The Last Years of Charles II
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The rout of the Whigs, when the Oxford parliament was dissolved, was complete. The acute Charles, who, when he gave his mind to business, probably had a keener insight than any man in England, had realised that Shaftesbury was ruining his own cause by claiming too much. In that course. Charles deliberately encouraged him by his professed readiness to make such concessions as had been offered at the last parliament.
The adoption of the Monmouth candidature was a fatal error, since despite the Duke's popularity, the world at large did not seriously believe that he was legitimate, and the country could not be united upon a proposal to set a bastard on the throne.
Moreover, Charles realised that a reaction against the popish terror was already setting in. Men were awaking with shame to the consciousness that they had completely lost their heads and had been guilty of flagrant and unreasoning injustice; and they were angry with the men who had encouraged the panic.
Popular opinion had swung round, and the discomfiture of Shaftesbury's party, with its strong majority in the House of Commons, aroused no indignation. Had the country known either of the old Treaty of Dover or of the latest agreement between Charles and Louis, matters would have gone very differently; but there were not half-a-dozen men in the country who were in either of those secrets.
Charles had indeed a difficult task in keeping faith with France without arousing suspicions; but it was one to which his consummate powers of deception were quite equal. He could prove to his Dutch nephew that he could not join a league against Louis without appealing to parliament, and he could not appeal to parliament without having to face either a new Exclusion bill or at best a bill which would seriously limit his successor's prerogative; and neither of those alternatives, was at all to the taste of James's son-in-law and prospective heir.
The judges might be as subservient as those of his father, but his father's arbitrary Courts had been abolished, and juries might, and did, prove independent. When Shaftesbury was charged with treason a London Grand Jury threw out the bill in defiance of the directions they received from the judge. Whiggery was inconveniently prevalent in the boroughs; the corporations would be only too likely to return Whig members to a parliament if summoned, and the corporation officers would empanel juries disagreeably imbued with Whig traditions.
Writs of Quo Warranto
But all this could be remedied. When the government procured the appointment of Tory sheriffs for the city, Tory juries were secure, and Shaftesbury promptly removed himself out of danger to Holland. What Charles required was to obtain control of the corporations. Writs of Quo Warranto were issued to inquire into the authority by which the corporations, beginning with the City of London, exercised their powers and privileges.
It was not difficult to show that the actual powers conveyed by the charters had been transgressed, and charter after charter was forfeited or surrendered; to be restored, with this vital change, that the corporation officers were appointed either by direct nomination of the Crown or subject to the Crown's control instead of by free election of the burgesses.
While the boroughs were being robbed of their independence and were in effect being transformed into instruments of despotism, Whig mismanagement was playing into the king's hands. The clear policy for the party to follow was to drop Monmouth, ally itself with William and Mary, and trust to the indiscretion of Louis XIV or of the Duke of York: to provide it with the certain means of exciting public opinion once more against the succession of James and association with France.
The Rye House Plot
Even before the Sight of Shaftesbury, which was shortly followed by his death, the Whig leaders were taking the opposite course of encouraging Monmouth to court popular favour. The real ruin was wrought, however, not by the leaders, but by the irresponsible hot-heads who in 1683 concocted the Rye House Plot. Charles and James were to be seized and perhaps to be assassinated on their way from Newmarket to London. The plot was betrayed, and although it had been carefully concealed from the Whig leaders, several of them were charged with complicity.
The Sidney case
The Earl of Essex committed suicide in the Tower. Enough evidence of Russell's association with some of the plotters was found to warrant his condemnation by a partisan court. The great scandal was in connection with the doom of Algernon Sidney, against whom only one witness could be produced, though the law of treason required two. But among his papers was found an essay in favour of republicanism. It had not even been published, but it was admitted as the equivalent for the necessary second witness.
Sidney was condemned and executed. The subsequent indignation at this travesty of justice was for the time being suppressed by the present indignation at an assassination plot.
The Court became more popular than it had been at any period of the reign; repeated breaches of the Test Act and Corporation Acts were allowed to pass unchallenged; high Anglican doctrines of non-resistance to the royal authority predominated on all sides, and Tory magistrates applied the persecuting Acts against dissenters with renewed energy.
In the spring of 1684 Charles felt himself strong enough to refuse to summon a parliament, in defiance of the Triennial Act, and even although the boroughs were now so completely in his hands that he would have been sure of a subservient House of Commons. Danby and certain Roman Catholic lords who had been confined in the Tower at the time of the Popish plot were set at liberty, although they had hitherto been detained on the ground that they had been committed to prison by parliament, and that only the authority of parliament could release them.
In defiance of the Test Act, James was restored to his old office at the head of the Admiralty. In the general paralysis it mattered little that the voice of England was silent on continental affairs, and that Tangier was finally abandoned.
Death of Charles II
Charles had won the game; but no time was given to him to follow up his victory. In February 1685 he was seized with apoplexy. On his deathbed he received the last Sacraments as a member of the Church of Rome. Monmouth was out of the country, and James II succeeded to the crown unchallenged.
The "merry monarch" preserved to the last his reputation with the nation as a good-natured fainéant
"Who never said a foolish thing
And never did a wise one"
a popular reputation which survived for a century and a half, an unparalleled example of triumphant dissimulation.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.