George Savile Essay King Charles Ii

Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
[George Savile, first Marquis and Earl of Halifax, was born 11th November 1633. He was descended from an ancient Yorkshire family, and succeeded to the paternal baronetcy in 1641. In the year of the Restoration he entered Parliament as member for Pontefract. In 1668 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Savile of Eland and Viscount Halifax, and in the following year he began, as a Commissioner of the Board of Trade, an official career of unusual diversity, including a joint ambassadorship at the Hague. In 1675 his name was struck off the Privy Council, during the ascendancy of Danby, but it was restored in 1679, when he became a member of Shaftesbury’s administration and was created Earl of Halifax. He remained in office after Shaftesbury’s dismissal, and in 1680 was mainly instrumental in bringing about the rejection of the Exclusion Bill by the House of Lords. In 1682 he was created Marquis of Halifax and appointed Lord Privy Seal. He was, however, out of sympathy with the Court and in favour of the recall of Monmouth; and on the accession of James II., after being removed to the Presidency of the Council, he was in December 1685 dismissed from office. He took an active part in the operations which led to the overthrow of James II., and in the Convention Parliament of 1689 acted as Speaker of the House of Lords. He held office under the new régime as Lord Privy Seal from March 1689 to February 1690; but after this he withdrew from public life, and spent the remainder of his days chiefly in his country-seat of Rufford in Nottinghamshire, to which he was deeply attached. He died 5th April 1695, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Halifax’s first wife, Lady Dorothy Spencer, was a daughter of the first Earl of Sunderland and his Countess (“Sacharissa”).]
A the most celebrated productions of Halifax’s pen, it is usual to assign the first place to the Character of a Trimmer (1688), the mere title of which would have sufficed to make its fortune as a tract. But although his sole or joint authorship has long been generally assumed, and is confidently taken for granted by Macaulay, the fact remains that the first three editions attribute the treatise to Sir William Coventry, Halifax’s kinsman,—the third, however, stating it to have been revised by Halifax himself. Coventry appears to have denied his authorship, and since the inclusion of the Character in Halifax’s Miscellanies, first published nine years after his death, it has been usually regarded as his. All that can be said with certainty is that he had a good deal to do with it, and that it suits his principles as well as it matches what we know of his style.
  To Macaulay modern readers of English history may be said to owe their appreciation of Halifax’s rare qualities as a politician and a patriot; nor has any character in his long and brilliant gallery been drawn more generously by the great party historian than that of the Trimmer—who had a soul above party. A whig record of the reigns of Charles II. and James II. may indeed, without arrogance, claim some inner affinity with the spirit of one who thought so nobly of Liberty as did Halifax; and if the passage extracted below was not actually written by him, it may stand as one which he must have entirely approved. On the other hand the tract breathes a patriotism of the most conservative type, and it is, like everything that was written by Halifax or that commended itself to him, the work of one who loved England above everything. Nor need we blame him because in thinking of England he was apt to remember Rufford, his inherited part and parcel of his country.
  A Trimmer, then, is one who trims or balances in order to preserve—whether a boat in the river, or the good ship Commonwealth in a sea of troubles. Whether the designation implies honour or dishonour, depends altogether on the bona fides of the individual; just as was the case with the analogous designation of the politiques in France in the days of the internecine struggle between the League and the monarchy. The famous Character—which with the exception of its section on foreign policy hardly deviates from the broad path of apparent, though often highly significant, commonplace—thoroughly vindicates its fundamental conception. “Our Trimmer” stands for a “mixt monarchy”—in other words, he is a constitutionalist of a type which during a full century remained the standard of political liberalism for all practical men, but which in Halifax’s day was by no means trite. The “classes” of his generation, it must be remembered, knew something by experience of republican government; while of the evils of monarchical despotism, the Trimmer could give without passion an exposition worthy of the admiration of Montesquieu. On matters ecclesiastical his “opinion” is equally enlightened; and he represents that religious liberalism—equally far removed from fanaticism and from indifference—which in later periods of English life has again became as rare as it was in the reigns of our last two Stuart kings. What, however, it would be futile to seek in the Character of a Trimmer, is political philosophy which looks far beyond a given situation. The author is only concerned to apply a few broad principles to matters as they stand; and this he does in language which, though here and there it glows with an unfeigned warmth, disdains neither trivial illustrations nor familiar figures, and rarely rises to so ambitious a height as that of the well-known passage at the close of the tract, which it seemed right not to omit below.
  Another well-known tract attributed to Halifax, though the signature T. W. reversed was held by some to point to Sir William Temple, is the Letter to a Dissenter, published on the occasion of James II.’s first Declaration of Indulgence (1687). It was an admirably devised and most opportune attempt to convince the Protestant Nonconformists of the correctness of the timeo Danaos attitude which, with a combination of long-sightedness and fortitude almost unparalleled, a large proportion of their body assumed, and in spite of discouragement upon discouragement maintained. The argument of the solidarity of the Protestant interest was in itself excellent; the weakness of the position taken up by the writer of the Letter, which he did his best to cover with the help of a style full of liveliness and wit, lay in the paucity of the examples at his disposal of the readiness of the Church of England to acknowledge the solidarity in question. The Letter called forth a full score of replies; but while I perceive no reason for doubting Halifax’s authorship of it, I cannot suppose him to have written the dogmatic Second Letter to a Dissenter, etc. (1687), which appeared in the course of the controversy. Among other political pieces that have been attributed to Halifax are the happily-named and shrewd, but rather drily written, Anatomy of an Equivalent (i.e., for oaths and tests); the very interesting Cautions offered to the consideration of those who are to choose Members to serve in the ensuing Parliament, which apparently belongs to the year 1689, and contains a most curious picture, drawn without narrow-mindedness, of the social composition of a House of Commons of the times; and A Rough Draft of a New Model at Sea (1694). In this pamphlet, which, if written by Halifax, was probably his last political piece, he seeks, not very effectively, to “trim” between the two different systems of appointment to commissions, which in the Navy and elsewhere it long proved so difficult to blend. The brief Maxims of State printed among Halifax’s Miscellanies have considerable vigour, and conclude with the following:—“That a people may let a king fall, yet still remain a people; but if a king let his people step from him, he is no longer king.”
  Of much the same type are the Political and Moral Reflexions, which were published in 1750 from Halifax’s MSS. by his granddaughter, the Countess of Burlington. But aphoristic literature has no claim to survive unless when distinguished by real excellence; and these sentences, while rarely devoid of the kind of wisdom that is the fruit of experience, as rarely show what deserves to be called wit. At the same time was given to the world Halifax’s Character of Charles II., to which posterity has turned with more interest than to his censures on Edward II. and Richard II.; yet the latter are of some significance. They appeared in the very crisis of the Revolution settlement (January 1689), under the full (something too full) title of Historical Observations upon the Reigns of Edward I., II., III., and Richard II.; with Remarks upon their Faithful Counsellors and False Favourites; written by a Person of Honour. Yet in truth Edward I. and II. only come in towards the close in a series of antitheta of no particular interest; the point of the essay lies in the parallel between Edward II. and Richard II., and possibly James II. subauditus. The Introduction, which exhibits Lord Halifax himself in the character of a highly self-complacent latter-day Doctor Faustus, rejecting theology, giving philosophy the go-by, and in default of being able to make way with uncontentious mathematics venturing upon a bit of solid history in their stead, is quite worth perusal, but contains no passage of notable force. It should not remain unmentioned, in this connexion, that Halifax was a keen-sighted collector of original historical documents, a selection from which, published in 1703, must not be confounded with the other Miscellanies of his own inditing.
  As a quick-sighted observer, who had every opportunity of supplementing his own observations by those of the clever men, and more especially of the gifted women, whose intimacy he enjoyed, and as a judge raised above all prejudice, whether partisan or personal, Halifax was uniquely qualified to sum up the character of a prince, usually, but not altogether correctly, supposed to have had no character at all. And in my opinion the result is the best extant summary of the subject from the personal, or in other words the one biographically satisfactory, point of view. I have extracted parts of the concluding chapter, which has something of the gracefulness inseparable from the true generosity of disposition which distinguished Halifax.
  Nor is this quality altogether missing in the last of Halifax’s literary productions on which I propose to touch, The Lady’s New-Year’s Gift, or, Advice to a Daughter. This once famous little treatise might almost be described as its author’s offering to the beloved young wife of whom (in 1670) he was suddenly bereft, as well as to his daughter Anne (afterwards Lady Vaughan) to whom he devoted a not less genuine affection. This Manual of Conduct ran rapidly through sixteen editions, and was translated into French and Italian; and I have met with it in curiously mixed company in a guinea gift-book, entitled Angelica’s Ladies’ Library, or, Parents’ and Guardians’ Present, illustrated by Angelica Kauffman and H. Bunbury, and dedicated to good Queen Charlotte (1794). It has many undeniable merits; for it is not only, as a matter of course, full of shrewdness and commonsense, but it likewise, as observed, displays on such questions as those of domestic economy the broad and liberal spirit of a true grand seigneur. And again, more especially in discussing the management of children, it reveals a genial and loveable side of Halifax’s character, not elsewhere apparent except in his familiar letters. Yet when one reads that in the vade mecum composed by him for his child, our author tempered “maxims of exalted piety with a curious mixture of worldly wisdom,” one can only wonder at the willingness of able writers to accommodate themselves to foregone conclusions. Halifax’s standpoint in this work is dangerously near to that of another celebrated nobleman—a grandson by the way of Halifax and his second wife—in his Letters to his Son. In both instances the father’s admonitions are inadequate, not so much because of what they contain as because of what they omit. Halifax’s conception of religion, for instance, as here developed is consistent and calm; it is cheerful; it is charitable; it is what you will; but I cannot discern in it anything “exalted.” He moves, not more at his ease (for he is always quite at his ease), but more to the tune of his times, in the succeeding sections under the headings, “Husband,” “House, Family, and Children,” “Behaviour,” “Friendship,” “Diversions,” and so forth. We here see him to be sincerely intent upon his daughter’s prosperity in the world which he knew both intus et in cute, and offering her the very best of advice, quintessential indeed in the strength in which it is distilled from his unrivalled experience. If her husband has faults or vices, if he is too fond, for instance, of sitting over his bottle or of counting his money-bags, let her not so much give way to as utilise these defects, and she will find her reckoning. If her friends of her own sex are discussed in her presence, let her not be too eager to defend them with generous warmth. Nobody can predict what may or may not prove true; and it is never advisable to be found to have taken the wrong side. On the other hand, if you must blame, if you must strike, “do it like a Lady, gently; and assure yourself that where you care to do it you will wound others more, and hurt yourself less by soft strokes, than by being harsh or violent.” Accustomed though Halifax was to the society of some of the most honourable, cultivated, and within their lights, both high-minded and high-spirited women of his times, he could not think, so far as in him lay, of training up his daughter except in one way, the way that would pay. Thus his social, not less than his political philosophy, had its limits.

Charles II

Reproduced from E Beresford Chancellor, Old Rowley (King Charles II), The Lives of the Rakes (London: Philip and Allan & Co., 1924) ii. 


Charles II was born in 1630 under, it was said, the influence of an auspicious new star that had appeared in the heavens to announce his birth. He was present at the Battle of Edgehill, the first engagement in the English Civil War in 1642, but was for much of the war shuttled about from place to place, as his father was concerned that the young Prince of Wales not fall into the hands of Parliament. He spent much of this time in the care of his future chief minister, Edward Hyde.

Following the execution of his father in 1649, Charles was invited to Scotland to be crowned king of that nation, the Scottish Covenanters under Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll, having fallen out with the English Parliamentarians. He was crowned at Scone in 1650, but was soon chafing under the restrictions placed upon him by his new "subjects." A Scottish invasion of England in 1651, led by the new King, ended disastrously at Worcester, where the combined Scottish-English Royalist forces were routed by Oliver Cromwell; Charles, after a brief but gallant attempt to rally his troops, fled, finally finding refuge on the Continent after a series of harrowing adventures which were later to become an integral part of his "legend." He spent the next 9 years in exile, surviving mostly upon the charity of foreign monarchs, and apparently with little chance of regaining his birthright.

In 1658, however, Cromwell died, and, in the year and a half of political instability that followed, the English began to look again to the House of Stuart for leadership. Events took a decisive turn when George Monck, one of Cromwell's generals, marched his army from Scotland to London in January of 1660, unseated the Rump Parliament, and invited the King home again. Charles, with the guidance of Hyde, who still directed him, issued the Declaration of Breda, which proclaimed his moderation and willingness to rule according to constitutional precedent; he was welcomed back to England in May of 1660 by wild and rapturous crowds.

The first 2 years of Charles's reign were spent attempting to heal the divisions that two decades of civil war and strife had wrought, a task in which he was guided by Hyde, now created Earl of Clarendon. The attempt to reconcile "old" Royalists and the Presbyterian loyalists (such as Monck) who had engineered his return was only partially successful, and the seeds of future party politics were sown. In 1662 he married Catherine of Braganza, a Portugese princess who brought with her Tangiers as a dowry. The marriage was not a successful one, although the King and Queen continued to live together reasonably amicably despite Charles's many infidelities. Unfortunately, the marriage remained childless, a fact that was to generate much future trouble, as it left Charles's brother James, Duke of York, as heir to the throne.

In 1665, he committed England to a war with the Dutch which began promisingly, but ended disastrously in 1667; the price of this failure was the political existence of Clarendon, whom Charles seems to have been quite willing to scapegoat for the defeat. Clarendon fled into exile in France, where he spent the remainder of his life preparing his History of the Great Rebellion for publication. Charles, meanwhile, appointed a new administration headed by Henry Bennet, the Earl of Arlington; this was often referred to as the "Cabal" ministry by contemporaries, a reference both to the initials of the administration's chief ministers, and to the supposedly sinister and secretive nature of their policies. In fact, Charles himself was very much in command, and, in 1670, signed the Treaty of Dover with the French which included a secret parallel treaty that was kept hidden even from Arlington. The secret portions of the treaty made provision for clandestine financial support from Louis XIV, in return for which Charles was to convert to Roman Catholicism, and prepare for the conversion of England in the future. Charles gladly accepted the money; he showed little sign, however, of either changing faiths himself, or of leading England back into the Popish fold.

Despite the secret subsidies from France, Charles remained in financial difficulties, a situation not improved by his entry, on the side of France, into another war with the Dutch in 1672; this war too went poorly for the English, and was concluded indecisively in 1674.

In the meantime, however, political turmoil was beginning to make itself felt at home. The public exposure, in 1672, of James, Duke of York's conversion to Catholicism, and widespread rumours about the contents of the secret parallel treaty of Dover, began to undermine the King's political position, and he found himself facing an increasingly intractable Parliamentary opposition. Charles's own failed attempts to introduce Bills of Toleration, relieving Dissenters and Papists of many of the legal restrictions placed upon them, further increased suspicions. All came to a head in 1678 with the "revelation," introduced by the religious mountebank Titus Oates, that there was a Papist conspiracy afoot to assassinate the King, and place the Duke of York upon the throne.

The "Popish Plot" was an almost complete fabrication, but for close to 3 years it created political havoc in England, as the opposition (or the "Whigs," as they were coming to be known) exploited the anti-Catholic and anti-Yorkist hysteria in order to exclude James from the succession and seize effective control of the government. Charles's dilemma became more personal, and more difficult, when the Duke of Monmouth, a favourite illegitimate son of the King, was advanced as a new candidate for the crown upon Charles's death. Charles and his allies (the "Tories") bided their time and weathered the storm, however, obstinately refusing to abandon the legitimate heir, the Duke of York. At last, in 1682, the tide began to turn irrevocably, as the English people began to tire of the political chaos. Following the revelation of a real, Protestant plot to assassinate the King (the "Rye House Plot") in 1683, Charles and the Tories were able to move decisively, and crushed the opposition. The "Tory Revenge" that followed seemed to represent an almost complete victory for Charles; even that most troublesome of Whig strongholds, London, was silenced effectively when the King revoked its charter.

Unfortunately for Charles, his victory came too late for him to enjoy properly; he died in 1685, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. For his brother James he left a kingdom that was fast regaining its prosperity, and had apparently left political tumult behind it.



The character of Charles II remains something of an enigma today, as it was, it seems, also to his contemporaries. His oft-quoted determination, following his return from exile in 1660, never again to embark upon his "travels," is sometimes seen as a key to understanding his conduct as king, and there may be a great deal of truth to this. Charles seems to have been a survivor: certainly, he seldom let "principle," which had proven so disastrous to his father, and which would, in turn, help bring about the fall of his brother, endanger his throne. In one area only did he prove inflexible: his stubborn defence of his brother James, and of the latter's right to succession, during the Exclusion Crisis suggests, at least, a strong sense of family loyalty.

Ideologically, Charles probably tended towards the absolutism so characteristic of all of the Stuarts, but he was not so foolish as to pursue royal power nakedly. Where his father and brother might insist publicly upon the Crown's absolute independence with regard to Parliament and nation, Charles worked clandestinely, finally achieving this independence by means of a series of secret deals and under-the-table payments from the French king, Louis XIV. His apparently complete victory over the Whig Exclusionists after 1682 was the fruit of opportunism rather than of careful planning or the single-minded pursuit of an idealized conception of monarchy. Samuel Pepys's comment in 1667 on attempts to establish a standing army that would help enforce the Royal will is telling if not perhaps entirely fair: "the design is, and the Duke of York [i.e., Charles's brother James] is hot for it, to have a land army and so make the government like that of France: but our princes have not brains, or at least care and forecast, enough to do that."

Indeed, Charles's competence as both a political manager and national leader are very much open to debate. Some have seen him as a wily and astute, if unscrupulous, manipulator both of public opinion and of the political scene; others have characterized him as one who merely staggered from crisis to crisis, succeeding, ultimately, more by dint of good luck than by ability. Certainly his policies, both domestic and foreign, through the later 1660s and 1670s were fairly disastrous: England fared poorly in two wars against the Dutch, and found its foreign policy increasingly dictated by France. On the domestic front, resentment against the apparently arbitrary and pro-Catholic policies of his governments simmered for nearly two decades before finally exploding into a real threat against his rule with the Popish Plot crisis that erupted in 1678. Mismanagement of finances, and of Parliament, also forced Charles, in 1672, to issue a Stop on the Exchequer – a de facto declaration of government bankruptcy.

On a personal level, Charles could evidently be a delightful companion: witty, generous, and immensely accessible, he charmed both the members of his own court, and, more surprisingly, the common people, with whom he never lost his enormous personal popularity. He could be very gentle and compassionate: while his numerous amours and the high public profiles maintained by many of his mistresses were doubtless an enduring humiliation to his queen, Catherine of Braganza, he seems to have had real affection for her, and worked very hard to protect her when she, briefly, became a target of the anti-Catholic hysteria of 1678-1681. He could also, on occasion, be very tolerant: he endeavoured, on numerous occasions, to protect both Quakers and Roman Catholics from oppression (although, when really pressed, he was also willing to abandon both). On the other hand, his sense of political loyalty was not always of the best: his willingness to throw the always-loyal Earl of Clarendon to the political wolves in 1667, and his abandonment of Lord Danby in the later 1670s, are among the less creditable of his political manipulations.

Charles II was probably the last English monarch to be truly in touch with the literary scene of his day. He was an avid reader of "light" (i.e., non-religious) literature, and was particularly attracted to witty satire, even when he himself was the target. He was the most important patron of the theatre of the age, and his influence upon the Restoration drama, both as benefactor and as arbitrator of taste, was far from negligible.

One of the best known and most interesting assessments of Charles's character was that of one of his chief ministers, George Savile, the Marquis of Halifax, who served both as an ally and in opposition; first published in 1750, it is here given in part:


          He had a mechanical head, which appeared in his inclination to shipping and fortification, &c. This would make one conclude, that his thoughts would naturally have been more fixed to business, if his pleasures had not drawn them away from it.
          He had a very good memory, though he would not always make equal good use of it. So that if he had accustomed himself to direct his faculties to his business, I see no reason why he might not have been a good deal master of it. His chain of memory was longer than his chain of thought; the first could bear any burden, the other was tired by being carried on too long; it was fit to ride a heat, but it had not wind enough for a long course.
. . .
          He grew by age into a pretty exact distribution of his hours, both for his business, pleasures, and the exercise for his health, of which he took as much care as could possibly consist with some liberties he was resolved to indulge in himself. He walked by his watch, and when he pulled it out to look upon it, skilful men would make hast with what they had to say to him.
          He was often retained in his personal against his politic capacity. He would speak upon those occasions most dexterously against himself; Charles Stuart would be bribed against the King; and in the distinction, he leaned more to his natural self, than his character would allow. He would not suffer himself to be so much fettered by his character as was convenient; he was still starting out of it, the power of nature was too strong for the dignity of his calling, which generally yielded as often as there was a contest.
          It was not the best use he made of his back stairs to admit men to bribe him against himself, to procure a defalcation, help a lame accountant to get off, or side with the farmers against the improvement of the revenue. The King was made the instrument to defraud the Crown, which is somewhat extraordinary.
. . .
          He could not properly be said to be either covetous or liberal; his desire to get was not with an intention to be rich; and his spending was rather an easiness in letting money go, than any premeditated thought for the distribution of it. He would do as much to throw off the burden of a present importunity, as he would to relieve a want.
          When once the aversion to bear uneasiness taketh place in a man's mind, it doth so check all the passions, that they are damped into a kind of indifference; they grow faint and languishing, and come to be subordinate to that fundamental maxim, of not purchasing any thing at the price of a difficulty. This made that he had as little eagerness to oblige, as he had to hurt men; the motive of his giving bounties was rather to make men less uneasy to him, than more easy to themselves; and yet no ill-nature all this while. He would slide from an asking face, and could guess very well. It was throwing a man off from his shoulders, that leaned upon them with his whole weight; so that the party was not gladder to receive, than he was to give. It was a kind of implied bargain; though men seldom kept it, being so apt to forget the advantage they had received, that they would presume the King would as little remember the good he had done them, so as to make it an argument against their next request.
. . .
           It must be allowed he had a little over-balance on the well-natured side, not vigour enough to be earnest to do a kind thing, much less to do a harsh one; but if a hard thing was done to another man, he did not eat his supper the worse for it. It was rather a deadness than severity of nature, whether it proceeded from a dissipation of spirits, or by the habit of living in which he was engaged.
          If a King should be born with more tenderness than might suit with his office, he would in time be hardened. The faults of his subjects make severity so necessary, that by the frequent occasions given to use it, it comes to be habitual, and by degrees the resistance that nature made at first groweth fainter, till at last it is in a manner quite extinguished.
           In short, this Prince might more properly be said to have gifts than virtues, as affability, easiness of living, inclinations to give, and to forgive: Qualities that flowed from his nature rather than from his virtue.

 [Text from Mark N. Brown, ed., The Works of George Savile

Marquis of Halifax, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) 499-502]


Further Reading

Bryant, Sir Arthur. King Charles II. London, New York, [etc.]:

Longmans, Green and co., 1931.

[A rather old-fashioned, but very readable account of King Charles's life and times.]

[DBW stack DA445.B77]

Hutton, Ronald. Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland, and

Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Oxford; Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

[This remains the seminal account of Charles II. By one of the foremost historians of the period, it tends to focus upon Charles's political biography, particularly in the domestic sphere, and is correspondingly a little scanty on personal detail: nonetheless, Hutton's characterization of the King as a rather unlikable and ineffective political opportunist has become very influential. An important book, and a valuable resource, particularly if one's focus is upon the politics of the age.]

[DBW stack DA446.H93 1989 ]

Masters, Brian. The Mistresses of Charles II. London : Blond &

Briggs, 1979.

[Not surprisingly, given its focus, this book tends a little to the "popular" side of history. Nonetheless, it is probably the best full-length account of Charles's mistresses, and of their impact upon court life and politics in the period.]

[DBW stack DA446.M38]

Miller, John. Charles II. London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.

[Although not as influential as Hutton's biography, this book serves as a useful companion, and counterbalance, to it. Miller is a highly reputable historian, and here provides a rather different focus upon the character of Charles II than does Hutton. It is also a somewhat more accessible book.]

[DBW stack DA446.M55 1991]

Palmer, Tony. Charles II: Portrait of an Age. London : Cassell, 1979.

[DBW stack DA445.P27]

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