All I Survey/Essay XXVII

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Essay XXVI All I Survey
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXVII: On the Merry Monarch

MR. ARTHUR BRYANT recently published, through Messrs. Longmans, a very thoughtful and interesting study of King Charles II. It was certainly a favourable portrait; but it was a portrait, and not an effigy or an idol or a whitewashed statue, any more than a caricature. There is room for difference of opinion about the proportions of the picture, but it was a picture of a real object. It has been the curse of our waxwork history that to each historical figure was attached some more or less legendary saying like a label, and even when the saying was partly true it always missed the point of the truth. The point, the peculiar truth, about Charles II always seems to me to be this--that he was an amazing coincidence. He was a prince born to inherit a crown; and he was an extremely able man and, on a lower level, a sort of genius. The label, or literary allusion, officially attached to Charles II is almost always that epigram by one of his intimates to the effect that he "never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one." But indeed it was the epigrammatist who said the foolish thing. It was, in reality, nearly the reverse of the truth. Charles II, being a man who had maintained fashionable light conversation down to his very deathbed, being, moreover, a man who must have made love to about forty women, must surely have gone to his grave having said a very large number of foolish things. But he had also done a very large number of wise things; and some things which a critic might well criticize as too wise, as having rather the wisdom of the serpent than the harmlessness of the dove. Indeed, I cannot recall at the moment that he ever did a thing that was unwise, though on some occasions he may have done a thing that was unworthy. Mr. Belloc, in his book on James II, has in some sense emphasized this aspect. He has in some sense set James II against Charles II; the former as the thoroughly sincere man who always has the appearance of being stupid and stubborn, the latter as the complex, compromising, and less heroic man who always seems to be tactful and reasonable. Mr. Arthur Bryant's version might almost be called a defence of Charles II against this implied comparison. He has no difficulty in showing that Charles was in a desperately difficult position, that the main fault lay with the fools, frauds, and bigots who pressed upon him; but I am not sure whether he entirely disposes of the appeal to the heroic made by Mr. Belloc, who wrote: "If he had resisted, he would have lost his Crown? He should have resisted and lost his Crown. For there are other things that a man may lose."

But, whatever we may think of the man's moral quality, I am still surprised that nobody has taken anything like adequate notice of his mental quality. None of the Stuarts was stupid, in the sense that the term might be applied to the first German Georges. Mary Queen of Scots was brilliant and accomplished; James I was a learned man; Charles I was a cultivated man; James II was a capable man, especially as an administrator of the Navy; and whatever be the truth about the rather dim and dismal figure of the First Pretender, it is obvious that Charles Edward of the '45 was a fighter and no fool. But it seems to me that Charles II stands out from the Stuarts in really having the sort of brain that might have brought him into prominence if he had not been a prince. Much of the mistake arises from the blind and blundering trick of talking as if that sort of man were merely a "wit," and talking as if "wit" were only a sort of silly spangle or tinsel ornament that any fool could flaunt. In fact, there is much more wisdom in the old use of the word "wit" than in the new. In the old phrases about a man setting his wits to work, or having wit enough to do this or that, the word was really used as a synonym for mind. It does almost always stand for mind, but especially for presence of mind. Many, who quote the cheeky courtier's carefully prepared couplet about never saying a foolish thing and never doing a wise one do not mention Charles's much more piercing and quite impromptu reply to it, in that passage in which he is reported as answering: "I am an English King; and my words are my own, but my actions are my Ministers'." The man who talked like that did not merely have wit, or what these people mean by wit; he had brains.

Now, if we read the detailed, dramatic, and thrilling account, in Mr. Bryant's book, of Charles II's long game of political Poker against the politicians of the Opposition, really brilliant men like Shaftesbury and Halifax, we shall be watching a pure battle of brains, in which his brains were certainly the best. He, began with no cards at all; at least, he never had anything but bad cards in the worst time of the battle; he had all the ablest men of the age holding all the cards of the game against him; and he beat them all. He weathered a Revolution; which is only not classed with the Glorious Revolution or the American Revolution because he weathered it. And James II and George III did not. And he achieved a Restoration; not as a young prince coming back by the chance of birth or the choice of Parliament, but as an old, weary, and entirely lonely politician, in spite of Parliament, and by sheer unflagging intelligence. For the Restoration did not happen at the beginning of Charles's reign, but at the end.

It would be difficult to decide here on the merits of his cause, on which men will differ according to their religious and political partialities. It is well to note, however, that here again most people who discuss the politics miss the point. Thus they often read into the factions and fanaticisms of the period a modern democratic ideal that did not then exist either in the Whigs or in the King, but, if anything, rather more in the King than in the Whigs. When, for instance, Charles said that he thought his people would rather have one King than five hundred Kings, it is often taken, even by those who agree with it, as the usual Tory taunt at the formless tyranny of a mob. Certainly Charles, or any Tory of the period, might quite probably have uttered a taunt against the tyranny of the mob. But, in fact, in this case he meant much more exactly what he said, and what he said was perfectly correct. The Parliament was not the people, not even in the rather mechanical and clumsy way in which it is now supposed to be the people. It was based on a narrow suffrage, was honey-combed with nepotism, and mostly nominated by nobles and squires. But the case was much stronger than that. It was, in its whole attitude and action, a privileged class; a ruling class; a thing like a house of Peers and Princes. It really was, as Charles said, a House of Five Hundred Kings. It had a special Parliamentary privilege, just as he had a special Royal prerogative; and it is true to say that the King strove with the Kings. All this comes out very clearly in Mr. Bryant's narrative of the nightmare controversy of the Popish Plot. I am not going to deal here with the Popish Plot in its other aspects, least of all in its Popish aspect. My interest for the moment is not even moral, let alone religious. It is entirely intellectual, and concerned only with an intellectual admiration, in the real sense of astonishment, for that one melancholy humorist who lived through the whole of that Bedlam and remained at least the sanest of English Kings.