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King Charles Ii And Nell Gwyn

One might classify the kings of England in many ways. John was

undoubtedly the most unpopular. The impetuous yet far-seeing Henry

II., with the other two great warriors, Edward I. and Edward III.,

and William of Orange, did most for the foundation and development of

England's constitutional law. Some monarchs, such as Edward II. and the

womanish Henry VI., have been contemptible. Hard-working, useful kings

have been He
ry VII., the Georges, William IV., and especially the last


If we consider those monarchs who have in some curious way touched the

popular fancy without reference to their virtues we must go back to

Richard of the Lion Heart, who saw but little of England, yet was the

best essentially English king, and to Henry V., gallant soldier and

conqueror of France. Even Henry VIII. had a warm place in the affection

of his countrymen, few of whom saw him near at hand, but most of whom

made him a sort of regal incarnation of John Bull--wrestling and tilting

and boxing, eating great joints of beef, and staying his thirst with

flagons of ale--a big, healthy, masterful animal, in fact, who gratified

the national love of splendor and stood up manfully in his struggle with

the Pope.

But if you look for something more than ordinary popularity--something

that belongs to sentiment and makes men willing to become martyrs for

a royal cause--we must find these among the Stuart kings. It is odd,

indeed, that even at this day there are Englishmen and Englishwomen who

believe their lawful sovereign to be a minor Bavarian princess in whose

veins there runs the Stuart blood. Prayers are said for her at English

shrines, and toasts are drunk to her in rare old wine.

Of course, to-day this cult of the Stuarts is nothing but a fad. No

one ever expects to see a Stuart on the English throne. But it is

significant of the deep strain of romance which the six Stuarts who

reigned in England have implanted in the English heart. The old Jacobite

ballads still have power to thrill. Queen Victoria herself used to have

the pipers file out before her at Balmoral to the "skirling" of "Bonnie

Dundee," "Over the Water to Charlie," and "Wha'll Be King but Charlie!"

It is a sentiment that has never died. Her late majesty used to say that

when she heard these tunes she became for the moment a Jacobite; just

as the Empress Eugenie at the height of her power used pertly to remark

that she herself was the only Legitimist left in France.

It may be suggested that the Stuarts are still loved by many Englishmen

because they were unfortunate; yet this is hardly true, after all. Many

of them were fortunate enough. The first of them, King James, an absurd

creature, speaking broad Scotch, timid, foolishly fond of favorites, and

having none of the dignity of a monarch, lived out a lengthy reign. The

two royal women of the family--Anne and Mary--had no misfortunes of a

public nature. Charles II. reigned for more than a quarter of a century,

lapped in every kind of luxury, and died a king.

The first Charles was beheaded and afterward styled a "saint"; yet the

majority of the English people were against his arrogance, or else he

would have won his great struggle against Parliament. The second James

was not popular at all. Nevertheless, no sooner had he been expelled,

and been succeeded by a Dutchman gnawing asparagus and reeking of

cheeses, than there was already a Stuart legend. Even had there been

no pretenders to carry on the cult, the Stuarts would still have passed

into history as much loved by the people.

It only shows how very little in former days the people expected of

a regnant king. Many monarchs have had just a few popular traits, and

these have stood out brilliantly against the darkness of the background.

No one could have cared greatly for the first James, but Charles I. was

indeed a kingly personage when viewed afar. He was handsome, as a

man, fully equaling the French princess who became his wife. He had no

personal vices. He was brave, and good to look upon, and had a kingly

mien. Hence, although he sought to make his rule over England a tyranny,

there were many fine old cavaliers to ride afield for him when he raised

his standard, and who, when he died, mourned for him as a "martyr."

Many hardships they underwent while Cromwell ruled with his iron hand;

and when that iron hand was relaxed in death, and poor, feeble Richard

Cromwell slunk away to his country-seat, what wonder is it that young

Charles came back to England and caracoled through the streets of London

with a smile for every one and a happy laugh upon his lips? What wonder

is it that the cannon in the Tower thundered a loud welcome, and that

all over England, at one season or another, maypoles rose and Christmas

fires blazed? For Englishmen at heart are not only monarchists, but they

are lovers of good cheer and merrymaking and all sorts of mirth.

Charles II. might well at first have seemed a worthier and wiser

successor to his splendid father. As a child, even, he had shown himself

to be no faint-hearted creature. When the great Civil War broke out he

had joined his father's army. It met with disaster at Edgehill, and

was finally shattered by the crushing defeat of Naseby, which afterward

inspired Macaulay's most stirring ballad.

Charles was then only a child of twelve, and so his followers did wisely

in hurrying him out of England, through the Scilly isles and Jersey to

his mother's place of exile. Of course, a child so very young could be

of no value as a leader, though his presence might prove an inspiration.

In 1648, however, when he was eighteen years of age, he gathered a fleet

of eighteen ships and cruised along the English coast, taking prizes,

which he carried to the Dutch ports. When he was at Holland's

capital, during his father's trial, he wrote many messages to the

Parliamentarians, and even sent them a blank charter, which they might

fill in with any stipulations they desired if only they would save and

restore their king.

When the head of Charles rolled from the velvet-covered block his son

showed himself to be no loiterer or lover of an easy life. He hastened

to Scotland, skilfully escaping an English force, and was proclaimed as

king and crowned at Scone, in 1651. With ten thousand men he dashed into

England, where he knew there were many who would rally at his call. But

it was then that Cromwell put forth his supreme military genius and with

his Ironsides crushed the royal troops at Worcester.

Charles knew that for the present all was lost. He showed courage and

address in covering the flight of his beaten soldiers; but he soon

afterward went to France, remaining there and in the Netherlands for

eight years as a pensioner of Louis XIV. He knew that time would fight

for him far more surely than infantry and horse. England had not been

called "Merry England" for nothing; and Cromwell's tyranny was likely to

be far more resented than the heavy hand of one who was born a king.

So Charles at Paris and Liege, though he had little money at the time,

managed to maintain a royal court, such as it was.

Here there came out another side of his nature. As a child he had

borne hardship and privation and had seen the red blood flow upon

the battlefield. Now, as it were, he allowed a certain sensuous,

pleasure-loving ease to envelop him. The red blood should become the

rich red burgundy; the sound of trumpets and kettledrums should give way

to the melody of lutes and viols. He would be a king of pleasure if he

were to be king at all. And therefore his court, even in exile, was a

court of gallantry and ease. The Pope refused to lend him money, and the

King of France would not increase his pension, but there were many who

foresaw that Charles would not long remain in exile; and so they gave

him what he wanted and waited until he could give them what they would

ask for in their turn.

Charles at this time was not handsome, like his father. His complexion

was swarthy, his figure by no means imposing, though always graceful.

When he chose he could bear himself with all the dignity of a monarch.

He had a singularly pleasant manner, and a word from him could win over

the harshest opponent.

The old cavaliers who accompanied their master in exile were like

Napoleon's veterans in Elba. With their tall, powerful forms they

stalked about the courtyards, sniffing their disapproval at these

foreign ways and longing grimly for the time when they could once more

smell the pungent powder of the battle-field. But, as Charles had hoped,

the change was coming. Not merely were his own subjects beginning

to long for him and to pray in secret for the king, but continental

monarchs who maintained spies in England began to know of this. To them

Charles was no longer a penniless exile. He was a king who before long

would take possession of his kingdom.

A very wise woman--the Queen Regent of Portugal--was the first to act on

this information. Portugal was then very far from being a petty state.

It had wealth at home and rich colonies abroad, while its flag was seen

on every sea. The queen regent, being at odds with Spain, and wishing to

secure an ally against that power, made overtures to Charles, asking him

whether a match might not be made between him and the Princess Catharine

of Braganza. It was not merely her daughter's hand that she offered,

but a splendid dowry. She would pay Charles a million pounds in gold and

cede to England two valuable ports.

The match was not yet made, but by 1659 it had been arranged. The

Spaniards were furious, for Charles's cause began to appear successful.

She was a quaint and rather piteous little figure, she who was destined

to be the wife of the Merry Monarch. Catharine was dark, petite, and by

no means beautiful; yet she had a very sweet expression and a heart of

utter innocence. She had been wholly convent-bred. She knew nothing of

the world. She was told that in marriage she must obey in all things,

and that the chief duty of a wife was to make her husband happy.

Poor child! It was a too gracious preparation for a very graceless

husband. Charles, in exile, had already made more than one discreditable

connection and he was already the father of more than one growing son.

First of all, he had been smitten by the bold ways of one Lucy Walters.

Her impudence amused the exiled monarch. She was not particularly

beautiful, and when she spoke as others did she was rather tiresome; but

her pertness and the inexperience of the king when he went into exile

made her seem attractive. She bore him a son, in the person of that

brilliant adventurer whom Charles afterward created Duke of Monmouth.

Many persons believe that Charles had married Lucy Walters, just as

George IV. may have married Mrs. Fitzherbert; yet there is not the

slightest proof of it, and it must be classed with popular legends.

There was also one Catherine Peg, or Kep, whose son was afterward

made Earl of Plymouth. It must be confessed that in his attachments

to English women Charles showed little care for rank or station. Lucy

Walters and Catherine Peg were very illiterate creatures.

In a way it was precisely this sort of preference that made Charles

so popular among the people. He seemed to make rank of no account, but

would chat in the most familiar and friendly way with any one whom he

happened to meet. His easy, democratic manner, coupled with the grace

and prestige of royalty, made friends for him all over England. The

treasury might be nearly bankrupt; the navy might be routed by the

Dutch; the king himself might be too much given to dissipation; but his

people forgave him all, because everybody knew that Charles would clap

an honest citizen on the back and joke with all who came to see him feed

the swans in Regent's Park.

The popular name for him was "Rowley," or "Old Rowley"--a nickname

of mysterious origin, though it is said to have been given him from a

fancied resemblance to a famous hunter in his stables. Perhaps it is the

very final test of popularity that a ruler should have a nickname known

to every one.

Cromwell's death roused all England to a frenzy of king-worship. The

Roundhead, General Monk, and his soldiers proclaimed Charles King of

England and escorted him to London in splendid state. That was a day

when national feeling reached a point such as never has been before or

since. Oughtred, the famous mathematician, died of joy when the royal

emblems were restored. Urquhart, the translator of Rabelais, died, it is

said, of laughter at the people's wild delight--a truly Rabelaisian end.

There was the king once more; and England, breaking through its long

period of Puritanism, laughed and danced with more vivacity than ever

the French had shown. All the pipers and the players and panderers to

vice, the mountebanks, the sensual men, and the lawless women poured

into the presence of the king, who had been too long deprived of the

pleasure that his nature craved. Parliament voted seventy thousand

pounds for a memorial to Charles's father, but the irresponsible king

spent the whole sum on the women who surrounded him. His severest

counselor, Lord Clarendon, sent him a remonstrance.

"How can I build such a memorial," asked Charles, "when I don't know

where my father's remains are buried!"

He took money from the King of France to make war against the Dutch,

who had befriended him. It was the French king, too, who sent him that

insidious, subtle daughter of Brittany, Louise de Keroualle--Duchess

of Portsmouth--a diplomat in petticoats, who won the king's wayward

affections, and spied on what he did and said, and faithfully reported

all of it to Paris. She became the mother of the Duke of Lenox, and

she was feared and hated by the English more than any other of his

mistresses. They called her "Madam Carwell," and they seemed to have an

instinct that she was no mere plaything of his idle hours, but was like

some strange exotic serpent, whose poison might in the end sting the

honor of England.

There is a pitiful little episode in the marriage of Charles with his

Portuguese bride, Catharine of Braganza. The royal girl came to him

fresh from the cloisters of her convent. There was something about her

grace and innocence that touched the dissolute monarch, who was by no

means without a heart. For a time he treated her with great respect,

and she was happy. At last she began to notice about her strange

faces--faces that were evil, wanton, or overbold. The court became more

and more a seat of reckless revelry.

Finally Catharine was told that the Duchess of Cleveland--that splendid

termagant, Barbara Villiers--had been appointed lady of the bedchamber.

She was told at the same time who this vixen was--that she was no fit

attendant for a virtuous woman, and that her three sons, the Dukes of

Southampton, Grafton, and Northumberland, were also the sons of Charles.

Fluttered and frightened and dismayed, the queen hastened to her husband

and begged him not to put this slight upon her. A year or two before,

she had never dreamed that life contained such things as these; but now

it seemed to contain nothing else. Charles spoke sternly to her until

she burst into tears, and then he petted her and told her that her

duty as a queen compelled her to submit to many things which a lady in

private life need not endure.

After a long and poignant struggle with her own emotions the little

Portuguese yielded to the wishes of her lord. She never again reproached

him. She even spoke with kindness to his favorites and made him feel

that she studied his happiness alone. Her gentleness affected him so

that he always spoke to her with courtesy and real friendship. When the

Protestant mobs sought to drive her out of England he showed his

courage and manliness by standing by her and refusing to allow her to be


Indeed, had Charles been always at his best he would have had a very

different name in history. He could be in every sense a king. He had a

keen knowledge of human nature. Though he governed England very badly,

he never governed it so badly as to lose his popularity.

The epigram of Rochester, written at the king's own request, was

singularly true of Charles. No man relied upon his word, yet men loved

him. He never said anything that was foolish, and he very seldom did

anything that was wise; yet his easy manners and gracious ways endeared

him to those who met him.

One can find no better picture of his court than that which Sir Walter

Scott has drawn so vividly in Peveril of the Peak; or, if one wishes

first-hand evidence, it can be found in the diaries of Evelyn and of

Samuel Pepys. In them we find the rakes and dicers, full of strange

oaths, deep drunkards, vile women and still viler men, all striving for

the royal favor and offering the filthiest lures, amid routs and balls

and noisy entertainments, of which it is recorded that more than once

some woman gave birth to a child among the crowd of dancers.

No wonder that the little Portuguese queen kept to herself and did not

let herself be drawn into this swirling, roaring, roistering saturnalia.

She had less influence even than Moll Davis, whom Charles picked out

of a coffee-house, and far less than "Madam Carwell," to whom it is

reported that a great English nobleman once presented pearls to the

value of eight thousand pounds in order to secure her influence in a

single stroke of political business.

Of all the women who surrounded Charles there was only one who cared

anything for him or for England. The rest were all either selfish or

treacherous or base. This one exception has been so greatly written of,

both in fiction and in history, as to make it seem almost unnecessary to

add another word; yet it may well be worth while to separate the fiction

from the fact and to see how much of the legend of Eleanor Gwyn is true.

The fanciful story of her birthplace is most surely quite unfounded. She

was not the daughter of a Welsh officer, but of two petty hucksters who

had their booth in the lowest precincts of London. In those days the

Strand was partly open country, and as it neared the city it showed the

mansions of the gentry set in their green-walled parks. At one end of

the Strand, however, was Drury Lane, then the haunt of criminals and

every kind of wretch, while nearer still was the notorious Coal Yard,

where no citizen dared go unarmed.

Within this dreadful place children were kidnapped and trained to

various forms of vice. It was a school for murderers and robbers and

prostitutes; and every night when the torches flared it vomited forth

its deadly spawn. Here was the earliest home of Eleanor Gwyn, and out of

this den of iniquity she came at night to sell oranges at the entrance

to the theaters. She was stage-struck, and endeavored to get even a

minor part in a play; but Betterton, the famous actor, thrust her aside

when she ventured to apply to him.

It must be said that in everything that was external, except her beauty,

she fell short of a fastidious taste. She was intensely ignorant even

for that time. She spoke in a broad Cockney dialect. She had lived the

life of the Coal Yard, and, like Zola's Nana, she could never remember

the time when she had known the meaning of chastity.

Nell Gwyn was, in fact, a product of the vilest slums of London; and

precisely because she was this we must set her down as intrinsically a

good woman--one of the truest, frankest, and most right-minded of

whom the history of such women has anything to tell. All that external

circumstances could do to push her down into the mire was done; yet she

was not pushed down, but emerged as one of those rare souls who have in

their natures an uncontaminated spring of goodness and honesty. Unlike

Barbara Villiers or Lucy Walters or Louise de Keroualle, she was neither

a harpy nor a foe to England.

Charles is said first to have met her when he, incognito, with another

friend, was making the rounds of the theaters at night. The king spied

her glowing, nut-brown face in one of the boxes, and, forgetting his

incognito, went up and joined her. She was with her protector of the

time, Lord Buckhurst, who, of course, recognized his majesty.

Presently the whole party went out to a neighboring coffee-house, where

they drank and ate together. When it came time to pay the reckoning the

king found that he had no money, nor had his friend. Lord Buckhurst,

therefore, paid the bill, while Mistress Nell jeered at the other two,

saying that this was the most poverty-stricken party that she had ever


Charles did not lose sight of her. Her frankness and honest manner

pleased him. There came a time when she was known to be a mistress

of the king, and she bore a son, who was ennobled as the Duke of St.

Albans, but who did not live to middle age. Nell Gwyn was much with

Charles; and after his tempestuous scenes with Barbara Villiers, and the

feeling of dishonor which the Duchess of Portsmouth made him experience,

the girl's good English bluntness was a pleasure far more rare than


Somehow, just as the people had come to mistrust "Madam Carwell," so

they came to like Nell Gwyn. She saw enough of Charles, and she liked

him well enough, to wish that he might do his duty by his people; and

she alone had the boldness to speak out what she thought. One day she

found him lolling in an arm-chair and complaining that the people were

not satisfied.

"You can very easily satisfy them," said Nell Gwyn. "Dismiss your women

and attend to the proper business of a king."

Again, her heart was touched at the misfortunes of the old soldiers who

had fought for Charles and for his father during the Civil War, and who

were now neglected, while the treasury was emptied for French favorites,

and while the policy of England itself was bought and sold in France.

Many and many a time, when other women of her kind used their lures

to get jewels or titles or estates or actual heaps of money, Nell Gwyn

besought the king to aid these needy veterans. Because of her efforts

Chelsea Hospital was founded. Such money as she had she shared with the

poor and with those who had fought for her royal lover.

As I have said, she is a historical type of the woman who loses her

physical purity, yet who retains a sense of honor and of honesty

which nothing can take from her. There are not many such examples, and

therefore this one is worth remembering.

Of anecdotes concerning her there are many, but not often has their real

import been detected. If she could twine her arms about the monarch's

neck and transport him in a delirium of passion, this was only part of

what she did. She tried to keep him right and true and worthy of

his rank; and after he had ceased to care much for her as a lover he

remembered that she had been faithful in many other things.

Then there came the death-bed scene, when Charles, in his inimitable

manner, apologized to those about him because he was so long in dying.

A far sincerer sentence was that which came from his heart, as he cried

out, in the very pangs of death:

"Do not let poor Nelly starve!"