Friday, March 16, 2012


A review of Stephen Coote’s Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles II (1999)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Royal Survivor is great book written about an interesting person with a fascinating life. Born to the ultimate form of privilege Charles was the eldest son of the King. As and heir to the throne of the King of England, Charles spent his boyhood as the Prince of Wales leading a life a wealth and luxury. However as he grew to greater awareness, he observed the country go through the greatest upheaval in its history. The English Civil War was turning the world on its head. His father, King Charles I would be dethroned, tried, and executed. He would spend his young adulthood wandering around Europe, homeless, hoping other charitable monarchs to take him in and feed him. Then he is suddenly restored to his rightful place to begin a very memorable reign.

(Charles II as the Prince of Wales)

Charles II is most famous for being ‘the Merry Monarch’ I however found the most interesting parts of the book to be his time in exile. It was not easy for a prince born the heir to the throne believing he was rightful king in a monarchy that had now been abolished, having to now live in state of poverty. For Charles it must have been as if the whole world had turned upside down. Poor, homeless, and impoverished the man who considered himself to be a king was hardly living the life, being tossed back and forth between France, Holland, and Spain. His previous attempts to win back his crown had ended in disaster. However with the self-destruction of the Protectorate government of England a few years following the death of Oliver Cromwell, he was then presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. Parliament invited him back to rule, and Charles was restored in a change of government that almost bloodless! Only the regicides perished when King Charles II was actually able to rule his kingdom. It was an amazing feat that he played well, but it was a victory that he did not earn.

“There was also a more subtle reasons for irony. It was surely evident to Charles how small a part he had played in his own restoration. On the occasions when he had exerted himself and tried to regain his crown, the result had always been bloodshed, defeat and death. Now he had been bloodlessly willed into power by his own people, his single contribution having been the adroitness with which he had been able to present himself as the only credible alternative to the repeated failures of the Interregnum regimes. Charles had been restored not because of who he was but of what he was: his country’s legitimate monarch.”p.180

The reign of King Charles II was what the previous puritan regime was not: scandalous. The people, who lived under the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell’s major generals, were most likely grateful to live under a monarch who paraded his mistresses around with pride. However his reign was more than just about sex, during his kingship England saw great progress in the areas of science. And unlike his personnel restoration, which he played no great role in, he directly contributed to the scientific progress that defined his era. Charles’ grandfather, King James I, ruled a nation that took the idea of witches seriously. King James wrote a book about witches complete with flying broomsticks, and he seriously believed that it was a witch’s curse that gave him an overly large tongue. The England of King Charles II brought to the Western World Newtonian physics.

“The Royal Society was incorporated under a charter granted by Charles on 15 July 1662, and his genuine interest in scientific matters led to research and debate becoming fashionable among the nobility and gentry. Charles employed one of his gentlemen ushers to convey his enquiries to the Society and probed the members as to why sensitive plants flinched and contracted when touched, and why ants’ eggs were sometimes bigger than the ants themselves. He arranged for a laboratory to be built in his palace at Whitehall where experiments could be conducted before him or he could investigate problems for himself. He took a keen interest in inventions that the society patented, presented it with curiosities, and throughout his life provided members with the venison traditionally eaten at the anniversary dinner. What Charles was encouraging in such ways was a profound change in the manner in which the elite looked at the world.

The regular publication of research was a crucial part of the Society’s early achievement and, if the initial hopes of its founders were nor immediately realized, the record of its success is remarkable indeed. The group of scholars and gentlemen amateurs incorporated by Charles included Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and above all Sir Isaac Newton. Though the discoveries of these men especially, it became possible to view the universe as acting in all places and at all times according to consistent and verifiable rules or natural laws.” p.258-9

(Charles II as King)

Throughout his life and reign King Charles II was a brilliant politician in ways his father could have only dreamed of being. Despite his humble method in restoration he would emerge as a very powerful king. He has a troubling legacy in terms of succession. It is still unclear to me why he did not try to legitimize the Duke of Monmouth. King Henry VIII was desperate for an heir and often considered making his illegitimate son that person. Had Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond lived as long as his father he mostly likely would have been king. Even if Henry VIII held off to the birth of his legitimate son, Edward VI, Richmond still would have been in line in the same manner that his sisters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were. Yet, Charles, even though Coote writes that the he considered his lawful heir, the Duke of York, to be a moron, he did not chose to support his son. Ultimately, he Duke of Monmouth suffered the same fate as his royal grandfather only it was more gruesome. Nevertheless the Exclusion crisis, which tried to prevent his brother from coming to the throne, allowed Charles to triumph over his political adversaries and emerge supreme.

(James II, Duke of York in his brother's and father's reigns. James II was a foolish king who was the last British monarch to be dethroned)

(The Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of the king's bastards and the first to try to dethrone his uncle. He failed and was beheaded.)

“He had emerged from the Exclusion Crisis as an unfettered sovereign, and as such he would remain. He distanced himself from his Tory supporters, refusing them the privileges they might legitimately have expected. Indeed, Charles was determined to lower the levels of political consciousness and excitement in the country as a whole, and to reduce the influence of party activity especially.” P.344

Royal Survivor is great book. The life of King Charles II is one incredible adventure and Coote creates a great narrative to explain it. I would recommend this book to the historian and non-historian alike.

{Video is from the BBC series The Last King- The Power and Passion of Charles II}

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