Today I’m sharing an article about King Charles II which first appeared in Historical Times, and includes some of the research I conducted while I was working on Written in Their Stars.
25 June, 1646.
A storm was raging on the Island of Jersey, a veritable tempest of crashing thunder, lightning and a “pell-mell” wind. But despite the forbidding weather, a ship set sail for France, braving the elements and carrying a precious cargo. A tall dark-complexioned young man was on board; in his pocket was a letter from his father that he could quote by heart. “Charles,” the king had written shortly after the devastating royalist defeat at the Battle of Naseby, “If I should at any time be taken prisoner by the rebels, I command you (upon my blessing) never to yield to any conditions that are dishonourable, unsafe for your person…upon any considerations whatever thought it were for the saving of my life.”
Charles, Prince of Wales, was leaving England during a horrific civil war, parting from his father King Charles I and most of his own advisors to join his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, in her native France. England had been at war with herself for three years, the monarchy under threat by rebellious parliamentarian forces. A front-line spectator at the first battle fought at Edgehill, by the time he was fourteen Prince Charles had been made nominal commander of royalist operations in the West Country. However, it wasn’t long before Cromwell’s New Model Army advanced against the king’s men. Young Charles and his troops were gradually forced further and further west, and the situation became increasingly helpless. Finally admitting that there was no chance of survival if they remained, the Prince of Wales and his advisors left Cornwall for the Isles of Scilly, narrowly escaping the parliamentarian fleet that surrounded the islands. Seeking a stronger royalist refuge, they sailed on to Jersey, where they thought they could last out Cromwell’s advance, replenish themselves, and return to England to fight again and reclaim their lost ground.
The respite was not for long. Charles became the victim of a diplomatic battle, rather than a military one, when increasingly conflicting advice from his father commanded him in a thousand different directions, ranging from Denmark to France (as long as he didn’t adopt his mother’s religion), or to wherever he wished. With his own advisors offering their own contradictory opinions, Charles was pulled in so many different directions he must have been exhausted.
With the news that his father was effectively a prisoner of the Scottish, Prince Charles had to reluctantly follow his mother’s demands that he join her at the Royalist court in French exile at St-Germain-en-Laye, some 20 kilometres outside Paris. As the aunt of Louis XIV, The Sun King, Henrietta Maria had some influence at court, although she was completely reliant on her family’s good will and fortune. She was desperately short of money and resources; all her funding was channelled back to England to support her husband’s war efforts.
It was not an easy decision to leave Jersey, although according to Edward Hyde, “The actions of the last year were attended with so many dismal accidents and events that there were no seeds of hope left to spring up in this ensuing ill year.” Fortified by the private letter from his father, who instructed Charles to keep the contents hidden until he had cause to show it to reinforce that he was not to surrender to save his father’s life, Charles insisted that it was now time to regroup in France and not risk being defeated in Jersey.
Charles’s advisors argued back and forth as to whether or not he should leave Jersey (they were opposed to his being under the Queen’s catholic influence), and eventually, France and Queen Henrietta Maria prevailed. The young Prince of Wales did not know if he would ever see England again. And he was not to know that within three years his father would be executed, his family would be living in penury, England would be a republic under the protectorship of Oliver Cromwell, and he faced the strong probability of never returning to England again.
At sixteen Prince Charles was almost full grown and although he’d been born to a French mother, a princess of France’s royal family, he did not appear to have been exposed much to French customs and culture. His early years were spent at Richmond Palace (dubbed “the children’s palace”) under the supervision of the Villiers family; the prince was then given his own governor at the age of eight, as a result of which the focus of his education was all about riding, the art of warfare, courtly ceremony and cultivating fine manners. Although his mother was a fille de France, Charles was not familiar with the aristocratic French ways. However, because it was apparent he was not book smart, the time spent teaching him the physical graces of a young prince served him well when he did arrive at the French court.
Upon setting foot on French soil, the impressionable young prince embarked on a path that impacted him for the rest of his life, and significantly changed the face of the English court and society in the late seventeenth century. He spent two long sojourns in France during his fourteen-year exile from England, and in his later years, once restored to the throne, it is clear to see the influence those heady days at the French court had on the young prince.
After landing in France and making his way toward St Germain, Charles reunited with his mother at her exiled English court. And, not long after he arrived, on a hot day in August, Charles and Henrietta Maria took a carriage ride to Fontainebleau, where an “accidental” meeting with the king of France introduced Prince Charles to his French relatives. Bumping into each other on one of the hundreds of paths that crisscrossed the expansive forest surrounding the palace, Queen Henrietta Maria and her son were surprised and delighted to discover the inhabitants of the party they encountered were none other than the King of France and his close relations. This carefully arranged coincidence was to save embarrassment about Charles’s fugitive position – by some he could be viewed as a renegade, and so a full formal reception would not have gone down well.
According to Henrietta Maria’s niece, La Grande Mademoiselle, Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier, who kept a detailed diary, Charles was “only sixteen or seventeen, but very tall for his age. His head was noble, his hair black, his complexion brown, his person passable agreeable. He neither spoke nor understood French, a most inconvenient thing.” (This last statement was debatable – there are other records that state Charles understood French very well). Charles had now entered French society, united with his delightful French family, and was accepted at court. He spent the next few days being entertained at Fontainebleau, where his lack of French was more than compensated for by his charm and sweet nature, his superb dancing ability and his dexterity in riding. He had, therefore, all the princely traits, and his mother, Henrietta Maria immediately went about planning his marriage to La Grande Mademoiselle.
Charles, the reluctant bridegroom was feted by his mother as an ideal match, but it was an uphill battle. Even when Charles’s dashing cousin, Prince Rupert, joined them and acted as their interpreter, Mademoiselle was really not interested in the youthful Charles, who, in her opinion, didn’t have much of a future. Nor was he much of a conversationalist, or knew much about current events or even the history of his own country. Returning together to Paris, Charles continued to be pushed toward Mademoiselle by his matchmaking mother, which resulted in a lifelong friction between them.
However, what did result from that impressionable young man’s sojourn in Paris was a great appreciation and admiration for the aristocratic French way of life, and the importance of maintaining an impressive front against a backdrop of insecurities. This learned behaviour helped him on more than one occasion in the future, when all seemed lost around him. After his formative teen years spent with his father and brother in almost exclusively male company as they led the Royalist forces in defending the monarchy from Cromwell’s roundheads, the extravagances of the French court must have been overwhelming.
Charles’s first stay in France lasted for almost two years, until money issues and the demands of war caused him to remove to the Hague, readying himself and his exiled followers to return to England. His father had been executed, and Cromwell was in full control of the governance of the country. Put in charge of a fleet of warships, in September of the same year, Charles sailed for Scotland, was crowned King of Scotland and rallied a Scottish army to march into England, where a disappointingly small group of Royalists joined them at the Battle of Worcester. What was seen primarily as a Scottish invasion by the English ended in a devastating defeat for Charles’s forces, and aided by his best friend, Henry Wilmot, Charles managed to escape. After six weeks on the run, a defeated and destitute homeless king landed in Normandy and made his way back to Saint Germain-en-Laye. Upon his return to France, Charles was asked by his uncle, the Duke of Orleans if he would ever return to Scotland. The king replied “I would rather be hanged first.” He made a point of never setting foot there again.
Filthy, emaciated and taken for a vagrant after six weeks on the run, Charles was now facing permanent exile, for the Royalists in England had been decimated, and those who survived joined the king in France, all equally penurious and disheartened. Charles was described as being “sad and sombre” and was no longer the charming courtier who dazzled the French court on his first stay.
France was a very different place now, too. Engaged in a civil war itself, between the “Fronde” (in which Charles’s future mistress the charismatic Duchesse de Mazarin played a leading role) and the nobility, the French royal family was living on a knife edge. Henrietta Maria, now camped out in apartments at the Palace of the Louvre, was in a grim mood and although no doubt delighted to see her son alive, did not welcome the additional expenses of Charles and his followers. Destitute herself, she relied upon the charity of the Cardinal de Retz and other contributors. She had little or nothing to spare for her son, and in fact kept a close accounting of every franc she spent on him, starting with “the very first night’s supper which the King ate with the Queen.” This put Charles in an impossible position; when he was able to raise any funds, he found he owed much of the money to his mother.
By the spring of 1652, Charles, the exiled court, and his mother were in the lowest possible place, suffering in their deprivation at the dilapidated Louvre apartments, cut off from any funding and surrounded by a hostile Parisian population. Further dissension between the court-in-exile caused even more stress; now fragmenting into three different factions, the “Louvre”, the “Old Royalist” and the “Swordsmen”. And, since they didn’t have a common enemy, they all started fighting against each other. It must have been chaotic.
Although he was encouraged to help in peace negotiations with the French king, Charles had little or no status in France, and he failed in his endeavours. Ordered from the city, Charles returned back to Saint-Germain, and in the ensuing years was forced to rely on a trickle of Loyalist contributions from England, and whatever funds his mother eked out from her own purse. By the summer of 1653 Charles had fallen ill, and suffering no doubt from severe depression and malnutrition, it was no doubt one of the darkest periods of his life.
As always with Charles, just when life seemed at its bleakest, as sudden change in fortune appeared. This time, being an unwelcome and political hot potato served him well, for he received an offer from Cardinal Mazarin the full payment of his French pension – on condition that he left the country within ten days.
From feted prince to a banished pauper, Charles left France on horseback in a dismal little group, his clothes and bedding conveyed by a cart, putting behind him life at the French Court and the gloomy and constrictive presence of his mother, Henrietta Maria. “The king is now as low as to human understanding as he can be,” wrote Hyde of Charles’s departure. It was hardly the procession of a reigning monarch. And yet, upon his arrival in Spa, and later Aachen, Charles felt a brief lifting of spirit, and when he was joined by his sister, Mary, Princess of Orange, brother and sister moved on to Cologne, where they took up temporary residence together. Charles never did return to France during the rest of his exile, moving on to Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and finally settling at The Hague after Cromwell’s death and the ensuing negotiations for him to return home to England.
Upon his restoration to the throne, Charles quickly set about establishing a court full of drinkin
g and feasting, dancing and great entertainments, and his reign set the standard for the excesses of the nobility that coloured the late seventeenth century. No doubt inspired by the French court of his first stay in France, Charles welcomed “foreign” influence, much to the dismay of some of his English courtiers. French food and wine, entertainment and fashion all became de rigueur. Even emulating his cousin Louis XIV’s formal promotion of his mistresses, Charles ensured his own paramours wielded power and patronage, and that as much attention was paid to them as any other society lady.
Charles particularly enjoyed the company of his French mistresses, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, and Hortense Mancini, Duchesse de Mazarin. In February 1685, just before Charles’s death and with Madame Mancini presiding, John Evelyn the diarist attended court and wrote: “I am never to forget the unexpressable luxury, and prophanesse, gaming, and all dissolution, and as it were total forgetfullnesse of God (it being Sunday Evening) which this day sennight, I was witnesse of; the King, sitting and toying with his Concubines Portsmouth, Cleaveland, and Mazarine etc: A French boy singing love songs, in that glorious Gallery, whilst about 20 of the greate Courtiers and other dissolute persons were at Basset round a large table, a bank of at least 2000 in Gold before them… it being a sceane of uttmost vanity.”
Evelyn’s calling out of the French ways added to the typical English negative reaction to “foreignness” and did nothing to sooth Charles’s troubled courtiers that this excessive behaviour was not impacting the aging king, making him a “slave to lust.”. Even more concerning was the significance that Charles II’s French mistresses were Catholic, increasing the threat of the influence Whore of Babylon – i.e. the Roman Catholic Church – on the Protestant throne.
Within the month, Charles II had died, leaving the throne to his brother James. Charles’s French mistresses quickly fell out of favour and returned to France. Charles lay in state in the Painted Chamber in Whitehall, the wandering, restless Stuart in peace at last, before his internment in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps the last comments on his French Connection may come again from La Grande Mademoiselle, who so actively declined his mother’s attempts to marry her to him. “ I resolved on declining his proposals;” she wrote, “ for I formed a bad opinion of him as King, from his having, at the age which he had reached, so little knowledge of his own affairs. In him I recognised the blood of the Bourbons, a race, myself perhaps included in it, to much engrossed in the pursuit of bagatelles.”
London, 1649. Horrified eyewitnesses to King Charles’s bloody execution, Royalists Nan Wilmot and Frances Apsley plot to return the king’s exiled son to England’s throne, while their radical cousin Luce, the wife of king-killer John Hutchinson, rejoices in the new republic’s triumph. Nan exploits her high-ranking position as Countess of Rochester to manipulate England’s great divide, flouting Cromwell and establishing a Royalist spy network; while Frances and her husband Allen join the destitute prince in Paris’s Louvre Palace to support his restoration.
As the women work from the shadows to topple Cromwell’s regime, their husbands fight openly for the throne on England’s bloody battlefields. But will the return of the king be a victory, or destroy them all? Separated by loyalty and bound by love, Luce, Nan and Frances hold the fate of England—and their family—in their hands. Written in Their Stars is the third novel inThe Lydiard Chronicles.