Charles II lived from 29 May 1630 to 6 February 1685. Legally, he became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland on 30 January 1649, the day his father, Charles I, was beheaded. In practice, he did not become undisputed King of England until 29 May 1660: while in Scotland he had been proclaimed King Charles II by the Scottish Parliament on 5 February 1649; and crowned on 1 January 1651. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Charles Stuart was born in St. James's Palace, London on 29 May 1630, and as the eldest surviving son of Charles I was made Prince of Wales and heir to the crowns held by his father. During the First Civil War the 12 year-old Charles Stuart accompanied his father at the Battle of Edgehill, and at the age of 15, took part in a number of the campaigns of 1645. Charles I was taken prisoner in 1646, and the following year Charles Stuart went to France for safety.
During the Second Civil War Charles Stuart was unable to reach the Scottish forces invading Northern England before their defeat by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Preston on 17–19 August 1648. Charles I was beheaded on 30 January 1649. On 5 February 1649 the Scottish Parliament proclaimed the 19 year-old Charles Stuart as Charles II: while the following month the English Parliament declared England to be a republic.
From March 1649, Charles was based in the Hague, where he began a series of negotiations with representatives of the Scottish Parliament about his return. In exchange for their support, the Scots wanted Charles to sign the Covenant, and to impose Presbyterianism in England, Wales and Ireland. Charles refused, instead attempting to regain control in Scotland by force. At his request, the Marquis of Montrose, who had brilliantly led the Royalist forces against the Covenanters in Scotland during the Civil War, landed in Orkney with 500 Scandinavian mercenaries, before moving on to Caithness, reinforced by Orcadian volunteers. However, on 27 April 1650 Montrose's forces lost to a much smaller Covenanter army at the Battle of Carbisdale, near Bonar Bridge. Montrose was subsequently executed in Edinburgh, in part because Charles denied to the Scots that he was behind Montrose's actions.
Left with little option, Charles II agreed the demands of the Scottish Covenanters and landed at Garmouth, in Moray, on 23 June 1650, signing the Covenant as he came ashore. In retaliation, Cromwell invaded Scotland on 22 July 1650, capturing much of the south of the country by the end of the year. On 1 January 1651, Charles II was crowned King of Scots at Scone. In July 1651, Charles II and the Scottish Covenanter army bypassed Cromwell's main forces in Scotland and headed south into England, reaching Worcester on 22 August. Charles had hoped that English Royalists would flock to his cause, but they did not, and on 3 September, Cromwell's much larger army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Royalists and Covenanters at Worcester. Charles II spent the next six weeks in hiding in England before escaping to France. The only up-side to this experience from Charles' point of view was that it relieved him from what he regarded as virtual imprisonment by the dour Scottish Covenanters, who he had grown to hate with a passion.
Unable to muster enough influence or money to persuade France, Holland or Spain to back his efforts to mount a campaign against Cromwell, Charles II, had little option but to wait out the next few years in exile, mostly in Holland. His one further attempt to gain power by force came in February 1654, when troops commanded by John Middleton, 1st Earl of Middleton, landed in Dornoch. This ended in complete failure when the attempted uprising was snuffed out by forces led by Cromwell's Military Governor in Scotland, General George Monck.
Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, but even after his son, Richard Cromwell, had resigned the post of Lord Protector in early 1659, the chances of Charles regaining (or gaining) the throne seemed slight. Help came from an unlikely quarter. General George Monck, still serving as Military Governor in Scotland, made contact with Charles using the architect Sir William Bruce as an intermediary.
On 1 January 1660, General Monck, led an army south from Coldstream in Scotland to London, and brought about elections that returned a largely Royalist Parliament, who he then persuaded to restore Charles II to the throne. Charles landed in Dover on 23 May 1660, to be greeted by Monck. He was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661.
Before the English Parliament had agreed to recall Charles II, they had sought from him guarantees that he would not persecute Cromwell's supporters on his return. He did not extend this to the Commissioners who had signed Charles I's death warrant, 31 of whom were still alive and 12 of whom were subsequently hung, drawn and quartered. Meanwhile, Cromwell's body was disinterred and subjected to a symbolic beheading. Once in power Charles also settled a number of scores with Covenanter leaders in Scotland.
Charles II's reign had a number of similarities with those of his father and grandfather. Throughout it he wrestled with Parliament over who could exercise real authority, and as a result was heavily constrained by Parliament's grip on state finances. Meanwhile he married a Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662. In the same year he sold England's last French possession, Calais, to his cousin, Louis XIV of France, for £40,000.
1665 saw London hit by the Bubonic Plague, with up to 7,000 people dying each week. And on 2 September 1666, the Great Fire of London broke out, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches, including St Paul's Cathedral (but possibly helping end the spread of the plague). A comet in the sky led many in England to blame their misfortunes on God's anger, caused, they believed, by the increasing tolerance of Catholics in Charles II's England.
Then, with supreme bad timing, Charles II's brother James, who remained heir to the throne, converted to Catholicism in 1667, a fact that was not made public until 1673. Although Charles fathered at least 14 illegitimate children by at least 7 different mothers, he and Catherine of Braganza were unable to produce a legitimate heir.
In 1670 Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV. Under its terms, France and England allied against the Dutch. Among the most secret clauses were an agreement by Louis to pay Charles £200,000 per year to allow him some financial independence from the English Parliament; an agreement that France would help England return to Catholicism; and an agreement that Charles would himself convert to Catholicism "as soon as the welfare of his realm will permit." Partly as a result, the 1670s were marked by a series of disputes between Charles and the English Parliament over his foreign policies, and over his efforts to suspend laws punishing Roman Catholics and other religious dissenters.
In 1678 a retired Anglican cleric called Titus Oates falsely claimed to have uncovered a French-inspired plot to replace Charles II with his Catholic brother James. A wave of anti-Catholic hysteria swept England, doing little to help Charles further the secret agenda he had agreed in the Treaty of Dover. Still worse, the English Parliament resolved to pursue the Exclusion Bill, which would remove the Catholic James from the line of succession: with some wanting to replace him as heir to the throne with the the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of Charles's illegitimate children. Each time the Exclusion Bill came up for debate, Charles dissolved Parliament, doing so in 1679, 1680, and 1681. Thereafter he dispensed with Parliament altogether, ruling as an absolute monarch on the back of a groundswell of public support, ignorant of his secret deal with Louis XIV of France. Public support for Charles (and to a lesser extend James) grew further after the failed Rye House Plot of 1683, a Protestant plan to assassinate both of them on their way back to London from the races at Newmarket.
Charles died on 6 February 1685 at the age of 55 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. On his deathbed he secretly converted to Catholicism. He was succeeded by his brother, James, the Duke of York, who became James II of England and Ireland, and James VII of Scotland.