The Time Traveller's Guide to
Restoration Britain

1660 - a Landmark Year

Dynasties and dates - are they really that important? So often the death of one king and the accession of his successor, while unsettling at the time, had little impact on the daily lives of the ordinary people. It is difficult to point to any great social changes that were due to the change of the monarch between 1066 and 1649, for example, or after 1685. Those two first dates are notable exceptions, of course. The demise of the last Saxon king at Hastings was quickly followed by the introduction of Norman governance and the redistribution of large swathes of England to foreign lords. The death of Charles I, together with the ensuing abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, allowed Cromwell to reform the government and continue the puritan agenda that Parliament had started to introduce in the early 1640s. However, a third dynastic date, 1660, stands out as perhaps second only to 1066 in its impact on the people of England. The year of Charles II's Restoration saw sudden, profound and permanent changes at every level of society, from the ruling classes down to the level of the most humble servant.

To appreciate the momentous shifts that the country experienced in 1660 you first have to reflect that there was no such thing as a king of England in 1659. Oliver Cromwell had died in September 1658, leaving his son Richard as Protector of the Realm. But whereas Oliver Cromwell had always enjoyed the support of the army, Richard had no military experience: he resigned in May 1659, creating a power vacuum. And that terrified the people. It was not so much a matter of who might step into that vacuum as what. No one could tell what religious extremists might attempt to seize control. Most of all, the bitter Civil Wars of 1643-51 had not been forgotten; there was a real fear that England might once again be plunged into lawlessness and violence. On 11 October 1659 John Evelyn wrote in his diary: 'The army now turned out Parliament. We had now no government in the nation; all in confusion; no magistrate either owned or pretended but the soldiers, and they not agreed. God almighty have mercy on us and settle us!'

The return to England of the prince, Charles Stuart, in May 1660 and his accession as Charles II thus meant a return to monarchy and a different form of governance. That itself was much more than a new face on the coins and a new head wearing the crown. It led to the restoration of the political power of the aristocracy and the revitalisation of many customs and practices that had been prohibited for over a decade. But the changes to life across the country were even more profound than in 1649, for the introduction of a Puritan social agenda had been a gradual process, from 1642 to Cromwell's death; Charles II oversaw the destruction of its changes almost overnight.

The radical changes of the Restoration could be seen even before the king set foot back on English soil. Charles promised four things in the Declaration of Breda, signed shortly before his return. These were: to pardon all those who had committed crimes against him and his father during the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth (except those who had signed Charles I's death warrant); to honour all sales and purchases of land in that time; to tolerate people of all religious faiths; and to pay the army its back-pay and recommission the troops in the service of the Crown. Following this, Parliament proclaimed him king on 8 May and sent messengers to him inviting him to return. This act itself was exceptional: previously no parliament could assemble unless it was summoned by the king. In 1660, as Trevelyan memorably observed, it was Parliament who summoned the king. The very use of a capital P in that sentence denotes the difference: Parliament had reinvented itself as more than just a meeting of representatives held at the king's behest. It had established its own legitimacy, which it then confirmed in an Act to which Charles II assented. With immediate effect the House of Lords was reinstated. The structure of the Church of England that had existed prior to the Commonwealth was restored, and so were the church ministers who had been ousted from their livings. Parliament also passed legislation confirming the king's promises. A new standing army was set up - 1660 is the date from which we date the oldest regiments in the British army - and feudal tenure was finally abolished. Henceforth, manorial lords no longer held their land from the king but instead owned it completely. Feudal rights due to the Crown were extinguished in return for an annual payment of £100,000.

All this was highly significant but it really was just the tip of the iceberg, for the Restoration had the most dramatic impact on social life too. The return of the episcopal hierarchy brought with it the reestablishment of church courts. Large numbers of physicians, surgeons, schoolmasters and midwives, who effectively had been unable to get official recognition of their professional status for more than a decade, flocked to present themselves and gain licences to practise. From 1660 you could now once more prove a will locally in an archdeaconry or a consistory court. People could once more report their neighbours for moral offences such as bigamy, adultery and drunkenness and expect an apparitor to summon the wrongdoers to the archdeaconry court. Latin, the language of the courts, which had been prohibited by Cromwell, made a comeback.

The Puritan government of the interregnum had, of course, taken a very stern view of moral crime, dealing with wrongdoers not in the church courts but in the secular county courts and assizes. In 1650 the Commonwealth government had passed the Adultery Act, by which those found guilty of adultery could be sentenced to death. Although the Act was so severe it was only enforced a few times, it hung over everyone's head. More rigorously imposed were the laws against swearing, the opening of unnecessary ale houses and breaking the Sabbath. With regard to the first of these, you could be fined for simply saying 'as God is my witness'. With regard to the last, constables could search kitchens to ensure no unnecessary work was being done. No selling or buying or agricultural work was permitted on a Sunday. Even going for an afternoon stroll with your loved one of the Lord's Day could leave you liable to a fine. A maidservant found mending her dress on a Sunday was reported to the authorities and placed in the stocks in the rain as a punishment. Thus the repeal of all the legislation passed by the Commonwealth government was like a huge lifting of social oppression on those who lived ordinary lives.

The news that an adulterer would again be punished with a spell of humiliation in a white sheet at the church door or in the marketplace, and not hanged, was a blessed relief to those who had had illicit affairs, of course, but it signals a more general change of attitude towards sex that followed the Restoration. When he landed in England Charles already had an acknowledged illegitimate child by Lucy Walter, and anyone who knew Charles knew that she was not likely to be the last of his mistresses. Indeed, even before the king had left the Hague he had bedded Barbara Villiers, wife of Roger Palmer; she became his principal concubine for the next few years. The contrast of libidinous Charles ruling a country that had until recently treated people such as him and his mistresses with the utmost severity is astonishing. It was even more shocking at the time, given the openness of the king's affairs. Even Pepys, who had a series of illicit sexual liaisons himself, was taken aback at the brazen way the king would leave Barbara Villiers' apartments in the morning and walk back to his queen in the palace. No English king had ever given a title to one of his mistresses before but Charles II created two of his mistresses duchesses, and made special provision for them to pass their titles to his illegitimate sons by them. Previously, illegitimacy had been a bar to the inheritance of a title. In all, his illegitimate offspring eventually included six dukes and one earl.

This brazenness marks another aspect of the watershed that was 1660, namely the rebelliousness of the rakes. There was no latitude for rakish behaviour in the 1650s. But after 1660, a plethora of young men were welcomed at court - men such as Lord Rochester, Lord Buckhurst and Sir Charles Sedley. Generally drunken and offensive libertines, they were scandalous and satirical in equal measure. To give an inkling of their antics, Pepys describes a notorious event in 1663, when Charles Sedley stripped and paraded naked on the balcony of a cookshop in London, reading from the scriptures and commenting on them blasphemously, and playing out 'all the postures of lust and buggery that can be imagined'. (At this time, buggery was a vice punishable by death.) In the course of his show he declared to the crowd of about a thousand people that he had a powder such as would make all the 'women' of the town run after him - except that he did not use the word 'women' but referred to them by their sexual organs. Next he took a glass of wine, washed his private parts in it and then drank it. After that he drank the king's health using the same glass. Of course he got into trouble - as did all the rakes - but that is not the point. Society under Charles did not punish the rakes severely; it tolerated them. The reason was that the rakes, like the king himself with his many mistresses, were kicking against the puritans in society. Their behaviour was calculated to shock and ridicule those who cut off the head of Charles II and forced so many of noblemen into exile for more than a decade, and plunged the whole nation into a crisis.

The more subtle, all-pervading changes brought on by the return of the king go even further than this. The restoration of aristocratic power, coupled with the decline of restrictive moral codes of conduct, led to something of an aristocratic renaissance. Hierarchy became fashionable again: people started to flaunt their wealth more openly. Whereas in the 1650s the interests of the Commonwealth had prevailed in public, from 1660 conspicuous consumption was allowed to let rip. Foreign fashions were imported, adopted, and cast aside within a year or so. The volumes of textiles imported from the Orient, such as chintzes from India, increased. New commodities such as tea, coffee and chocolate were likewise shipped here in much greater quantities as the urban and middle-classes once more took to aping the fashionably practices of the gentry and aristocracy.

Under the Commonwealth, gambling was forbidden, so it could only take place covertly. Under Charles II, it was not only conducted in public but on a massive scale. By 1664, the problems of heirs betting colossal fortunes had forced the government to introduce the Gaming Act, making gambling debts of more than £100 unenforceable. Nevertheless, people continued to wager sums without caution. In 1674 Charles Cotton, author of The Complete Gamester, noted that several estates of more than £2,000 per year had been lost at cards and tables (the backgammon board, on which several games were played, besides backgammon). Nor were these the only way in which people threw away their wealth: bowling greens, cricket pitches, golf courses, pell-mell courts, tennis courts and wrestling grounds were all places where huge sums were won and lost. One wrestling match in St James's Park in 1667 between the men of the West Country and those of the North was for a purse of £1,000 in addition to all the bets placed on the outcome. You could not have seen such a spectacle under Cromwell's rule. And of course gambling underpinned the sport of kings, which like wrestling, pell-mell and many other sports was banned or discouraged by the Puritans. One of the new king's first sporting activities after his accession was to reopen Newmarket, which Cromwell had left in ruins. Very quickly it became the chief place for horse racing in the country. Such was the enthusiasm for gambling that gentlemen even started to place bets on their footmen, so that races between runners were held for the first time in England.

If 1660 saw a sea change in the recreational pursuits of the wealthy, the same was true for those who were more interested in popular games and blood sports. Bear baiting had been outlawed by the Commonwealth - not on the grounds of cruelty to the animals but on account of sinful indulgence it allowed spectators who would drink, swear and bet at such events. In London all the bears were shot by Cromwell's soldiers; fighting cocks had their necks wrung. The Restoration thus meant the restoration of these popular amusements too, and such traditions as playing football on a Sunday. Maypoles, which had been prohibited, were allowed to be set up again, and Mayday celebrations were once more held. Most extraordinarily, Cromwell had forbidden people from celebrating Christmas. That was never going to endear them to puritanism! But celebrating the birth of Christ was regarded as a superstition in the 1650s and significant steps were taken to stop it. Shops were not allowed to close and church ministers were prevented from preaching on Christmas Day. People were not permitted to eat mince pies, plum porridge or brawn in December, or decorate their houses with boughs of holly and ivy, or sing carols or pass around the wassail bowl, or give children and servants treats in boxes (hence 'Boxing Day'). Critics who thought this was going too far wrote tracts protesting the innocence of 'Old Father Christmas', who thus made his first appearance in English culture as a protest figure against puritanism. All this prohibition ended with the king's return.

As with sports, gambling, games, popular amusements and seasonal festivities, so too it was with music and the theatre. Although music was not banned by the Commonwealth, it was removed from churches. The consequent disbandment of the cathedral choirs and the chapel royal and the laying-off of the court musicians were significant setbacks for the profession. Even popular music suffered: magistrates took action against the playing of lewd songs in public houses. The return of the king thus did great things for music at all levels of society, as the court required a chapel royal staff and court musicians, and ordinary people went back to their old favourite songs and composed more of them without fear of reprimand. As for the theatres, these had all been closed in 1642. The Globe was demolished and tenements built on the site. Thus the return of the king and his brother, the duke of York, who both acted as patrons of drama and gave their names to the new London theatre companies, was a hugely significant change. It ushered in England's second great age of dramatic writing.

The Restoration shows that dynasties and dates can have enormous historical significance. The year 1660 is something of a continental shelf in its changes, in that the new regime had a profound effect on everyone socially, in their everyday lives, as well as politically. Given this fact, and given the fact that we still have the same monarchy restored in that year, it perhaps should be thought of alongside 1066 as the other date everyone should all know. Either way, it is a fascinating point in our history - and one of the few periods in which we can say without fear of contradiction that the history of the monarchy and that of the ordinary man and woman are bound together and inseparable.