The Last Years of Charles II: (ii) 1681-85

WHILE England was rent by internal political turmoil that brought her to the verge of civil war, King Louis XIV of France was already engaged upon fresh acts of aggression. The City of Paris had conferred upon him the title of ‘Louis the Great’ and the Marquis de la Fare claimed that he had become ‘the arbiter of everything in this part of our hemisphere’. By intimidation, bribery and legal jiggery-pokery embraced under the name of ‘acts of reunion’, large slices of territory adjacent to land already under French sovereignty were annexed in Alsace, in Lorraine, and in neighbouring Franche-Comté without the need to declare war. William’s uncle, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, disgruntled with the results of his Dutch alliance, moved over to the French side. The attention of the Emperor in Vienna was distracted by growing trouble in the east. Spain remained enfeebled. Only William of Orange himself persevered, in the face of every conceivable obstacle, in his hopes of forming a coalition, based upon an Anglo-Dutch agreement, to halt the French advance towards ‘universal monarchy’.

At the beginning of March 1681, to the delight of his brother James, Charles II had concluded a secret verbal agreement whereby he became the pensioner of the French King for the remainder of his reign; he undertook to disengage himself by degrees from his recent public alliance with Spain, and Louis XIV promised in return not to attack the Netherlands. Ignorant of that agreement, William of Orange decided he must go over to England and try to impress on his uncle the importance of resisting the French domination of western Europe. That was what William’s friends in “Whitehall, the Orangists like Essex, Godolphin, Sunderland, Sidney and Temple, had long been pressing him to do. The French ambassador in London, egged on by messages from James in Scotland, had emphasised the need to counter any visit by William. ‘It is time now or never to conclude this bargain,’ he wrote in February, ‘for otherwise the King of England will be obliged to put himself into the hands of parliament and of the Prince of Orange.’ The Duke of York feared, he reported earlier, that ‘it was designed that the Prince of Orange should come over with a view that he might become the master of affairs and be established now in a manner which could not be changed hereafter’. Hence the hasty conclusion of the verbal agreement in March. But Charles II could hardly refuse to allow his nephew to visit him. Eventually William came over at the end of July, four months after the prorogation of the Oxford Parliament.

While William was making up his mind to visit England, his father-in-law was marooned in Scotland where he had been since the previous autumn; although he now held the post of King’s Commissioner there, his attention was mainly concentrated on England. James had not approved of the calling of the Oxford Parliament and told William that he thought its dissolution had ‘had a good effect’; for it had ‘aimed at the destruction of the monarchy and if it had sat a little longer would have put all England in a flame’. In spite of the part that the Earl of Halifax had played in defeating the Exclusion Bill in 168o James was infuriated by Halifax’s proposal that he should, when he succeeded, be reduced to the status of a monarch who reigned but did not rule. Halifax, he asserted, was ‘an atheist without bowels’ and thought if his ‘timorous counsels’ prevailed at Court all would be ruined. Charles II at one time had contemplated an easy way out of his difficulties—namely, to induce James to rejoin the Church of England, and indeed James’s brother-in-law, Laurence Hyde, was Sent up to Scotland to see whether he could convert him. But James was adamant: it would be ‘a base, mean thing’, he told his friend, George Legge, ‘besides the sin of it, to dissemble and deny my religion’.

Naturally James did not relish the idea of William visiting England, while he himself was still confined in Scotland. And William’s friends were a bit nervous: they thought that the Prince had been too obviously associated with the exciusionists and warned him that the King’s closest advisers had complained that his letters were ‘too high and too sharp’. William’s object was to remove such bad impressions and to induce King Charles to alter his foreign policy. As soon as he arrived at Windsor Castle he pressed on the King the need to protect the Low Countries against France. Charles retorted that he could only join an alliance with the United Netherlands and Spain to resist French aggression if he had a Parliament behind him. But he had been forced to dissolve his last two Parliaments because they had threatened the very existence of the monarchy; he had no cause to suppose that another Parliament would be any more reasonable: if he were to call one, he would be committing himself either to exclusion or limitations. The King then suggested that William might go up to London and have a talk with his friends there—the Whigs—and see if he could fix any arrangement with them. But the Whigs were still set on exclusion. And the King was afraid, in view of the radical feelings that prevailed in the City, if William were to be publicly entertained by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, demonstrations against James would result. So the Prince was promptly called back to Windsor.

William was shocked by the state of affairs he saw there. (John Evelyn had noted in the previous year that it ‘more resembled a luxurious and abandoned rout than a Christian Court’. Of all people, William selected the King’s principal mistress, the French Duchess of Portsmouth, as the recipient of his criticisms. He told her that Charles II ought to pull himself together and re-establish his reputation at home and abroad. Otherwise, he thought, the King would sink into a state of nothingness from which he could not be rescued. So William returned to Holland, not having accomplished anything so far as the English Government was concerned. Some of his friends feared that he had actually done more harm than good. But the French ambassador, to whom the fullest account of the visit is owing, fancied that he had established useful contacts and that ‘he believed that the worst that could happen to him was that he would have to wait until right of succession brought him the English Crown’.

In Scotland James breathed a sigh of relief that his son-in-law’s visit had passed off without trouble. He felt that the outlook for his brother, and for the future of the Stuart monarchy, was brighter than might have been expected, now that Parliaments had ceased to sit. ‘Though not so absolute a master as I could wish,’ he told William in his artless way, ‘his [Charles II’s] affairs will mend every day if he continue but steady to himself and his old friends and not let himself be deceived by those you say you were to go to speak with at London,’ i.e. the Whigs: ‘they have raised a devil they cannot lay and the less you have to do with such kind of people is no doubt the better.’ A fortnight later he wrote to say that affairs were going well in England, and even better in Scotland where a Parliament over which he presided had disapproved of exclusionist measures. Indeed henceforward everything went swimmingly for James and the Tories for whom these were the years of triumph. Charles plucked up the courage to have the Earl of Shaftesbury imprisoned in the Tower, and, after his release, the Earl, who in the last days of his career was definitely backing the Duke of Monmouth as a Protestant claimant to the throne, fled to Holland to die in obscurity. In March 168z James was allowed to return from Scotland; and that October a Tory was chosen Lord Mayor of Whiggish London.

The Whig extremists, that is to say those who were supporters of Monmouth or perhaps toyed with republican ideas, were now involved in the so-called Rye House plot which was disclosed by informers in the summer of 1683. Although no convincing evidence was ever produced that any serious intention had existed to murder the King or his brother, incautious remarks and tales of half-baked conspiracies retailed by turncoats resulted in the suicide of the Earl of Essex and the execution of William Lord Russell and others. Some active Whig politicians and their hangers-on fled to Holland; the City of London was compelled to surrender its charter to the King; and during the last years of the reign Charles and James were able to govern without calling another Parliament and with French moral and material assistance.

Under these circumstances it was not surprising that Louis XIV was able to pursue his aggressive plans without effective interference from William of Orange. Indeed in August 1681 Louis ordered an attack on the city of Orange, William’s patrimony in France; its walls were razed to the ground, an indemnity was imposed on its inhabitants, a decree was issued restraining its commerce, and no more Protestants were allowed to settle there. The English ambassador to France delivered verbal protests, for which William expressed his gratitude, but Charles II refused to exert any real pressure on his nephew’s behalf.

If William of Orange could not rely upon the firm support of the English Court over so personal a matter as that, he could hardly expect help in resisting French aggression elsewhere. In September 1681 the French laid siege to Strasbourg, the only remaining independent territory in Alsace, which soon capitulated. In November an assault was launched upon Luxembourg, a fortress that commanded the communications between the Spanish Netherlands and Germany. William set about forming a defensive affiance with Sweden, Spain and the Emperor to halt the relentless French advance eastwards. For five months the Dutch ambassador in London vainly tried to persuade Charles II to take an active part in opposing France. The situation appeared critical. In the autumn it was said that ‘the expectations of the world are either for a general peace or a general war’. William tried to persuade his uncle that he was not a warmonger, that he wanted a general peace, and that he was genuinely concerned that the King did not trust him when he had ‘so much zeal for his service’. But the most that Charles would do was to offer his arbitration between France and Spain over Luxembourg; he refused to enter into any general scheme to bring pressure on France. William was informed that England was in no condition to make war, while the States of Holland, Friesland and Groningen were against the Dutch doing so. The commitment under treaty to send Dutch forces to the help of Spain was, however, honoured. Seeing the wasp’s nest that he had aroused, Louis XIV then for the time being withdrew his troops from Luxembourg. By February 1683 William at last succeeded in holding a meeting of his allies, but the English Government refused to take part in it or even to send an observer.

These acute differences over foreign policy widened the breach between Charles and James on one side, and William on the other. Insisting that the French terms for appeasement ought not to be refused, Charles II stressed that the future of Orange itself depended on reaching a general treaty with Louis XIV. For the English King could not rid himself of the notion that his nephew was only concerned with his own personal interests. Vainly William sent over his friend William Bentinck as a special envoy to the English Court. He found Charles inviolably pro-French. When in the winter of 1683, provoked beyond endurance, the Spanish Government declared war on France, Charles and James merely expressed their regrets at such foolish behaviour. In July 1684 James told his son-in-law that there was nothing the States-General could do except to agree to the French proposal for a twenty-year truce on the basis of the status quo and added that the Spaniards had better agree too. In view of the opposition he was meeting at home and the distraction of Germany by a war then raging against the Turks in the east, William himself was obliged to give way.

Questions of war and peace were not the only source of difficulty between William and his uncles. Another was the relations between William and the Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth, an attractive but rather shallow man, had allowed himself to be used as a tool by Shaftesbury when he, in the end, had preferred him to William as a candidate for the Protestant succession to the throne. In the last exclusionist Parliament it was said that Shaftesbury would have agreed to the regency proposal only if Monmouth had been named as regent. During 168o and 1681 Monmouth had assiduously courted popularity: ‘No pretender to the throne ever worked harder for a following than he did’ (Ogg). But he over-reached himself and it is doubtful if he were ever seriously in the running. He avoided imprisonment for treason only because his father was so fond of him. When in 1683 Monmouth allowed himself to become involved in conspiratorial talk, his arrest was at last ordered, following the revelation of the Rye House plot; he went into hiding and was believed to have fled abroad. But in November 1683 he gave himself up and made an oral confession of his guilt, though denying strongly that he had planned to assassinate his father or his uncle. However, he refused to put his confession in writing or accuse his friends. Again Charles II pardoned him. At the end of the year Monmouth went into exile in Holland, where his mistress joined him, and he was received in a friendly way by William and Mary.

Charles and James did not suspect William of being implicated in the Rye House plot. The sympathy he expressed for the King’s ‘deliverance from bloody villains’ was amicably accepted, and the Prince promised that the English envoy in Holland should obtain help in trying to arrest ‘treasonable conspirators’ who had escaped there. But James was furious over William’s warm treatment of Monmouth and suspected that he was not genuinely anxious to help round up the Whig exiles or other ‘ill men out of England’ who, as the English envoy admitted, ‘confirm many people in this country in their unbelief of the plot’.’ It was also alleged that William was giving commissions to Monmouth’s friends in the English regiments that were still serving in the United Netherlands. James protested to both William and Mary, and induced the English envoy, Chudleigh, to make strong representations. William was furious at the impertinent tone used by Chudleigh and demanded his removal. He also maintained that he had done nothing wrong in treating Monmouth with friendliness, since he was the King’s son ‘whom he had pardoned for the faults he had committed’. But James’s suspicions were unassuaged. He was told that Monmouth was conferring with the Earl of Argyll, who had earlier escaped from Scotland after being condemned to death for treason when James himself had been the Commissioner there. In October 1684 the French ambassador reported home from London that ‘the Duke of York remains of the opinion that the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Monmouth flatter themselves with the hope of being able to bring about a rising in one of the three kingdoms’.

It is doubtful if Charles II himself was unduly worried about William and Monmouth. According to one account, he had let William know secretly that he wanted Monmouth to be well treated. It is hard to understand why William was so effusively friendly to Monmouth unless he hoped to please Charles II. In December 1684 Monmouth actually went over to England and paid his father a clandestine and, as it proved, farewell visit. Yet that same month when the Dutch ambassador defended William’s attitude to Monmouth, the King ‘laughed and said that the Prince of Orange was cleverer than anybody else if he knew how to manage a man whose aims were either to establish a republic in England or to support chimerical claims to which he could not succeed without the ruin of the Prince of Orange himself’. A reasonable explanation may be that William wanted to keep a careful watch upon a man whose activities might conceivably jeopardize Princess Mary’s chances of succeeding her father on the English throne and thus bringing England into the anti-French orbit. On a shorter-term basis it has been suggested that William might have hoped to use Monmouth to induce Charles II to change his mind on foreign affairs, though there is no firm evidence for this. Assuredly William neglected no opportunity, however remote, of pursuing the plans to which he had dedicated himself.

For during the last years of Charles II’s reign William’s own position in the United Netherlands and in world politics had been weakened and his own undimmed enthusiasm for resisting French designs in Europe had been damped. The Regents of Amsterdam had successfully exerted their influence to prevent further Dutch military or naval assistance from being given to Spain. William had both been unable to raise fresh troops himself and had found his attempts to enlist active allies frustrated. Charles II had not only excused himself from involvement on the ground that he had too many troubles at home but had resented ‘railleries’ against ‘a great king’—his friend Louis XIV. Charles and James in fact appeared to be pleased that William’s influence was declining. When Sir Gabriel Sylvius, an unofficial intermediary, suggested in May 1684 that Charles II should use his good offices to prevent William’s power from being destroyed, he received a very cold reception. On the contrary, Charles reiterated his loyalty to, and admiration for, the King of France and said that he pitied the Dutch people ‘ruined by the fault and folly of those who govern them’. James was openly delighted that his recalcitrant son-in-law was mortified and opposed in Holland. On October 3, 1684, he wrote to William telling him it was necessary for him to do his part to satisfy the King and that he had shown little consideration for what he had said to him which he thought ‘of concern to our family’. At the very end of 1684, according to French reports, Charles II was ‘as dissatisfied as ever with the conduct of William of Orange’.

So at the end of Charles II’s reign James’s position appeared to be as strong as William’s was weak; James had been allowed, in effect if not in name, to resume his control of the English Navy; he attended the Privy Council and the Committee on Foreign Affairs; and he was constantly at his brother’s side whispering poison in his ears about the plotting of the King’s son and nephew in Holland. William, on the other hand, had reached the lowest point in his fortunes. He had met unyielding opposition to his plans both at home, abroad and in his wife’s country. When the twenty-year truce with France was about to be forced on the United Netherlands in April 1684 William’s confidant, Bentinck, had written to their friend Henry Sidney: ‘Our affairs continue to follow their course, that is to say the road to our general destruction.’

Some historians have suggested that in the very last months of Charles II’s reign revolutionary changes were impending in England. The story largely derives from Gilbert Burnet’s memoirs—Burnet was out of England at that time. ‘The King,’ he wrote, ‘was observed to be colder and more reserved to the Duke than ordinary’ and he certainly did plan to send James back to Scotland for a few weeks. But that Charles really had a scheme on foot to call a Parliament in England (for which the ground had been prepared by a fairly wide remodelling of the borough charters, after the City of London’s charter had been surrendered) or to change his foreign policy is doubtful. The evidence is meagre: the autocracy was working smoothly enough. An finprovement in the Customs revenue had relieved the King’s financial anxieties. Since his victory over the Whigs Charles had grown increasingly lethargic and had come to rely more and more on the society of his French Duchess whom he treated more like a wife than a mistress. At the same time he may well have felt the constant company of his dull and humourless brother rather irksome and have welcomed the idea of getting rid of him for a short spell. But James does not appear to have felt that he was unwanted; in fact he regarded himself as indispensable. It is true that he resented the fact that his brother-in-law Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, had recently been deprived of the office of Lord Treasurer, and he disliked the fact that the witty and able Marquis of Halifax, whom he had never forgiven for promoting the policy of limitations on the monarchical power during the exclusionist crisis, still retained influence with Charles II, although his star was on the wane. In all probability all that Charles II wanted was a quiet end to his days; he can hardly have failed to perceive that his brother’s fanatical devotion to his religion and his stubborn nature would spell trouble for the monarchy as soon as he himself departed from a world that had amused him a lot and bothered him not a little.

An eminent English historian once wrote that the shape of the Revolution of 1688 could have been detected from the letters that James wrote during the last years of his brother’s reign. Those letters certainly reveal the extreme naivety of James’s temperament, his distrust of Parliaments, his fear of Monmouth, his jealousy of William of Orange, and his dislike of any measures that might detract from the autocratic power of the monarchy. During these years James wrote regularly and conscientiously to his son-in-law warning him, reproving him, advising him. Little did he recognize that he was dealing with a character far firmer and an outlook far wider than his own. Always in the background of his mind was the menace to the English monarchy of another civil war and the wistful belief that only a toughness which neither his father nor his brother had ever shown could prevent the worst from happening. On the whole, he pictured the political landscape in black and white: those who were not with him were against him. But what he totally failed to realize was that his obsession with himself and his religion cut little ice with Prince William of Orange whose gaze was never far removed from the European scene as a whole. To that scene we shall now turn.