The Loves of Charles II’ by Jean Plaidy (AKA E.A. Hibbert, Phillippa Carr, and Victoria Holt) is actually three books published into one gigantic volume. The books (‘The Wandering Prince,’ A Health Unto His Majesty’ and ‘Here Lies Our Sovereign Lord’) debuted in the mid-1950’s, although they read as if they are recently published historical fiction…and that may not be a good thing.
Coming in at 735 pages, ‘The Loves’ is not exactly a page-turner. In fact, it is woven with passages which illicit either boredom or interest. The book strives to be an interpretation of the life of Charles II from the viewpoint of six very important women in his life. The beginning of the novel feels very recent in terms of historic fiction, it starts with the cloak and dagger escape of two-year-old Princes Henriette whose governess (disguised as a hunchback) escapes Oliver Cromwell controlled England for France. In charge of the youngest daughter of the recently executed Charles I, the governess, though Protestant herself, believes the girl would be safer under the care of her mother Henriette Maria of France (by then a political refugee in her homeland).
Henriette Maria (the U.S. state of Maryland was named after her) would be a pill in any family, regardless if they were of historical importance or modern blue-collar. Staunchly Catholic with an iron will she was not above cutting her youngest son out of her life when he refused to convert to the ‘one true faith’ all because he gave a solemn promise to his father (who, BTW, was scheduled to be beheaded the very next day) that he would remain Protestant. When the lad up and dies she mourns his passing and the fact that she feels his soul will burn in hell.
In other words, Henriette Maria is a shrew who confounds her oldest son, Charles II. Always willing to push a point to the point of literal execution, she seldom sees how her insistence on things like faith (which if she had practiced it in quiet may have turned events in favor of her husband) led her family to their status of royalty without a kingdom.
The second ‘book’ is devoted to the lives of Charles II mistress Barbara Palmer and his queen, Catherine of Braganza – two temperaments that could not be further apart. Queen Catherine was raised in isolation in Portugal and was assigned the heavy task of aligning English sea power with that of Portugal to keep the Spanish from absorbing her country of origin.
Although her mother, Luisa of Medina-Sidonia, was a strong ruler who ends up ‘punking’ Charles II out of her daughter’s promised dowry, the isolation that Catherine experienced early in life retards her in how she related to the political currents that ran through her husband’s court. Frantically in love with him, she is always a step and a half behind discovering what to do in order to please him. In the beginning she makes it a point not to allow the volatile Barbara Palmer to be one of her ladies of the bedchamber only to realize later that the cause she fought so hard (her dignity as wife) was lost before she ever left her mother’s threshold.
The last third of the book is devoted to Louise Renée de Penancoet de Kéroualle and Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn both were the mistresses who provided primary compaionship to Charles II during the last days of his reign. Louise came from a nobel French family that had little money. Originally her parents sent her to the French court in hopes that she could attract the attention (as in become the mistress) of Louis XIV, commonly known as the Sun King (He and Charles II were first cousins). Assigned to attend Henrietta Anne d’Orleans (formally Stuart but now married the the brother of the French King) she meets Charles II while accompaining his sister to the her last visit to her homeland (she died briefly thereafter and rumors that her homosexual husband may have poisoned her for indirectly imprisoning his lover). Louise goes to England as a French spy who has hopes that if the Queen dies she may find herself elevated to that of Queen herself.
Nell, on the other hand, comes from very humble beginnings. According to Plaidy’s account Nell circumvents the life of lowerclass whoredom to become a popular actress on the London stage. Although never formally educated she managed to amuse the king with both her beauty and sharp wit. Unlike her chief rival, Louise, she had little interest in politics besides trying to elevate her sons (both acknowledged progeny of the King) to the same titles granted to the sons born from other ‘nobelier’mistresses of Charles II.
It is hard to recommend ‘The Loves’ simply because of the length. There is an investment of time for the reader and I am unsure if the story, as presented by Plaidy, pays off in the end. Each successive ‘book’ is better than the one before and the whole endeavor has peaked my interest in studying the history of the Stuart kings (before I was primarily a Tudor fan). It is hard not to like Charles II because as a ruler he seemed to keep things in perspective. He was not a man of religious fuver and despised the fact that so much of the political realm seemed tainted by religious prejudice and disagreement. I would state more about his policies but the book, despite its length, does not delve too much in that direction. Primarily, Charles II wanted his nation to live in peace and prospertity and if that required some secret negotiations with his cousin across the channel, then so be it.
Of course, the other part of Charles II, the part that places him in the pop conciousness of the modern age, was how he was such a play-ah. A popular metaphor involving his love interests was that he never disgarded cards, but kept adding to his hand. In fact he had so many lovers that at times I wondered just how his royal appendage managed to stay on.
Interestingly, he had several illegitimate but none legitimate. To his credit, when his counselors advised divorcing his Queen for one that could provide him heirs, he refused to put aside his wife knowing that by doing such a thing would crush her, thus when he died his throne went to his Catholic brother James II who after a few years lost it to his daughter (who had been raised Protestant) and her husband (first cousin, again) – William and Mary.
Before ending, there were a few things of interest that I found while Wikipediaing all of these historic royal figures. One, many of them could not provide legitimate heirs, which often threw their nations into turmoil. Two, shockingly how many royal marriages were made up of first cousins (Louis XIV’s wife was his first cousin on both sides of his parentage). When one factors in that this went on for numerous generations it is not shocking that so many royals were sterile, insane, or born with deformatity.* I must credit ‘The Loves of Charles II’ to clueing me into so many fasinating people.
*There is a deformatity called the Habsburg jaw or Habsburg lip. It is the projecting of the lower jaw outward beyond the rest of the face. If you look up several pictures of royalty they have it. Also, it is the same thing that Jay Leno has. In severe cases in hampers with eating.
© 2007 Westerfield