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The Restoration: Out with the old guard . . .

For most of Britain’s population, the Restoration had little effect. Life under Charles II was much the same as it was under Cromwell, argues Derek Wilson.

Charles II in the robes of the Order of the Garter, by John Michael Wright or studio, c. 1660–1665
Charles II in the robes of the Order of the Garter, by John Michael Wright or studio, c. 1660–1665

The Stuart Restoration of 1660 saw Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, reclaim his throne from those dreary, killjoy Puritans. Such is the popular myth. But myth is all it is.

Charles II was not a Merry Monarch – never, as Antonia Fraser has pointed out, has a popular catchphrase been so deceiving. The idea that Cromwell’s major-generals imposed gloomy godliness on a merrie nation is a post-Restoration myth, demolished in the groundbreaking work of the historian Christopher Hill. But its persistence underlines two truisms; that history is written by the victors and that style often counts for more than substance – Charles was ‘a bit of a lad’ and the Puritans were boringly virtuous.

1660 is not a fixed barrier with repression on one side and liberty on the other. The human spirit was not struggling for breath during the years of the republican experiment only to gain relief in the purer air of the restored monarchy. The same problems confronted governments whichever constitution was in place and the solutions found were often remarkably similar. Change there certainly was in 1660 but there was also continuity.

If the 17th-century revolution was about anything, it was about liberty. For many this meant, first and foremost, religious liberty – liberty, that is, for Protestants to worship according to conscience; royalists were as determinedly anti-Roman Catholic as parliamentarians. Archbishop Laud’s imposition of high-church, liturgical uniformity was a major cause of the Civil War and the backlash after 1642 was marked by iconoclastic frenzy as churches were ‘purified’of ‘Romish’accretions. But, beyond that, there was a degree of toleration under the Commonwealth and Protectorate that was quite new. Church courts were abolished, cults and sects flourished and religious anarchy posed a greater threat than tyranny. Parliament’s attempts to control self-appointed preachers and the more extreme sects were not very effective. The royalist reaction after 1660 was much more draconian. The king’s men, who now made up the majority in Parliament, were intent on revenge. Some 1,900 ministers and teachers who could not in good conscience subscribe to the doctrine and liturgy of restored Anglicanism lost their jobs. The Test Act of 1673, barring from important office all who would not receive communion in their parish churches, confirmed the reality that nonconformists and Catholics alike were second-class citizens.

Political freedom was also restricted under the post-1660 regime. In 1645 there were 722 newspapers and innumerable pamphlets being published, giving expression to a wide variety of opinions. A regime which encouraged every literate person to read the Bible could scarcely prohibit the ‘revelations’ that scribblers and tub-thumpers claimed to have received. Licence inevitably got out of control and was only partially restrained again during the Protectorate. Between 1662 and 1679 a series of Licensing Acts applied draconian censorship. All publications on subjects considered to be sensitive had to be vetted by the government. A new Treasons Act explicitly abolished press freedom. The new Parliament explored every avenue in search of methods to clamp down on disaffection. Town corporations were purged, political petitions were prohibited and informers were employed to sniff out anyone harbouring anti-royalist sentiments.

What of the charge that art and science were stifled under the republican regimes? Again, there is evidence of continuity as well as abrupt change. In 1662 Charles II granted a Charter to the Royal Society but that group of enquiring minds came into being in 1645. When we think of the architectural heritage of the Restoration period, the genius of Christopher Wren inevitably comes to mind but he was not without antecedents. In fact, the continuity of English design can be traced from Inigo Jones, through the work of Roger Pratt, who built impressive mansions for wealthy customers during the republican years. One might have expected that the rehabilitation of royalist aristocrats and gentlemen would have shown itself in a Restoration style of domestic architecture but no explosion of innovation accompanied the return of monarchy.

In painting, the mantle of Van Dyck fell upon William Dobson, Robert Walker and Samuel Cooper, none of whom lacked for patrons during the years of Puritan dominance. The London stage certainly had its renaissance in the 1660s with royalty-sponsored performing companies and newly built theatres, but Puritan restrictions on plays were already relaxing under the Protectorate when William Davenant produced the first English operas.

Fine country houses and sophisticated entertainment were the preserves of the wealthy and those who lived in the capital. For the majority of the British people, life after 1660 was much like it was before. Religious persecution continued, though different victims were on the receiving end of it. Tension between Parliament and the head of state (whether king or protector) remained a given. If governments before 1660 were often hampered by division and incompetence, those after 1660 were debilitated by corruption.

And the real winners, the people who won the constitutional egg and spoon race, were the merchant oligarchs and the gentlemen of the shires, the men who had been increasing their power through Parliament for a century or more. ‘Royalist’, ‘Republican’, ‘Whig’, ‘Tory’ – whatever the label, the same people held the reins. Perhaps that’s something to think about in an election year. 

Derek Wilson is the author of All The King’s Women – Love, Sex and Politics in the Life of Charles II (Pimlico 2004).

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