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Royalty Restored or London under Charles II
Chapter XXII
by Molloy, J. Fitzgerald

Time's flight leaves the king unchanged.--The Rye House conspiracy.--Profligacy of the court.--The three duchesses.--The king is taken ill.--The capital in consternation.--Dr. Ken questions his majesty.--A Benedictine monk sent for.--Charles professes catholicity and receives the Sacraments.--Farewell to all.--His last night on earth.--Daybreak and death.--He rests in peace.

His majesty's habits changed but little with the flight of time, To the end of his reign the court continued brilliant and profligate. Wits, courtezans, and adventurers crowded the royal drawing-rooms, and conversed without restraint; the monarch pursued his pleasures with unsatiated zest, taking to himself two new mistresses, Lady Shannon and Catherine Peg, who respectively bore him a daughter and a son, duly created Countess of Yarmouth and Earl of Plymouth. For a while, indeed, a shadow fell upon the life of the merry monarch, when, in 1683, he was roused to a sense of danger by discovery of the Rye House conspiracy.

This foul plot, entered into by the Whigs on failure of the Exclusion Bill, had for its object the murder of his majesty and of the Duke of York. Before arriving at maturity its existence and intentions were revealed by one of the conspirators, when William Lord Russell, the Earl of Essex, and Algernon Sidney, second son of the Earl of Leicester, were arrested and charged with high treason. My Lord Essex died in the Tower by his own hand; Lord Russell was condemned on testimony of one witness, and duly executed; as was likewise Algernon Sidney, whose writings on Republicanism were used as evidence against him. On the revelation of this wicked scheme the country became wildly excited, and the king grievously afflicted. A melancholy seized upon his majesty, who stirred not abroad without double guards; and the private doors of Whitehall and avenues of the park were closed.

From this condition, however, he gradually recovered, and resumed his usual habits. Accordingly, we find him engaged in "luxurious dalliance and prophaneness" with the Duchess of Mazarine, and visiting the Duchess of Portsmouth betimes in her chamber, where that bold and voluptuous woman, fresh risen from bed, sat in loose garments talking to the king and his gallants, the while her maids combed her beautiful hair.

"I can never forget," says John Evelyn, writing on the 4th of February, 1685, "the inexpressible luxury and prophaneness, gaming, and all dissoluteness, and as it were total forgetfullnesse of God (it being Sunday evening), which this day se'nnight I was witnesse of, the king sitting and toying with his concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland, and Mazarine, etc., a French boy singing love songs in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the greate courtiers and other dissolute persons were at basset round a large table, a bank of at least two thousand in gold before them, upon which two gentlemen who were with me made reflexions with astonishment. Six days after was all in the dust."

For now the end of all things had come for Charles Stuart. It happened on the morning of the 2nd of February, 1685, the day being Monday, the king whilst in his bedroom was seized by an apoplectic fit, when crying out, he fell back in his chair, and lay as one dead. Wildly alarmed, his attendants summoned Dr. King, the physician in waiting, who immediately bled him, and had him carried to bed. Then tidings spread throughout the palace, that his majesty hovered betwixt life and death; which should claim him no man might say. Whereon the Duke of York hastened to his bedside, as did likewise the queen, her face blanched, her eyes wild with terror. His majesty after some time recovering consciousness, slowly realized his sad condition. Then he conceived a fear, the stronger as begotten by conviction, that the sands of his life had run their course. Throughout that day and the next he fainted frequently, and showed symptoms of epilepsy. On Wednesday he was cupped and bled in both jugulars; but on Thursday he was pronounced better, when the physicians, anxious to welcome hope, spoke of his probable recovery.

But, alas, the same evening he grew restless, and signs of fever became apparent. Jesuits' powders, then of great repute, were given him, but with no good result. Complaining of a pain in his side, the doctors drew twelve ounces more of blood from him. Exhaustion then set in; all hope of life was over.

Meanwhile, the capital was in a state of consternation. Prayers for his majesty's recovery were offered up in all churches throughout the city; likewise in the royal chapels, where the clergy relieved each other every quarter of an hour. Crowds gathered by day and night without the palace gates, eager to learn the latest change in the king's condition from those who passed to and fro. Inside Whitehall all was confusion. Members of the Privy Council assembled in the room adjoining that where the monarch lay; politicians and ambassadors conversed in whispers in the disordered apartments; courtiers of all degrees flocked through the corridors bearing signs of deep concern upon their countenances.

And amongst others who sought his majesty's presence was the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with the Bishops of London, Durham, Ely, and Bath and Wells; all being anxious to render spiritual services to the king. Of these good men, Charles liked best Dr. Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, having most faith in his honesty. For, when his lordship was a prebend of Winchester, it had happened Charles passed through that city, accompanied by Nell Gwynn, when Dr. Ken refused to receive her beneath his roof even at the king's request. This proof of integrity so pleased his majesty, that he gave him the next vacant bishopric by way of reward. And now, his lordship being at hand, he read prayers for the Sick from out the Common Prayer Book for his benefit, until coming to that part where the dying are exhorted to make confession of their sins, when the bishop paused and said such was not obligatory. He then asked his majesty if he were sorry for the iniquities of his life? when the sick man, whose heart was exceeding heavy, replied he was; whereon the bishop pronounced absolution, and asked him if he would receive the Sacrament. To this Charles made no reply, until the same question had been repeated several times, when his majesty answered he would think of it.

The Duke of York, who stood by the while, noting the king's answer, and aware of his tendencies towards Catholicism, bade those who had gathered round stand aside; and then, bending over him, asked in a low tone if he might send for a priest. A look of unspeakable relief came into the king's face, and he answered, "For God's sake do, brother, and lose no time." Then another thought flashing across his mind, he said, "But will not this expose you to much danger?" James made answer, "Though it cost me my life I will bring you a priest." He then hurried into the next room, where, among all the courtiers, he could find no man he could trust, save a foreigner, one Count Castelmachlor. Calling him aside, he secretly despatched him in search of a priest.

Between seven and eight o'clock that evening, Father Huddleston, the Benedictine friar who had aided the king's escape after the battle of Worcester, awaited at the queen's back stairs the signal to appear in his majesty's presence. The duke being made aware of the fact, announced it to the king, who thereon ordered all in his room to withdraw; but James, mindful that slander might afterwards charge him with killing his brother, begged the Earl of Bath, the lord of the bedchamber then in waiting, and the Earl of Feversham, captain of the guard, might stay--saying to the king it was not fitting he should be unattended in his weak condition. These gentlemen therefore remained. And no sooner had all others departed than the monk was admitted by a private entrance to the chamber. The king received him with great joy and satisfaction, stating he was anxious to die in the communion of the catholic church, and declaring he was sorry for the wrongs of his past life, which he yet hoped might be pardoned through the merits of Christ.

He then, as we read in the Stuart Papers, "with exceeding compunction and tenderness of heart," made an exact confession of his sins, after which he repeated an act of contrition, and received absolution. He next desired to have the other Sacraments of the church proper to his condition administered to him: on which the Benedictine asked if he desired to receive the Eucharist; eagerly he replied, "If I am worthy pray fail not to let me have it." Then Father Huddleston, after some exhortation, prepared to give him the Sacrament; when the dying man, struggling to raise himself, exclaimed, "Let me meet my heavenly Lord in a better posture than lying in bed." But the priest begged he would not move, and then gave him the Communion, which he received with every sign of fervour. And for some time he prayed earnestly, the monk and the duke kneeling by the while, silence obtaining in the room. This was presently broken by the sad and solemn tones of the priest's voice, reading a commendation of the soul to its Maker: the which being ended, the Benedictine, with tears in his eyes, took leave of his majesty. "Ah," said Charles, "you once saved my body; you have now saved my soul." Then the monk gave him his benediction, and departed as quietly as he had come.

Then those waiting without were once more admitted to the room, when Charles nerved himself to take a sad farewell of those around him. He first publicly thanked his brother for the services and affection he had ever rendered him through life, and extolled his obedience and submission to his commands. Giving him his keys, he said he had left him all he possessed, and prayed God would bless him with a happy and prosperous reign. Finally, he recommended all his children to him by name, excepting only the Duke of Monmouth then in Holland, and suffering from the king's displeasure; and besought him to extend his kindness towards the Duchesses of Portsmouth and Cleveland; "and do not," said he, "let poor Nelly starve." Whilst these commands were addressed him, the duke had flung himself on his knees by the bedside, and, bursting into tears, kissed his brother's hand.

The queen, who had scarce left his majesty since the beginning of his illness, was at this time absent, her love and grief not permitting her to endure this afflicting scene. He spoke most tenderly of her; and when presently she sent a message praying he would pardon her absence in regard to her excessive grief, and forgive her withal if at any time she had offended him, he replied, "Alas, poor woman! She beg my pardon?--I beg hers, with all my heart." He next summoned his children to him, one by one, and addressing them with words of advice, embraced them heartily and blessed them fervently. And he being the Lord's anointed, the bishops present besought he would give them his benediction likewise, and all that were present, and in them the whole body of his subjects; in compliance with which request he, with some difficulty, raised himself, and all falling on their knees, he blessed them fervently. Then they arose and departed.

Silence fell upon the palace; night wore slowly away. Charles tossed upon his bed racked with pain, but no complaint escaped his lips. Those who watched him in the semi-darkened room heard him ask God to accept his sufferings in atonement for his sins. Then, speaking aloud, he declared himself weary of life, and hoped soon to reach a better world. Courteous to the last, he begged pardon for the trouble he gave, inasmuch as he was long in dying. And anon he slumbered, and quickly woke again in agony and prayed with zeal. Never had time moved with slower passage for him; not hours, but weeks, seemed to elapse between each stroke of the clock; and yet around him was darkness and tardy night. But after much weary waiting, morning was at hand, the time-piece struck six. "Draw the curtains," said the dying man, "that I may once more see day." The grey light of a February dawn, scarce brightened to eastward a cheerless sky; but he hailed this herald of sunrise with infinite relief and terrible regret; relief that he had lived to see another day; regret that no more morns should break for him.

His soul tore itself from his body with fierce struggles and bitter pain. It was hard for him to die, but he composed himself to enter eternity "with the piety becoming a Christian, and the resolution becoming a king;" as his brother narrates. About ten o'clock on Friday morning, February 6th, 1685, he found relief in unconsciousness; before midday chimed he was dead. He had reached the fifty-fifth year of his life, and the twenty-fifth year of his reign.

His illegitimate progeny was numerous, numbering fifteen, besides those who died in infancy. These were the Duke of Monmouth and a daughter married to William Sarsfield, children of Lucy Walters; the Dukes of Southampton, Grafton, and Northumberland, the Countesses of Litchfield and of Sussex, and a daughter Barbara. who became a nun, children of the Duchess of Cleveland; the Duke of Richmond, son of the Duchess of Portsmouth; the Duke of St. Albans, and a son James, children of Nell Gwynn; Lady Derwentwater, daughter of Moll Davis; the Countess of Yarmouth, daughter of Lady Shannon; and the Earl of Plymouth, son of Catherine Peg.

For seven days the remains of the late king lay in state; on the eighth they were placed in Westminster Abbey. The ceremony was of necessity conducted in a semi-private manner for by reason of his majesty dying in the Catholic religion, his brother considered it desirable the ceremonies prescribed for the occasion by the English church should be dispensed with. Therefore, in order to avoid disputes or scandal, the king was laid in the tomb without ostentation. At night his remains were carried from the painted chamber in Westminster sanctuary to the abbey. The procession, headed by the servants of the nobility, of James II., and his queen, of the dowager queen, and of the late king, was followed by the barons, bishops, and, peers according to their rank; the officers of the household, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then came all that was mortal of his late majesty, borne under a canopy of velvet, supported by six gentlemen of the privy chamber, the pall being held by six earls. Prince George of Denmark--subsequently husband of Queen Anne-- acted as chief mourner, attended by the Dukes of Somerset and Beaufort, and sixteen earls. One of the kings of Arms carried the crown and cushion, the train being closed by the king's band of gentlemen pensioners, and the yeomen of the guard.

At the abbey entrance the dean and prebendaries, attended by torch bearers, and followed by a surpliced choir, met the remains, and joined the procession, the slow pacing figures of which seemed spectral in this hour and place; then the sad cortege passed solemnly through the grey old abbey, the choir chanting sorrowfully the while, the yellow flare of torches marking the prevailing gloom. And being come to the chapel of Henry VII., the body of the merry monarch was suffered there to rest in peace.


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