As author Robert Rosen has noted, perhaps no other city has ever been more aptly named than Charles Town for King Charles II,1 the Merry Monarch who in the mid-1600s, ushered in the English Restoration. To understand Charleston, its people and history, one must first understand the nature and personality of King Charles himself, born at St. James’s Palace on May 29, 1630, under the auspices of the planet Venus, goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and wealth - all concepts central to the establishment of the Carolina colony.
By the time Charles was 14 the prince found himself fighting alongside his father against Puritan rebels in the English Civil War. As King Charles I realized his chances of victory were becoming smaller, he sent his son into exile at the court of his young French cousin King Louis XIV.
King Charles I lost the war and was beheaded. The Puritans dismantled the monarchy and began transforming England into a rather somber place. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word “puritan” as the belief that pleasure is wrong - or as early 20th century author H.L. Menken termed it: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”2
These militant Calvinists outlawed most social and cultural pleasures, burning books,. smashing art, boarding up theaters, outlawing horse racing and most other entertainments, keepping the stocks and pillories filled with sinners of myriad transgressions, and even dictating the proper width and length of a lady’s sleeves.3
Meanwhile, Charles flourished in France, embracing French fashions, culture and the enticing ladies of the court. Here he grew into a “precocious maturity, cynical, self-indulgent, skilled in the sort of moral evasions that make life comfortable even in adversity.”4
Charles sought to advance his fortunes by traveling to other royal courts of Europe seeking support of allied princes who might finance his claim to his father’s throne. Though Charles usually received warm receptions by his friends and relatives at these various courts, he unfortunately received virtually no tangible support for his cause.
During these travels, Charles established romantic liaisons with a number of women, both ennobled and obscure. While at The Hague in 1648, Charles had an affair with a Welshwoman of “middling gentry” named Lucy Walter, “of no good fame, but handsome,” someone who “had not much wit” and a “great deal of that sort of cunning which those of her profession usually have.”5
Lucy was the prince’s first documented liaison, though he had surely been sexually active before. Court rumors suggested the couple had secretly married, though no reliable documentation has ever surfaced. Married or not, Charles openly recognized his paternity of their son, James Scott, who would become the 1st Duke of Monmouth and 1st Duke of Buccleuch.
Upon the death of Oliver Cromwell, there was a grab for power among his proteges. Neither of the two principal contenders was particularly well liked and tensions were high. Fearing another civil war, eight Englishmen of wealth and influence (later the Lords Proprietors of Carolina) feared another civil war, an economic inconvenience that would adversely affect their fortunes. To prevent that from happening, the eight noblemen pooled their financial and influential resources and in 1660 successfully recalled Charles II to assume his father’s throne.
Charles II set about ushering in England’s Great Restoration Era - “the merry old England of bawdy theaters, wenches, witty playwrights, horse racing, formal gardens and easy virtue.”6 After a decade of Puritan rule, the English were ready for some excitement and vice, and Charles II was the man to bring it.
As his birth star had presaged, Charles loved life, beauty, pleasures and luxury, and he quickly earned his popular nickname “The Merry Monarch.” Charles then gave the eight noblemen all of the land south of Virginia to the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Fla., and west to the Pacific coast. Of course, the Spanish and French (not to mention the Native Americans who had lived here for millenia) had doubts about Charles’s Divine Right to present such a gift, yet that is a discussion for another time. The Lords Proprietors then named the new colony in their King’s honor Carolina and its capital, Charles Town.
Early Charlestonians created their new colony based on the political and social customs of Restoration England, and both economies were based on land ownership. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination then to see how that societal system readily transferred to the Carolina Lowcountry’s plantation structure. Charles Town was a small, re-created Restoration England.
Charles II is generally remembered as a good king - or at least a tolerant one, if not a man of great genius, leadership or political vision. One of his courtiers, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, summed up his sovereign with this verse:
“We have a pretty, witty king,
Whose word no man relies on
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.”7
Charles took the criticism in stride, acknowledging there was truth in the verse as his words were his own; however, he corrected, “my actions are those of my ministers."8
And so Charles embraced a diversity of scandalous pastimes that were reflected far across the Atlantic Ocean in the new colony named for him.