Review: King Charles II by Antonia Fraser

I have long had a fascination with Charles II, since the days where I was forced to study the Restoration at school. Whilst I got exceptionally bored in these lessons studying the politics that brought about the restoration, I often wondered what Charles was thinking and feeling. After having read Frasers “6 Wives of Henry VIII” and being very disappointed with it, I discovered this on Amazon for a matter of pennies and decided to give Fraser another chance to impress me. Unfortunately she did not, although it took me until about half way through this book to realise.

The book itself starts out wonderfully. Fraser tells us of the birth of Charles II and how he was brought up during a time of Civil War in England. We are told the bare bones of how Charles I then fought against Parliament and lost, ultimately losing his head because of it. This is an era of history that has always interested me greatly, thanks to my taking part in English Civil War re-enactments however the history of the time can come across as very dry and full of politics which is a shame. And I found the same thing happening here. Whilst the first chapters interested me greatly, I soon found this book to get dry and bogged down in the politics of the time. Whilst parts of it are interesting I found myself growing bored, bogged down in talk of foreign policy and parliamentary bills over religion.

Charles himself however is a very interesting man. I found the stories of his escape very interesting, especially how he hid up a tree after the Battle of Worcester only then to disguise himself and escape across the sea to France. The early chapters really showed me the human side of Charles II, especially the following quote, and how he found out about the death of his father:

“Once his advisers had to accept the worst had happened, there was a terrible debate amongst them as to how they should tell him (Charles). The method chosen provided a bitter contrast to that famous romantic night scene at Kensington Palace by which the young Victoria, two hundred years later, would learn, from the royal address of her courtiers that she had become Queen.

Charles’ chaplain, Stephen Goffe, used the same expedient. He entered the room and, after a slight hesitation, began; “Your Majesty…”

To the agonized son, he needed to say no more. After the weeks of uncertainty, Charles burst into bitter weeping. To Goffe he could not speak. Eventually he made a sign for him to leave. For several hours, Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, otherwise Charles Stuart, son of that man of blood Charles Stuart the elder, remained quite alone.”

Very moving stuff. And indeed we see a lot of moments like this during the early part of Charles exile and reign. Fraser does a wonderful job of showing her readers how Charles was a man determined to do things his way, she tells us how he got involved in helping out during the Great Fire of London, how he helped hand out water to stop the fire, how he got involved in shovelling dirt and sand onto the fires, how he rode around handing out payment to those who were working hard to stop the spread of the fire. This to me is a heroic man, a man helping out his people without fear for his own life. And I particularly enjoyed the stories of Charles and his mistresses, Nell Gwynn being my particular favourite and a mistress who stayed with him to the end of his life, bearing him children also. Nell was an actress something very rare in England at the time; she was not particularly good looking by the standards of the time but Charles certainly held her in high regard. I always imagine Nell as a fun loving young girl, unable to read or write but a girl who still made her way into the theatre business. I also loved how Charles loved to party, his love of the theatre, his love of sport. He certainly came across as the merry monarch.

But alas, as soon as politics started to come into play I found the book to get very dry, very quickly. Yes there were moments within the dryness that were very interesting, like how the Dutch war allowed for Charles’ love of the sea to help him sort of tactics and how he wouldn’t allow his brother to go and fight, but most of it was just very very boring. And whilst these issues are very important to understand the time period, it is such a shame that the majority of writers just cannot make them any more interesting. I will certainly give Fraser her dues in that she tried her best to make the dry topics interesting but I have yet to find a historian who can make these parts more readable.

The sad thing about Charles II’s reign is that in the end, all of his hard work came to nothing. He died without an heir of his own body and so his brother became King – his brother the Catholic James II and a man who was deposed by parliament. There has been so much in fighting during Charles’ reign over the fact that James was his heir because they knew that he would be unsuitable. Indeed since James II there has never been a Catholic monarch in Britain, and Parliament seized almost absolute power. I find this fact incredibly sad – had the English Civil War not come to pass, I think things would have gone entirely differently and indeed, had Charles managed to have a son with his wife Catherine of Braganza then things certainly would have gone differently. James would not have succeeded to the throne, and Monmouth (Charles’ bastard son by Lucy Walters) would not have rebelled against King James and lost his head. There are so many what ifs during this period of history, and it makes one’s head hurt to think of them all.

Overall I think this a brilliant attempt to write a readable biography of Charles II and it has certainly given me a taste for more. Although I doubt I will ever find a book that makes the politics of the area more interesting, I am definitely going to start looking more into this period as it is an interesting time period. Fraser has done a great job in trying to make this work, however her writing style just doesn’t really allow for a thoroughly engaging read. I shall certainly go back to this book however, as it is a good introduction to the reign of Charles II.

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