In Pursuit of Charles II: Jersey

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The ‘In Pursuit’ series of posts ( In Pursuit of Dr JohnsonIn Pursuit of Charles II: A Hunting Lodge) are what I like to think of as historical stalking. Unlike modern stalking, I can’t hang around outside my quarry’s house at night leaving threatening notes under their windscreen wiper and steal their rabbits. Instead I refer more to making some kind of physical connection, usually through location, with the figure/event in question. There is something satisfying about being in proximity to a place or an artefact that was significant to a historical person you are studying and I can’t be alone in thinking this; step forward our museum and heritage industries.  So, up for some more stalking of King Charles II?

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I’ve been blogging on and off about Charles II for over a year now and my impression from reader responses to those posts and comments on twitter is that he is one of the more popular and well known British Kings. I think this is generally born out in representations of him in film and television as well. So while a lot of scholarly work has gone in to balancing out our understanding of Charles he still appears in the popular imagination as the ‘Merry monarch’ that we all know and love, the lynchpin of Restoration London, with its comedies and mistresses and vivaciousness and change.

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This view of Charles is not necessarily a bad thing as it is doubtless an important facet of his life and legacy. But for me what has always been most interesting about Charles Stuart Junior was that for the most formative period of his life, from his early teens through to his early thirties, he was either embroiled in his father’s war or in exile from the British Isles. The heir to such a historic and powerful throne was shunted from battlefield to sanctuary to battlefield and eventually to exile from his legitimate birthright: England. On the way the teenage Charles spent some time on the Island of Jersey where the responsibilities and expectations of his position were becoming increasingly clear to him and he would have to consider the idea of foreign exile. It was in Jersey this August that I managed to visit some of the key places mentioned in accounts of his time there. Being on this ruggedly beautiful Island got me thinking on the dilemmas that faced this young man. So first some background, what led the heir to the throne to the Channel Islands?

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Charles only a couple of years before Jersey

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In 1646 the Civil War had turned decisively against the Royalists. The King was at this time holed up in the staunchly loyal town of Oxford. The Prince of Wales and his council, a kind of second royal court in miniature, had been separated from the King and were gradually being pushed further down the south west of England, to Cornwall. As the Parliamentarians encircled, Charles Jnr was moved to the vulnerable Scilly Isles, which lay just of the Cornish coast. With no direct instruction from the King, Charles and his councillors had an ominous decision to make, flee yet further from the mainland or surrender. Charles was fifteen at this point and according to the accounts of Edward Hyde he made the decisive move that swung the decision. Like the last minute reprieve in some dramatic tv trial he took out a secret note received previously from his father and read it to the gathered court:

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Hereford, the 23rd of June, 1645.

Charles,

My late misfortunes remember me to command you that which I hope you shall never have occasion to obey. It is this: if I should at any time be taken prisoner by the rebels, I command you (upon my blessing) never to yield to any conditions that are dishonourable, unsafe for your person, or derogatory to regal authority, upon any considerations whatsoever, though it were for the saving of my life; which in such a case (I am most confident) is in the greatest security by your constant resolution… But let their resolutions be never so barbarous, the saving of my life by complying with them would make me end my days with torture and disquiet of mind, not giving you my blessing, and cursing all the rest who are consenting it. But your constancy will make me die cheerfully, praising God for giving me so gallant a son… I charge you to keep this letter safe by you, until you have cause to use it; and then, and not till then, to shew it to all your council – it being my command to them as well as you, whom I pray to God to make as prosperously glorious as any of the predecessors ever were of

Your loving father,

Charles R.

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In short, never surrender! So, under the cover of stormy seas the young prince set off for the Channel Islands and Jersey. It would be the first step toward exile. But why there? Well the Channel Islands are a small and craggy collections of islands and islets that cling intimately to the coast of France. They’re an oddity in that despite their location they have remained part of the English crown’s ‘peculiar’ possessions since Norman times. These islands have an eventful and fascinating story. Their strategic location in the ‘English’ Channel but just off the coast of Brittany and Normandy have ensured that they weave in and out of British history. After a brief period in parliamentarian control Jersey had been reclaimed by the royalists three years earlier and it clearly seemed an ideal haven for the Prince. On this Island he remained on English soil yet a stones throw from foreign exile, if it became clear that danger was close.

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On the way to Jersey on a peaceful day...

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Even now the Jersey ferry takes 2-3 hours from Weymouth and given a dodgy tide can live up to the title of ‘the vomit comet’. I can testify to the potential difficulty of sailing there having once had to turn back when part of a tall ship sailing trip due to heavy tides and rough weather. Coincidentally I too was fifteen.

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Charles and his entourage descended on Elizabeth Castle in St Helier on Friday 17th April, 1646. Elizabeth Castle itself resides on an islet in amongst the treacherous rocks of St Aubins bay, just off St Helier and is accessed by a causeway to the mainland on low tide (I’ll talk a little more about Jersey’s castles in another post).

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Elizabeth Castle

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And what an entourage it was, the Prince’s court consisted of around 300 people and over the two months he resided there it swelled even further. This was a lot of people for the small town of St Helier to absorb, and soon enough everyday life on Jersey became geared toward providing for a royal court. There was a sliding scale of accommodation depending on the ‘quality’ of the person, with meant that from the nobility down to the commoners the folk of Jersey played host to the Princes retinue. The diarist Jean Chevalier, Jersey’s Samuel Pepys, seemed ecstatic with this state of affairs but the pressure on those billeting the families must have been immense.

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It would be absurd to say Charles sat alone in the governor’s modest dwelling on Elizabeth castle, pondering his future, lost in what to do. His life hitherto this point had been a constant preparation for the throne and whilst on Jersey he was essentially the king in miniature. He had royal duties to perform and by all accounts performed with the relish and aplomb that would later define the Restoration. But here was a young man with serious decisions to make, and his councillors were complicated, war-torn people who were far from allied. Charles essentially had three conflicting options. The first was to remain in Jersey, watch events unfold and choose a time to return to England if possible, this was favoured by Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon. In his view the Royalist cause needed Charles to remain on Crown soil and not yet risk the patronage of a foreign King. The second option was to bow to the immediate pressure of his Mother, Henrietta Maria, and flee the short distance to her and the protection of the French court, this was favoured primarily by  Lord Colpepper. The third option was the most outlandish and was promoted by the troublesome Lord Digby, make for Ireland and Catholic support. The King had made it clear that ultimately he expected Charles to go into his mothers care in France if he were trapped or worse, but messages from the King had dried up and when they came were rarely unambiguous, was this the right time to go?

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The Governors House at Elizabeth Castle, where Charles would reside and debate the exile decision with his council

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This third option is worth dwelling on as it demonstrates how Charles was in danger of becoming a pawn and was not necessarily safe even from his own advisors. Digby arrived off the coast of Jersey with a ship full of Irish soldiers, loyal to the King. Leapfrogging on an earlier request from Clarendon for military support he came with the express purpose of taking the Prince to Ireland to spearhead an army of loyal, catholic soldiers in an invasion of England to support the king. The young Prince diplomatically suggested that any decision should wait until clear information was received from France. This did not please Lord Digby who then rather foolishly attempted to convince Hyde to approve a new approach:

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That he would invite the Prince on board his frigates to a collation; and that he knew well he could so commend the vessels to him, that his own curiosity would easily invite him to a view of them; and that as soon as he was on board he would cause the sails to be hoisted up, and make no stay until he came into Ireland.

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He wanted to kidnap the King and take him to Ireland. Predictably Hyde was furious at the suggestion, but an indignant Digby decided to change tack and head for Paris to convince the Queen to command Charles to be sent to Ireland with him. With advisors like Digby Charles hardly needed enemies. To go to Ireland would undoubtably have been suicide for the Royalist cause and probably for Charles himself. The Jersey populace’s response to the Irish men just off shore was indicative of the English attitude to the Irish, they would not allow them on the island but for the briefest time.

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Options one and two were the only real ones open to him. The King had earlier indicated in letters to his advisors that ultimately he expected Charles to go into his mothers care, but was this the time that the King had intended? Charles was initially convinced of the need to stay in Jersey. One always has to be careful of Clarendon’s own bias but he reports that:

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After the Prince had taken account of the Island, both himself and the lordships were of the opinion that it was a place of the greatest security, benefit, and conveniency to repose in, that could have been desired and wished for; till upon a clear indication and observation of the King’s condition, and the state of England, he should find a fit time to stir; and the Prince himself seemed to have a great aversion and resolution against going into France, except in case of danger of surprisal by the rebels, that could be imagined

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You could see why, at sixteen, Charles would want to stay on the Island. He had taken responsibility to reinforce the Island’s defences and had proved adept at deploying his patronage (knighting key players in Jersey). Charles had won over the Island through a combination of stately acts (dining in state for example), celebrations (including his own sixteenth birthday) and military musters on the sands of St Aubin bay. Yet for as much as Charles was expected to meet the challenge of such an elevated role, he was still vulnerable to the machinations of his advisors and he had a difficult political game still to play. He ould not afford to alienate those who wished him to stay. But what of his mothers desires which were already becoming tantamount to a demand? This is a wonderfully passive aggressive, guilt trip of a note which arrived early on from the Queen:

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Dear Charles

Having received a letter from the King, I have dispatched this bearer Dudley Wyatt to you with the copy of the letter; by which you may see the Kings command to you and to me. I make no doubt but you will obey it suddenly: For certainly your coming hither is the security of the King your Father. Therefore make all haste you can to show yourself a dutiful son, and a careful one to all that is in your power to serve him; otherwise you may ruin the King and yourself… There is no time to be lost; therefore lose none but come speedily… I’ll say no more to you, hoping to see you shortly… I’ll add no more to this but that I am your most affectionate mother.

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Despite this steer (or possibly because of it!) Charles agreed to essentially side step his mother and delay the decision by sending Lords Colpepper and Capel to France. On their return on the 20th June, with Digby (who had now been convinced by the inestimable Cardinal Mazarin that Charles should go to France), the decision was debated in earnest. Hydes’ account of this gives us a real insight into how the debate progressed over the course of three days. Charles summoned his council to his bedchamber and commanded his advisors to speak freely. However, it becomes clear that Charles’ ear had been caught by Lord Colpepper on two fronts. Firstly, the idea that by staying Charles would disgrace his parents by essentially disobeying what were becoming direct orders was persuasive. Secondly, and possibly more persuasive was the promise of the glamour and excitement of the French court, undoubtably appealing to any sixteen year old at the time. A majority of the council agreed that Charles should not go, but despite this Charles made his decision to the contrary, he would go into foreign exile. In the space of three months, at the figurehead of one of his father’s outlying properties Charles made up his own mind. It was undoubtably a hard decision and it had consequences. Those, such as Hyde, that disagreed with the King respectfully asked for leave from his council in order to remain on English soil and return to the King when they could.

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It can be perilous to assume to understand the mind of any historical leader, but i think it is fair to assume that Charles’ time on Jersey, though brief, was a formative period. In france he would go back under the control of his parents, but here he had experienced a prolonged period of leadership. He had received a lesson in the machinations of ministers at his command and had begun to exercise some of the charm that would later become so indicative of the ‘Merry Monarch’. Having been to Jersey it’s easy to see why he decided to prolong his stay there and it was a privilege to be able to visit some of those places in which he made his mark on the Island. In future posts I’ll cover a few of these places with some pictures and a few more pieces of detail straight from the stalkers handbook.

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3 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Charles II: Jersey

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention In Pursuit of Charles II: Jersey « The Gentleman Administrator -- Topsy.com

  2. Susan Holloway Scott

    Thank you so much for this post. You showed one more aspect to what made Charles such a complicated man. I’ve always found this complexity to be what makes him most fascinating – even though my publisher keeps insisting on pushing the “merrie monarch” angle in promo for my Restoration-set novels. Oh, well, whatever sells…

    Love the photos, too. For those of us in America, and unlikely to pop over to Jersey for the weekend, pictures like these really are worth a thousand words. :)

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » Carnivalesque 66

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