My Favorite King

I’m watching an early (1969) Masterpiece Theatre production titled, “The First Churchills,” which is a history of the First Duke of Marlborogh and his lady wife. The couple’s letters, diaries, and other preserved papers served as the basis of the series, which begins during the reign of Charles II.

first churchillsA small digression here. Charles II was spirited out of England at the age of 21 (with a price on his head) and given sanctuary by his cousin Louis at the French court (among other places), while his poor papa, Charles I, became the only English monarch to die at the hands of his people. Oliver Cromwell became de facto dictator of England for about nine years, but upon Cromwell’s death, Charles was invited to resume the throne.

Charles II

Charles II

After nine years of Puritanism and piety at swordpoint, a king who would grant amnesty to many who’d opposed him and his father, who enjoyed horse races, theater. tennis, and many of the pastimes Puritans had outlawed, was a welcome change of pace. He had his detractors, of course, Britain still being the grip of much religious intolerance, and Charles advocating for tolerance, but for all that, he is remembered as, “The Merry Monarch.”

John Wilmot, Earl of Richmond, and friend to the king, came up with the following couplet:

We have a pretty witty king, And whose word no man relies on,
He never said a foolish thing, And never did a wise one”[27]

to which Charles supposedly said “that’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers”.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Charles was witty, tolerant, lusty (he acknowledged twelve bastards, nearly all of them inheriting titles or marrying titles), and able to laugh at himself and at court politics. He understood that gallantry, beauty, wit, poetry, recreation, and socializing are necessary if life isn’t to be unendurable. (And if Prince William takes the throne, he’ll be the first British monarch descended from Charles II, though the connection is matrilineal).

I like this guy. I like a reminder that music and theatre are fun, that nobody is getting out of this gig alive, that we need to get along with each other lest we all end up dead and deadly dull. I’m not so keen on a dozen illegitimate children, but Charles acknowledged every one, remained on good terms with his ladies, and his last thoughts were apparently of concern for his mistresses. “Let not poor Nellie starve” he begged his brother, referring to the actress, Nell Gwynn.

William kissing kateI write historical romance in part because I find history delightfully interesting. Charles also coped with the last devastating London plague, the Great Fire, various wars, and–I think this is important, too–was the first monarch to grant licenses to theaters that allowed women’s roles to be played by women, not boys. Imagine basing a novel on any one of those aspects of Charles’s reign….

What historical figure would you like to meet, to have for a friend? Why?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio copy of “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid.”

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26 comments on “My Favorite King

  1. A wonderful movie which featured Charles II was Restoration. Did you ever see that movie? It’s with Robert Downey Jr. as physician to the King.

  2. The Merry Monarch, Charles II was my favorite English King too! The lavish era of “plenty” during the Restoration must have been great fun, especially after the spare times of Cromwell and Roundheads.

    • I don’t know the Restoration nearly as well as I do the Regency, but my sense is EVERYBODY was glad to get the Protectorate behind them–physicians, artists, writers, scientists, and even the common people. When Charles was fleeing for his life, there was a thousand pound reward for his capture, and death awaited anybody found helping him.
      It took him six weeks to get out of the country, he had many near misses, and yet, nobody peached–not one soul, which suggests the Puritans were not universally respected, much less liked.

  3. Princess Charlotte of Wales, because she was a sign of hope to England and I believe that she was happy in love when permitted to marry Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

    • She’s an interesting figure to me, too, Juanita, one of the first “children of divorce,” though her parents never officially divorced. She was universally popular at the time of her death, which is to say, both of her parents had large camps of detractors. How hard that must of been, and how sad that she and her child died.

      Leopold has always fascinated me, mostly for the roll he played as finishing governess to Prince Albert, and matchmaker/adviser to Victoria and Albert.

      And the guy was not bad looking…

  4. First of all as a history teacher I think this is what part of heaven will be like for me–meeting historical figures and finding out the truth.
    My favorite historical person to meet would be Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was a powerful and fascinating woman for her time and I think would be at home now as well. She was a Duchess and Queen Consort to two Kings. She even went on one of the Crusades. Imagine the stories she has to tell! Finally, her tomb effigy has her holding a book–my kind of person.

  5. What a very good question, Grace!
    I love historical romance (and historical movies) partly because I would relly like to know what it was like then.
    And I do not have a favouriote figure I would like to know/have been with, but very often after a novel/movie I would like to have been there to really know the people and their way of life then. Usually, it’s not one of the known/wealthy/famous ones but also the (what we in Germany call) “little people” (the not so privileged ones), as their life was the harder one to bear. And there is no era (time) I favour, I find it all interesting.

    • My interests are eclectic, too, Conny. I started off reading a biography of Prinny, which lead me to Wellington, who lead me to Victoria and Albert, who lead me to… needing more bookshelves. An interest in history leaves me with a sense of abundance, though, because there’s all that lovely material just waiting to be absorbed.

  6. very interesting comments – personally I find Queen
    Victoria a very interesting person – she and her husband did some very exciting things for their country and I do believe there was more to her than meets the eye – they also were very much in love very rare for the arisocracy.

    • YES! Albert and Victoria fascinate me, both because they were in love, despite the marriage being all but arranged, and because they were a modern couple. He was her birth coach through NINE deliveries–right there in the birthing room. She had the much larger income, the greater power, and outlived him by decades. In part because they were so cheerily domestic (to appearances), the British monarchy survived, while all over Europe, monarchies were toppling… Terrific stuff.

      I would like to have known Albert in his late thirties, and Victoria in her fifties.

  7. I don’t know if I could pick one favorite but in the last few years I have loved learning more about Dolley Madison, which is probably a very obscure person to talk about but she really has a fascinating history and really set the stage for future First Ladies. She hosted the first inaugural ball and was a consummate hostess at the white house. She is also well known for saving a portrait of George Washington and other items as well from the white house just before the British soldiers destroyed the house in 1814 during the war of 1812.
    I have also always been fascinated with the story of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra(Granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and their family. Though I wouldn’t put them as my favorite people in history.

    • Sarah, because I’m reading about V&A, I’m catching up on their many progeny,and seeing modern European history in a whole new light. The interconnections of the royal houses to this day fascinates me, and shed light on a way in which the older national (European) identities are both impoverished and wealthier for having monarchies.

  8. I think the historical figure I would most like to meet in person would be Jesus. I’d love to be able to sit and listen to him preach as I think I would learn so much more than what I learn by reading the Bible and attending church.

    • Molly, more to the point, I think you’d probably like him. To have that much appeal, with a message that radical for its day, Jesus had to be the sort of person you’d meet and feel like you’d known Him your whole life after five minutes. Same with Buddha, Mohammed…

  9. I would love to sit down to dinner at Mount Vernon with George Washington. What a magnificent man — our country likely would not exist if not for him.

    • Magnificent, interesting, TALL… he was one of that group of men who came together at a time in history, and the chemistry between them was such that without any one of them–Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and others–the whole experiment could well have toppled.

      One of the first things you do when training to be a lawyer is read some early Supreme Court opinions. Those guys were standing on the shoulders of giants–and taking flight.

  10. I would be into meeting Sir Humphry Davy Bt. experimental scientist and would-be poet. I really would have like to been there when he traveled to Paris collect a medal for scientific achievement from Napoleon, choosing to bring his assistant and valet, handsome commoner Michael Faraday with him, a fact that really angered Davy’s high-brow wife. Okay, I really need to move away from the history books.

  11. Regarding Charles II and Cromwell – I’ve spent a few weeks in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and there is quite a historical Catholic community there. Lots of interesting tidbits about interactions with Cromwell where he did not fair so well. I love Victoria and Albert as well. For Victoria’s Jubilee a statue was placed near the train station in Harrogate and she looks like both a pretty fierce ruler (in the best way) but also as a lady I’d love to take an informal tea with. Thank you for the topic and comments. Might have to revise my reading list for my next trip in August.

    • I go back and forth between V & A. If I could only meet one of them, which would it be? Albert, I think, because his role had no precedent, whereas Victoria could at least look to Queen Elizabeth I, and Matilda. I also think Albert was lonely, a victim of xenophobia, and homesick.

  12. Richard III …. I simply want to *know*. (And don’t we all.) And if I found out what I suspect, I would enjoy the visit with a good, perhaps a bit too serious, but very decent man.

    • Elizabeth, I don’t understand why there isn’t more speculative fiction about this guy and his supposed nefarious deeds. I think there’s a Richard III Society dedicated to giving him fair treatment, based on what we do and don’t know…