The return of not-so-merry monarchs

Restoration - King in ExileJames II
September 2, 2005

After being restored, two exiled kings pursued agendas that would deepen religious divisions, says Jamie Camplin

The start was fine, triumphal even. "His Majestie's princely march towards London" from Dover in May 1660 did not require much orchestration. Almost everyone saw good reason to welcome the return of the monarchy in the form of the 30-year-old Charles II. Constitutionally, it was as if the Civil Wars had never happened: Charles was recalled by a convention that made no conditions. Only the changes of 1641 - the end of the prerogative courts and of extra-parliamentary levies - signalled that there had once been conflict, or so it seemed.

In fact, the Restoration was also a restoration of unresolved problems in a deeply divided society. Most were happy to accept monarchy as the natural form of government or at least as preferable to anarchy. But without fiscal independence the Crown was bound to be vulnerable to those who wanted it more accountable to Parliament. Religious divisions were too deep to encourage an atmosphere of tolerance: Roman Catholics, influential beyond their numbers; nonconformists, stridently maximising their discontents; hardline Anglicans, convinced theirs was the nation's true and defining path - all were sources of discontent. Worse, because Charles was heir to three kingdoms, each with its own parliament, almost all he did to reconcile interests in one would destabilise the others, especially because Scotland and Ireland were themselves deeply divided on religious lines.

The first half of Tim Harris's book traces the way that Charles's reign went from triumph to tatters in less than two decades. Theoretically, his position was strong: he was the arbiter of both domestic and foreign policy, and the head of the Church. He could veto legislation and no one else could call, prorogue or dismiss Parliament. Yet with war always threatening and, from 1664-67 and 1672-74, an actuality against the Dutch, he needed funds.

While political alliances shifted to an extent that makes comparison with modern parties misleading, there were many who were willing to support Shaftesbury's objections to the prevailing desire to "allow Monarchy, as well as Episcopacy to be Jure Divino and not to be bounded or limited by humane laws". Religion and politics were inextricably linked. Persecuted dissenters were almost all Whigs; fervent Anglicans, though not all Anglicans, became Tories. The use of these terms, "Whig" deriving from a radical Scottish Presbyterian, "Tory" from an Irish Catholic cattle thief, symbolised the linked instabilities of the three kingdoms. Charles's decadent behaviour, expensive too in relation to his mostly Catholic mistresses, did not improve the monarchy's standing. Bad luck - from plague to the Great Fire of London - added to the unease. Were Charles to die - he had no heir - he would be succeeded by his Catholic brother James, Duke of York. Again, religion and politics could not be separated: a Catholic monarch signalled arbitrary government, Louis XIV-style. The spurious allegations by Titus Oates in the summer of 1678 of a Catholic plot to murder Charles and to replace him with James led to a crisis lasting the three parliaments of 1679-81.

In the second part of Harris's book, the ruthless, rather than merry, monarch makes a comeback, by the time of his death in 1685 having become the most powerful of all 17th-century kings in Britain. The methods were various. Subsidies from Louis XIV and buoyant revenues from customs and excise helped make it unnecessary to call Parliament. Whigs and Dissenters were purged from government. The law was applied aggressively to opponents, including what Harris calls "the most sustained and most intense period of religious persecution in English history". His interpretation, however, is built on the idea that strong-arm tactics were not sufficient: the monarchy learnt the propaganda skills of the Whigs and allied with the Tories to influence opinion.

The balance of the argument was not always the same, but its core was to deny that to be "absolute" was to be "arbitrary". The monarch was above the law, but was bound to rule according to it and was accountable to God if he did not. Those who plotted against the Catholic succession and against Charles II, as some apparently did in the alleged Rye House Plot and similar conspiracies in the 1680s, appeared to confirm that the Whigs were taking the country to civil war again.

The strengths of Harris's book are twofold. He shows first how political fortunes, within a context of a fast-expanding printed press, surprisingly high literacy rates and frequent public expressions of opinion, were linked to government or opposition efforts to persuade. Who was persuaded is more difficult to assess. Certainly those at the extremes were not convinced: the Whigs did not disappear, as James II on his succession was to discover, a topic that will open Harris's next study.

A second strength is to show in detail the different histories of England, Scotland and Ireland, and how they were manipulated by different parties in an inherently destabilising fashion that ultimately played to the benefit of the English. Yet the account is often ponderous and repetitive: the use of an analytical structure is rationalised by the assertion that the political history has often been told, but events are imperfectly or confusingly introduced into the analysis, while the absence of a separate bibliography is frustrating.

Contrary to its blurb, moreover, this is almost exclusively a book about the regime rather than its monarch. We are not any the wiser about whether Pepys's picture of "the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while, and not minding the business" in Council, is accurate. Was Charles just the front man for an authoritarian regime? It may be significant that this quick-witted but often indolent and pleasure-seeking monarch lost support before the great crisis of his reign. When he had to act, he could and did, and from the time of the Exclusion crisis he seems to move centre stage.

The personality of the monarch, this time James II, is much more, in fact centrally, present in John Callow's book. It is also one of two volumes, the first - published in 2001 as The Making of King James II - took the story to 1688. It is a shame, perhaps, that A Court in Exile: The Stuarts in France, 1689-1717 by Edward Corp et al, was published while Callow's book was in press, since it might have led him to some spirited observations on whether the recent rehabilitation of Jacobitism as a major political force is convincing. But his account serves to show how James's character, as much as the practical realities of his situation, prevented any new restoration in his lifetime.

James spent the 12 years of his exile at the chteau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 12 miles from Paris. Before the French court's move to Versailles it had been a residence of Louis XIV, whose relative kindness and sensitivity after James's flight had helped to calm him. On the surface, his position was not helpless. William III was aloof and uncharismatic. Jacobite verse from the dying Aphra Behn was readily taken up in fashionable London coffee shops.

James's appetite for kingship remained, but his reference point was the belief that he was king by divine right, so compromise, pragmatism and persuasion were unthinkable. In 1660, a certain tact and functional ambiguity had at least provided a chance; James's first declaration was a vindictive, unyielding, bitter and threatening document. Criticism was treachery, political opposition rebellion.

There was nothing in his ideological makeup that harmonised with Englishness and its national or cultural mythologies. On the contrary, it could be suggested by James's critics that he was just furthering the aggressive ambitions of Louis XIV.

James's inability to cope with reality - "born to be the sport of fortune" as he said - showed itself throughout. He confidently expected the Irish to die for his attempt to rule in Whitehall, not Dublin. Defeat at the Boyne need not have been the end of it, but difficulty induced panic. As it transpired, James's agenda for Ireland was well illustrated by his 1692 instructions for guiding the Prince of Wales on statecraft, for it was to be completely subordinated to English culture and polity. James was typical of many British monarchs in being held in thrall by his English kingdom without really understanding it - and without even want-ing to understand Scotland and Ireland.

Despite subsequent Jacobite mythology, the pyrrhic victory of Highlanders at Killiecrankie in July 1689 led only to a period of insignificant clan disorder. As it was, Louis XIV was insistent that James needed to be present in the main theatre - England - and that became impossible after French sea power in the Channel was broken at La Hogue in 1692. After the treaty of Ryswick in 1697, France was unable to offer any military support.

The tone for the last years was set by James's letter to the Abbe de La Trappe in May 1696: "God did not wish to restore me again. May his will be done always, it is our part to submit without complaint or regret."

He turned down the elective kingship of Poland (what use was a crown unconnected to hereditary right?). He refused overtures from William that would have acknowledged the titular Prince of Wales as heir, provided James himself renounced sovereignty and his son Catholicism. He would stand on the simple dignity of monarchy, above events rather than the shaper of them. Callow is excellent at relating all this to James's evolving ideas of a theocratic model of kingship, influenced by ascetics within the French Church and especially the mendicant orders. He embraced death not out of morbidity but - in keeping with a strong current in Counter-Reformation Catholicism - as a freedom from "this corruptible body".

His death in 1701 almost exhausted the direct Stuart line. He was England's last Catholic monarch and, in retrospect, it was to be significant that only the 58th candidate in line for succession, the Electress Sophia of Hanover, the younger daughter of James's aunt Elizabeth, was a Protestant.

But she (and her son, the future George I) would be part of a different story, a Hanoverian dynasty. This one is well told, thoroughly researched and fluently written. While it would not have seemed so in the 1690s and does not seem so to some Stuart historians today, it is one with an inevitable conclusion.

Jamie Camplin is publishing director, Thames and Hudson. He is researching a history of the monarchy.

Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685

Author - Tim Harris
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 528
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 713 99191 7

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