The Story of Nell Gwyn/Chapter 4



The character of King Charles II. has been drawn with care and skill by several writers of distinguished reputation to whom he was known: by the great Lord Clarendon; by the Marquess of Halifax; by the Duke of Buckingham; by Evelyn and Sir William Temple; by Burnet, Dryden, and Roger North. Lord Clarendon had been acquainted with him from his boyhood, and had been his principal adviser for many years; Halifax had been his minister; Buckingham had received distinguished marks of favour at his hands; Evelyn not only frequented his court, but had often conversed with him on matters of moment, and was intimate with many who knew him well; Temple had been his ambassador; Burnet had spoken to him with a freedom which nothing but his pastoral character would have sanctioned; Dryden was his Poet Laureate; and North added to his own his brother the Lord Keeper's experience of the King's character. From such writers as these, and with the aid of such incidental illustrations as a lengthened interest in the subject will supply, I propose to draw the portraiture of the King, using, where such fidelity is requisite, the very words of the authorities I employ.

His personal appearance was remarkable. He was five feet ten inches in height and well-made, with an expression of countenance somewhat fierce, and a great voice.[1] He was, says Saville, an illustrious exception to all the common rules of physiognomy; for, with a most saturnine, harsh countenance, he was both of a merry and merciful disposition. His eyes were large and fine; and his face so swarthy, that Monk, before the Restoration, used to toast him as "the black boy."[2] "Is this like me?" he said to Riley, who had just completed his portrait; "then, odd's fish! (his favorite phrase), I am an ugly fellow." Riley, however, must have done him an injustice: certainly, at all events, he is not an ugly fellow on the canvas of Lely, in the miniatures of Cooper, the sculpture of Gibbons, or the coins of Simon.

He lived a Deist, but did not care to think on the subject of religion, though he died professedly a Roman Catholic. His father had been severe with him, and once, while at sermon at St. Mary's in Oxford, had struck him on the head with his staff for laughing at some of the ladies sitting opposite to him.[3] Later in life the ill-bred familiarity of the Scottish divines had given him a distaste for Presbyterian discipline, while the heats and animosities between the members of the Established Church and the Nonconformists with which his reign commenced made him think indifferently of both. His religion was that of a young prince in his warm blood, whose inquiries were applied more to discover arguments against belief than in its favour. The wits about his Court, who found employment in laughing at Scripture—

All by the King's example liv'd and lov'd—

delighted in turning to ridicule what the preachers said in their sermons before him, and in this way induced him to look upon the clergy as a body of men who had compounded a religion for their own advantage.[4] So strongly did this feeling take root in him, that he at length resigned himself to sleep at sermon time—not even South or Barrow having the art to keep him awake. In one of these half-hours of sleep when in chapel, he is known to have missed, doubtless with regret, the gentle reproof of South to Lauderdale during a general somnolency:—"My lord, my lord, you snore so loud you will wake the King."

He loved ease and quiet; and it was said, not untruly, that there was as much of laziness as of love in all those hours he passed among his mistresses. Few things, remarked Burnet,[5] ever went near his heart. It was a trouble to him to think. Unthinkingness, indeed, was said by Halifax to be one of his characteristics[6]—and

Unthinking Charles, ruled by unthinking thee,

is a line in Lord Rochester. Sauntering is an epithet applied to him by Sheffield, Saville, and Wilmot. He chose rather to be eclipsed than to be troubled, to receive a pension from France rather than ask his Parliament for subsidies.

His affection for his children was worthy of a better man. He loved the Duke of Monmouth with the fondness of a partial parent, and forgave him more than once for injuries, almost amounting to crimes of magnitude, personal and political. The Duke of Grafton, one of his sons by the Duchess of Cleveland, he loved "on the score of the sea,"[7] and for the frankness of his nature. His queen's manners and society he never could have liked, though his letter to Lord Clarendon, written from Portsmouth, upon her first arrival, is ardent in passion, and might have been held to promise the most constant affection for her person.[8] He grew at last to believe that she never could bring him an heir,[9] an opinion in which he was confirmed by the people about him; but, anxious as he certainly was for another wife, he rejected with scorn a proposition that was made to him to send her away in disguise to a distant region. His steadiness to his brother, though it may and indeed must in a great measure be accounted for on selfish principles, had at least, as Fox remarks, a strong resemblance to virtue.[10] Prince Rupert he looked upon, not unjustly, as a madman.[11] If he was slow to reward and willing to forgive, he was not prone to forget. His secret service expenses record many payments, and at all periods, to the several branches of the Penderells, to whom he was indebted for his preservation after the battle of Worcester.[12]

He lived beloved, and died lamented, by a very large portion of his people. What helped to endear him has been happily expressed by Waller:

————the first English born
That has the crown of these three kingdoms worn.

Then, the way in which he was seen in St. James's Park feeding his ducks;[13] or in the Mall playing a manly game with great skill;[14] or at the two theatres encouraging English authors, and commending English actors and actresses, added to his popularity. He really mixed with his subjects; and though a standing army was first established in his reign, it was needed more for his throne than for his person.

He did not study or care for the state which most of his predecessors before him had assumed, and was fond of dropping the formality of a sovereign for the easy character of a companion. He had lived, when in exile, upon a footing of equality with his banished nobles, and had partaken freely and promiscuously in the pleasures and frolics by which they had endeavoured to sweeten adversity. He was led in this way to let distinction and ceremony fall to the ground, as useless and foppish, and could not even on premeditation, it is said, act for a moment the part of a king either at parliament or council, either in words or gesture. When he attended the House of Lords, he would descend from the throne and stand by the fire, drawing a crowd about him that broke up all the regularity and order of the place. In a very little time he would have gone round the House, and have spoken to every man that he thought worth speaking to.[15] He carried his dogs to the council table—

His very dog at council board
Sits grave and wise as any lord,[16]

and allowed them to lie in his bed-chamber, where he would often suffer them to pup and give suck, much to the disgust of Evelyn, and of many who resided at court.[17] His very speeches to his parliament contain traits of his personal character. "The mention of my wife's arrival," he says, "puts me in mind to desire you to put that compliment upon her, that her entrance into the town may be with more decency than the ways will now suffer it to be, and for that purpose I pray you would quickly pass such laws as are before you, in order to the amending those ways, and that she may not find Whitehall surrounded by water."[18] Nothing but his character, as Sir Robert Walpole observed of Sir William Yonge, could keep down his parts, and nothing but his parts support his character.

His mistresses were as different in their humours as in their looks. He did not care to choose for himself, so that, as Halifax observes, it was resolved generally by others whom he should have in his arms as well as whom he should have in his councils. Latterly he lived under the traditional influence of his old engagements; and though he had skill enough to suspect, he had wit enough not to care.[19] His passion for Miss Stuart, as I have already said, was a stronger feeling of attachment than he is thought to have entertained for any body else.[20]

His understanding was quick and lively; but he had little reading, and that tending to his pleasures more than to instruction. He had read men rather than books. The Duke of Buckingham happily characterised the two brothers in a conversation with Burnet:—"The King," he said, "could see things if he would, and the Duke would see things if he could."[21] Nor was the observation of Tom Killigrew, made to the King himself in Cowley's hearing, without its point. This privileged wit, after telling the King the ill state of his affairs, was pleased to suggest a way to help all. "There is," says he, "a good honest able man that I could name, whom if your majesty would employ, and command to see things well executed, all things would soon be mended, and this is one Charles Stuart, who now spends his time in employing his lips about the court, and hath no other employment; but if you would give him this employment, he were the fittest man in the world to perform it."[22] He had what Sheffield called the foible of his family, to be easily imposed upon; for, as Clarendon truly remarks, it was the unhappy fate of the Stuart family to trust too much on all occasions to others.[23] To such an extent did he carry unnecessary confidence, that he would sign papers without inquiring what they were about.[24]

He drew well himself,[25] was fond of mathematics, fortification, and shipping; knew the secrets of many empirical medicines, passed many hours in his laboratory, and in the very month in which he died was running a process for fixing mercury.[26] The Observatory at Greenwich, and the Mathematical School at Christ's Hospital, are enduring instances of his regard for science.

He had all the hereditary love of the Stuarts for poetry and poets, and in this respect was certainly different from George II., who considered a poet in the light of a mechanic.[27] He carried Hudibras about in his pocket,[28] protected its publication by his royal warrant, but allowed its author to starve. Nor was this from want of admiration, but from indolence. Patronage had been a trouble to him. The noble song of Shirley—

The glories of our blood and state,

was often sung to him by old Bowman, and, while he enjoyed the poetry, he could have cared but little for the moral grandeur which pervades it. He suggested the Medal to Dryden as a subject for a poem while walking in the Mall. "If I was a poet," he said, "and I think I am poor enough to be one, I would write a poem on such a subject in the following manner."—Dryden took the hint, carried his poem to the King, and had a hundred broad pieces for it.[29] A good new comedy, we are told by Dennis, took the next place in his list of likings immediately after his last new mistress. In points connected with the stage he was even more at home than in matters of poetry, insomuch that the particular differences, pretensions, or complaints of the actors were generally ended by the King's personal command or decision.[30] This, however, he would at times carry to excess, and it has been even said, that "he would hear anybody against anybody." One of his latest acts was to call the attention of the poet Crowne to the Spanish play "No Puedeser; or, It cannot be," and to command him to write a comedy on a somewhat similar foundation. To this suggestion it is that we owe the good old comedy of "Sir Courtly Nice."[31]

He hated flattery,[32] was perfectly accessible, would stop and talk with Hobbes, or walk through the park with Evelyn, or any other favourite. Steele remembered to have seen him more than once leaning on D'Urfey's shoulder, and humming over a song with him.[33] Hume blames him for not preserving Otway from his sad end; but Otway died in the next reign, more from accident than neglect.

His passion for music (he preferred the violin to the viol) is not ill illustrated in the well-known jingle—

Four-and-twenty fiddlers all in a row,
And there was fiddle-fiddle, and twice fiddle-fiddle, &c.

written on his enlargement of his band of fiddlers to four-and-twenty,—his habit, while at his meals, of having, according to the French mode, twenty-four violins playing before him;[34] or by his letters written during his exile. "We pass our time as well as people can do," he observes, "that have no more money, for we dance and play as if we had taken the Plate fleet";[35] "Pray get me pricked down," he adds in another, "as many new corrants and sarabands and other little dances as you can, and bring them with you, for I have got a small fiddler that does not play ill."[36]

Like others of his race, like James I. and James V. of Scotland, like his father and his grandfather, he was occasionally a poet. A song of his composition is certainly characteristic of his way of life:—

I pass all my hours in a shady old grove,
But I live not the day when I see not my love;
I survey every walk now my Phillis is gone,
And sigh when I think we were there all alone;
O then, 'tis O then, that I think there's no hell
Like loving, like loving too well.

But each shade and each conscious bow'r when I find,
Where I once have been happy, and she has been kind;
When I see the print left of her shape on the green,
And imagine the pleasure may yet come again;
O then 'tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.

While alone to myself I repeat all her charms,
She I love may be lock'd in another man's arms,
She may laugh at my cares, and so false she may be,
To say all the kind things she before said to me:
O then, 'tis then, that I think there's no hell
Like loving too well.

But when I consider the truth of her heart,
Such an innocent passion, so kind without art;
I fear I have wronged her, and hope she may be
So full of true love to be jealous of me:
And then 'tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.[37]

That he understood foreign affairs better than all his councils and counsellors put together was the repeated remark of the Lord Keeper Guildford. In his exile he had acquired either a personal acquaintance with most of the eminent statesmen in Europe, or else from such as could instruct him he had received their characters:—and this knowledge, the Lord Keeper would continue, he perpetually improved by conversing with men of quality and ambassadors, whom he would sift, and by what he obtained from them ("possibly drunk as well as sober"), would serve himself one way or other. "When they sought," his lordship added, "to sift him—who, to give him his due, was but too open—he failed not to make his best of them."[38]

His love of wine was the common failing of his age. The couplet which I shall have occasion hereafter to include among his happy replies—

Good store of good claret supplies everything,
And the man that is drunk is as great as a king,

affords no ill notion of the feeling current at Whitehall. When the Duke of York, after dinner, asked Henry Saville if he intended to invite the King to the business of the day, Saville wondered what he meant, and incurred the displeasure of the Duke by continuing the King in the belief that hard-drinking was the business before them.[39]

His great anxiety was the care of his health, thinking it, perhaps, more reconcileable with his pleasures than he really found it. He rose early, walked generally three or four hours a day by his watch, and when he pulled it out skilful men, it is said, would make haste with what they had to say to him. He walked so rapidly with what Teonge calls "his wonted large pace,"[40] that it was a trouble, as Burnet observes, for others to keep up with him. This rapid walk gives a sting to the saying of Shaftesbury, that "he would leisurely walk his Majesty out of his dominions,"[41] while it explains his advice to his nephew Prince George of Denmark, when he complained to Charles of growing fat since his marriage, "Walk with me, hunt with my brother, and do justice on my niece, and you will not be fat."[42]

His ordinary conversation—and much of his time was passed in "discoursing,"[43]—hovered too frequently between profanity and indecency, and in its familiarity was better adapted to his condition before he was restored than afterwards. Yet it had withal many fascinations of which the best talker might be proud—possessing a certain softness of manner that placed his hearers at ease, and sent them away enamoured with what he said.[44] When he thought fit to unbend entirely he exhibited great quickness of conception, much pleasantness of wit, with great variety of knowledge, more observation and truer judgment of men than one would have imagined by so careless and easy a manner as was natural to him in all he said or did.[45] Such at least is the written opinion of Sir William Temple. His speech to La Belle Stuart, who resisted all his importunities,—that he hoped he should live to see her "ugly and willing;"[46]—his letter to his sister on hearing of her pregnancy,[47] and his speech to his wife, "You lie: confess and be hanged,"[48] must be looked upon in connexion with the outspoken language of his age—an age in which young women, even of the higher classes, conversed without circumspection and modesty, and frequently met at taverns and common eating-houses.[49]

"If writers be just to the memory of King Charles II.," says Dryden, addressing Lord Halifax, "they cannot deny him to have been an exact knower of mankind, and a perfect distinguisher of their talents." "It is true," he continues, "his necessities often forced him to vary his counsellors and counsels, and sometimes to employ such persons in the management of his affairs who were rather fit for his present purpose than satisfactory to his judgment; but where it was choice in him, not compulsion, he was master of too much good sense to delight in heavy conversation; and, whatever his favourites of state might be, yet those of his affection were men of wit."[50]

He was an admirable teller of a story, and loved to talk over the incidents of his life to every new face that came about him. His stay in Scotland, his escape from Worcester, and the share he had in the war of Paris, in carrying messages from the one side to the other, were his common topics. He went over these in a very graceful manner, but so often and so copiously, says Burnet, that all those who had been long accustomed to them were soon weary, and usually withdrew, so that he often began them in a full audience, and before he had done, there were not above four or five left about him. But this general unwillingness to listen is contradicted by Sheffield, who observes that many of his ministers, not out of flattery, but for the pleasure of hearing it, affected an ignorance of what they had heard him relate ten times before, treating a story of his telling as a good comedy that bears being seen often, if well acted. This love of talking made him, it is said, fond of strangers who hearkened to his stories and went away as in a rapture at such uncommon condescension in a king; while the sameness in telling caused Lord Rochester to observe, that "he wondered to see a man have so good a memory as to repeat the same story without losing the least circumstance, and yet not remember that he had told it to the same persons the very day before."[51]

He was undisturbed by libels; enjoying the severities of Wilmot, enduring and not resenting the bitter personalities of Sheffield.[52] To have been angry about such matters had been a trouble; he therefore let them alone, banishing Wilmot only for a time for a libel which he had given him on himself, and rewarding Sheffield for a satire unsurpassed for boldness in an age of lampoons. He was compared to Nero, who sung while Rome was burning, and pardoned the malice of the wit in the satire of the comparison. He loved a laugh at court as much as Nokes or Tony Leigh did upon the stage.

Yet he would laugh at his best friends, and be
Just as good company as Nokes or Leigh.[53]

Few indeed escaped his wit, and rather than not laugh he would turn the laugh upon himself.

Words or promises went very easily from him,[54] and his memory was only good in such matters as affection or caprice might chance to determine. Had he been less "unthinking," we should have had an epic from the muse of Dryden, "but being encouraged only with fair words from King Charles II.," writes the great poet, "my little salary ill paid, and no prospect of a future subsistence, I was thus discouraged in the beginning of my attempt." If we lost King Arthur, we gained Absalom and Achitophel. Thus discouraged, Dryden took to temporary subjects, nor let us regret the chance that drove him from his heroic poem.

Among the most reprehensible of the minor frailties of his life, for which he must be considered personally responsible, was his squandering on his mistresses the 70,000l. voted by the House for a monument to his father, and his thrusting the Countess of Castlemaine into the place of a Lady of the Bedchamber to his newly-married wife. The excuse for the former fault, that his father's grave was unknown, was silly in the extreme, and has since been proved to be without foundation; while his letter in reply to the remonstrance of Lord Clarendon, not to appoint his mistress to a place of honour in the household of his wife, assigns no reason for such a step, while it holds out a threat of everlasting enmity should Clarendon continue to oppose his will.[55]

One of his favourite amusements was fishing, and the Thames at Datchet one of his places of resort. Lord Rochester alludes to his passion for the sport in one of his minor poems,[56] and among his household expenses is an allowance to his cormorant keeper for his repairing yearly into the north parts of England "to take haggard cormorants for the King's disport in fishing."[57] His fancy for his ducks was long perpetuated in the public accounts, as Berenger observed, when a century after he was making his inquiries at the Mews for his History of Horsemanship. Struck by the constant introduction of a charge for hemp-seed, he was led at last to inquire for what purpose the seed was wanted. That none was used, was at once admitted, but the charge had been regularly made since the reign of Charles II., and that seemed sufficient reason for its continuance in the Mews accounts.[58] Many an abuse has been perpetuated on no better grounds.

Such was Charles II.;

Great Pan who wont to chase the fair
And loved the spreading oak;[59]

and such are the materials from which David Hume and Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Fox and Mr. Macaulay, have drawn in part their characters of the King. But there are other materials for a true understanding of the man,

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor,

and these are his sayings, which Walpole loved to repeat, and of which I have made a collection in the following chapter.


  1. Evelyn, ii. 207, ed. 1850.
  2. Hinton's Memoirs, p. 29.
  3. Dr. Lake's Diary, p. 26.
  4. Clarendon's Life, iii. 3, ed. 1826.
  5. Burnet, ii. 469, ed. 1823.
  6. Halifax, p. 4.
  7. Pepys's Tangier Diary, ii. 36.
  8. See it among the Lansdowne MSS. (1236) in the British Museum. It is not fit to print.
  9. Clarendon's Life, iii. 60, ed. 1826.
  10. Fox's James II., p. 70.
  11. Pepys's Tangier Diary, ii. 36.
  12. Printed for the Camden Society. Mr. Macaulay says, harshly enough—"Never was there a mind on which both services and injuries left such faint and transitory impressions."
  13. Cibber's Apology, p. 26, 8vo., 1740.
  14. Waller's poem "On St. James's Park."
  15. Burnet, i. 472, 3, ed. 1823. In his speech in the House of Commons, March 1, 1661, he says—"In a word, I know most of your faces and names, and can never hope to find better men in your places."
  16. Lord Rochester's Poem, 1697, p. 150.
  17. Evelyn, vol. ii., p. 207, ed. 1850. Charles was fond of animals and natural history. In the Works Accounts at Whitehall, for 1667–8, I observe a payment for "the posts whereon the king's bees stand."
  18. Speech, March 1, 1661–2. See the allusion explained in my "Handbook for London," art. Whitehall.
  19. Halifax's Character, p. 21.
  20. Clarendon's Life, iii. 61, ed. 1826.
  21. Burnet, i. 288, ed. 1823.
  22. Pepys, 8 Dec., 1666.
  23. Clarendon's Life, iii. 63, ed. 1826.
  24. Burnet, i. 417, ed. 1823.
  25. Walpole's Anecdotes, by Wornum, p. 427.
  26. Burnet, ii. 254, ed. 1823. Among the satires attributed to Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, is one on Charles II., called "The Cabin Boy."
  27. Lord Chesterfield's Works, by Lord Mahon, ii. 441.
  28. Dennis's Reflections on Pope's Essay on Criticism, p. 23.
  29. Spence's Anecdotes, p. 171.
  30. Cibber's Apology, p. 75, ed. 1740.
  31. Crowne's Preface to Sir Courtly Nice, 4to. 1685.
  32. Temple's Works, ii. 409, ed. 1770.
  33. The Guardian.
  34. Antony A. Wood's Life, ed. Bliss, 8vo. p. 70.
  35. Mis. Aulica, p. 117.
  36. Ellis's Letters, 2nd series, vol. iii. p. 376, and Mis. Aul. p. 155.
  37. From Choice Ayres, Songs, &c., 1676, folio; see also Roger North's Memoirs of Musick, 4to. 1846, p. 104; Hawkins's History of Music, v. 447; and Park's ed. of Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, i. 154.
  38. North, ii. 102, ed. 1826.
  39. Lady R. Russell's Letters, by Miss Berry, p. 177.
  40. Teonge's Diary, p. 232.
  41. Sprat's Account of the Rye House Plot.
  42. Antony A. Wood's Life, ed. Bliss, p. 260.
  43. North's Lives, ed. 1826, ii.
  44. Burnet, ii. 467, ed. 1823.
  45. Temple, ii. 408, ed. 1770.
  46. Lord Dartmouth's note in Burnet, i. 436, ed. 1823.
  47. Dalrymple's Memoirs, Appendix, p. 21, ed. 1773.
  48. Pepys.
  49. Clarendon's Life, i. 358, ed. 1826.
  50. Dryden—Dedication of King Arthur, 4to. 1691.
  51. Burnet, i. 458, ed. 1823.
  52. Lord Rochester to Saville relative to Mulgrave's Essay on Satire. (Malone's Life of Dryden, p. 134.) See also Burnet, i. 433, ed. 1823.
  53. Mulgrave's "Essay on Satire." Mr. Bolton Corney in vol, iii. p. 162, of Notes and Queries, has in a most unanswerable manner vindicated Mulgrave's claim to the authorship of this satire.
  54. Burnet, ii. 466.
  55. See it in Lister's Life of Clarendon, vol. iii. p. 202.
  56. State Poems, 8vo. 1697, p. 43. Reresby's Memoirs, 8vo. 1735, p. 100. Lord Rochester's Poems in a MS. of the time, is headed "Flatfoot, the Gudgeon Taker." (MS. in possession of R. M. Milnes, Esq., M.P., ii. 240.) "1 July, 1679. Little was done all day [at Windsor] but going a fishing. At night the Duchess of Portsmouth came. In the morning I was with the King at Mrs. Nell's."—Henry Sidney Lord Romney's Diary, i. 20.
  57. Audit Office Enrolments, (MSS.) vi. 326.
  58. Nichols's Tatler, 8vo, 1786, vol. iii. p. 361.
  59. Addison "To Sir Godfrey Kneller."