Charles II and the Politics of Access
Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2004, ISBN: 719071970X; 220pp.; Price: £50.00
Louisiana State University
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
Brian Weiser takes as his subject the court and politics of Charles II’s reign, examining them through the glass of access. Following the examples of earlier historians of European courts, he is interested in how a monarch’s availability to his subjects reflects his policies and attitudes. Weiser defines a spectrum of access ranging from open to closed, with various gradations in between. Open access monarchies were largely a thing of the past in the latter seventeenth century, exemplifying a more medieval governing style, hearkening back to such examples as St Louis sitting under an oak, or Edward I roaming the countryside on progress. More common by Charles II’s time were monarchies that surrounded princes with thickets of ceremony and protocol. A king’s appearances in these baroque courts were carefully choreographed – Weiser cites Louis XIV as an obvious example, but the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs would make the point equally well.
Weiser argues that Charles II occupies a number of points on the spectrum during his reign, from attempting to be ‘everybody’s king’ (p. 66) to a cloistered monarch accessible only to the politically sound. In every case, changes in the ‘politics of access’ were connected with the broader political goals of the regime. Using the evolving architecture of Charles II’s palaces, including the existing hodge-podge that was Whitehall, Windsor and the planned (but never completed) extravagances of Winchester, he demonstrates the king’s accessibility as it waxed and waned. Household ordinances, laying down the rules governing admittance to the royal presence, also figure in Weiser’s account. The book’s chapters on the court and its architecture are much the most useful part of the work, illuminating the inner workings of faction and the complex interactions between the king and his courtiers. The aurhor also provides a useful summary of Charles’s travels during the reign, and his periods of residence in his various palaces.
Using the organisation of the court and the king’s accessibility as his starting point, Weiser then proceeds to the bigger picture, attempting to apply his analysis of the shifting currents of court access to the kingdom at large. He does this with varying degrees of success. In succeeding chapters he discusses local politics and trade policy in light of Charles’s changing accessibility. From 1660 to 1681 Charles waffles back and forth, from openness to exclusivity. In the early 1660s, influenced by Clarendon, Charles opts for openness; by the 1670s, with Danby’s rise to prominence, a more exclusive attitude takes hold. Ultimately, the king denied access to those refusing to accept Royalist Anglican principles. The decisive break comes in 1681 as a result of the Exclusion Crisis, which finally persuades Charles that rewarding his friends with a monopoly of power was the only sure way to save the legal succession. The importance of the succession crisis has long been known, of course, and Weiser also recognises it as a watershed. The resulting vision, however, while at times illuminating, is fundamentally myopic; the king’s decision to embrace open access, ensuring open lines of communication (or not), trumps all.
For example, Weiser sees the lieutenancy as primarily an avenue of communication between the crown and locality, and appointments to offices in it (as lord or deputy lieutenants) as part of the royal policy of access. But this ignores the fact that the lieutenancy’s principal role was security, not communication. He never mentions, for example, Venner’s Rising of 1661 which, though in hindsight a rather pathetic failure, thoroughly frightened the court and spurred a much harsher attitude towards dissenters. Continued plotting in subsequent years, followed by the Dutch Wars, ensured that security would remain at the forefront of the government’s concerns. Not until the Exclusion Crisis did the lieutenancy begin to take on a serious political role, as the enforcer of Royalist Anglican orthodoxy. Similarly, he treats the crown’s campaign to regulate municipal corporations as exercises in communication: ‘Quo Warranto proceedings exemplify the king’s desire to turn over all conduits of communication between town and crown into the hands of Anglican stalwarts.’ (p. 118) This is true, as far as it goes – but the most important reason was Charles’s determination to control the make-up of any future house of commons. Like the Royalist Anglicans to whom he turned in 1681, Charles knew that the lesson of ’41 was not about communication: it was about preventing the election of another runaway parliament.
Weiser’s chapter on accessibility and trade sits rather uneasily with his previous discussion of politics. Certainly Charles was interested in trade and made attempts to advance it. Equally certain was the conviction of merchants and businessmen that the king could advance their interests if only they could capture his personal attention. Throughout the reign they struggled for opportunities to present their cases before the throne. After 1681, merchants who hoped for a polite hearing from the king had best tow the Yorkist line, but Charles’s handling of trade matters also depended upon his own personal interests, and were in any case always subject to pressures from parliament and foreign competition. Weiser’s attempt to bind commercial policy rigidly to the ebb and flow of Restoration politics does not allow for the complex reality of trade during a period of dramatic expansion.
Weiser’s focus upon access to the sovereign’s person is salutary; Charles II presided over a personal monarchy, and the king’s decisions about whom to admit to his presence had important consequences. But at times the author seems to miss other important factors influencing Charles’s policies, and often he asserts royal intentions without demonstrating what the king actually thought. ‘In the 1670s Charles II abandoned the task of uniting his nation, for he no longer believed England to be a naturally organic whole’ (p. 4). While this might be true, it neglects the fact that England’s organic wholeness was purely imaginary from at least 1640, and does not demonstrate that Charles II ever truly believed in the idea. Charles’s attempt to recreate a medieval-style open access monarchy – being 'everybody’s king' – was short-lived and, arguably, rather half-hearted. But Weiser is undeniably correct to note the important change in royal attitude towards political foes from 1681: Charles did create a one-party state in order to assure his brother’s accession, and he used every reward he had at hand – including regulating access to the court – in the process.
I would like to thank Professor Stater for reviewing my work. While I respectfully disagree with him on several issues, I find his review valuable because it reveals an apparent difference in our understanding of how early modern English government and society worked.
England, especially in the localities, was run by volunteers who would only be diligent in their duties if they considered themselves participants in the governing process; in G. R. Elton's terms, if they could not gain access to a point of contact, they would feel alienated from the centre, and the ability of the central administration to impose its will on the localities would greatly diminish. Such an understanding of the workings of the English government casts doubt on Stater's claim that 'Charles II knew the lesson of '41 was not about communication it was about preventing the election of another runaway Parliament'. The lesson of '41, like all history, was not mono-causal and a number of factors played a role in the outbreak of civil war. Charles I's lack of communication was certainly one of these factors, for it played a part in his losing the support of his nation. Without such support all Charles could muster from the localities was – at the best –grudging acceptance of his decrees and such grudging acceptance resulted in an army that burnt altar rails but fled from the Scots. I find it hard to imagine how excessive meddling in the elections of the Long Parliament would have aided Charles I in his attempts to suppress the Scottish and Irish rebellions. Perhaps the English would have been unable to organise an effective opposition without a ‘runaway parliament’ but they would also have been unable to gain any support for the king, who would have been left with no real answer to the Scottish army. Indeed, it is only when the Parliament ran away that Charles I began to garner any substantial support.
There are many reasons why Charles I had lost the support of the political nation, but his policies of inaccessibility certainly alienated many and fostered fears of tyranny and Catholicism, as the work of Judith Richards, among others, amply demonstrates. (1) It was such a concern to not repeat his father's mistake of alienating the nation that convinced the restored monarch to cultivate an aura of accessibility. In fact, Edward Hyde continually reminded Charles II to communicate with his subjects. Such commitment to accessibility was, if anything, magnified by Venner's failed rebellion. True, as Stater claims, the fifth monarchists caused great fear, but that fear had more effect on the countryside than on the court. It is reasonable to assume that the fear of rebellion, of a return to civil war, influenced electors to pick representatives who were in favor of law and order, of hierarchy and tradition, in short those with Cavalier leanings. Charles II was quite happy with this turn of events, as his reluctance to dissolve the Cavalier Parliament demonstrates, but it appears that he may have realised that the Parliament was an anomaly, that it was a snapshot of public sentiment at a very specific time. In fact, the Cavalier Parliament was probably more royalist than the king and definitely more Anglican than the nation. Charles feared that those not represented by Parliament would feel alienated. To placate them, to make them feel part of the governing process, he used his accessibility. There were times between 1660 and 1676 when Charles turned away from his policies of open access, but such actions were personally rather than politically motivated. Only after the Compton Census was Charles willing to truly abandon his policies of access. While historians doubt the statistical accuracy of the Compton Census, there's no reason to believe that Charles II did not accept the findings at face value. And the Compton Census revealed to Charles II that non-conformists were a distinct minority of the population. As such he was willing to employ a weapon that was not at his father's disposal, giving complete control to a party devoted to the Anglican Church and the king, a party that had been created during the English Civil War. It still took considerable efforts on the part of the Royalist Anglicans to convince Charles II of their ability to govern, and only when he was fully convinced of it did he give them complete control of access to his person, only then was he willing to risk alienating the substantial part of the governing nation that were not Tories.
As such I find it hard to accept that Charles's commitment to being 'everybody's king' was either short lived or half-hearted. It formed an integral part of his policy and was one of his chief political tools.
Nevertheless, Stater's criticism that my work portrays access as trumping all is somewhat valid. I too fall into the trap of mono-causality. Of course, there were many factors besides access that influenced royal policy, and the influence of royal policy upon society, and it was never my intention to claim that policies of access were the single significant political force during Charles II's reign. But I feel somewhat justified in my choice of downplaying other factors for three main reasons: the book is about access, it is intended for an audience well versed in the history of Restoration England, and the impact of Charles's shifting policies of access upon the polity (and even the fact this his policies of access changed over time) was a completely unexplored territory. While I may have on occasion let rhetoric get the best of me, I still maintain that while Charles's shifting policies of access were not the only factor in Restoration politics (or economics) they played an incredibly significant role.
1. Judith Richards, 'His Nowe Majestie and the English Monarchy: The Kingship of Charles I before 1640', Past & Present, 113 (1986), 70-96. See also Malcolm Smuts, 'Public ceremony and royal charisma: the English royal entry in London, 1485-1642', in ed. A. L. Beier, D. Cannadine and J. M. Rosenheim, The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 65-93. David Stevenson makes a similar argument for Charles's failure to gain support in Scotland, 'The English Devil of Keeping State: Elite Manners and the Downfall of Charles I in Scotland', in ed. R. Mason and N. Macdougall, People and Power in Scotland: Essays in Honour of T. C. Smout (Edinburgh, 1992), p. 137.