Charles II’s route to being crowned king of England was no easy one. His father, Charles I, was executed in 1649, during the English Civil War. Although Charles was proclaimed king in Scotland, England was a de facto republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, who went on to defeat Charles at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Charles fled to France, and remained in exile for almost a decade, until invited to return, after Cromwell’s death in 1660. The greatest of all diarists, Samuel Pepys, was with Charles on the voyage back to England, and the two had a conversation on deck which Pepys recorded in his diary. The following year, Pepys was present at the king’s coronation.
Charles II reigned for 25 years, and was popularly known as the Merry Monarch, in reference, it is said, to his hedonism and to a general relief at being rid of Cromwell and the puritans. But he died quite suddenly, on 6 February 1685; his brother, James, immediately succeeded him to the throne. Although Samuel Pepys was alive and well, and a high ranking Admiralty official at the time, he had stopped writing his diary many years earlier. But his contemporary, John Evelyn, whose diary covered 50 years (compared with Pepys’s 10), was also a confidant of Charles II, and he left behind a first hand account of Charles’s death and James’s coronation.
4 February 1685
‘I went to London, hearing his Majesty had been the Monday before (2d February) surprised in his bedchamber with an apoplectic fit, so that if, by God’s providence, Dr. King (that excellent chirurgeon as well as physician) had not been accidentally present to let him bleed (having his lancet in his pocket), his Majesty had certainly died that moment; which might have been of direful consequence, there being nobody else present with the King save this Doctor and one more, as I am assured. It was a mark of the extraordinary dexterity, resolution, and presence of mind in the Doctor, to let him bleed in the very paroxysm, without staying the coming of other physicians, which regularly should have been done, and for want of which he must have a regular pardon, as they tell me.
This rescued his Majesty for the instant, but it was only a short reprieve. He still complained, and was relapsing, often fainting, with sometimes epileptic symptoms, till Wednesday, for which he was cupped, let bleed in both jugulars, and both vomit and purges, which so relieved him, that on Thursday hopes of recovery were signified in the public “Gazette,” but that day about noon, the physicians thought him feverish. This they seemed glad of, as being more easily allayed and methodically dealt with than his former fits; so as they prescribed the famous Jesuit’s powder; but it made him worse, and some very able doctors who were present did not think it a fever, but the effect of his frequent bleeding and other sharp operations used by them about his head, so that probably the powder might stop the circulation, and renew his former fits, which now made him very weak.
Thus he passed Thursday night with great difficulty, when complaining of a pain in his side, they drew twelve ounces more of blood from him; this was by six in the morning on Friday, and it gave him relief, but it did not continue, for being now in much pain, and struggling for breath, he lay dozing, and, after some conflicts, the physicians despairing of him, he gave up the ghost at half an hour after eleven in the morning, being the sixth of February, 1685, in the 36th year of his reign, and 54th of his age.
Prayers were solemnly made in all the churches, especially in both the Court Chapels, where the chaplains relieved one another every half quarter of an hour from the time he began to be in danger till he expired, according to the form prescribed in the Church offices. Those who assisted his Majesty’s devotions were, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of London, Durham, and Ely, but more especially Dr. Ken, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It is said they exceedingly urged the receiving Holy Sacrament, but his Majesty told them he would consider of it, which he did so long till it was too late. Others whispered that the Bishops and Lords, except the Earls of Bath and Feversham, being ordered to withdraw the night before, Huddleston, the priest, had presumed to administer the Popish offices. He gave his breeches and keys to the Duke [James] who was almost continually kneeling by his bedside, and in tears. He also recommended to him the care of his natural children, all except the Duke of Monmouth, now in Holland, and in his displeasure. He entreated the Queen to pardon him (not without cause); who a little before had sent a Bishop to excuse her not more frequently visiting him, in regard of her excessive grief, and withal that his Majesty would forgive it if at any time she had offended him.He spoke to the Duke to be kind to the Duchess of Cleveland, and especially Portsmouth, and that Nelly might not starve.
Thus died King Charles II., of a vigorous and robust constitution, and in all appearance promising a long life. He was a prince of many virtues, and many great imperfections; debonair, easy of access, not bloody nor cruel; his countenance fierce, his voice great, proper of person, every motion became him; a lover of the sea, and skilful in shipping; not affecting other studies, yet he had a laboratory, and knew of many empirical medicines, and the easier mechanical mathematics; he loved planting and building, and brought in a politer way of living, which passed to luxury and intolerable expense. He had a particular talent in telling a story, and facetious passages, of which he had innumerable; this made some buffoons and vicious wretches too presumptuous and familiar, not worthy the favour they abused. He took delight in having a number of little spaniels follow him and lie in his bedchamber, where he often suffered the bitches to puppy and give suck, which rendered it very offensive, and indeed made the whole court nasty and stinking. He would doubtless have been an excellent prince, had he been less addicted to women, who made him uneasy, and always in want to supply their unmeasurable profusion, to the detriment of many indigent persons who had signally served both him and his father. He frequently and easily changed favourites to his great prejudice.
As to other public transactions, and unhappy miscarriages, ‘tis not here I intend to number them; but certainly never had King more glorious opportunities to have made himself, his people, and all Europe happy, and prevented innumerable mischiefs, had not his too easy nature resigned him to be managed by crafty men, and some abandoned and profane wretches who corrupted his otherwise sufficient parts, disciplined as he had been by many afflictions during his banishment, which gave him much experience and knowledge of men and things; but those wicked creatures took him from off all application becoming so great a King. The history of his reign will certainly be the most wonderful for the variety of matter and accidents, above any extant in former ages: the sad tragical death of his father, his banishment and hardships, his miraculous restoration, conspiracies against him, parliaments, wars, plagues, fires, comets, revolutions abroad happening in his time, with a thousand other particulars. He was ever kind to me, and very gracious upon all occasions, and therefore I cannot without ingratitude but deplore his loss, which for many respects, as well as duty, I do with all my soul.
His Majesty being dead, the Duke, now King James II, went immediately to Council, and before entering into any business, passionately declaring his sorrow, told their Lordships, that since the succession had fallen to him, he would endeavour to follow the example of his predecessor in his clemency and tenderness to his people; that, however he had been misrepresented as affecting arbitrary power, they should find the contrary; for that the laws of England had made the King as great a monarch as he could desire; that he would endeavor to maintain the Government both in Church and State, as by law established, its principles being so firm for monarchy, and the members of it showing themselves so good and loyal subjects; and that, as he would never depart from the just rights and prerogatives of the Crown, so he would never invade any man’s property, but as he had often adventured his life in defence of the nation, so he would still proceed, and preserve it in all its lawful rights and liberties
This being the substance of what he said, the Lords desired it might be published, as containing matter of great satisfaction to a jealous people upon this change, which his Majesty consented to. Then were the Council sworn, and a Proclamation ordered to be published that all officers should continue in their stations, that there might be no failure of public justice, till his further pleasure should be known. Then the King rose, the Lords accompanying him to his bedchamber, where, while he reposed himself, tired indeed as he was with grief and watching, they returned again into the Council chamber to take order for the PROCLAIMING his Majesty, which (after some debate) they consented should be in the very form his grandfather, King James I., was, after the death of Queen Elizabeth; as likewise that the Lords, etc., should proceed in their coaches through the city for the more solemnity of it.
Upon this was I, and several other gentlemen waiting in the Privy gallery, admitted into the Council chamber to be witness of what was resolved on. Thence with the Lords, Lord Marshal and Heralds, and other Crown officers being ready, we first went to Whitehall gate, where the Lords stood on foot bareheaded, while the Herald proclaimed his Majesty’s title to the Imperial Crown and succession according to the form, the trumpets and kettledrums having first sounded three times, which ended with the people’s acclamations. Then a herald called the Lords’ coaches according to rank, myself accompanying the solemnity in my Lord Cornwallis’s coach, first to Temple Bar, where the Lord Mayor and his brethren met us on horseback, in all their formalities, and proclaimed the King; hence to the Exchange in Cornhill, and so we returned in the order we set forth. Being come to Whitehall, we all went and kissed the King and Queen’s hands. He had been on the bed, but was now risen and in his undress. The Queen was in bed in her apartment, but put forth her hand, seeming to be much afflicted, as I believe she was, having deported herself so decently upon all occasions since she came into England, which made her universally beloved.
Thus concluded this sad and not joyful day.
I can never forget the inexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming, and all dissoluteness, and as it were total forgetfulness of God (it being Sunday evening), which this day se’nnight I was witness of, the King sitting and toying with his concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland, and Mazarin, etc., a French boy singing love songs in that glorious gallery, while about twenty of the great courtiers and other dissolute persons were at Basset round a large table, a bank of at least 2,000 in gold before them; upon which two gentlemen, who were with me, made reflections with astonishment. Six days after, was all in the dust.
It was enjoined that those who put on mourning should wear it as for a father, in the most solemn manner.’
10 February 1685
‘Being sent to by the Sheriff of the County to appear and assist in proclaiming the King, I went the next day to Bromley, where I met the Sheriff and the Commander of the Kentish Troop, with an appearance, I suppose, of about 500 horse, and innumerable people, two of his Majesty’s trumpets, and a Sergeant with other officers, who having drawn up the horse in a large field near the town, marched thence, with swords drawn, to the market place, where, making a ring, after sound of trumpets and silence made, the High Sheriff read the proclaiming titles to his bailiff, who repeated them aloud, and then, after many shouts of the people, his Majesty’s health being drunk in a flint glass of a yard long, by the Sheriff, Commander, Officers, and chief gentlemen, they all dispersed, and I returned.’
14 February 1685
‘The King was this night very obscurely buried in a vault under Henry VII.’s Chapel at Westminster, without any manner of pomp, and soon forgotten after all this vanity, and the face of the whole Court was exceedingly changed into a more solemn and moral behaviour; the new King affecting neither profaneness nor buffoonery. All the great officers broke their staves over the grave, according to form.’
The Diary Junction - Pepys
The Diary Junction - Evelyn