Researching history and the last King Charles

From left to right: Westminster Abbey, King Charles II, Aphra Behn and the inside of a theatre

Recently I’ve been researching history – exploring the Restoration, King Charles II and the writer Aphra Behn. When get into a period of history, I tend to get stuck there for a while, which has made the past week simply mind-bending.

The last King Charles came out of exile in May 1660 arriving in Kent from France after Parliament declared he’d been the lawful monarch since his father’s execution in January 1649. Cromwell had died, his son had fled to the Continent.

It’s hard to believe that for a short spell of 11 years, England was a republic.

King Charles had Cromwell dug up from his grave in Westminster Abbey to mark the twelfth anniversary of his father’s execution. He then had Cromwell ‘executed’ at Tyburn Tree. Cromwell’s head was cut off, put on a pole and exhibited for the next 25 years outside Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament. Then it became private property. Someone I chatted to on Twitter told me his sister had seen it in a box.

Researching historical figures

I’m not a historian, just a massive consumer of history. When researching history, I’ll often pick up Peter Ackroyd, John Rees, David Olusaga or Ann Lawrence. Recently, I’ve been dipping in and out of Janet Todd’s enormous biography of Aphra Behn.

Aphra Behn was the first woman in England to earn a living from writing, after working as spy for a spell and possibly a copyist. Naturally I’d hoped to relate to her, being a working writer myself, but historical figures always let you down. Like Cromwell, they’re all faulty, unheroic, wonderfully complex and rarely people I’d choose to spend time with or invite to my house.

So while I admire Aphra Behn hugely, I can’t help think if she were alive today she’d be presenting breakfast TV. Or she’d be Nadine Dorries, only with more talent.

Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

A Secret Life is part story, part literary commentary and part social history. Todd explores Aphra Behn’s poetry, novels and plays in the context of contemporary literature, politics and social attitudes.

Between these analyses, there are luscious descriptions of Restoration London:

  • thespians and artists living in Covent Garden and drinking at its pubs
  • a deserted London, sweltering in the heatwave as the plague “thins” the population
  • London “charred and black from the Great Fire, with some of its debris still smouldering”
  • bookshops serving sherry wine during the Great Frost of 1683/1684.

Todd talks about the people that are often absent from history too:

  • feminist philosophers like Margaret Cavendish and Mary Astell
  • con-artists – like Mary Carleton, and
  • cross-dressers, including one of the king’s mistresses.

At times I felt like I was at a rehearsal in the theatre, witnessing the rivalries and relationships between the playwrights. The Restoration tension between the classically educated playwrights and the jobbing writers reminded me of today’s equivalent chatter about literary versus genre fiction.

History repeating

I discovered an era not unlike our own, rocked by a deadly pandemic, extreme weather events, raging fire, and tension with the European Continent. Todd describes how two political factions emerged – Whig and Tory. Aphra Behn, it turns out, was an ardent Tory. I even got a sense of something that might be called “culture wars”.

Of course, we don’t have to “draw parallels” between history – or the many stories, dramas and the fiction that history inspires – and the present day.

But inevitably we look for patterns in stories because we’re human. And human nature doesn’t change, so it’s very hard not to see what Shirley Bassey might call “a little bit of history repeating”.

Towards the end of the book I read about the death of a monarch. King Charles II had convulsions, so they made him swallow a stone from the stomach of a rare goat. It was supposed to be a cure, but he died four days later. Aphra Behn didn’t live much longer and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

It’s safe to say that neither King Charles II or Aphra Behn are ever likely to be disinterred, kept in a box or put on public display.

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