Book Review - Charles II's Illegitimate Children: Royal Bastards by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Published on 31 August 2023 at 20:58

King Charles II is surely the most affable and easy going of all the Stuart monarchs – as my husband says he’s the sort of bloke you’d buy a pie and a pint down the pub. He’d seen battle at close range at the tender age of 12, been separated from both parents by civil war, and been the ‘most wanted’ man in the country he was born to rule over, famously hiding up an oak tree, disguising himself as a humble countryman, cutting off his long dark hair, dying his skin brown with nut juice and wearing footwear which was too small for him, leaving his feet blistered and bloody. No wonder then that when he finally escaped over the Channel to the continent Charles Stuart lived every day as if it might be his last.


From a young age Charles had an eye for the ladies, who obviously found him equally attractive in return. Although not conventionally handsome – Charles described himself as ‘an ugly fellow’ - he must have been charismatic, and the fact that he was the one and only true heir to the kingdoms of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – the realm declaring itself a republic in his absence - probably didn’t harm his chances with the fairer sex either.


The first of Charles’s illegitimate children were born whilst he was in exile, the majority of his royal bastards being conceived after his Restoration in 1660. Kings were expected to have mistresses and to sire children outside of wedlock, indeed, ambitious courtiers frequently thrust pretty wives, sisters and daughters into the monarch’s path with this very aim in mind. Charles’s grandfather and father (James I and Charles I respectively) were unusual in that they are recorded as fathering no illegitimate children.


Book cover - Pen and Sword Publishing

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth as a boy

Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Charles proved himself to be highly sexed, virile and potent, but it is perhaps the greatest tragedy of his reign that although he fathered over twelve bastards, he and his queen never produced a legitimate heir.


But this book is not about King Charles II (although he remains a reassuring presence in the background), it’s about his children, many of whom I knew next to nothing about, especially the daughters who, like most women from history, tend to be side-lined as just the wives and mothers of great men, if they are mentioned at all. James, Duke of Monmouth, is the most well-known of the brood, being his father’s first acknowledged son, and because of his failed attempt to seize the English crown from his uncle James in 1685. Ms Watkins only skims over his biography, a good choice in my opinion, as it stops Monmouth overshadowing the rest of his siblings. There is a handy note that more in-depth works on this ultimately tragic life can be found in the Bibliography at the back of the book.


The book recounts the children in chronological order, with some background about the women who gave birth to them, which I enjoyed.  Several children are included who may or may not have been fathered by Charles II, with a look at the evidence which argues for or against.


I found this book an easy read, and enjoyed the gossipy nature of the narrative, although the author is at pains to mention when the stories circulating the court were based in fact, or merely tales elaborating upon vague rumours… and in some cases outright malicious slander.


Ms Watkins manages to convey the hedonistic and pleasure-loving atmosphere of Charles II’s luxurious royal court where his mistresses jockeyed for position and the wandering attention of their sovereign, and where their offspring grew up. We must remember that this was the generation who grew up during the civil wars of the 1640s, who saw fathers, brothers and cousins killed or maimed because of the conflict, who’s families had been stripped of landed estates and fortunes, and had sought refuge in the cities of France and Flanders, waiting until it was safe to return to their homeland again. No wonder when they finally came home, their lives became one long party involving actresses, lecherous poets and playwrights, and drunken debauched revels – with just a pinch of vicious infighting in the background.


It’s interesting to discover what became of these royal ‘by-blows’ when their father’s reign came to an end in 1685, and their Catholic uncle James took the throne. Several remained utterly loyal to Uncle Jimmy, even following him into exile, whilst others threw their lot in with their Protestant cousin Mary and her Dutch husband William (who became King William and Queen Mary after the Glorious Revolution of 1688). Still others hedged their bets, supporting one side, only to switch their allegiance when it became obvious which way the tide was turning.


It’s clear that many of Charles’s children – both boys and girls - inherited his relaxed morals. But it’s interesting to note that undoubtably his favourite amongst his children, Charlotte, Countess of Lichfield, enjoyed a long, happy and successful marriage, giving birth to eighteen of her husband’s children.


The one difficulty I had with the text – as the king’s family grew, via several different mothers - was keeping up with who everyone was. The boys all seem to be named Charles, James or Henry, and as they grew older, they were granted various noble titles. But this is not a problem unique to the 17th Century. During the reign of Henry VIII, for example, everyone appears to be called Thomas!


Charlotte Fitzroy, Countess of Lichfield

A nice touch were the items in the Appendices, including a parallel chapter on the mistresses and illegitimate children of Charles’s younger brother and heir James.


All in all, this book was a pleasure to read. It’s well researched but doesn’t bog the narrative down with unnecessary information. And the interconnecting lives of the women, their children and the wider nobility of Restoration England is fascinating to discover.

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