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Throughout history, political leaders have always made hay out of being popular. We expect that from democracies and democratic republics, but the same is true of monarchies as well – even if the king isn’t voted in and therefore doesn’t have to court the favors of his subjects, the rest of the nobility still has to like him well enough to not kill him. It’s a delicate art, politics.
Charles II, who ruled England from 1660 to 1685, was exactly this type of king. It helped that he was the guy who restored the monarchy after the death of Oliver Cromwell, the genocidal (to Catholics) and fun-hating Puritan who had turned the United Kingdom into a commonwealth for 11 years prior to Charles’ return to the throne. That era was a dour and repressive one, and I can’t help but think that England breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Puritans buggered off to the New World.
It also helped that Charles II was a notorious bon vivant who had spent his exile in France nailing every woman with two legs and a pulse, and showed no signs of slowing down when he returned to England. He kept seven mistresses during his reign, and fathered about 17 illegitimate children who were cared for, as is royal tradition, with public funds. Think of him as a Bill Clinton type of character: obviously flawed and impossible to really trust, but too charming to ever really dislike. And again, the guy had more sex just getting out of bed in the morning than most people had in a week.
But Charles wasn’t the only one having a good time. He also reopened the theatres, brothels, breweries and other centers of merriment that had been shuttered by the Puritans. Charles was particularly fond of theatre, and pretty much singlehandedly made Restoration theatre (known for its complicated plots and bawdy sexual overtones) possible. It’s said that he personally encouraged the kind of explicit sexual dialogue in plays like William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (parts of which are just filthy), which makes sense when you consider his lifestyle.
Charles was also a patron of the sciences; he founded the Royal Observatory and supported the research of people like Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. He even joined the firefighting effort when the Great Fire of London broke out in 1666. Try as I might, I can’t imagine Mitt Romney ever doing something like that. Obama would, but only as a photo op.
That said, not everyone liked Charles. He was at constant odds with Parliament over his spending habits (if Charles had money, he was wearing it, plus there were all those mistresses), and he disbanded Parliament altogether a few times to make sure they didn’t pass a bill barring his Catholic brother James from the line of succession.
But really, Charles II can be summed up as a staunch anti-Puritan who, to quote the poet John Evelyn, was “a prince of many virtues and many great imperfections, debonair, easy of access, not bloody or cruel.” Put more simply, he was the monarchical equivalent of the guy who revives a dead frat party with a keg and a carload of hot girls. So yeah, that Bill Clinton comparison from earlier is just about right.