Why Charles II Was A King Like No Other

Flamboyant, fun-loving and casually scandalous, Charles II had perhaps the most thrilling life of any British monarch.

Charless II

1. HE'D BEEN A DARING MAN OF ACTION

Before he even took the throne, Charles II had lived an exhilarating, almost unbelievable life. Having been forced into exile after his father, Charles I, was toppled and executed, the young man was eager to take revenge, and re-take the crown. He led an audacious, rather foolhardy invasion of his home country, but was crushed by Cromwell's forces at the Battle of Worcester. The defeat left Charles stranded in England, a fugitive in the very nation he hoped to lead. And so began an epic escape which saw the would-be king desperately taking shelter in safe houses, aided by secret Royalists.

With his great height and dusky looks, Charles stood out like a sore thumb and was forced to wear various disguises, posing as a farm labourer and a lowly servant - at one point even taking his horse to a blacksmith and making nervous small talk about "that rogue, Charles Stuart". There was also the day Charles had to hide in the branches of an oak tree while Parliamentary soldiers searched the woodlands for him. Somehow, after days of ducking and diving, cowering in cellars and pretending to be a dogsbody, Charles managed to make it onto a ship and escape the country he would one day return to as king.

2. HE WAS A RAMPANT WOMANISER

Many monarchs have been noted for their carnal appetites, but Charles II took things to new extremes. As one courtier commented, he would have been a far better ruler "if he had been less addicted to women", and his string of mistresses were a testament to his desires. Some of the women were aristocratic social-climbers, others were commoners whose only qualification for the royal bedchamber was their attractiveness. Charles even had a trusted servant, William Chiffinch, who helped procure fresh flesh for the king, and was dubbed the "pimpmaster general."

After the austere, puritanical years of Cromwell, Charles made shockingly little effort to conceal his hedonism, and some of his mistresses actually wielded great influence in court. One of his favourites was Louise de Kerouaille, whom he lovingly nicknamed "Fubbs" - another word for "plump". She had an illegitimate child with Charles, and through this boy she is a distant ancestor of the current Princes William and Harry.

3. ONE MISTRESS WAS THE "CURSE OF THE NATION"

Among Charles' lovers was a particularly formidable woman - Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine. Utterly bewitching the king, she had immense power in her time, almost the equal of a queen, and certainly divided opinion. One writer called her the "curse of the nation", while others were in thrall to her immense physical charms, which became legendary.

Adoring artists painted numerous portraits of her, making her a bona fide British celebrity, and her combination of striking looks and fiery temper made her the subject of endless gossip. One bishop noted she was a "a woman of great beauty, but more enormously vicious and ravenous, foolish but imperious", while diarist Samuel Pepys bluntly said, "I know well enough she is a whore". Barbara certainly didn't soften in her later years. Having a sexual appetite that almost equalled Charles', she helped herself to a string of lovers, including John Churchill - ancestor to Winston.

4. HE HAD THE MAGIC TOUCH

Charles II had a refreshing lack of airs and graces around the court, and was known for his easy wit and informal charm. One example of this was his habit of letting his beloved spaniels run rampant around the most gilded and prestigious rooms in the land. Samuel Pepys recounts in his diaries that the spaniels had freedom to frolic almost anywhere. During one important state occasion, Pepys noted the "silliness of the king, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business." Some courtiers were less than impressed, complaining the dogs "made the whole court nasty and stinking".

And yet, Charles was also capable of unexpectedly old fashioned etiquette, and even revived the ancient ceremony of bestowing the healing touch to cure the "king's evil". This phrase referred to scrofula, a glandular disease that caused ugly swellings, which could - according to old custom - be magically cured by the monarch's touch. Charles took to the ritual with gusto, and is said to have "touched" almost 100,000 people with scrofula in his state apartments.