Pop groups and film stars came and went on the walls of my room as a teenager, but there was one constant figure: King Charles II. Charles Stuart. Sigh.
After I wrote about the cardigan, balaclava and co recently, good old Charles popped into my mind again. My, but he had a tricky life!
He was the oldest surviving son of King Charles I and his wife, the French Henrietta Maria; regular readers will remember that Charles I was beheaded by parliament in 1649, after the Civil War in Great Britain. His son Charles, after hiding in an oak tree, was able to escape to the continent, where he lived in the Netherlands.
My Charles and his cousin Rupert of the Rhine (sigh) and countless good-looking, long-haired, brown-eyed, lace-collared young men had fought (wearing high leather boots and velvet capes) in the Royalist cause against the boring and unpleasant parliament forces, the Roundheads, who wore sort of knitted grey outfits.
Another Sunday lunch in our family was ruined when, in the course of the conversation, my father made it clear we would have been on the Roundhead side. I was absolutely appalled and argued the Royalist case most ferevently, ending in door slamming and me spending the rest of the day in my room, looking at my Charles II poster. (This was in 1973 by the way.)
As we know, the Roundhead side, led by Oliver Cromwell, won and for eleven whole years Britain did not have a monarch. There was also no Christmas, no theatre, no fun at all and when Oliver Cromwell died and his son Richard took over (just like a monarchy really) things got unruly and to make a long story short Parliament asked Charles (2) if he would like to come back, and be King, under certain restrictions of course, and my Charles said Yes, he could go for that and arrived in Dover on 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday.
Theatres opened, singing was allowed again in church and life was back in colour again under the reign of the ‘Merry Monarch’.
This period, called the ‘Restoration’, is famous still today for its plays, comedies, fashion, architecture and much more.
It wasn’t all fun for Charles though.
In 1665 the Great Plague of London killed a quarter of the population:
and this was followed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London, which destroyed a fifth of the city:
As Henry VIII would have told him, the main, indeed only requirement for the King is to produce a healthy son, and that Charles and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, did not manage. Her pregnancies – at least four between 1662 and 1669 – all ended in miscarriage or stillbirth.
I could imagine that modern psychologists would say that Charles, through his love of parties and alcohol and women was trying to fill up some dreadful void in his core, one’s father being publicly executed must be one of life’s more stressful events.
He certainly had many, many mistresses, including the beautiful, red-haired Barbara Villiers, whose husband received a title and land for her services and was thus the ancestor of the illustrious Spencer (as in Lady Diana) family.
Charles’ most famous mistress is Nell Gwyn:
It was a matter of some inconvenience that these mistresses did manage to become pregnant and give birth to live children, who then expected titles and favours, and so our Charles turned to his court doctor for assistance in contraception. The doctor invented a sort of re-usable sheath made of leather, which Charles could pull on to the part involved, lacing it up before the deed was done.
Charles’ doctor’s name was Dr John Condom, and that is how the condom got its name (better than Cardigan).
I always enjoyed telling that story to my students, who learned that they should use the word ‘eraser’ rather than ‘rubber’, which may be misunderstood in the USA.
Many years ago I had the most adorable elderly student, I will call him Hans. He came to class with his wife Erika and over the years they attended it was mostly Erika who did the talking. So we were all very surprised when, after I had told that story, Hans raised his hand with a question, his first ever, which he asked in German:
“Dieser Kondom – war der Glattleder oder Wildleder?”
“That condom – was it napa leather or suède?”
Charles II would have loved it.