Jordan and Walsh (White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America, 2007, etc.) look deeper into England’s “Merry Monarch” and his character—or lack thereof.
The English civil war and his father’s execution, in 1649, forced Charles II, his mother, and his siblings to flee England, and his years of exile at the amoral French court shaped him profoundly. Following his restoration, his only aims were revenge and pleasure. To build their narrative, the authors make excellent use of a great wealth of resources. Contemporary correspondence, particularly between Charles and his younger sister, gives the most honest picture of the man. In addition, diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (who wrote about Charles II, “an excellent prince doubtless had he been less addicted to women”) bring out everyday life at court. Charles was a genial, affable man, but he was also selfish, trivial, and hateful of anything that got in the way of his pleasure. He had little interest in statecraft, calling Parliament only to wring money to give to his mistresses, and he generally ignored his capable men of state. He showered his women with titles, properties, and even income that should have gone to the Exchequer. He had a few chief mistresses among his innumerable flings. The first, Barbara Palmer, bore him multiple children and ruled him with countless demands and frequent tirades. His truest “friend” was Nell Gwyn, the actress who made few demands and amused the king greatly. There was also Louise de Kérouaille, a beauty sent by Louis XIV as a spy to promote France’s aim to conquer the Netherlands. Louis’ enormous bribes effectively put Charles in his pocket, and while Charles swore none influenced his decisions, it seems he had better things to do anyway.
The authors’ easy, readable style makes this a solid biography of Charles II, full of sturdy history and enough salacious information to keep it interesting.