Religion and realpolitik in the reign of Charles II

Was King Charles II (below) secretly a Catholic? It would have been political suicide for him to admit so publicly in the climate of his times. In this essay I take a look at the politics of religion in late 17th-century Britain, and ask the question – why on earth did the English hate Catholics quite so much?

I went to an old friend’s wedding last weekend. I wore a nice suit, prayed a little bit, received Communion, and belted out Jerusalem at the end. It was a lovely service.

I don’t go to church much, to be honest; Christmas, yes, and Easter, if I can be arsed, but apart from that it’s christenings, weddings and funerals. I’m not sure I even believe in God. That’s right, I’m C of E. But the charming ceremony I went to on Saturday was a Roman Catholic one, and the first of its kind I’ve ever attended. I’m not sure I would have noticed the differences, really, if I hadn’t been looking for them: some little bells tinkling prettily, rather more reference to the Virgin Mary than I’m used to. Very little, really, on the surface to distinguish it from an Anglican rite.

But as I sat there in that lovely old church in Cambridge, listening to the Monsignor give the homily, my mind kept drifting back to the 17th century, to the reign of Charles II, and to the cast of characters in my novel Blood’s Game, which came out in paperback a few weeks ago.

The forbidden faith

This sort of service would have been treated with a great deal of suspicion then – perhaps even with horror. For then the Roman Catholic faith was proscribed in England, and only oath-sworn Anglicans could hold public office – yet there were still plenty of Catholic families about, and the priests to minister to them. Foreign Embassies had churches where die-hard English Catholics could gather and worship, the Liberty of Savoy, an anomalous few acres near Charing Cross in London, had a Catholic Church with a special dispensation to succour to the faithful. Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza was Catholic – and had her own chapel in the Palace of Whitehall – as was his mother Henrietta Maria, and his brother James, Duke of York, though he had to keep it secret and be seen to attend Anglican services. 

However, the vast majority of the English population – roughly ninety percent – was Protestant, and for many of them Catholicism was a sinister, in fact, a downright dangerous religion. It was the faith of their foreign enemies, it was the faith of the dictatorial monarch Louis XIV of France, it was the faith of sneaking assassins and devilishly cunning Jesuits who were out to steal their souls. It was wrong, even perhaps evil, and those who owed allegiance to the Pope were never to be trusted.

Charles II’s deathbed conversion to the Old Religion

Some people at the time whispered that even King Charles himself was secretly a Catholic. Some respected historians since then had also suggested this. Charles’s loud protestations of Anglican faith while in exile in the Low Countries was mere expediency, they say. For he could never expect to be restored to the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland if he were openly Catholic. And these academics also highlight to the fact that he attempted, through royal declarations of indulgence, to ease the lot of Catholics. They point out that on his deathbed – when his soul was in the balance – he converted to the Old Faith and was at last received into the Catholic Church. All of these things are true.

However, I think the reality is a little more complex. Yes, Charles II was born into the Protestant faith and died in the Catholic one. And it would certainly have been politically very difficult for him to convert to the Church of Rome during his reign – after all, his younger brother the Duke of York, when he became King James II, lost his throne in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution largely because he was Catholic.

Bloody Mary, the Oxford Martyrs and Guy Fawkes

However, I think that Charles believed that in religious matters politics was far more important than principle. In Blood’s Game, when his brother James raises the subject of his religion, I have the King saying this: “I give you warning, James, that you must keep your faith to yourself. I might well be compelled to send you from me – to France, say – quite against my wishes, if you do not govern your tongue in this regard. I say this not as a threat but as an expression of the realities of this realm. In their current mood, the English will not have a King who is sympathetic to the Old Faith – after Queen Mary and the Oxford Martyrs and Guido Fawkes and all of the bloody wrangling over their souls for the past hundred years. They will not stand for it. Not now. Perhaps one day, if God wills it, but not this year, nor the next. If, by your indiscretions, I am forced to choose between the preservation of my throne or my brother’s position at court I know which I shall choose.”

The secret Treaty of Madame

While I was researching Blood’s Game I discovered a secret treaty signed in June 1670 – called the Treaty of Madame – which was kept under wraps by the British Government for a hundred years afterwards, and which never really came out of the historical shadows till 1910. In this treaty Charles II agreed to make a public profession of his Catholic faith in exchange for a huge sum of money from Louis VIX of France. Is this evidence that Charles, like his brother, was a secret Catholic? I don’t think so. Charles received the French money, and swiftly spent it, but never made the public profession of the his Catholic faith. Why not? Either because he did not truly espouse the Church of Rome or because he could not safely do it without losing his throne. Actually, I believe that Charles used the ambiguity of his religious allegiance, quite cynically, as bargaining chip to achieve his ends – in this case, much needed money. I don’t think we can read anything more spiritual into the treaty than a King’s desire to pay off his huge debts. 

JFK – allegiance to the Pope or duty as US President?

Charles, I think, made a sharp distinction between maintaining a political position on an issue and what constituted his private, personal beliefs. Antonia Fraser in her excellent book King Charles II, compares his attitude to that of John F. Kennedy. He made a distinction between his role as President of the United States of America and as a private member of the Roman Catholic Church. As President, for example, he would not be subordinate to the Pope in Rome. What if America were to go to war with Italy again, as they had done in 1941? But as a private Catholic he did, as he must, acknowledge the Pontiff’s absolute supremacy.

Interestingly, like JFK, King Charles was not exactly known for his chastity – while he was married to Catharine, Charles had at least seven mistresses and possibly as many as thirteen. But then the Catholic Church has always been able to understand the frailty of the flesh – and to provide absolution after confession and contrition.

Turning to God on the edge of the abyss

The truth is that we will never know for sure what was in Charles’s heart – or, indeed in anyone’s heart. He publicly espoused Anglicanism all his life, except in the final few hours. But then he did not really have a choice in this matter if he wanted to remain King. In secret, and in writing, he promised to convert to the Old Faith but never did until many years later when he was staring into the abyss. So was he a genuine Protestant? Or was he privately a devout Catholic? Only God truly knows.

You can buy a copy of Blood’s Game by clicking here.

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