royalist cause alive was to sign the Treaty of Breda, making his alliance with the Covenanters official. This shows that deep down Charles believed that pragmatism was vitally important in his bid to reclaim the crown. These negotiations, however, were unsuccessful for Charles. Before his coronation to the Scottish crown, the Covenanters demanded even further concessions. Embarrassed, but seeing the bigger picture, Charles abided to these demands.
These efforts by Charles resulted in disappointment. Just before Charles’s Scottish coronation, Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland and was victorious at the Battle of Dunbar. Charles realised that this defeat would result in the influence and power of the Covenanter’s declining, so why did he still submit to their demands? Charles was playing the long-term game; accepting short-term humiliation to get the Scottish throne. Once he had achieved it, he would leave Scotland and try to rally the troops in Scotland.
Sadly, for Charles, this was a big miscalculation. A Scottish king with the backing of Scottish troops was unlikely to gather the support of the English. At this time, the English population were uncertain about Scottish intentions, and always feared the worse. For Charles to succeed, however, it was vital that he gather the support of the English. It was no surprise therefore that this attempt by Charles to reclaim the English throne was unsuccessful. Cromwell forces met the Royalist cause at the Battle of Worcester, which resulted in a major victory for Cromwell. Once again, Charles was on the run.
After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, Charles had another opportunity to secure the throne. Despite Richard Cromwell replaced his father as Lord Protectorate, but events soon showed that he was not up to the job. By the summer of 1659, various sources of discontent broke out in violence, with many fearing that anarchy would spread all over the country. Despite the crisis back home, Charles – who was in the continent – remained patient. The general concern amongst the population can be summarised by General George Monck, army commander in Scotland between 1655-60. After the collapse of the protectorate, General Monck’s main concern was the restoration of parliamentary government. Recognising this, Charles wrote to the speaker of the House to show his commitment to the institution of Parliament. Charles wrote: ‘that none of our predecessors have had a greater esteem for Parliaments than we have, in our judgements, as well as from our obligation.’ He went on, ‘we do believe them to be so vital a part of the constitution of the kingdom, and so necessary for the government of it we well know that neither Prince nor people can in any tolerable degree be happy without them’. Considering Charles’s deep suspicions about the intention of parliament, this letter shows Charles’s ability to tell people what they want to hear.
As events continued, General Monck concluded that the best way to protect the role of Parliament was to restore the monarchy. This support proved critical for Charles’s efforts to reclaim the throne. There was a great deal of irony in this. When Charles tried to reclaim his throne by force, there was bloodshed. In 1659-60, however, Charles’s patience had paid off because the population were frustrated with everyone else. Charles was therefore not anointed as king because of his personality, but because of who he was: the legitimate heir to the throne of England.
Charles understood this and appreciated that the population could easily turn against him. The theme of unity, therefore, became a key part of the early portion of his reign. Charles wanted to be a king for all people. This, however, was an incredibly difficult task. After a decade of Civil War and another decade of experimental Government, Charles’s kingdoms were greatly divided. Achieving unity within this field of division was near on impossible and resulted in Charles overpromising to many sections of society and underdelivering. The sense of disappointed this underdeliver guaranteed was not felt at the scenes of Charles’s restoration. Huge crowds gathered to acclaim their King, and knowing how to play the crowd, Charles fell to his knees and praised God for his restoration. The population in attendance believed this to be a great act of humility, but more importantly, that the restoration was an act of divine providence to protect the Protestant religion.
Not all Protestants were convinced by Charles’s credentials to defend the faith. Just before the restoration, John Botts – a Puritan - delivered a sermon which said: “the man…the Parliament were about to bring in, would bring in superstition and popery”. He then encouraged the congregation that were listening to “feare the Ling of heaven and worship Him, and bee not so desirous of an earthly King, which will tend to the imbroileing of us againe in blood.” This clearly shows that for some Protestants, the restoration was not seen an act of divine providence.
One explanation for the concerns of some Protestants was the notion that Charles secretly sympathised with Catholicism. Not only did Charles have a Catholic mother, Henrietta Maria, and a Catholic wife, Catherine of Braganza, Charles spent a good portion of his childhood in Catholic France. These, however, were not the source of his admiration for Catholicism. After the battle of Worcester, Charles had to go into hiding. To help smuggle Charles out of the country, Catholic families supportive of the crown helped Charles by using the same underground networks to smuggle priests around the country.
During this time, Charles was introduced to a priest called Father John Huddleston. Father Huddleston encouraged Charles to examine some books, especially a pamphlet that was prepared by Father Huddleston’s uncle. After reading these, Charles declared: “I have not seen anything more clear or plain upon this subject!... The arguments here are drawn from succession and are so conclusive, I do not see how they can be denied.” Charles then promised Father Huddleston that ‘if it please God I come to my crown, both you and all your persuasion shall have as much liberty as any of my subjects.’  As shown earlier, Charles had the tendency to tell people what they wanted to hear so these comments may be an exaggeration of what Charles truly felt. As a natural sympathiser for freedom of conscience, Charles’s promise for religious toleration would have been heart felt, but deep-down Charles would have known that this would have been incredibly unpopular. Even considering his tendency to exaggerate, for the head of the Anglican Church to say that a pamphlet on Catholic theology is “so conclusive, I do not see how they can be denied” is extraordinary.
Anglican concerns about Charles’s real intentions would emerge only a few years into his reign. Anglicans were the natural supporters of monarchy and wanted the king to support their political ambitions. This essentially meant increasing Anglican influence and clamping down on non-Anglican worship. Insecure about the intention of others and wanting not to be dependent on anyone, Charles sought to establish his royal authority. To do so we made an agreement of the most powerful monarch in Europe, King Louis XIV. This agreement included the French giving Charles a subsidy to pursue the war against the Netherlands, a war Parliament did not want to finance. In return, Charles promised to convert to Catholicism at the time of his choosing.
Stephen Coote, however, proposes that this intention to convert may not have been sincere, but another example of Charles’s practising of realpolitik. If Charles was losing the war, converting to Catholicism may have ensured Louis got involved because if he did not get involved, he would have been judged to abandon a fellow Catholic king. This argument, at first glance, does appear to be harsh. Surely after his comments to Father John Huddleston, Charles’s intention to convert should be taken at face value? This, however, would only be appropriate if looking at this incident in isolation. Throughout many other parts of his reign, Charles was happy to tap into the anti-Catholic sentiment to secure his power. Coote’s analysis that this promise to convert to Catholicism was an example of power politics is therefore correct.
Unsurprisingly, the religious settlement proved to be the most difficult question of Charles’s reign. Charles’s goal was to reach a compromise between Anglicans and Dissenters. In part, there was a political motive behind this desire. Having the support from various forms of Protestantism would reduce Charles’s dependency on the Anglican gentry, thus giving Charles greater freedom to act according to his own conscience. Freedom of conscience was also what Charles wanted to grant the people and religious toleration was at the heart of this policy.
In aiming to achieve this, however, Charles angered and disappointed a lot of people. His natural supporters, the Anglican gentry, were angered that Charles wanted to implement religious toleration. On the other hand, the Dissenters had their expectations raised to ultimately receive nothing. This is because Parliament, dominated by the Anglican gentry, passed legislation which is known as the Clarendon Code. These Acts of Parliament re-effectively re-established the supremacy of the Anglican Church and ended toleration for the Dissenters.
Differences between different sects of Protestantism dominated the debate during the English Civil War. It is therefore not surprising that the religious divisions in the early part of Charles’s reign focused on these divisions. Suspicions, however, remained about the King’s sympathies towards Catholicism. His marriage to Catherine of Braganza fuelled these concerns, but realising this, Charles ensured that the public service would be a Protestant service. It was only after the Great Fire of London in 1666 that suspicions about “popery and arbitrary government” turned into real panic. With limited evidence about the source of the fire, rumours started to spread that the fire was planned by Catholics to undermine the Protestant people. These rumours unleashed a new wave of anti-Catholic bigotry across all of Charles’s kingdoms. Despite this, Charles, in 1672, introduced a Declaration of Indulgence in, which granted rights to religious minorities, including the right for Catholics to worship in private homes. This declaration was described by some Anglicans as a “deep popish design” , being judged as far too generous towards Catholics. In fact, Charles managed to unite different Protestant sects in their opposition against the declaration.
Struggling on the domestic front, things weren’t much better for Charles in foreign affairs. The war against the Netherlands was not going to plan, and Parliament was refusing to grant further money for the campaign due to their disapproval about the Declaration of Indulgence. What made matters worse for Charles was the action of his nephew, William of Orange. Charles thought William would have been a natural ally for him in this war, but William saw this as an opportunity to promote his credentials in the eyes of the Dutch population. So rather than support Charles’s campaign, he sought to undermine it. William did this by running an effective propaganda campaign in England where he sought to convince the people of England that it was Catholic France who were the real enemies of the English, not the Protestant Dutch. Whilst many Members of Parliament probably agreed with the message of the propaganda campaign, they felt insulted that the Dutch were so involved in the domestic affairs of England. Members of Parliament, therefore, reluctantly agreed to give Charles money to continue the war with the Dutch, but this money would only be granted if conditions were met.
The main condition was for Charles to act against the “growth of popery”. Parliament, which was predominantly Anglican, wanted to protect the establishment of the Anglican Church and the Anglican culture within English society. To do this, Parliament devised a Test Act which would require a person to declare that they did not believe in Transubstantiation before serving in public office. The wording of the Bill passed by Parliament read: ‘declare that I believe that there is not any Transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of Bread and Wine at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever’. Charles hesitated to sign this Bill into law, but when it became clear that Parliament was the only source of money, he backed down and signed it.
This was a defining moment in the reign of Charles II. From that moment, Charles truly appreciated the benefits of delivering what the people wanted. It would bring a sense of financial freedom, resulting in being less dependent on Parliament and on international allies with their own intentions. There is a sense of irony in all of this. Charles, who had a wanted to establish power and independence because of his distrust in Parliament, gained more power and independence by delivering the will of Parliament. With the English people and Parliament worried about Catholicism, Charles now understood that he could not pursue policies which could be perceived as benefiting Catholics if he wanted to establish power and independence for himself. With power and independence his underlying motive, it was an easy decision for Charles to make.
The next wave of anti-Catholic sentiment came in 1678, in the form of the Popish Plot, a false conspiracy designed by Titus Oates which stated that a group of Catholics had planned to assassinate Charles. Charles’s younger brother, the Duke of York and future King James VII & II, had converted to Catholicism. There were already fears about James, with one pamphlet reading: ‘the bigoted Popish Duke, who, by the assistance of the Lord Lauderdale’s Scotch Army, the forces in Ireland and those in France hopes to bring all back to Rome’.  The popish plot, therefore, was seen by the English population as an attempt by Catholics to murder the Protestant king and replace him with a Catholic king. This fear of “popery and arbitrary government” can be viewed by the words of Sir Henry Capell, a Whig Member of Parliament: “From popery came the notion of a standing army and arbitrary power…Formerly the crown of Spain, and now France, supports this root of popery amongst us; but lay popery flat, and there’s an end of arbitrary government.” It would be mistaken to say, however, that theological differences played no part in the anti-Catholic rhetoric. One line which shows the vehemence of anti-Catholic propaganda read: “They eat their God, they kill their King, and saint the murderer.”
In response to the Popish plot, which turned into Exclusion crisis due to some wanting to exclude the Duke of York from the throne, the Whigs ran a vigorous campaign to highlight the threats of Catholicism. Faced with a crisis, Charles decided to go into tune with public opinion and side with the Anglican gentry.  Following the advice of Sir Francis North, Charles decided to undermine the Whig cause by running a campaign to show that the Republicans were the real threat to the established church and Parliament. The Royalist propaganda campaign argued that “Under the notion of crying against Popery and Arbitrary Government, (Republicans) would pull down the King and the Bishops, and set up a Common-wealth again”. To show the seriousness of the threat these republicans posed, one author wrote: “the Papists would destroy our Church and State; so would the Commonwealthsmen’; but, whereas the Catholics had ‘only plotted to do so’, the ‘Phanatick Protestants’ had actually succeeded in overthrowing ‘a Protestant Church’ and murdering ‘a Protestant King.”
This shows that during the Popish plot and Exclusion Crisis, Charles tapped into the fears that people had about Catholicism to secure his own position. He argued that the Republicans also did oppose Catholicism, but unlike him, the outcome of a Republic would be like the outcome under a “popish” king. It is little surprise that King James VII & II lasted less than four years when this was the rhetoric of his predecessor.
Tapping into the fears that people had about Catholicism, however, was not the worst behaviour of Charles during the Popish plot. Saint Oliver Plunkett, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, was falsely accused of planning a revolution in Ireland with the support of 20,000 French men. Despite being entirely innocent, Archbishop Plunkett could not provide enough witnesses for his defence. He was brought over to England for trial where he faced the threat of execution. Arthur Cappell, the brother of Simon Cappell MP, is said to have started the unfounded rumour about Archbishop Plunkett. Realising that Archbishop Plunkett faced the threat of execution, Arthur Cappell pleaded Plunkett’s innocence to Charles. In response, Charles is reported to have said:
“His blood be on your head – you could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not”. So despite Charles knowing the innocence of Archbishop Plunkett, Charles let the trial and execution go ahead out of fear of public backlash. Securing his own power and independence appears to have been more important for Charles than securing the life of a man he knew to be innocent.
On 2nd February 1685, Charles suffered a stroke whilst shaving. Charles was sent to bed to get some rest, but it soon became apparent that he was not going to recover. Whilst he was on his death bed, his chamber was full. Some of those in attendance were Bishops of the Church of England who hoped to give the king his last rites. Outside the bed chamber, however, Louise de Keroualle – one of Charles’s many mistresses – told Paul Barillon, the French ambassador to England, that “at the bottom of his heart the King is Catholic.”  Knowing that time was of the essence, Barillon told the Duke of York about these comments. James then entered the bed chamber and whispered something into the ear of his brother. It was reported that Charles replied with: “Yes, with all my heart.”
Charles had announced his intention to convert to Catholicism but with death approaching, they had to find a priest quickly. The priest that they found was a certain Father John Huddleston, the same priest who helped Charles escape from the New Model Army after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Despite it being 34 years between now and then, Charles immediately recognised Father Huddleston and said: “You that saved my body are now come to save my soul.” Father Huddleston then baptised Charles into the Catholic church and performed the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. Charles was also asked if he would like to receive the Blessed Sacrament. Charles replied, “If I were worthy of it, Amen.” This was the first and final Catholic communion Charles received as by noon the next day, Charles had passed from Earthly life.
When there was nothing material to gain for Charles, his attention turned to the desire of his soul: his conversion to Catholicism. His determination for material gain, however, resulted in Catholicism being the predominant fear amongst many of his subjects at the end of his reign. This did not have to be the case. The comments that Charles made to Father Huddleston in 1651, and the comments of Louis de Keroualle whilst Charles was on his death bed, imply a deep appreciation for the Catholic faith before and throughout his reign. If he allowed this appreciation to shape his public policy, then many of the anti-Catholic pieces of legislation that were implemented during his reign may not have come to fruition. The life of Saint Oliver Plunkett, and other Catholics, may also have been saved. The short reign of his successor, however, show the reality of trying to govern openly as a Catholic in 17th century Britain. It was near on impossible because of the deep-rooted anti-Catholicism that was felt throughout the kingdoms.
Securing the role of monarchy after the restoration would have been a deep commitment not only for himself, but for his family’s legacy. Antagonising parliament and the population would have put this goal of restoration in peril. This, however, did not mean he had to add to the feelings of anti-Catholicism, but this is what he did. Charles passed legislation which prohibited Catholics from public office. His propaganda openly talked about the dangers of popery. He allowed innocent Catholics to be executed because of the backlash he would have received. He did all this because for him, gaining and maintaining power was more important than principle. The United Kingdom would not look much different today if Charles did act on principle. But as a Catholic, it does sadden me that a monarch who ultimately did convert to the faith did so much to add to.
James Bundy | Stirlingshire
James is the Director of Operations at Freedom Declared Foundation which works to promote and defend religious belief in the UK and beyond. He is also a passionate football fan (even if it is Spurs). You can find him on Twitter @jamesbundy or on jamesbundy.net.
See Footnotes here.