Gillian Bagwell is the author of the upcoming novel The Darling Strumpet, a novel based on the life of Nell Gwynn, who rose from the streets to become one of London’s most beloved actresses and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.
This is the first in a series of monthly articles chronicling the events from May 1660 through January 1661, in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Restoration of the English monarchy, the reopening of the playhouses, which had been closed for 18 years under Cromwell, and the first appearance of an actress on the English stage, in contrast to the old practice of boys playing women’s roles.
For further information about the articles and Gillian’s books, please visit her website, gillianbagwell.com.
May, 1660 was one of the most eventful months in English history, as it was on May 29 that King Charles II rode into London on his thirtieth birthday to claim his throne after years of exile during the civil war and the subsequent rise to power of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth government.
This restoration of the monarchy – The Restoration – gave its name to the years that followed Charles’s return, including the new era in English theatre that dawned along with the return of the King.
Charles’s father, Charles I, had become involved in acrimonious dispute with Parliament over their respective powers. This disagreement developed into civil war, and on January 30, 1649, the unthinkable happened – Charles I was executed on a scaffold outside the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall Palace in London.
The royal family had scattered as the situation worsened, young Charles accompanying his father, but after the war began to go very badly for the Royalists, he left England, going first to Jersey, then to France, then to Holland, and in 1650, to Scotland, which had promised help in taking back his throne. In early 1651 he marched into England with a mostly Scottish army, hoping that English supporters would flock to join him.
On September 3, 1651, Charles’s badly outnumbered forces met Cromwell’s army at Worcester, suffering a disastrous defeat. Charles barely escaped with his life, and after a desperate six-week odyssey (the subject of my next novel, The Royal Miracle!), finally escaped to safety in France.
After Cromwell died on September 3, 1658, his son succeeded him. But Richard lacked the military experience and other qualities that had enabled his father to rule, and he was forced to resign in 1659. England was disillusioned with the experiment of a country run without a king, and the officers of the army were growing increasingly wary of the government. In January 1660, General George Monck, the commander in chief of the Parliamentary forces, marched to London and forced dissolution of the “Long Parliament.”
The rumors of the King’s return sparked cautious hope and veiled excitement. Cromwell and his harsh and repressive government had not been popular. Diarist Samuel Pepys noted on February 7, 1660 that “Boys do now cry ‘kiss my Parliament’ instead of ‘kiss my arse, so great and general a contempt is the Rump [Parliament] come to among all men.” On February 11, he wrote “I saw many people give the soldiers drink and money, and all along in the streets cried, ‘God bless them!’…. In Cheapside there was a great many bonfires, and Bow bells and all the bells in all the churches as we went home were a-ringing…. But the common joy that was everywhere to be seen!”
Events moved rapidly, and on May 1, 1660 the newly convened Convention Parliament formally invited Charles to return. Almost unbelievably, his restoration to the throne would be accomplished without bloodshed. Pepys marveled “It was past imagination both the greatness and the suddenness of it.”
Maypoles rose for “the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England…. At night more bonfires than ever and ringing of bells and drinking of the King’s health upon their knees in the streets, which methinks is a little too much.”
“The King’s letter was read in the House,” Pepys wrote on May 2, “Wherein he submits himself and all things to them…. The House … return an answer of thanks to His Majesty for his gracious letter.” Better yet, they sent the impoverished King a chest containing £4000 in coin – the first installment of a £50,000 grant. Ed Pickering told Pepys “in what a sad poor condition for clothes and money the King was, and all his attendants … and how overjoyed the King was … so joyful that he called the Princess Royal and Duke of York to look upon it as it lay in the portmanteau.”
Pepys was part of the deputation that went to The Hague to bring Charles home, and had a close-up view of the historic events. On May 23, the King came aboard the ship Naseby with his brothers the Dukes of York and Gloucester; his sister Mary, the Princess Royal and the widow of William of Orange, with her young son the Prince of Orange (who, as William III, would later rule England with his wife Mary); and the King’s aunt, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia.
They “dined in a great deal of state … which was a blessed sight to see. After dinner, the King and the Duke altered the names of some of the ships, viz, the Naseby into Charles, etc….. The Queen, Princess Royal, and Prince of Orange took leave of the King … which done, we weighed anchor, and with a fresh gale and most happy weather we set sail for England – all the afternoon the King walking here and there, up and down … very active and stirring. Upon the quarterdeck he fell in discourse of his escape from Worcester. Where it made me ready to weep to hear the stories that he told of his difficulties.” (Many years later, in 1680, Charles and Pepys spent two three-hour sessions together in which Charles told the full story, Pepys noting it down in his famous shorthand. He edited it and bound it into a volume with other contemporary accounts, thus preserving for history the astonishing story of “The Royal Miracle,” as it came to be called.)
On May 25, the King’s ship reached England. Pepys went on shore in a boat with others including one of the King’s footmen “with a dog that the King loved (which shit in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belongs to him are but just as others are).” The King “was received by General Monck with all imaginable love and respect upon the land at Dover. Infinite the crowds of people and the gallantry of the horsemen, citizens, and noblemen of all sorts…. The shouting and joy expressed by all is past imagination.”
Charles journeyed from Dover to Canterbury and then to Rochester, to the accompaniment of celebratory firing of cannons and more bonfires. At Rochester he forsook his coach for a horse, and at Blackheath, near Greenwich on the south bank of the Thames, and long used as a gathering place for both happy and rebellious crowds, the King greeted the army, who accompanied him as he rode on through Deptford and Southwark, and finally crossed London Bridge into the City.
All of England, it seemed, thronged London’s streets to welcome Charles back. Diarist John Evelyn described “above 20,000 horse and foot, brandishing their swords and shouting with inexpressible joy, the ways strewn with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine…. I stood in the Strand and blessed God.”
King Charles, flanked by his brothers, finally arrived at Whitehall at seven in the evening, where he was addressed by the speakers of both houses and others, attended a thanksgiving service in the chapel, and dined ceremoniously in public before he could finally make his way to bed. Legend has it that he spent that night in the arms of his mistress Barbara Palmer, and her first child by him was born almost exactly nine months later.
Among the King’s subjects overjoyed at his restoration were the actors. Cromwell had outlawed performances and torn down many of the old playhouses, and the disbanded companies of professional actors had turned to clandestine performances, which were frequently raided, with the actors suffering arrest, the theft of their costumes, fines, and whipping. The news of the impending return of King Charles encouraged the actors to be daring. By February or March 1660, three companies had formed in London, Rhodes’s company at the Cockpit in Drury Lane (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockpit_Theatre), Michael Mohun’s at the Red Bull in St. John Street near Clerkenwell Green (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Bull_Theatre), and Christopher Beeston’s at Salisbury Court off Fleet Street (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salisbury_Court_Theatre). But theatre performances were still not authorized, and on May 12, 1660, Henry Eaton, Anthony Turner, and Edward Shatterell of the Red Bull were charged with putting on plays illegally. Very soon, however, the actors’ fortunes would change, much for the best.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Met Office Hadley Center Observations Datasets
1660: The Year of Restoration, Patrick Morrah (Beacon Press, 1960)
The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage, Leslie Hotson, (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1928)
The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. Guy de la Bédoyère (Boydell Press, 1995; First Person Singular, 2004)
The London Stage, 1660-1800, A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments, and Afterpieces Together with Casts, Box-Receipts, and Contemporary Comment, Part I, 1660-1700, ed. William Van Lennep et al. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1963)
Pepys’s Diary, Volume I, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Folio Society, 1996)