The Last Years of Charles II: (i) 1678-81

AFTER Prince William of Orange and Princess Mary of England had married in 1677, the English Government tried to help bring to an end the long war between the United Netherlands and France into which Spain and much of Germany as well as Sweden had been drawn. At that time King Charles II, supported emphatically by his brother James, was anxious to prove to the English Parliament and to his more influential subjects that he was no longer subservient to France or wished automatically to range himself on the side of the most powerful of Roman Catholic kings.

For feelings against ‘popery’ had been running high in England for the past hundred years. The memories of ‘Bloody Mary’ and her execution of Protestants were handed down from generation to generation. It was remembered too that the Pope had published a Bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I and that Jesuits had encouraged attempts to murder her. So had her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who, when she was in honourable captivity in England, plotted to rally English Roman Catholics to her cause. Every year Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day, November 17, was celebrated by the burning of dummy popes. Then it was recalled also how Queen Elizabeth’s successor, James I, who had been willing enough to show tolerance to English Catholics, had, together with his leading subjects, been menaced by the Guy Fawkes plot, concerted by Roman Catholics, to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Charles I’s Queen, the mother of Charles II and James II, was known to have been a zealous Roman Catholic propagandist; Archbishop Laud, Charles I’s choice for Canterbury, was widely believed to have been a disguised papist; and a so-called massacre of English in Ireland by wild Irish papists had contributed to the revolt of Parliament against the monarchy in 1642.

In spite of the progress being made towards modern science, notably by the foundation of the Royal Society at the beginning of Charles II’s reign, this was still a credulous age. As much importance was attached to astrology and alchemy as to astronomy and chemistry. Even educated Englishmen were genuinely and persistently afraid of the black and evil intentions of the papists, the dedicated servants of Anti-Christ. The Great Fire of London, which took place in 1666, was popularly attributed to them. In so far as witchcraft lingered on in rural areas it was associated in people’s minds with popery.

It was also thought that insidious Roman Catholic influences prevailed at the Court of Whitehall and were responsible for the unsuccessful wars against the Protestant Dutch. There was an element of truth in that. According to the sole evidence of James II’s memoirs (not a sound or reliable historical source) Charles II had declared himself privately to be a Roman Catholic as early as 1668. It may be doubted if he was ever a practising Catholic, but he certainly sympathized with the Catholic approach to religion and morality; and unquestionably James was a sincere convert. A Catholic camarilla had signed and approved the secret treaty of Dover which envisaged Charles II leading his people back into the Roman Catholic Church if a suitable opportunity presented itself. That was a diplomatic mirage; the King was far too realistic to push through such a policy. Unfortunately he had committed himself to it in black-and-white. And such projects have a habit of becoming known; there are no sustained secrets in political life. The King did not want to provoke his Parliament by being permanently labelled pro-French; and James believed that his only chance of retaining his position at the centre of affairs (having given up all his offices in consequence of the Test Act of 1673) was by directing a movement against France.

Thus immediately after Prince William’s marriage Charles II sent an envoy to the French Court to try to persuade King Louis XIV to end the war on terms favourable to the Dutch. After the attempt failed plans were discussed both for an offensive treaty with the Dutch and for a long-term defensive alliance. Parliament was recalled in January 1678 and invited to vote money so that an army and navy might be made ready to give teeth to an Anglo-Dutch alliance. James talked about forcing the French King to see reason: Charles II’s leading minister, the Earl of Danby, had told William of Orange at the end of November 1677 that James had said ‘very briskly’ that if the French did not agree to the English proposals the King of France should be told that he would not hinder England from coming into the war against him. In February 1678, English troops were actually landed at Ostend and in the same month the House of Commons voted the King a million pounds, carefully appropriating it to the cost of a war with France.

These were brave words and deeds. But in fact they got nowhere, for three reasons. In the first place, the French King had no intention of allowing himself to be intimidated by England. He launched an early campaign in Flanders and captured Ghent and Ypres, compelling the Dutch States-General, which was tiring of the war, to think seriously of peace. Secondly, the House of Commons had suspicions of the royal government that went deep. Members muttered about ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’. They were slow and difficult over giving effect to their money votes; they were dubious about the use the King might make of an army. Lastly Charles II himself did not have his heart in the plan. He had always admired the ‘Sun King’ and shown himself willing to be bribed to join his side with relatively small sums of money that were judiciously applied by the French ambassadors in London. So the proposed Anglo-Dutch treaties were never ratified. By May a secret agreement had been reached with France. At the same time the French ambassador distributed bribes among members of parliament, thus paralysing effective intervention.

So the hopes of William of Orange, nurtured by his English marriage and by the martial ambitions of his father-in-law, were blasted. Much to his indignation the States-General insisted on concluding peace with France. ‘He withdrew to his estate at Dieren to find distraction in solitary hunting’ (Geyl). A treaty was signed at Nymegen on July 31, 1678, which was of some value both to the Dutch and the French. The French granted important economic con-cessions, but acquired fortresses in the Spanish Netherlands. The Dutch burghers were thus able to return to their comforts and their commerce, while King Louis XIV, having successfully overcome the resistance of much of the rest of Europe, and having strengthened his north-east frontier, was in a position, after a short interval of deceptive quiet, to embark on fresh acts of aggression, this time against Germany. William of Orange watched all these developments with attention. He had made friends in England who kept him informed. He understood the temper of Parliament; he was also aware that the thirst for conquest in King Louis XIV was unquenched.

But England was little disturbed by any approaching storm over Europe. Indeed the last seven years of Charles II’s reign were rent by internal dissensions which brought fears of a renewed civil war and almost rehearsed the Glorious Revolution. The landmarks were two plots, the Popish Plot of 1678, epitomizing the fears of a Roman Catholic king of England, and the Rye House Plot of 1683,  suggesting that if James’s enemies could not secure their ends constitutionally they would do so by revolutionary means. Neither of these plots was completely genuine; both were largely the inventions or embroideries of lying informers. The clouds of smoke that enveloped the kingdom started from quite small fires. Yet the fires were real.

The original version of the Popish Plot as presented by the informers was that a group of Roman Catholics had been planning to murder the King in order to put his brother on the throne and hand over the kingdom to the papacy. It was first revealed to Danby in August. The King himself never believed in it, but as it gathered momentum, it endangered his brother’s chances of succeeding peacefully to the throne. In a sense the plot stemmed from the pro-French and pro-Catholic atmosphere of the Court, and yet for a time Danby, a bold Yorkshire politician who owed his position to his financial gifts, hoped that it would actually strengthen him by weaning the King from his French affections and by rallying Parliament and people around the Church and Crown. Two events gave weight to the stories invented by the chief informer, Titus Oates: one was that incriminating letters were discovered written by a Roman Catholic who had been at one time secretary to James; the other was that the London magistrate before whom Oates swore depositions was found apparently murdered—of course by Catholics—on Primrose Hill in London. The King retreated before the consequent outcry and general excitement; the alleged plotters were arrested and put to death; Parliament was hastily recalled. One of its first decisions was to pass a second Test Act excluding Roman Catholics from both Houses of Parliament (though James himself was excepted from the Act by a majority of two votes). Articles of impeachment were prepared against Danby because of his secret dealings with France, dealings undertaken at the King’s own orders, that were revealed by a disgruntled ambassador. Under these pressures Charles II realized that he might be obliged to accept limitations on the rights of the Crown if James were to succeed him without a civil war.

In an attempt to save Danby from impeachment the King dissolved Parliament, which had sat for eighteen years and had long ceased to be eagerly royalist, as it had been in its salad days, though it was still rigidly Anglican. Charles had one of his sudden fits of political energy. To spike the guns of those who wanted to replace James by the Duke of Monmouth, his eldest illegitimate son, known as ‘the Protestant Duke’, Charles II swore in public that he had not married Monmouth’s mother; he ordered James to leave the country; he accepted the resignation of Danby, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London; and he established a new Privy Council whose members included such opposition critics as the Earl of Shaftesbury. The King again made known his willingness to agree to limitations on the Crown’s prerogative if James were to become his successor. But the new House of Commons, which met in March 1679, insisted on introducing a Bill to exclude James completely from the throne, which passed its second reading by 207 votes to 128. To prevent it becoming law the King was compelled to prorogue and later to dissolve Parliament.

Before another Parliament met, the virulence of the anti-popery movement began to subside. The Queen’s doctor was actually acquitted of planning the King’s murder. Inquiries were made of the King of France whether he were willing to help preserve the integrity of the Stuart monarchy. James, in his enforced exile abroad, tried to steel his brother to stand up for the divine right of kings. Monarchy, he asserted, need not depend on the institution of Parliament: ‘I hope his Majesty will be of this mind,’ he wrote in July 1679,’and never let this House of Commons sit again.’ Meanwhile William of Orange was perturbed about the unsettled state of England, about the threats to the future of the monarchy, about the danger that his wife’s chances of succeeding to the throne might be impaired. He offered to provide the King with the English regiments which were in Dutch service. But he suspected and feared Charles II’i negotiations with France and was opposed to any decision that would permanently dispense with Parliaments, as James wanted, since the last two Parliaments had proved themselves to be hostile to France. But William’s own position at home was shaky and remained so for several years; for the States-General had come to regard him as a warmonger eager to renew the struggle with France. When Charles II actually suggested a kind of quadruple or even sextuple alliance should be formed in collaboration with the Dutch as a counter-weight to French ambitions, William was obliged to inform him that the States-General would not in its present mood contemplate such a proposal. William in fact was delicately placed in relation to England. On the one hand, Dutch suspicions of England after two wars fought against them by Charles II were still profound; on the other hand, the only way in which William himself could hope to keep the French in check was by means of an Anglo-Dutch alliance, the idea that had been toyed with, but not fulfilled, in the previous year.

Meanwhile James had ceased to be pro-Dutch and become pro-French because he thought that his own chances of succeeding to the throne with his rights unaltered now depended largely on French support. In the late summer of 1679 Charles II was taken seriously ill and James without permission hastened home; the King recovered, and James propped him up. Charles agreed to exile the Duke of Monmouth and to dismiss the Earl of Shaftesbury, Monmouth’s patron and the principal architect of the Exclusion Bill. A new Parliament, which had been elected that year and was due to meet in October, was at once prorogued until the following summer. Three ‘middle-of-the-road’ politicians, the second Earl of Sunderland, Laurence Hyde, later Earl of Rochester, and Sidney Godolphin took over as the King’s chief ministers. James himself was allowed to retire to Scotland with a promise that he might soon come back to England.

But the long intermission in Parliaments—none met for eighteen months—a revival of anti-popery demonstrations, the publication of numerous pamphlets, the widespread petitioning of the Crown to recall Parliament all combined to create a state of fear and uncertainty. Some of the more moderate advocates of exclusion urged William to come over to England to sustain and support his wife’s claims as the next heir presumptive to the throne, should James be banned from the succession. But the Prince felt that ‘would do him hurt and the King no good and that he and the Dutch shall enter into disputes that may make them worse than they are now’. James’s influence was reduced during his stay in Scotland and even after his return to England in February 1680. Indeed he actually seems to have hoped for a civil war which he thought this time the royalists would win and the Whigs, as the exciusionists were coming to be called, be crushed for ever. As for the French, on whom so many royal hopes were pinned, they were happy enough to see England neutralized by dissensions and threats of civil war. They knew that the English King was evasive and unstable, that his word was rarely his bond. In order to confuse matters further, they held out to the States-General the possibility of a Franco-Dutch affiance. That did alarm Charles II, who saw himself faced with isolation in Europe as well as with discord at home. He and his ministers put the boldest face they could on the matter. If the French should attack the Dutch, he assured Prince William, he would immediately declare war and at the same time call his Parliament. (That was a safe bet since the French King was not intending to attack the Dutch.) Schemes for defensive alliances were taken off the shelf and dusted. All that came of these manoeuvres was an Anglo-Spanish treaty which was signed in June. But Spain was a declining power; no one imagined her affiance was worth very much. These anti-French gestures, lighting up the Stuart monarchy with a glow of independence and a tinge of Protestantism, however, made the King feel that he would be able to dish the exciusionists. Schemes for legitimizing the Protestant Duke of Monmouth or getting the King to divorce his barren Portuguese Queen and produce a suitable Protestant offspring (as he was known from his adventures with his mistresses to be capable of doing) were firmly rejected. It looked as if Shaftesbury and the extreme ‘Whigs must beat a retreat.

But the exciusionists had not yet shot their bolt. In June Shaftesbury had the audacity to appear before the Middlesex Grand Jury to indict James as a popish recusant and Charles H’s mistress, the Frenchwoman Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, as a common prostitute. A quiet word was spoken to the Lord Chief Justice and the case was suppressed. But tempers were still boiling. In July James had informed his son-in-law that ‘factious people grow very insolent’. Whig sheriffs, who controlled the choice of juries, were elected to the City of London. The differences between James and William of Orange were beginning to come into the open. On September 3 James, writing to tell his son-in-law that he thought there were some who intended to impeach him when at last Parliament met and adding that he would prepare for the worst, none the less insisted that he did not think, as William thought, that it would have a ‘bad effect’ if the King decided to dissolve the second exclusionist Parliament. A month later in another letter James wrote to William that the real design of the Whigs was ‘to destroy the monarchy and all our family’. He put his trust, as he was to do again later, in the loyal ‘Church of England men’ since ‘all the fanatical dissenters were for a commonwealth’.

William of Orange had other sources of information besides his father-in-law’s letters. Henry Sidney, who was the English ambassador to the United Netherlands but was on leave in England, told him rather disloyally that James ‘has so exasperated the people they can scarce hear his name with patience’. ‘The King,’ he added, ‘is persuaded that it is impossible to agree with parliament and stick to his brother.’ Before Parliament was at last called together in October 168o, James was packed off to Scotland. Undoubtedly a genuine fear prevailed among the well-to-do, ‘the rich, sober men’, that unless the Exclusion Bill were passed a republic would be established. James, sitting in more amenable Edinburgh, certainly thought so himself: ‘For my part,’ he wrote to William on November 5, ‘I fear a rebellion or something worse, for everything almost goes after the same manner as it did in the year [16]40; only this country, God be thanked, is quiet, which it was not then.’

The Whigs—and these included Robert, Earl of Sunderland, one of Charles II’s Secretaries of State—had decided that the exclusion of James from the succession to the throne was inevitable, if only to prevent another civil war. To avert such a catastrophe they wanted William of Orange to come over to England so as to be a steadying influence among them once the Exclusion Bill was passed. For his wife, after all, was the next legitimate heiress in the royal line, while the Duke of Monmouth, the other Whig candidate, might become a mere tool of republicans. On November 5, the same day that James was writing mournfully from Scotland about the likelihood of civil war, Sunderland’s wife was telling Henry Sidney, who was Sunderland’s uncle, now back in Holland, ‘if the Prince will not come, he must never think of anything here.. . his part is only to come and prevent the confusion which we must of necessity fall into’. Otherwise, she warned, Monmouth must be King. ‘If the Prince thinks it not worth going over a threshold for three kingdoms, I know not why he should expect anybody else should for him.’ Though Sidney was reputed to be her lover, she must surely have been speaking for her husband. Sidney Godolphin added his pleas to those of his colleague’s wife. Urging William to come over while Parliament was still sitting, he wrote that it was ‘absolutely necessary to the supporting of your own particular interests here which. . . stand at present upon very nice terms’.

What in fact was William’s attitude to the proposal to exclude his uncle from the succession? As was his habit, he thought over the matter carefully, determined not to be hurried into making up his mind. Clearly he realized from the outset that if James were excluded by law from the throne, and if the movement in favour of Monmouth collapsed, then he himself would become a force in England. It was true that he had treated his wife badly; within a year of their marriage he had taken one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Villiers, as his mistress, and his unfaithfulness had made Princess Mary ill. But she was a young and loyal wife. If she were called to the throne of England, she was bound to convey the executive power into his hands. Indeed later she promised as much. On the other hand, a practical alternative to excluding James from the throne that had been contemplated by Charles II from an early stage was to accept statutory limitations on the powers of the monarchy. And William did not like the idea of that alternative in the least. Still, if the exclusionist movement failed, and James later became King, the open support of William for the exciusionists would ruin any influence he might have at Whitehall. So in all his correspondence with his friends in England William maintained an attitude of caution and diplomacy. On November ii, after Parliament met, he informed one of Charles II’s Secretaries of State, Sir Leoline Jenkins, that he was ‘vexed at the animosity against the Duke’, that he hoped that Charles II and Parliament would now come to an agreement, and that all business in Holland was suspended while the results of the session were awaited. He feared that both the Stuart family and the future of Europe would be in grave danger if the meeting of the new Parliament did not have a satisfactory outcome.

In fact the House of Commons quickly passed the Exclusion Bill without a division; but it never looked like getting through the House of Lords. The King exerted his considerable influence with the peers, who on November 14 rejected the Bill by sixty-three votes to thirty. Speaking again and again, the Earl of Halifax, known to history as the Trimmer, put the arguments against the Bill and refuted the extreme Whig leader, the Earl of Shaftesbury. But the following day he introduced an alternative Bill proposing strict limitations on the rights of the monarchy if a Roman Catholic should come to the throne. The Whigs, however, were not appeased and petitioned Charles II to dismiss the Earl of Halifax and even named him ‘an enemy of the people’.

The defeat of the Exclusion Bill in the Lords and the limitations on the Crown proposed by Halifax came as a shock to Prince William. He at once made it clear that he was dead against limitations which he was convinced would undermine the very fabric of monarchy. For even if nominally they were imposed merely on a Roman Catholic king, they might not, he thought, be removed if a Protestant monarch succeeded. He had to decide whether he should openly exert his influence in favour of excluding his father-in-law from the succession, which he fancied might well be agreed at the next parliamentary session and be accepted by Charles II. His friend Sir William Temple told William that three courses were available to him: he could come over at once and press for exclusion, he could stay where he was and see what happened, or he could wait until Parliament were dissolved and then cross to England to express his own views. But it hardly needed to be explained to him, as it was, that if he adopted the first course it would arouse unpleasant comment. Clearly a visit to England demanded the most delicate timing.

William seems to have decided that exclusion sooner or later was certain and was at any rate infinitely to be preferred to limitations upon the crown he might one day wear. The States-General now sent over a memorandum through Henry Sidney pressing Charles II to come to an agreement with his Parliament for the sake of Europe as a whole. That meant, in effect, that they were advising him to accept exclusion. There can be little doubt that William approved the memorandum, although he wrote to James denying that it was so. The memorandum was evidently a mistake of judgment. Nothing infuriates a government more than to have its domestic policy dictated to it from abroad. James was enraged. Either limitations or exclusion, he thundered from Edinburgh, would destroy the monarchy, as it had once been destroyed before. But it was at this very time, around Christmas 168o,  that William told Sidney that if in the next session of Parliament the Bill were passed and the King accepted it, he was ready to come over to England. He even asked if a yacht could be sent for him.

Charles II, however, was not convinced that in order to avoid civil war he must abandon his brother, though many people thought that he would be obliged to do so. In fact he warned William that once the hereditary right of succession were given up an essential prerogative would have been lost and the very institution of kingship be put in peril. Other exclusions might follow; and the Duke of Monmouth might be preferred to Princess Mary. As his brother’s daily warnings of republicanism were dinned into his ears, Charles II acted. He dissolved the second exclusionist Parliament on January 18, 1681, and ordered another one at once to be elected and to meet not in Westminster, always subject to the pressures of the London mob, but in royalist Oxford. He dismissed from his Council Essex, Temple and Sunderland, who were known to be Orangists and the friends of exclusion. He asked for immediate assistance from the French King, as James had been pressing him to do. And he gave his support, at least for the time being, to a compromise solution that while James should be allowed to take the title of King after his death, William and Mary as dyed-in-the-wool Protestants should be invited to become Protectors or Regents of the realm.

How did William react to all this? He thought that the dissolution of Parliament was a grave mistake; he feared that the next Parliament at Oxford would prove to be even more extreme, might indeed be republican in its sympathies. He still believed that exclusion was bound to come, although when Laurence Hyde later told Charles II that William’s thoughts ‘were still upon one expedient only’, William expressed great indignation and was not mollified by hints of the regency solution .

The first definite news of this scheme seems to have reached William towards the end of February 1681, just as the new Parliament was about to meet at Oxford. The King duly allowed the proposal to be put before the Commons, but they would not look at it. As usually happens in political life, a plausible compromise, which, if offered earlier, might have prevented a clash, when produced after tempers had become inflamed, proved ineffective and useless. Again the Commons prepared to pass the Exclusion Bill, but the two Houses of Parliament, meeting in Oxford, at once became involved in a complicated constitutional quarrel, and Charles, who meanwhile had been assured of the assistance he had sought from France, took the opportunity to get rid of his third exclusionist Parliament (March 28, 1681). No other Parliament was to meet in his reign.

To sum up: there was a strong feeling among leaders of English Protestant opinion that James must be stopped at all costs from mounting the throne as a Roman Catholic king. To prevent it, William was urged to come over to England while Parliament was sitting and exert his influence on behalf of the exciusionists. Charles II was sufficiently afraid of the dangers of revolution to be driven to suggest that William should actually be invited to act as a Regent after James succeeded. That was contemplated as a practical proposition. An alternative both to exclusion and regency was Halifax’s proposal to reduce the powers of the monarchy and thereby strengthen the role of Parliament. Neither William nor James fancied that alternative: to them it savoured of republicanism. No one can say what might have happened if William had insisted on coming to England in the autumn of 168o when the Exclusion Bill was for a second time passed by the House of Commons. But he hesitated to exert pressure or even to come out openly in favour of exclusion, and by the time he did come to England in the following year he had left it far too late.

Eight years afterwards Prince William had digested his lesson. By then the country had realized what it meant to have a Roman Catholic king of James’s character. Once again some advocated exclusion, others regency, and there was widespread fear of a republican revival. But now when William came over to press his advice, again at the invitation of his Protestant friends in England, he took the precaution of bringing an army with him.