Charles II - Jacob Abbott

The Conclusion

Time rolled on, and the gay and pleasure-loving king passed through one decade after another of his career, until at length he came to be over fifty years of age. His health was firm, and his mental powers vigorous. He looked forward to many years of strength and activity yet to come, and thus, though he had passed the meridian of his life, he made no preparations to change the pursuits and habits in which he had indulged himself in his early years.

He died suddenly at last, at the age of fifty-four. His death was almost as sudden as that of his father, though in a widely different way. The circumstances of his last sickness have strongly attracted the attention of mankind, on account of the manner in which the dying king was affected, at last, by remorse at the recollection of his life of reckless pleasure and sin, and of the acts to which this remorse led him upon his dying bed.

The vices and crimes of monarchs, like those of other men, may be distinguished into two great types, characterized by the feelings of heart in which they take their origin. Some of these crimes arise from the malignant passions of the soul, others from the irregular and perverted action of the feelings of kindness and affection. The errors and follies of Charles, ending at last, as they did, in the most atrocious sins, were of the latter class. It was in feelings of kindness and good will toward friends of his own sex that originated that spirit of favoritism, so unworthy of a monarch, which he so often evinced; and even his irregular and unhallowed attachments of another kind seem to have been not wholly selfish and sensual. The course of conduct which he pursued through the whole course of his life toward his female companions, evinced, in many instances, a sincere attachment to them, and an honest desire to promote their welfare; and in all the wild recklessness of his life of pleasure and vice, there was seen coming out continually into view the influence of some conscientious sense of duty, and of a desire to promote the happiness of those around him, and to do justice to all. These principle were, indeed, too feeble to withstand the temptations by which they were assailed on every side; still, they did not cease to exist, and occasions were continually occurring when they succeeded in making their persuasions heard. In a word, King Charles's errors and sins, atrocious and inexcusable as they were, sprang from ill-regulated and perverted feelings of love and good will, and not from selfishness and hate; from the kindly, and not from the malignant propensities of the soul. It is very doubtful whether this is really any palliation of them, but, at any rate, mankind generally regard it so, judging very leniently, as they always do, the sins and crimes which have such an origin.

It is probable that Charles derived whatever moral principle and sensitiveness of conscience that he possessed from the influence of his mother in his early years. She was a faithful and devoted Catholic; she honestly and firmly believed that the rites and usages of the Catholic Church were divinely ordained, and that a careful and honest conformity to them was the only way to please God and to prepare for heaven. She did all in her power to bring up her children in this faith, and in the high moral and religious principles of conduct which were, in her mind, indissolubly connected with it. She derived this spirit, in her turn, from her  mother, Mary de Medici, who was one of the most extraordinary characters of ancient or modern times. When Henrietta Maria was married to Charles I. and went to England, this Mary de Medici, her mother, wrote her a letter of counsel and of farewell, which we recommend to our readers' careful perusal. It is true, we go back to the third generation from the hero of this story to reach the document, but it illustrates so well the manner in which maternal influence passes down from age to age, and throws so much light on the strange scenes which occurred at Charles's death, and is, moreover, so intrinsically excellent, that it well merits the digression.

The queen-mother, Mary de Medici, to the young Queen of England, Henrietta Maria.
"1625, June 25.

"MY DAUGHTER—You separate from me, I can not separate myself from you. I retain you in heart and memory and would that this paper could serve for an eternal memorial to you of what I am; it would then supply my place, and speak for me to you, when I can no longer speak for myself. I give you it with my last adieu in quitting you, to impress it the more on your mind, and give it to you written with my own hand, in order that it may be the more dear to you, and that it may have more authority with you in all that regards your conduct toward God, the king your husband, his subjects, your domestics, and yourself. I tell you here sincerely, as in the last hour of our converse, all I should say to you in the last hour of my existence, if you should be near me then. I consider, to my great regret, that such can never be, and that the separation now taking place between you and me for a long time, is too probably an anticipation of that which is to be forever in this world.

"On this earth you have only God for a father; but, as he is eternal, you can never lose him. It is he who sustains your existence and life; it is he who has given you to a great king; it is he who, at this time, places a crown on your brow, and will establish you in England, where you ought to believe that he requires your service, and there he means to effect your salvation. Remember, my child, every day of your life, that he is your God, who has put you on earth intending you for heaven, who has created you for himself and for his glory.

"The late king, your father, has already passed away; there remains no more of him but a little dust and ashes, hidden from our eyes. One of your brothers has already been taken from us even in his infancy; God withdrew him at his own good pleasure. He has retained you in the world in order to load you with his benefits; but, as he has given you the utmost felicity, it behooves you to render him the utmost gratitude. It is but just that your duties are augmented in proportion as the benefits and favors you receive are signal. Take heed of abusing them. Think well that the grandeur, goodness, and justice of God are infinite, and employ all the strength of your mind in adoring his supreme puissance, in loving his inviolable goodness; and fear his rigorous equity, which will make all responsible who are unworthy of his benefits.

"Receive, my child, these instructions of my lips; begin and finish every day in your oratory, with good thoughts and, in your prayers, ask resolution to conduct your life according to the laws of God, and not according to the vanities of this world, which is for all of us but a moment, in which we are suspended over eternity, which we shall pass either in the paradise of God, or in hell with the malign spirits who work evil.

"Remember that you are daughter of the Church by baptism, and that this is, indeed, the first and highest rank which you have or ever will have, since it is this which will give you entrance into heaven; your other dignities, coming as they do from the earth, will not go further than the earth; but those which you derive from heaven will ascend again to their source, and carry you with them there. Render thanks to heaven each day, to God who has made you a Christian; estimate this first of benefits as it deserves, and consider all that you owe to the labors and precious blood of Jesus our Savior; it ought to be paid for by our sufferings, and even by our blood, if he requires it. Offer your soul and your life to him who has created you by his puissance, and redeemed you by his goodness and mercy. Pray to him, and pray incessantly to preserve you by the inestimable gift of his grace, and that it may please him that you sooner lose your life than renounce him.

"You are the descendant of St. Louis. I would recall to you, in this my last adieu, the same instruction that he received from his mother, Queen Blanche, who said to him often 'that she would rather see him die than to live so as to offend God, in whom we move, and who is the end of our being'. It was with such precepts that he commenced his holy career; it was this that rendered him worthy of employing his life and reign for the good of the faith and the exaltation of the Church. Be, after his example, firm and zealous for religion, which you have been taught, for the defense of which he, your royal and holy ancestor, exposed his life, and died faithful to him among the infidels. Never listen to, or suffer to be said in your presence, aught in contradiction to your belief in God and his only Son, your Lord and Redeemer. I entreat the Holy Virgin, whose name you bear, to deign to be the mother of your soul, and in honor of her who is mother of our Lord and Savior, I bid you adieu again and many times.

"I now devote you to God forever and ever; it is what I desire for you from the very depth of my heart.

"Your very good and affectionate mother, MARIA.

"From Amiens, the 10th of June, 1625."

The devout sense of responsibility to Almighty God, and the spirit of submission and obedience to his will, which this letter breathes, descended from the grandmother to the mother, and were even instilled, in some degree, into the heart of the son. They remained, however, latent and dormant through the long years of the monarch's life of frivolity and sin, but they revived and reasserted their dominion when the end came.

The dying scene opened upon the king's vision in a very abrupt and sudden manner. He had been somewhat unwell during a certain day in February, when he was about fifty-four years of age. His illness, however, did not interrupt the ordinary orgies and carousals of his palace. It was Sunday. In the evening a very gay assembly was convened in the apartments, engaged in deep gaming, and other dissolute and vicious pleasures. The king mingled in these scenes, though he complained of being unwell. His head was giddy—his appetite was gone—his walk was unsteady. When the party broke up at midnight, he went into one of the neighboring apartments, and they prepared for him some light and simple food suitable for a sick man, but he could not take it. He retired to his bed, but he passed a restless and uneasy night. He arose, however, the next morning, and attempted to dress himself, but before he finished the work he was suddenly struck by that grim and terrible messenger and coadjutor of death—apoplexy—as by a blow. Stunned by the stroke, he staggered and fell.

The dreadful paroxysm of insensibility and seeming death in a case of apoplexy is supposed to be occasioned by a pressure of blood upon the brain, and the remedy, according to the practice of those days, was to bleed the patient immediately to relieve this pressure, and to blister or cauterize the head, to excite a high external action as a means of subduing the disease within. It was the law of England that such violent remedies could not be resorted to in the case of the sovereign without authority previously obtained from the council. They were guilty of high treason who should presume to do so. This was a case, however, which admitted of no delay. The attendants put their own lives at hazard to serve that of the king. They bled him with a penknife, and heated the iron for the cautery. The alarm was spread throughout the palace, producing universal confusion. The queen was summoned, and came as soon as possible to the scene. She found her husband sitting senseless in a chair, a basin of blood by his side, his countenance death-like and ghastly, while some of the attendants were attempting to force the locked jaws apart, that they might administer a potion, and others were applying a red hot iron to the patient's head, in a desperate endeavor to arouse and bring back again into action the benumbed and stupefied sensibilities. Queen Catharine was so shocked by the horrid spectacle that she sank down in a fit of fainting and convulsions, and was borne immediately away back to her own apartment.

In two hours the patient's suspended faculties began to return. He looked wildly about him, and asked for the queen. They sent for her. She was not able to come. She was, however, so far restored as to be able to send a message and an apology, saying that she was very glad to hear that he was better, and was much concerned that she could not come to see him; she also added, that for whatever she had done in the course of her life to displease him, she now asked his pardon, and hoped he would forgive her. The attendants communicated this message to the king. "Poor lady!" said Charles, "she beg my pardon! I am sure I beg hers, with all my heart."

Apoplexy fulfills the dread behest of its terrible master Death by dealing its blow once with a fatal energy, and then retiring from the field, leaving the stunned and senseless patient to recover in some degree from the first effect of the stroke, but only to sink down and die at last under the permanent and irretrievable injuries which almost invariably follow.

Things took this course in the case of Charles. He revived from the stupor and insensibility of the first attack, and lay afterward for several days upon his bed, wandering in mind, helpless in body, full of restlessness and pain, and yet conscious of his condition. He saw, dimly and obscurely indeed, but yet with awful certainty, that his ties to earth had been suddenly sundered, and that there only remained to him now a brief and troubled interval of mental bewilderment and bodily distress, to last for a few more hours or days, and then he must appear before that dread tribunal where his last account was to be rendered; and the vast work of preparation for the solemn judgment was yet to be made. How was this to be done?

Of course, the great palace of Whitehall, where the royal patient was lying, was all in confusion. Attendants were hurrying to and fro. Councils of physicians were deliberating in solemn assemblies on the case, and ordaining prescriptions with the formality which royal etiquette required. The courtiers were thunderstruck and confounded at the prospect of the total revolution which was about to ensue, and in which all their hopes and prospects might be totally ruined. James, the Duke of York, seeing himself about to be suddenly summoned to the throne, was full of eager interest in the preliminary arrangements to secure his safe and ready accession. He was engaged night and day in selecting officers, signing documents, and stationing guards. Catharine mourned in her own sick chamber the approaching blow, which was to separate her forever from her husband, deprive her of her consequence and her rank, and consign her, for the rest of her days to the pains and sorrows, and the dreadful solitude of heart which pertains to widowhood. The king's other female intimates, too, of whom there were three still remaining in his court and in his palace, were distracted with real grief. They may have loved him sincerely; they certainly gave every indication of true affection for him in this his hour of extremity. They could not appear at his bedside except at sudden and stolen interviews, which were quickly terminated by their being required to withdraw; but they hovered near with anxious inquiries, or else mourned in their apartments with bitter grief. Without the palace the effects were scarcely less decisive. The tidings spread every where throughout the kingdom, arresting universal attention, and awakening an anxiety so widely diffused and so intense as almost to amount to a terror. A Catholic monarch was about to ascend the throne, and no one knew what national calamities were impending.

In the mean time, the dying monarch lay helpless upon his bed, in the alcove of his apartment, distressed and wretched. To look back upon the past filled him with remorse, and the dread futurity, now close at hand, was full of images of terror and dismay. He thought of his wife, and of the now utterly irreparable injuries which he had done her. He thought of his other intimates and their numerous children, and of the condition in which they would be left by his death. If he had been more entirely sensual and selfish in his attachments, he would have suffered less; but he could not dismiss these now wretched participators in his sins from his mind. He could do very little now to promote their future welfare, or to atone for the injury which he had done them; but his anxiety to do so, as well as his utter helplessness in accomplishing his desire, was evinced by his saying, in his last charge to his brother James, just before he died, that he hoped he would be kind to his children, and especially not let poor Nelly starve.

Troubled and distressed with these thoughts, and still more anxious and wretched at the prospect of his own approaching summons before the bar of God, the fallen monarch lay upon his dying bed, earnestly desiring, but not daring to ask for, the only possible relief which was now left to him, the privilege of seeking refuge in the religious hopes and consolations which his mother, in years now long gone by, had vainly attempted to teach him to love. The way of salvation through the ministrations and observances of the Catholic service was the only way of salvation that he could possibly see. It is true that he had been all his life a Protestant, but Protestantism was to him only a political  faith, it had nothing to do with moral accountability or preparation for heaven. The spiritual views of acceptance with God by simple personal penitence and faith in the atoning sacrifice of his Son, which lie at the foundation of the system of the Church of England, he never conceived of. The Church of England was to him a mere empty form; it was the service of the ancient Catholic faith, disrobed of its sanctions, despoiled of its authority, and deprived of all its spirit and soul. It was the mere idle form of godless and heartless men of the world, empty and vain. It had answered his purpose as a part of the pageantry of state during his life of pomp and pleasure, but it seemed a mockery to him now, as a means of leading his wretched and ruined soul to a reconciliation with his Maker. Every thing that was sincere, and earnest, and truly devout, in the duties of piety were associated in his mind with the memory of his mother; and as death drew nigh, he longed to return to her fold, and to have a priest, who was clothed with the authority to which her spirit had been accustomed to bow, come and be the mediator between himself and his Maker, and secure and confirm the reconciliation.

But how could this be done? It was worse than treason to aid or abet the tainting of the soul of an English Protestant king with the abominations of popery. The king knew this very well, and was aware that if he were to make his wishes known, whoever should assist him in attaining the object of his desire would hazard his life by the act. Knowing, too, in what abhorrence the Catholic faith was held, he naturally shrank from avowing his convictions; and thus deterred by the difficulties which surrounded him, he gave himself up to despair, and let the hours move silently on which were drawing him so rapidly toward the grave. There were, among the other attendants and courtiers who crowded around his bedside, several high dignitaries of the Church. At one time five bishops were in his chamber. They proposed repeatedly that the king should partake of the sacrament. This was a customary rite to be performed upon the dying, it being considered the symbol and seal of a final reconciliation with God and preparation for heaven. Whenever the proposal was made, the king declined or evaded it. He said he was "too weak," or "not now," or "there will be time enough yet;" and thus day after day moved on.

In the mean time, the anxious and unhappy queen had so far recovered that she came to see the king, and was often at his bedside, watching his symptoms and mourning over his approaching fate. These interviews were, however, all public, for the large apartment in which the king was lying was always full. There were ladies of the court, too, who claimed the privilege which royal etiquette accorded them of always accompanying the queen on these visits to the bedside of her dying husband. She could say nothing in private; and then, besides, her agitation and distress were so extreme, that she was incapable of any thing like calm and considerate action.

Among the favorite intimates of the king, perhaps the most prominent was the Duchess of Portsmouth. The king himself had raised her to that rank. She was a French girl, who came over, originally, from the Continent with a party of visitors from the French court. Her beauty, her wit, and her accomplishments soon made her a great favorite with the king, and for many years of his life she had exerted an unbounded and a guilty influence over him. She was a Catholic. Though not allowed to come to his bedside, she remained in her apartment overwhelmed with grief at the approaching death of her lover, and, strange as it may seem, she was earnestly desirous to obtain for him the spiritual succors which, as a Catholic, she considered essential to his dying in peace. After repeated and vain endeavors made in other ways to accomplish her object, she at length sent for the French embassador to come to her rooms from the king's chamber, and urged him to do something to save the dying sinner's soul. "He is in heart a Catholic," said she. "I am sure he wishes to receive the Catholic sacraments. I can not do any thing, and the Duke of York is so full of business and excitement that he does not think of it. But something must be done."

The embassador went in pursuit of the Duke of York. He took him aside, and with great caution and secrecy suggested the subject. "You are right," said the duke, "and there is no time to lose." The duke went to the king's chamber. The English clergymen had just been offering the king the sacrament once more, and he had declined it again. James asked them to retire from the alcove, as he wished to speak privately to his majesty. They did so, supposing that he wished to communicate with him on some business of state. "Sire," said the duke to his dying brother, "you decline the sacraments of the Protestant Church, will you receive those of the Catholic?" The countenance of the dying man evinced a faint though immediate expression of returning animation and pleasure at this suggestion. "Yes," said he, "I would give every thing in the world to see a priest." "I will bring you one," said James. "Do," said the king, "for God's sake, do; but shall you not expose yourself to danger by it?" "I will bring you one, though it cost me my life," replied the duke. This conversation was held in a whisper, to prevent its being overheard by the various groups in the room. The duke afterward said that he had to repeat his words several times to make the king comprehend them, his sense of hearing having obviously begun to fail.

There was great difficulty in procuring a priest. The French and Spanish priests about the court, who were attached to the service of the embassadors and of the queen, excused themselves on various pretexts. They were, in fact, afraid of the consequences to themselves which might follow from an act so strictly prohibited by law. At last an English priest was found. His name was Huddleston. He had, at one time, concealed the king in his house during his adventures and wanderings after the battle of Worcester. On account of this service, he had been protected by the government of the king, ever since that time, from the pains and penalties which had driven most of the Catholic priests from the kingdom.

They sent for Father Huddleston to come to the palace. He arrived about seven o'clock in the evening. They disguised him with a wig and cassock, which was the usual dress of a clergyman of the Church of England. As the illegal ceremony about to be performed required the most absolute secrecy, it became necessary to remove all the company from the room. The duke accordingly informed them that the king wished to be alone for a short period, and he therefore requested that they would withdraw into the ante-room. When they had done so, Father Huddleston was brought in by a little door near the head of the bed, which opened directly into the alcove where the bed was laid. There was a narrow space or alley by the side of the bed, within the alcove, called the ruelle;  with this the private door communicated directly, and the party attending the priest, entering, stationed themselves there, to perform in secrecy and danger the last solemn rites of Catholic preparation for heaven. It was an extraordinary scene; the mighty monarch of a mighty realm, hiding from the vigilance of his own laws, that he might steal an opportunity to escape the consequences of having violated the laws of heaven.

They performed over the now helpless monarch the rites which the Catholic Church prescribes for the salvation of the dying sinner. These rites, though empty and unmeaning ceremonies to those who have no religious faith in them, are full of the most profound impressiveness and solemnity for those who have. The priest, having laid aside his Protestant disguise, administered the sacrament of the mass, which was, according to the Catholic views, a true and actual re-enacting of the sacrifice of Christ, to inure to the special benefit of the individual soul for which it was offered. The priest then received the penitent's confession of sin, expressed in a faint and feeble assent to the words of contrition which the Church prescribes, and this was followed by a pardon—a true and actual pardon, as the sinner supposed, granted and declared by a commissioner fully empowered by authority from heaven both to grant and declare it. Then came the "extreme unction", or, in other words, the last anointing, in which a little consecrated oil was touched to the eyelids, the lips, the ears, and the hands, as a symbol and a seal of the final purification and sanctification of the senses, which had been through life the means and instruments of sin. The extreme unction is the last rite. This being performed, the dying Catholic feels that all is well. His sins have been atoned for and forgiven, and he has himself been purified and sanctified, soul and body. The services in Charles's case occupied three quarters of an hour, and then the doors were opened and the attendants and company were admitted again.

The night passed on, and though the king's mind was relieved, he suffered much bodily agony. In the morning, when he perceived that it was light, he asked the attendants to open the curtains, that he might see the sun for the last time. It gave him but a momentary pleasure, for he was restless and in great suffering. Some pains which he endured increased so much that it was decided to bleed him. The operation relieved the suffering, but exhausted the sufferer's strength so that he soon lost the power of speech, and lay afterward helpless and almost insensible, longing for the relief which now nothing but death could bring him. This continued till about noon, when he ceased to breathe.