Last week, Zaffre published Blood’s Game by Angus Donald. Angus is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. I loved every book of his Robin Hood series and was so sorry to see it end last year (you must read it if you haven’t already!). But Angus Donald is back and this time he takes us to another favourite period of mine – the Restoration period of the 1660s and 1670s and the extraordinary court of Charles II.
I am so thrilled to post here a guest post from Angus in which he discusses ‘Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure’. I studied this period as part of my degree (Rochester is a favourite poet of mine and I love his depiction – and that of Charles II – in Blood’s Game) and so I’m particularly grateful to Angus for taking the time to write such an in-depth, considered and fun article about such a fascinating subject as the court of King Charles II!
Before the post, here’s a little of what Blood’s Game is about.
London, Winter 1670.
Holcroft Blood has entered the employ of the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom after the king. It is here that his education really begins. With a gift for numbers and decoding ciphers, Holcroft soon proves invaluable to the Duke, but when he’s pushed into a betrayal he risks everything for revenge.
His father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times. A man used to fighting, he lives by his wits and survives by whatever means necessary. When he’s asked to commit treason by stealing the crown jewels, he puts himself and his family in a dangerous situation – one that may end at the gallows.
As the machinations of powerful men plot to secure the country’s future, both father and son must learn what it is to survive in a more dangerous battlefield than war – the court of King Charles II.
Rampant hedonism in the Restoration: the politics of pleasure
By Angus Donald
At Edinburgh University in the late 1980s, I founded a club called the Hedonism Society or HedSoc. We met in pubs, drank a lot and . . . that was pretty much it. For obvious reasons, I don’t remember much about what we talked about. But I’ve always had an interest in pleasure, mine, of course, but also the pleasures of others. And I think it was partly this interest that drew me to write Blood’s Game, a novel set in the Restoration period, which concerns the daring attempt by Colonel Blood to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671. While that is the main plot strand, the novel also explores the court of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and his outrageous, libidinous, scandalous and frequently drunken friends and followers.
Pleasure was political in those debauched days. If you allowed yourself to be seen to be having fun you were making a statement about yourself, your loyalties, your politics and your religion. You were also saying most emphatically and publicly that you were not a Puritan, not a supporter of the old Cromwellian order, and that you approved of the new monarchy, and the second King Charles, wholeheartedly.
Like most things in life, context is crucial to understanding this age.
In 1660, at the age of thirty, after a long and penniless exile, Charles regained the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. He had had a pretty miserable time abroad but the people that he was now ruling had just come out of a dark and terrible period in our history. The bloody civil wars, in which a larger proportion of the population died that in any conflict before or since, were followed by the austere Puritan rule of the Commonwealth and the dictatorship of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. During this cold interregnum period, most sports were banned, drunkenness and even swearing was punished with a fine, non-religious expressions of Christmas were stopped, many drinking establishments were closed, as were all the theatres. Women who were caught working on Sundays were put in the stocks and shamed, bright clothes were banned and sober dress was the order of the day. Make-up was scrubbed off girls’ faces by soldiers who caught them wearing it, right there and then. It is instructive to recognise that armed men stopping and humiliating women in the streets in the name of religious purity does not only happen in other parts of the world. We had our own approximation of the Taliban once.
So, when Charles returned to the throne, he wanted to show his subjects that it was now perfectly all right for people to enjoy themselves. Drinking was OK, sex was OK, fun was back in fashion. Hip hip hooray! The theatres were reopened, and there was a resurgence of bawdy, satirical plays. Public drunkenness, particularly among the aristocracy, became almost a badge of rank – and an expression of loyalty to the King. Pranks and japes abounded – a pair of well-born young men, friends of the King and members of the notorious Merry Gang, scandalised London by appearing on a balcony, completely inebriated, and pretending to sodomise each other. Poets and playwrights could openly criticise the King, his court, his morals and his mistresses. And did so enthusiastically. The chronically alcoholic poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, leader of the Merry Gang, wrote of the King: “Restless he rolls from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor”.
Because Charles took his sexual pleasures seriously. He had many lovers as a young bachelor, including his nanny Mrs Wyndham, who took his virginity when he was fifteen. And after he married Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, he had at least seven mistresses, and possible as many as thirteen, who bore him a dozen children.
The role of mistress was semi-official – a whore or courtesan, or woman with whom the King had a casual encounter, would not be counted among their number – and a man who kept one was obliged to pay for her food, drink, accommodation and servants, as well as making her generous presents from time to time, perhaps when he paid her a visit. Many of the mistresses and their illegitimate children, those whose paternity the King acknowledged, received earldoms and dukedoms from the monarch and many British aristocrats today trace their ancestry back to Charles II.
The Puritans of the previous age would have turned in their graves had they known about this public and permitted acknowledgement of the extra-marital lusts of men. Because society looked to the King for guidance on how to behave, the fact that he had so many mistresses, so openly acknowledged, sent a clear message to everyone.
Adultery, forbidden by God, punished by Puritans, was now normalised.
Two of the the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – the formidable beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, and the famous actress Nell Gywn – make appearances in Blood’s Game. In the period when the book is set, Barbara was about thirty and was being replaced in the royal affections by the feisty and outrageous Nell, who was ten years younger. Gwyn was an actress, and before that an “orange-seller” in the theatres, a profession which some historians take as a euphemism for prostitute. Perhaps because of her lowly origins and dubious trade, she was never ennobled by her royal lover, although her two children were.
Barbara, on the other hand, came from the aristocratic Villiers family. She gave Charles five children and, as a long-time and fecund mistress, she wielded more power at court than childless Catherine. In fact, she was known as the Uncrowned Queen and she used her position ruthlessly to enrich herself and her friends. She persuaded the King to grant her lavish titles and lands and properties – she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the title Baroness Nonsuch, and promptly dismantled the palace and sold off the building materials to pay her gambling debts.
Gambling was another sinful pleasure, long denied, which the gentlemen and ladies of the Restoration court now engaged in with enthusiasm – sometimes to their financial ruin. Indeed, in Blood’s Game, the climax of the book is an epic game of Whist, which was just coming into fashion at the time.
Women as well as men adopted the hedonistic credo of the era. Barbara Villiers was an enthusiastic, if not entirely successful gambler. At one point she was obliged to “borrow” tens of thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse to settle her debts, but when this was discovered by officials, such was her sway over the King that the debt was immediately written off by her indulgent royal lover.
When Charles’s interest in her began to wane, she was not above finding other gentlemen friends to pleasure her. She became the lover of Jack Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, when he was a handsome and penniless young officer at court. She bore Churchill a daughter and tried, unsuccessfully, to claim she was the King’s.
Charles was not exactly delighted that his long-time lover, a woman he had given so much to, had taken a younger man to her bed – Barbara had also given Churchill a gift of £5,000, money she had received from the King, which infuriated Charles – but he was perfectly gentlemanly about the situation. He was, after all, beginning his own new relationship with Nell Gwyn at the time. There is a (probably apocryphal) tale, which I have included in Blood’s Game, that a servant was paid £100 by the Duke of Buckingham to inform His Grace when Churchill and Villiers would next be enjoying a tryst. The mischief-making Duke then persuaded the King to visit Barbara at the same time. The story goes that when the King arrived at her apartments unexpectedly, the naked Churchill had to hide in a cupboard, and was swiftly discovered there by the cuckolded Merry Monarch.
Apparently, the King saw the funny side, and forgave his young rival. He said: “You are a rascal, sir, but I forgive you because you do it to get your [daily] bread.”
A stinging insult – he basically called Churchill a man-whore – followed by forgiveness. And all the while keeping his sense of humour. That’s a class act.
It is little stories like this and many, many others, that made writing Blood’s Game such a sinful pleasure. I can only hope that you find reading it as hedonistic.