Friday, April 23, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Coronation of Charles II

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Certain purists date the reign of Charles II from that chill day in January 1649 when his father, Charles I, was executed at Whitehall. Be that as it may, a law passed by the new Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell made the proclamation of it illegal, in England at least; Charles II was duly proclaimed King of Scots in Edinburgh one week after his father's beheading, and crowned in Scone on the first day of January 1651. Following a military loss to the New Model Army at the Battle of Worcester (considered the final battle of the English Civil War) the following September, Charles fled to a penniless exile on the Continent, spent mainly in France and the Low Countries, cadging off his own considerable charms and dining out on anti-Cromwell propaganda.

The death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658 also hastened the death of the Interregnum; his heir Richard Cromwell was no leader - and certainly no tyrant, as his father had been. With no support from the army his rule collapsed, and for awhile England was threatened with a descent into chaos, as no one quite knew who was in charge. Into this morass marched General George Monck, whose entry into London was unopposed. Having arrived, he forcibly dissolved the Rump Parliament and set about restoring some semblance of order.

The Declaration of Breda decreed the terms under which Charles agreed to return to England as King, and its verbiage owes as much to Monck's voice as it does to the King's; the document contained, among other things, a laundry list of traitorous nobility to pardon, to which Charles assented. He returned to England the following month; four days later the handsome, unmarried King triumphantly entered London (on his thirtieth birthday) in May 1660, a day celebrated for years afterwards as Oak Apple Day. On that day the dour Protectorate joyously gave way to the altogether decadent Restoration.

His coronation took a while to plan partly because the majority of the coronation regalia had been sold off or melted down, and it took awhile for a goldsmith named Viner to create a new set of Crown Jewels; the price they'd fetched was £2647 18s 4d - a princely sum to be sure - but the stones they'd been set with had been priceless heirlooms, gifts from successive Kings to their people, and their theft by Cromwell was by far the worse offense. Also, it was thought symbolic to hold the coronation on St. George's Day, as both a reiteration of everything England was as well as a repudiation of what it had become under Puritan rule.

In attendance both on that day and at the sovereign's triumphal ride through London (by tradition set for the day before the coronation) was famed diarist Samuel Pepys who, in a chilling bit of foreshadowing for the Great Fire to come, wrote later that even hours after the ceremony was over 'the City had a light like a glory round about it with bonfires.' Little more than five years later, London would have an altogether deadlier glow about it...

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