King Charles II of England: History & Overview

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet King Charles II, the ruler of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1660 to 1685. Discover how Charles returned from exile to take the throne and learn about his connection to the modern royal family.

Who was King Charles II of England?

King Charles II of England was the eldest surviving son of the preceding monarch King Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria. He was the king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1660 to 1685. Charles II is typically regarded by the people of England as a relatively weak but debonair and charming ruler. Charles and his queen never had children of their own, but several of his mistresses had illegitimate children.

Portrait of Charles II of England by John Michael Wright
Portrait of Charles II of England by John Michael Wright

Becoming the King

Charles II came to the throne in an unusual manner. Although his father Charles I had previously ruled England, from 1642 to 1649, he had engaged in a civil war with Parliament, the legislative body of the nation. Charles II participated in several battles on behalf of his father but when it became clear that the tides of battle were turning against the king, Charles II fled England and remained in exile until 1660. Charles I lost his battle against Parliament and paid for his part in the conflict with his life.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell with the corpse of Charles I by Paul Delaroche
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell with the corpse of Charles I by Paul Delaroche

With the monarch dead, England was ruled by Oliver Cromwell, the former leader of Parliament. Cromwell established a military dictatorship called the Protectorate, under the guise of placing increased authority with Parliament in the absence of a king. Cromwell's reign was marked by the use of a standing army to put down any potential rebellions and a rise in religious conflicts. In 1658, Cromwell died and his son attempted to take over the reins of government, but by 1660, the English were tired of the Protectorate and a coalition of powerful nobles worked together to return the king's exiled son to the monarchy.

Being King

With Charles II restored to the throne of England, Parliament began meeting again and the Anglican Church was restored to its former prestige. Initially, Charles II was resolved to get along with Parliament and thus avoid the terrible fate of his father. Despite his best efforts, Charles became embroiled in a number of arguments with Parliament during the 1670s. Parliament tended to support the Anglican Church, but Charles preferred the Catholic faith. In 1672, Charles advocated for the removal of penal codes that were used to punish Catholics and other religious minorities. Parliament disagreed and Charles quickly removed his approval for the reform.

Despite removing his approval for the decriminalization of Catholicism, the largely Anglican Parliament and Catholic sympathizer Charles continued to have regular disputes. Charles eventually entered into a secret agreement with his cousin, King Louis XIV of France, who was also a staunch Catholic. In return for two hundred thousand pounds per year, Charles agreed to force Parliament to relax laws against Catholicism and to convert to Catholicism himself. When Parliament learned about this secret treaty, the members were appalled. In the remaining years of his reign, Parliament refused to work with the king.

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