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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 6 December 2019

"King Charles II" by Antonia Fraser

They say that biographers fall in love with their subjects. Antonia Fraser seems to be one of many ladies to have fallen for the charms of King Charles II.

I can understand how the similarities have promoted the affection:
  • Antonia Fraser is pro-royalty; she herself believes she is entitled to be called 'Lady' Antonia Fraser because she is the daughter of a hereditary earl. 
  • Antonia Fraser is a Roman Catholic and Charles allegedly became a Catholic on his deathbed
But the biographer's bias shows. She appears to believe that Charles was an astute political operator whose reign brought blessings on his realm. I think Charles was lucky to become King after eighteen years of civil war and republicanism, when the republican government was in chaos after the death of Cromwell so that consequently people were frightened of a return to civil war. He had a long honeymoon period as a result of this but as his reign went on things started going wrong. For example, five years after he was restored there was the Great Plague, the year after brought both the Great Fire of London and the disastrous Anglo-Dutch naval war. And then the mask of the Merry Monarch started to slip:
  • He called Parliament regularly in order to squeeze taxes from them to fund his extravagant court and his wars; when they sought legislation he regularly prorogued parliament to prevent this happening.
  • Printers and publishers were pilloried and penalized for producing dissenting opinions. (C 25)
  • He tried to ensure that the judiciary were Tory and insisted that they held their posts not, as before, until they did something to forfeit them, but at the royal pleasure. “By the end of 1683 eleven judges had been removed - at the King's wish.” (C 25)
  • Members of Parliament who disagreed with him were, sometimes, locked up in the Tower. There was a debate about whether the King’s prorogation of Parliament had exceeded the limits so that Parliament was automatically dissolved (which would require a General Election before a new Parliament could be called. “The King was furious.” The leaders of the opposition were imprisoned in the Tower. (C 21) 
  • He tried to gerrymander Parliament. At the time MPs were selected by chartered cities and boroughs. He found pretexts to withdraw a number of charters of places that returned MPs he didn't like and amended the charters so that the appointment of corporation officials was subject to a veto from the King; since these were the people who selected the MPs he was effectively trying to 'stack' parliament. “The excuse for giving for calling in the charter of York had at least a nice period touch to it. The Lord Mayor was said to have refused a mountebank permission to erect a stage, although the fellow had been recommended by the King himself.” (C 25) “The varied popular reaction was less important than the fact that the warrants on the new charters all contained the vital clause which gave the King a veto over the election of the officers. Suitable Tory figures locally would see to it that equally suitable Tory figures were returned to Westminster.” (C 25)
  • He ruled for long periods without Parliament. Since he was therefore unable to raise extra taxes he made a secret treaty with the King of France (Louis XIV) who paid him secret subsidies. He therefore became an English King in the pay of a French one (and this secretly so that the public, Parliament and indeed most of his ministers, never found out). One would have thought this would have been an impeachable offence in any other person but Antonia Fraser never censures Charles. 
AF chronicles all these things but seems content with them. It seems that an autocratic ruler is OK with her provided that he is charming (and, of course, with the true royal blood running in his veins).

For example, in 1673, Charles indulges in that typical gesture of autocrats, a display of military might. 
When he drew up the army at Blackheath in the autumn of 1673, it was a gesture widely interpreted as menacing towards the capital. But no evidence has ever been found that Charles II intended to parody in such a way the actions (and mistakes) of his predecessor Cromwell.” (C 20) Although AF acknowledges that it was "widely interpreted as menacing" she acquits Charles of any such intent and at the same time manages to smear Cromwell who, if he was an autocrat, had at least achieved his position through merit rather than by virtue of his parents.

As with so many histories and biographies I was enchanted by some of the details:
  • Charles was so dark he was nicknamed The Black Boy, a name still commemorated in English pub signs. (C 1)
  • At the Battle of Edgehill the young princes Charles and James “were left in the charge of Dr William Harvey, the famous physician” (C 2)
  • When Charles was in exile in France, it was the time of the Fronde “from the stone bearing sling” rebellion (C 4)
  • In France the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War was swiftly followed by the Fronde rebellion: “The granary of this particular peace contained within it the seeds of popular dissidence” (C 5)
  • Attempting to escape England, Charles missed one boat because the captain was locked in his bedroom by his wife who suspected he was having an affair. (C 8)
  • The word yacht comes from the Dutch jaght schip (hunt ship). (C 11) 
  • When Charles's new bride, Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, arrived in England “one of her first actions was to ask for a cup of tea ... tea drinking had been known in England before this date but it was extremely rare.” (C 13)
  • The ‘CABAL’ of Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale gained power after the downfall of Hyde. (C 16)
  • In November 1670 the Dublin Gazette actually ceased to appear on the wonderful - for Ireland - grounds that ‘there was no news’.” (C 19)
  • When the king had a fever he was cured by “by ‘the Jesuit’s powder’, actually an early form of quinine imported from the South American bark cinchona.” (C 23)
Other memorable moments:
  • Less admirable attributes may take root in the wintry soil of adversity. These include the ability to mislead or trick” (C 6)
  • Having lit a candle to the devil, King Charles II could not expect other lights to shine as well.” (C 6)
  • The Scots were probably not a people it was immediately possible to love, if you had been nurtured in the courts of England and France.” (C 6)
  • The Duke of Buckingham “sulked in the most childish and public manner ... refusing to change his linen in protest.” (C 7)
  • Frances Stewart could claim to have possessed the heart, as opposed to that more frequently bestowed gift, the body of King Charles II.” (C 15)
  • The General Election of 1679 was “marked by such heavy drinking on all sides that ‘Sober Societies’ were later formed in towns - an interesting example of locking the stable door after the horse has fully refreshed itself.” (C 22)
  • The Duke of Monmouth: “He could not ... conceive of a course of action or an opinion without wishing to give it immediate expression. ... he was one of nature's roosters and could not emulate a mole to save his life.” (C 22)
  • As Buckingham rightly observed, a King is supposed to be the Father of his People, and Charles II was certainly the father of a good many of them.” (C 24)
  • In 1682 the Duke of York was “shipwrecked off Yarmouth with much loss of life, although as James himself rather callously remarked, no one ‘of quality’ was drowned. ... It was his entourage who beat off the desperate ‘lesser’ passengers with their swords.” (C 25)

An interesting biography of a monarch but rather spoiled by the biographer's obvious bias. Charles II was a charming man who, probably because the English were still scarred from the Civil War, managed to preserve his throne despite his absolutist policies. His brother lasted only three years following the same direction before being overthrown and replaced with the first monarch who ruled with Parliament, rather than despite them. 

December 2019, 469 pages

Also written by Antonia Fraser:

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