Who was Charles II? Why was he called the ‘Merry Monarch’?

Charles II ran a hedonistic court, despite the early years of his reign being marred by the bubonic plague and Great Fire of London. He reigned from 1660-1685

Known as the ‘Merry Monarch’, Charles II’s reign came in direct contrast to the previous Puritan regime; his was an era of flamboyant fashions and courtly excess.

Born on 29 May 1630, Charles was the eldest surviving son of King Charles I. After the parliamentary victory in English Civil War, he was forced into exile and was living in the Netherlands when he learned of his father’s execution.

The following year, Charles made a deal with the Scots that saw him proclaimed their king. He invaded England only to be defeated by Cromwell and forced to flee to mainland Europe. He spent the next nine years in exile, until a crisis following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and his son Richard’s ineffectual rule resulted in the restoration of the monarchy. In 29 May 1660, he was received in London to public acclaim as King Charles II. Hedonism was paramount in Charles’ court despite the early years of his reign being marred by tragedy, as plagues and great fires wiped out great swathes of the population.

He tried to pursue a policy of religious tolerance, largely due to his own Catholic leanings, but this caused clashes with his Protestant parliament, which he dissolved in 1681. He ruled alone until his death four years later. Without an heir, the crown passed to his Catholic brother James.

Key dates

  • 1665 – An outbreak of bubonic plague wipes out 15 per cent of the English population
  • 1666 – A blaze at the King’s Bakery in Pudding Lane ignites the Great Fire of London