Charles II.—How the King Came to His Own, and How Death Walked in the Streets of London
O LIVER CROMWELL had been so strong and powerful that it seemed quite natural to the people to choose his son, Richard, as the next Protector. But Richard was a very different man from his father. He had not that in him which makes a great soldier or a great ruler. The army, the Parliament, and the people soon found this out, and troubles began. In a few months, Richard gave up his office of Protector, and went away to live quietly in his house in the country.
The people were tired of being ruled by the army. They were tired of the gloom and the sternness of the Puritans. They remembered with regret the days of Charles I., when people dressed in gay colors, when they sang and played, when it was not thought wicked to have Christmas games or village dances, and they longed for these days to come again. They forgot how cruel and bad Charles had been, they remembered that he had a son—the son whom the Scots had already crowned King.
General Monk, who had ruled Scotland under Cromwell, saw that many of the Scots had never forgotten their King. So thinking great things, but saying little, he began to march to London.
The Parliament and the army were already quarrelling and as Monk passed through England, people flocked to him from all sides begging him to try to bring peace and order into the country again. This was what Monk meant to do, how he had not settled, but letters and messages were secretly passing between him and Charles, who was at this time living in Holland.
At last Monk reached London, and one day, when Parliament was sitting, he entered the House and told the members that there was a messenger at the door with a letter from Charles.
Amid great excitement the messenger was brought in and the letter read. It promised pardon to all those who had rebelled against Charles I.; it promised freedom to all to worship God as they thought right. It seemed to bring once more the promise of happiness and peace to Britain. The people rejoiced, and shouted, "God save the King!" The Commonwealth was at an end. Britain had a King again.
A few days later Charles landed at Dover, where he was met by Monk, and, 'mid the cheers and rejoicing of the people, rode to London. Charles landed upon his birthday, 29th May 1660 A.D., and people thought it was a good sign that he should have arrived upon such a happy day.
The soldiers alone did not rejoice. They had always hated the name of king, they hated it still, and when Charles II. rode gaily into London, the army, which was drawn up on Blackheath to do him honour, stood sullen, gloomy, and silent.
For more than ten years the army had been the greatest power in the country. But Charles saw that, because the soldiers disliked him, for him it was a danger rather than a safeguard. So he disbanded the army, and sent the soldiers back to their homes.
Charles was very glad to return to his own country. From being poor and homeless he had become the ruler over one of the greatest kingdoms of the world. But, in spite of all he had suffered, he had not learned to be kind or good.
As soon as Charles was safely on the throne he forgot all the promises which he had made. Many of the people who had helped to put Charles I. to death were punished, some of them being beheaded. The old quarrels about religion began again as fiercely as ever, for the King was a Roman Catholic at heart, although he dared not own it, and pretended to belong to the Church of England. The new Parliament was called the Cavalier Parliament, because it was so full of the King's friends, and they made laws which were very hard for the Puritans and Presbyterians.
Scotland suffered much from these laws, and Charles sent a cruel man, called Lauderdale, to govern for him there. He, helped by another man called Claverhouse, tortured and put to death all those who would not worship God as the King commanded.
During the reign of Charles II. there was another war between the Dutch and the British. The Dutch had good ships, brave sailors, and brave leaders. The British, too, were brave, but their ships were badly managed. The money which should have been used to pay and feed the sailors was wasted by the King and his friends. The war, however, went fiercely on, sometimes one side, sometimes the other, having the best of it. But the Dutch grew very bold, and at last sailed up the Thames, burning and destroying many of the British ships. Then, for the only time in all history, the roar of an enemy's guns was heard in London. The people went mad with fear and shame and anger. They thought the kingdom itself was threatened, and, recalling the days of Cromwell, asked themselves if he would have suffered an enemy so to insult his country. But the danger passed, and peace was made.
While this war was going on a terrible sickness called the plague broke out in London. It began in winter time. At first no one thought much about it, for such sickness was common in those days when people were careless about keeping their houses and towns clean. But as the days became warmer, the plague became worse, and soon it was so terrible that all who could fled from the town.
It was a dreadful time. No business was done, the shops were shut, the churches were empty. The streets, which used to be so full of people hurrying to and fro, were silent, deserted, and grass-grown.
As soon as it became known that any one in a house had the plague, all who lived in that house were forbidden to leave it lest they should carry the dreadful sickness to others. Then the door was marked with a great red cross, and the words, "The Lord have mercy on us."
At night, the awful silence of the streets was broken by the sounds of heavy, rumbling carts, and the mournful cry of the men in charge of them, "Bring out your dead! bring out your dead!" For those who died of this sickness could not be buried in a peaceful green churchyard where their friends could come to put flowers upon their graves. There were far too many of them for that. Those who died during the day were carried away in a cart at night, and buried all together in a great grave which was dug for them outside the town.
The story is told of a boatman who, when his wife became ill of the plague, could no longer go near his house, but slept in his boat. He worked hard all day, and in the evening used to bring what he had earned and lay it upon a stone not far from his house. Then he would go a little distance off and call to his wife. When she heard his call, she sent one of their children out to take the money and the food which he had brought. They would speak to each other for a short time at a distance, and then the boatman would go away again, sad at heart, wondering if his wife and children would be still alive when he came again next evening. But at least he knew that his dear ones would not die of hunger, as so many of the poor people did whose friends had run away and deserted them.
This dreadful sickness was greatly caused, and made much worse, by the dirt of the streets and the houses. In those days no one thought of keeping the streets clean. People threw all the rubbish from their houses into them, and there it lay rotting and poisoning the air. The streets, too, were very narrow, and windows small, so that little air or light could come into the houses. In fact, people never thought about fresh air and light.
The doctors did not know how to cure this sickness. Make-believe doctors offered the people all kinds of medicines which could do no good, but which were eagerly bought. Many went mad with terror and horror, and at one time a thousand people died every day. But at last the dreadful summer passed, and, with the coming of the winter and the frost, the terrible sickness gradually disappeared.