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Charles Dickens
A Child's History of England 35
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THERE never were such profligate times in England as under Charles
the Second. Whenever you see his portrait, with his swarthy, ill-
looking face and great nose, you may fancy him in his Court at
Whitehall, surrounded by some of the very worst vagabonds in the
kingdom (though they were lords and ladies), drinking, gambling,
indulging in vicious conversation, and committing every kind of
profligate excess. It has been a fashion to call Charles the
Second 'The Merry Monarch.' Let me try to give you a general idea
of some of the merry things that were done, in the merry days when
this merry gentleman sat upon his merry throne, in merry England.

The first merry proceeding was - of course - to declare that he was
one of the greatest, the wisest, and the noblest kings that ever
shone, like the blessed sun itself, on this benighted earth. The
next merry and pleasant piece of business was, for the Parliament,
in the humblest manner, to give him one million two hundred
thousand pounds a year, and to settle upon him for life that old
disputed tonnage and poundage which had been so bravely fought for.
Then, General Monk being made EARL OF ALBEMARLE, and a few other
Royalists similarly rewarded, the law went to work to see what was
to be done to those persons (they were called Regicides) who had
been concerned in making a martyr of the late King. Ten of these
were merrily executed; that is to say, six of the judges, one of
the council, Colonel Hacker and another officer who had commanded
the Guards, and HUGH PETERS, a preacher who had preached against
the martyr with all his heart. These executions were so extremely
merry, that every horrible circumstance which Cromwell had
abandoned was revived with appalling cruelty. The hearts of the
sufferers were torn out of their living bodies; their bowels were
burned before their faces; the executioner cut jokes to the next
victim, as he rubbed his filthy hands together, that were reeking
with the blood of the last; and the heads of the dead were drawn
on sledges with the living to the place of suffering. Still, even so
merry a monarch could not force one of these dying men to say that
he was sorry for what he had done. Nay, the most memorable thing
said among them was, that if the thing were to do again they would
do it.

Sir Harry Vane, who had furnished the evidence against Strafford,
and was one of the most staunch of the Republicans, was also tried,
found guilty, and ordered for execution. When he came upon the
scaffold on Tower Hill, after conducting his own defence with great
power, his notes of what he had meant to say to the people were
torn away from him, and the drums and trumpets were ordered to
sound lustily and drown his voice; for, the people had been so much
impressed by what the Regicides had calmly said with their last
breath, that it was the custom now, to have the drums and trumpets
always under the scaffold, ready to strike up. Vane said no more
than this: 'It is a bad cause which cannot bear the words of a
dying man:' and bravely died.

These merry scenes were succeeded by another, perhaps even merrier.
On the anniversary of the late King's death, the bodies of Oliver
Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw, were torn out of their graves in
Westminster Abbey, dragged to Tyburn, hanged there on a gallows all
day long, and then beheaded. Imagine the head of Oliver Cromwell
set upon a pole to be stared at by a brutal crowd, not one of whom
would have dared to look the living Oliver in the face for half a
moment! Think, after you have read this reign, what England was
under Oliver Cromwell who was torn out of his grave, and what it
was under this merry monarch who sold it, like a merry Judas, over
and over again.

Of course, the remains of Oliver's wife and daughter were not to be
spared either, though they had been most excellent women. The
base clergy of that time gave up their bodies, which had been buried
in the Abbey, and - to the eternal disgrace of England - they were
thrown into a pit, together with the mouldering bones of Pym and of
the brave and bold old Admiral Blake.

The clergy acted this disgraceful part because they hoped to get
the nonconformists, or dissenters, thoroughly put down in this
reign, and to have but one prayer-book and one service for all
kinds of people, no matter what their private opinions were. This
was pretty well, I think, for a Protestant Church, which had
displaced the Romish Church because people had a right to their
own opinions in religious matters. However, they carried it with
a high hand, and a prayer-book was agreed upon, in which the
extremest opinions of Archbishop Laud were not forgotten. An Act
was passed, too, preventing any dissenter from holding any office
under any corporation. So, the regular clergy in their triumph
were soon as merry as the King. The army being by this time
disbanded, and the King crowned, everything was to go on easily
for evermore.

I must say a word here about the King's family. He had not been
long upon the throne when his brother the Duke of Gloucester, and
his sister the PRINCESS OF ORANGE, died within a few months of each
other, of small-pox. His remaining sister, the PRINCESS HENRIETTA,
married the DUKE OF ORLEANS, the brother of LOUIS THE FOURTEENTH,
King of France. His brother JAMES, DUKE OF YORK, was made High
Admiral, and by-and-by became a Catholic. He was a gloomy, sullen,
bilious sort of man, with a remarkable partiality for the ugliest
women in the country. He married, under very discreditable
circumstances, ANNE HYDE, the daughter of LORD CLARENDON, then
the King's principal Minister - not at all a delicate minister either,
but doing much of the dirty work of a very dirty palace. It became
important now that the King himself should be married; and divers
foreign Monarchs, not very particular about the character of their
son-in-law, proposed their daughters to him. The KING OF PORTUGAL
offered his daughter, CATHERINE OF BRAGANZA, and fifty thousand
pounds: in addition to which, the French King, who was favourable
to that match, offered a loan of another fifty thousand. The King
of Spain, on the other hand, offered any one out of a dozen of
Princesses, and other hopes of gain. But the ready money carried
the day, and Catherine came over in state to her merry marriage.

The whole Court was a great flaunting crowd of debauched men and
shameless women; and Catherine's merry husband insulted and
outraged her in every possible way, until she consented to receive
those worthless creatures as her very good friends, and to degrade
herself by their companionship. A MRS. PALMER, whom the King made
one of the most powerful of the bad women about the Court, and
had great influence with the King nearly all through his reign. Another
merry lady named MOLL DAVIES, a dancer at the theatre, was
afterwards her rival. So was NELL GWYN, first an orange girl and
then an actress, who really had good in her, and of whom one of the
worst things I know is, that actually she does seem to have been
fond of the King. The first DUKE OF ST. ALBANS was this orange
girl's child. In like manner the son of a merry waiting-lady, whom
the King created DUCHESS OF PORTSMOUTH, became the DUKE OF
RICHMOND. Upon the whole it is not so bad a thing to be a

The Merry Monarch was so exceedingly merry among these merry
ladies, and some equally merry (and equally infamous) lords and
gentlemen, that he soon got through his hundred thousand pounds,
and then, by way of raising a little pocket-money, made a merry
bargain. He sold Dunkirk to the French King for five millions of
livres. When I think of the dignity to which Oliver Cromwell
raised England in the eyes of foreign powers, and when I think of
the manner in which he gained for England this very Dunkirk, I am
much inclined to consider that if the Merry Monarch had been made
to follow his father for this action, he would have received his
just deserts.

Though he was like his father in none of that father's greater
qualities, he was like him in being worthy of no trust. When he
sent that letter to the Parliament, from Breda, he did expressly
promise that all sincere religious opinions should be respected.
Yet he was no sooner firm in his power than he consented to one of
the worst Acts of Parliament ever passed. Under this law, every
minister who should not give his solemn assent to the Prayer-Book
by a certain day, was declared to be a minister no longer, and to
be deprived of his church. The consequence of this was that some
two thousand honest men were taken from their congregations, and
reduced to dire poverty and distress. It was followed by another
outrageous law, called the Conventicle Act, by which any person
above the age of sixteen who was present at any religious service
not according to the Prayer-Book, was to be imprisoned three months
for the first offence, six for the second, and to be transported
for the third. This Act alone filled the prisons, which were then
most dreadful dungeons, to overflowing.

The Covenanters in Scotland had already fared no better. A base
Parliament, usually known as the Drunken Parliament, in consequence
of its principal members being seldom sober, had been got together
to make laws against the Covenanters, and to force all men to be of
one mind in religious matters. The MARQUIS OF ARGYLE, relying on
the King's honour, had given himself up to him; but, he was
wealthy, and his enemies wanted his wealth. He was tried for
treason, on the evidence of some private letters in which he had
expressed opinions - as well he might - more favourable to the
government of the late Lord Protector than of the present merry and
religious King. He was executed, as were two men of mark among
the Covenanters; and SHARP, a traitor who had once been the friend
of the Presbyterians and betrayed them, was made Archbishop of St.
Andrew's, to teach the Scotch how to like bishops.

Things being in this merry state at home, the Merry Monarch
undertook a war with the Dutch; principally because they interfered
with an African company, established with the two objects of buying
gold-dust and slaves, of which the Duke of York was a leading
member. After some preliminary hostilities, the said Duke sailed
to the coast of Holland with a fleet of ninety-eight vessels of
war, and four fire-ships. This engaged with the Dutch fleet, of no
fewer than one hundred and thirteen ships. In the great battle
between the two forces, the Dutch lost eighteen ships, four
admirals, and seven thousand men. But, the English on shore were
in no mood of exultation when they heard the news.

For, this was the year and the time of the Great Plague in London.
During the winter of one thousand six hundred and sixty-four it had
been whispered about, that some few people had died here and
there of the disease called the Plague, in some of the unwholesome
suburbs around London. News was not published at that time as it
is now, and some people believed these rumours, and some
disbelieved them, and they were soon forgotten. But, in the month
of May, one thousand six hundred and sixty-five, it began to be
said all over the town that the disease had burst out with great
violence in St. Giles's, and that the people were dying in great
numbers. This soon turned out to be awfully true. The roads out
of London were choked up by people endeavouring to escape from the
infected city, and large sums were paid for any kind of conveyance.
The disease soon spread so fast, that it was necessary to shut up
the houses in which sick people were, and to cut them off from
communication with the living. Every one of these houses was
marked on the outside of the door with a red cross, and the words,
Lord, have mercy upon us! The streets were all deserted, grass
grew in the public ways, and there was a dreadful silence in the
air. When night came on, dismal rumblings used to be heard, and
these were the wheels of the death-carts, attended by men with
veiled faces and holding cloths to their mouths, who rang doleful
bells and cried in a loud and solemn voice, 'Bring out your dead!'
The corpses put into these carts were buried by torchlight in great
pits; no service being performed over them; all men being afraid to
stay for a moment on the brink of the ghastly graves. In the
general fear, children ran away from their parents, and parents
from their children. Some who were taken ill, died alone, and
without any help. Some were stabbed or strangled by hired nurses
who robbed them of all their money, and stole the very beds on
which they lay. Some went mad, dropped from the windows, ran
through the streets, and in their pain and frenzy flung themselves
into the river.

These were not all the horrors of the time. The wicked and
dissolute, in wild desperation, sat in the taverns singing roaring
songs, and were stricken as they drank, and went out and died.
The fearful and superstitious persuaded themselves that they saw
supernatural sights - burning swords in the sky, gigantic arms and
darts. Others pretended that at nights vast crowds of ghosts
walked round and round the dismal pits. One madman, naked, and
carrying a brazier full of burning coals upon his head, stalked
through the streets, crying out that he was a Prophet, commissioned
to denounce the vengeance of the Lord on wicked London. Another
always went to and fro, exclaiming, 'Yet forty days, and London
shall be destroyed!' A third awoke the echoes in the dismal
streets, by night and by day, and made the blood of the sick run
cold, by calling out incessantly, in a deep hoarse voice, 'O, the
great and dreadful God!'

Through the months of July and August and September, the Great
Plague raged more and more. Great fires were lighted in the
streets, in the hope of stopping the infection; but there was a
plague of rain too, and it beat the fires out. At last, the winds
which usually arise at that time of the year which is called the
equinox, when day and night are of equal length all over the world,
began to blow, and to purify the wretched town. The deaths began
to decrease, the red crosses slowly to disappear, the fugitives to
return, the shops to open, pale frightened faces to be seen in the
streets. The Plague had been in every part of England, but in
close and unwholesome London it had killed one hundred thousand

All this time, the Merry Monarch was as merry as ever, and as
worthless as ever. All this time, the debauched lords and
gentlemen and the shameless ladies danced and gamed and drank,
and loved and hated one another, according to their merry ways.

So little humanity did the government learn from the late
affliction, that one of the first things the Parliament did when it
met at Oxford (being as yet afraid to come to London), was to make
a law, called the Five Mile Act, expressly directed against those
poor ministers who, in the time of the Plague, had manfully come
back to comfort the unhappy people. This infamous law, by
forbidding them to teach in any school, or to come within five
miles of any city, town, or village, doomed them to starvation and

The fleet had been at sea, and healthy. The King of France was now
in alliance with the Dutch, though his navy was chiefly employed in
looking on while the English and Dutch fought. The Dutch gained
one victory; and the English gained another and a greater; and
Prince Rupert, one of the English admirals, was out in the Channel
one windy night, looking for the French Admiral, with the intention
of giving him something more to do than he had had yet, when the
gale increased to a storm, and blew him into Saint Helen's. That
night was the third of September, one thousand six hundred and
sixty-six, and that wind fanned the Great Fire of London.

It broke out at a baker's shop near London Bridge, on the spot on
which the Monument now stands as a remembrance of those raging
flames. It spread and spread, and burned and burned, for three
days. The nights were lighter than the days; in the daytime there
was an immense cloud of smoke, and in the night-time there was a
great tower of fire mounting up into the sky, which lighted the
whole country landscape for ten miles round. Showers of hot ashes
rose into the air and fell on distant places; flying sparks carried
the conflagration to great distances, and kindled it in twenty new
spots at a time; church steeples fell down with tremendous crashes;
houses crumbled into cinders by the hundred and the thousand. The
summer had been intensely hot and dry, the streets were very
narrow, and the houses mostly built of wood and plaster. Nothing
could stop the tremendous fire, but the want of more houses to
burn; nor did it stop until the whole way from the Tower to Temple
Bar was a desert, composed of the ashes of thirteen thousand
houses and eighty-nine churches.

This was a terrible visitation at the time, and occasioned great
loss and suffering to the two hundred thousand burnt-out people,
who were obliged to lie in the fields under the open night sky, or
in hastily-made huts of mud and straw, while the lanes and roads
were rendered impassable by carts which had broken down as they
tried to save their goods. But the Fire was a great blessing to
the City afterwards, for it arose from its ruins very much improved
- built more regularly, more widely, more cleanly and carefully,
and therefore much more healthily. It might be far more healthy
than it is, but there are some people in it still - even now, at
this time, nearly two hundred years later - so selfish, so pig-
headed, and so ignorant, that I doubt if even another Great Fire
would warm them up to do their duty.

The Catholics were accused of having wilfully set London in flames;
one poor Frenchman, who had been mad for years, even accused
himself of having with his own hand fired the first house. There
is no reasonable doubt, however, that the fire was accidental. An
inscription on the Monument long attributed it to the Catholics;
but it is removed now, and was always a malicious and stupid


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